The Athenry Mace & Seal
The Athenry Mace and Seal
The seal is also of brass on latten and now mounted on a wooden handle. It is inscribed +SIGILLUM: CONMUNITAS: DEHENRI around a castle or town gate on which are two bearded heads impaled above its battlements. It has been suggested that this seal may commemorate the Battle of Athenry in 1316, when among many other Irish chieftains, Felim O’Connor, King of Connacht and Tadgh O’Kelly of UI Maine, were slain, and that it is their heads which are represented.
A 14th century date is generally accepted for both the mace and seal, making the former the oldest known mace from these islands.
When Athenry ceased to be a corporate town in 1840, the mace and seal were handed over to Theophilus Blakeney, properly the last portreeve, who lived in Abbert, north-east of Athenry and were handed down in the Blakeney family; in 1875 they were in the keeping of John Blakeney Esq. of Abbert and passed through him to J.H. Blakeney and from him to his brother Henry William Blakeney, “Gentleman of Abbert, Co. Galway” who “was a notable eccentric who absented himself for years at a time and took part in the Yukon Gold Rush”. He died in the 1920s and the mace and seal passed to his daughter, Joan Cecile Blakeney who married H.C.A Blishen, MBE, who later lived in a house called ‘Athenry’ at Arreton on the Isle of Wight. It was then passed onto his son Anthony O. Blishen, who now lives in Richmond, London and who in July 1999 graciously presented them for exhibition in the Athenry Heritage Centre.
Detail view in the Athenry Seal
History of the Athenry Mace and Seal by Finbarr O'Regan.
The corporate insignia, a gavel-like brass mace and a heavy brass seal, were first brought to notice in 1875 when the two objects were exhibited by the Rev. James Graves, the noted antiquary, at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in Dublin. At the time they were "in the keeping of John Blakeley, Esq., of Abbert, Co. Galway, whose family were formerly the patrons of the borough [of Athenry] and were lent for display through the good offices of Mr. W. F. Wakeman, the well-known artist and antiquary, and the Rev, Mark Perrin, Rector of Athenry, Wakeman's father-in-law. Both objects were briefly described in the Society's Journal for that year and the seal was illustrated in that edition.
In 1899 W.F. Wakeman described and illustrated "The Mace of the Ancient Corporation of Athenry, County Galway" in the same Society's Journal. After that the Athenry insignia seem to have disappeared from public knowledge until in June 1963 when they were brought into the National Museum of Ireland, for examining, recording and apparently also with a view to offering them for sale to the Museum, by the then-owner, Mr. H.C.A. Blishen, M.B.E., then living in his home called 'Athenry', on the Isle of Wight. They were recorded and photographed in the Museum but not purchased. Involved in the recording was Etienne Rynne, who was at the time, Assistant-Keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division there. Some years later, Mr. Rynne was appointed Lecturer in Celtic Archaeology at University College, Galway and choose to live in Athenry. Taking a great, if predictable, interest in the medieval remains in the town he kept in mind the ancient mace and seal which he had handled several years earlier and it was always his wish and that of the people of Athenry to try to recover them for the town.
In September 1993, with Athenry's fine castle restored by the Office of Public Works, Athenry had eventually a place in which the mace and seal could be housed in safety. It was decided to contact the Blishen family. Prof. Rynne on behalf of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Athenry wrote to Mr. Blishen recounting Athenry's interest and hopes but the letter, illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the mace and seal, was returned unopened, as Mr. Blishen was no longer resident at the Isle of Wight address.
In August 1996, Finbarr O'Regan, coordinator and editor of 'The Athenry Journal', decided to publish in the summer edition (Volume 2 Number 2) this letter illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the mace and seal. The annual Medieval Festival of Athenry, organised by The Athenry Women's Group was on, and the publication aroused much local interest. One of the visitors to the Festival was Tom Bermingham, an expert on the history of the Berminghams who founded the town of Athenry in 1235. He decided that he would endeavour, on his return to England to trace the Blishen family and to find the present whereabouts of the Athenry corporate insignia. Tom Bermingham was as good as his word and contacted the Chancery of St. James in Buckingham Palace where he learned that Captain Henry Charles Adolphus Blishen was made MBE on the 15.12.1944 and died on the 29.01.1980. Shortly afterwards contact was made with his son Mr. Anthony 0. Blishen, of Richmond, London, who now owned the mace and seal in his possession. Their history now emerges: It is thought that a corporation existed in Athenry by 1310, and that the town was administered by a portreeve and burgesses. Certainly, the portreeve and burgesses received a royal grant of privileges in 1564, which constituted the instrument under which the borough was governed up until the dissolution of such bodies in 1840. The portreeve and burgesses also elected two members of the Irish parliament until disenfranchised by the Act of Union in 1800. The sum of £15,000, paid in compensation for that act of disenfranchisement to the members, was paid to the trustees of the marriage settlement of Theophilus Blakeney, one of Athenry's sitting members at the time. The Blakeneys of Abbert were landed gentry and the family's political connection with Athenry is a matter of record. They profited from the Act of Union at a time when the fortunes of many of the landowners of Ireland were on a downward trend.
When the corporation was dissolved in 1840, its last Portreeve was Theophilus's son, John Henry, a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Galway.The mace and seal of the town thereupon passed into his keeping.
To all intents and purposes, the mace and seal disappeared from sight, reappearing only briefly at the end of the century. The Blakeney family declined in economic status throughout the century, and its dispersal was hastened, perhaps, by litigation, childlessness and early death. The estate then passed to John Henry's younger brother Robert Edward, who first intended to sell the timber alone, but was eventually obliged, in 1919, to sell the house and land as well. Neither of the two brothers had children and Robert Edward's heir was his younger (by some 20 years) half-brother, Henry Robert.
Dispossessed, he left Ireland, the home of his family for ten generations, fought in the First World War, was badly shell-shocked and died of this condition in his 40s, leaving a widow and three small children. He had only one son, who also died in his 40s, but childless. The senior branch of the family was thus extinct in the male line. Henry Robert's eldest child, however, was a girl, Joan Cecile. In course of time she and her husband, Charles Blishen, recovered as many as they could of the Abbert possessions, including the mace and seal, that had passed from her uncle through her father into the hands of her now deceased younger brother. On her death, in 1983, they became the property of her eldest son, Anthony Blishen. Mr. Blishen had been considering, for some time, how best to dispose of the mace and seal upon his own death. The Irish connection was fading and it did not seem right to him that objects, which were locality specific, should continue, as it were, in exile. At this point serendipity played its hand, for he was contacted by Mr. Tom Bermingham and it was swiftly agreed that, provided that the town of Athenry could provide an appropriate home, Mr. Blishen was more than happy to return the mace and seal to the town. Mr. Blishen saw himself more as a hereditary keeper in the old Irish tradition of sacred reliquaries than as an owner of the insignia and was more than willing to return the treasures to Athenry "if they were assured a good home". This wonderful news coincided with the setting-up of The Athenry Heritage Centre in the former Church of Ireland church. This church was built, on the site of the medieval parish church of Athenry, in 1828, with the aid of a gift from the late Board of First Fruits, a body, which owed much to Dean Swift and is also remembered as the church in which William Frederick Wakeman and Frances Alice Perrin were married. It was also a coincidence that John Henry Blakeney was one of the first churchwardens of St. Mary's. It was deemed an eminently more suitable final resting-place for the insignia than Athenry Castle. The way was now open for the return of the mace and seal!
Negotiations were put in train and in April 1998, Professor and Aideen Rynne travelled to London on behalf of the people of Athenry to meet the Blishens. It was arranged that Mr. and Mrs. Blishen would ceremonially hand over the mace and seal to the people of Athenry when the Heritage Centre was finally ready to receive them. The Athenry Heritage Centre was officially opened by An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, on Friday 07.05.1999. Mr and Mrs. Anthony Blishens travelled over to Ireland in July and presented Athenry with its long-lost (160 years) corporate insignia, the mace and seal, on Saturday 04.07.1999. The Presentation took place in the Market Square of Athenry at 8.30 p.m. The successor to the portreeve and burgesses of the corporation of Athenry in its capacity as the locally elected town body is the present Athenry Community Council. It was thus to the Chairman of the council, Mr. Gerry Burke, that Mr. Anthony Blishen, great-great grandson of the last portreeve, handed the mace and seal at a ceremony in the town square on 24 July 1999. Mr. Eamon O Cuiv, Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and Mr. Noel Treacy, the Minister, for Science, Technology and Commerce attended the ceremony as did a very welcome Tom Bermingham. Before a large gathering of Athenry people Professor Rynne, as adept in address as in archaeology, explained the historical, political and cultural significance of the mace and seal. Indeed the mace, a clenched fist cast in antimony, might well double as a handy weapon. Both Mr. Treacy and Mr. O Cuiv welcomed the insignia's return and paid tribute to the generosity of the donor. Mr. O Cuiv also remarked that the event was part of the process of improving relations with Her Majesty's Government. Mr. Blishen restored the insignia to Athenry at the same time reviving his own family's connection with the town and Gerry Burke accepted their return with gratitude whilst Brian Walsh, Manager, on behalf of the Heritage Centre, guaranteed their safekeeping. The insignia was then carried into the Heritage Centre where they were installed in the case specially prepared for them. Finally, Madelyn Brody, chairperson of the Heritage and Tourism Company praised all concerned in the 'Grail-like 'search for the Mace and Seal and especially commended the generosity of Anthony Blishen for his unselfish gesture and said that there would be always a place for the Blishens in the homes and the hearts of the people of Athenry. Later Mr. Blishen remarked of this auspicious event that it marked the fading of the remembered residue of the animosities that be-devilled the relationship between the Anglo-Irish landlords and their tenants. Generation succeeds generation and brings understanding. He mentioned that Carnaun National School, whose 'excellent web-site' is worth a visit, has recently been involved in a symposium on the Lambert Family of Athenry, which included its connection with Edward Carson. One would not expect the Carson connection to be a popular theme in this part of Ireland at the moment, he said. It is a sign of the growth of understanding that the theme has been treated seriously, sympathetically and objectively. Father King, of St Mary's Parish Athenry, wisely calls it 'remembering our roots'. So too, the Blakeneys, landlords no longer but remembered roots, both sides of the Irish Sea. Madelyn Brody's gift from The Heritage Centre to Mr. Blishen was our newly published book 'the Lamberts of Athenry'.
We had the Lamberts of Athenry and the Blakeneys of Abbert! And now we welcome the Blishens of Athenry!