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Athenry Heritage Centre
St. Mary's,The Square, Athenry,
Co. Galway
T: +353 (0)91 844661
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Athenry Medieval History, County Galway.

Athenry - Detailed History

Esker Riada

The region no doubt played an important role in early history, the river ford which gives Athenry (Baile Atha an Riogh) its name clearly being significant: it is where the east-west route along the Esker Riada, across the narrowest part of Ireland, crosses the most westerly possible direct south-north route. It played a similar role in much more recent times when Athenry became the main east-west - north-south junction of the railway network. However, it is only with the coming of the Anglo-Normans in the late twelfth century that medieval Athenry began to exist, at least in theory - in 1178 the title baron of Athenry was created for Piers de Bermingham, making it the premier barony of Ireland, well before 1235 when Richard de Burgh, lord of Connacht, granted a charter to Meiler de Bermingham, second baron of Athenry, who founded the actual town.

Meiler de Bermingham

Meiler de Bermingham built a fine strong castle over-looking and guarding the river ford. He also instituted an adjoining strongly defended town, which included a large parish church, a central meeting-place (the market square), and a few short years later a fine Dominican priory. That the ford was important to the Irish too is perhaps to be seen by what is probably the earliest historical reference to the town, namely the attack by the O'Connor's in 1249 - when the Irish were decisively beaten, fleeing at the sight of Norman cavalry. A holy well known as Lady Well, just over half a mile to the southeast of the town, is believed to have associations with this battle and is still a major site of pilgrimage on 15 August each year.

Red Hugh O'Donnell

Due, no doubt, to its strategically important sitting, medieval Athenry had an eventful history. It was raided many times by the Irish and in August 1316 was the scene of a major battle between the newcomers under William de Burgh and Richard de Bermingham, and the lrish, under Felim O'Connor, king of Connacht. Victory went to the townspeople, a result which so severely affected Edward Bruce's lrish campaign that it changed the course of lrish history. In the 1570s the sons of the earl of Clanricarde attacked Athenry 'and so damaged the town that it was not easy to repair it for a long time after them', according to the Annals of the Four Masters. The lord deputy Henry Sidney began repairs about 1576 when, apparently, it was decided to reduce the town in size by about a half: a map dated 1583 shows this dividing wall, but as less than half finished, despite which for all practical purposes the present residential area within the walls is still more or less confined to the northern half of the town. The Clanricardes attacked again in 1577, 'setting the new gate on fire ... and driving off masons from working on the wall'. In 1597 Athenry was again sacked and this time so severely destroyed by Red Hugh O'Donnell that it never really recovered; the town became fossilized, with the result that Athenry today is the classic Irish medieval town.