History of Athenry

Discover the rich medieval heritage of Athenry

Athenry History


Athenry is the best preserved medieval town in Ireland, retaining the upstanding remains of most of its original high-status buildings. With the excellently preserved Athenry Castle, Dominican abbey and over seventy percent of the medieval town walls Athenry provides visitors with an excellent insight into the heritage of medieval Ireland.


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Athenry is the best preserved medieval town in Ireland, retaining the upstanding remains of most of its original high-status buildings, in addition to its medieval street pattern and even individual property boundaries, or burgage plots. Over seventy percent of the masonry town wall survives, complete with an impressive arched gateway, five defensive towers and large portions of a surrounding ditch or fosse.

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Shortly after Athenry was founded, a corporation of some sort was instituted, consisting in 1310 of a “Portreeve, Burgesses and Freemen of the Corporation of the Town and Liberties of Athenry”. The Portreeve was elected annually, as were of about 20 Burgesses. The Portreeve was a Justice of the Peace, Clerk of the Market and sole Judge in the area. The Portreeve had the use of a Mace and the Corporation, the use of the seal. The Athenry Mace is unique, not being the usual silver ceremonial Mace but a small brass latten clenched fist mounted on a stout wooden handle and clearly for use as a sort of gavel to keep order at meetings rather than to merely grace a civic occasion.

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The Irish name of Athenry, Baile Átha an Ríogh (meaning ‘town of the river ford’ or ‘kings ford’) points to ancient origins that stretch back long before the Anglo-Norman town was built. Prehistoric objects, including a stone arrowhead, have been found in and around the crossing place (ford) of the Clareen river at Athenry, showing that there was human activity there as long as 6000 years ago, in the Neolithic period.

The town of Athenry is immortalised in the song 'The Fields of Athenry' which was written by Pete St. John in the 1970s. It tells the story of a young man who is caught stealing corn from Lord Trevelyn during the Irish Famine and who is deported to Botany Bay in Australia as punishment.

The song has been recorded by several Irish Artists, the most successful of which was Paddy Reilly whose recording remained in the Irish Charts for 72 weeks in 1983.
It may now be regularly heard on terraces and stands throughout Ireland and internationally as it has been adopted by Rugby and Football teams.

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The first building constructed by the Anglo-Normans in Athenry was the castle, built between 1237 and 1240 by Meiler de Bermingham. Athenry Castle is a ‘hall keep castle’ comprising two main components; a keep and an enclosing wall. The keep consists of a large, rectangular building which originally had a spacious first-floor hall open to the roof and a viewing gallery. The basement was accessed from the first floor, probably by means of a ladder (not through the later inserted ground-floor doorway). In keeping with other 13th-century hall keeps, it has a first-floor entrance, a projecting latrine/garderobe, crenellated battlements

A movie demonstrating an interactive 3D model of Medieval Athenry which aims to reconstruct how Athenry would have look in the late 16th century, just before the attack by Red Hugh O'Donnell in 1597 who destroyed much of the town. This is only phase I of the project. Athenry today has one of the best preserved town walls of any Irish walled town. This work has been developed by Realsim on behalf of Athenry Community Council Trust, The Heritage Council and Galway County Council and has been funded by the Heritage Council and Galway County Council.


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Meiler de Bermingham, 2nd Baron of Athenry and founder of the town, bought the site from Sir Robert Breynach ( Breathnach = Welsh/Walsh) for 160 marks (€200.00) in 1241 and presented it to the Dominican friars together with 160 marks so that they might build an abbey, reputedly at the request of St. Dominic himself; the saint, however, had died in 1221. He also gave gifts of wine, English cloth, and horses for drawing stones, and furthermore induced his knights and soldiers to contribute to the work. Meiler himself died in 1252 in a battle near Cashel, Go. Tipperary, and his body was brought back to Athenry and buried near the high altar.

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Our Location

Athenry Heritage Centre.

St. Mary's,The Square,
Co. Galway,
Rep. of Ireland

Phone: 091 844661

Email: athenryheritagecentre@gmail.com

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