Detailed History

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Athenry - Detailed History

Ancient Athenry

The history of Athenry pre dates the Anglo Normans as archaeologists also discovered that people lived there in the Bronze Age (2200 to 800 BC) and in the early medieval period, between 500 and 1200 AD, a stone-lined underground passage called a souterrain was discovered dating to that time. There are also many early medieval ringforts in the area, and a raised, glacially formed ridge (Eiscir Riada) passes by Athenry that once carried the ‘Great Road’ (Slighe Mor) across Ireland from Galway Bay to Dublin. 

Meiler de Bermingham & the Medieval Town

In 1235 Meiler de Bermingham, an Anglo-Norman lord, was given lands in and around Athenry after helping his powerful overlord, Richard de Burgh (or de Burgo), in the conquest of Connacht. Meiler first built a castle and over the next ten years or so created the medieval town of Athenry, complete with parish church, Dominican priory, a hospital, streets, houses and a busy marketplace. On August 15th, 1249, the fledgling town was attacked by a large Irish army, but Meiler and his knights defeated this O’Conor force (Annals of Clonmacnoise: 1249). This was the first of two major ‘Battles of Athenry’ in the medieval period. Local tradition states that the Virgin Mary appeared that day to tend the wounded, and this is still commemorated every August 15th at the Lady’s Well, just outside the town. By the end of the 13th century Athenry was a wealthy and important market town, and the discovery of broken pottery from excavations at the castle and ‘hospital’, primarily green-glazed wine jugs from the Saintonge region of southwest France, show that the town was part of a trading network that stretched, via Galway, across the sea to Britain and the Continent.

The Battle of Athenry

In 1316 the Anglo-Norman town was again attacked by a huge Irish army, led by Felim O’Conor and Taigh O’Kelly (Annals of the Four Masters: 1316). Felim had taken advantage of the turbulent state of the colony caused by the invasion of Edward Bruce along the eastern seaboard. Once again, however, the Irish were heavily defeated and it is reported that as many as 8000 Irishmen died on that day. Among them were the chief protagonist, Felim O’Conor and Taigh O’Kelly and it is believed that it is their decapitated heads displayed above the town wall on Athenry’s town seal, this rare 14th-century brass seal can be seen along with Athenry’s unique ceremonial mace in the Arts & Heritage Centre. The 1316 battle was pivotal to Athenry’s subsequent history; for not until the 16th century did it come under serious attack by the native Irish. Despite this, for the rest of the 14th and throughout the 15th century the fortunes of the town deteriorated. During this time Athenry, like Galway, appears to have remained loyal to the Crown, while all around it the native Irish regained control over much of the island in a period known as the Gaelic Resurgence.

Troubled Times in Athenry

In 1567 Athenry and its inhabitants are reported as being in a very poor state of affairs, and in 1574 the town was destroyed by the sons of the Earl Clanricard. In a strange turn of events these were descendants of the Anglo-Norman de Burghs, conquerors of Connacht and founders of Galway and Loughrea who now rejected the Crown having assimilated with and adopted the ways of the native Irish. Two years later attempts were made by the English authorities to improve the town and work began on a new wall that would essentially cut the town in two, making it easier to manage and defend. Before it was finished the Earl’s sons returned and once again destroyed the town, driving away the masons and setting fire to its newly built gates, in addition to the parish church and several houses. In 1577, Athenry received a charter of incorporation by Queen Elizabeth I, which basically allowed the townsmen (burgesses) to run the affairs of the town and choose its governors, rather than being ruled by an unelected lord. In 1596, however, the town was captured and destroyed by Red Hugh O’Donnell during his rebellion against the English colonists (The Nine Years War). This essentially sealed the fate of Athenry, which never regained the wealth and importance that it had enjoyed in the late 13th century. The lack of investment and development in the town following Red Hugh’s attack led to the virtual ‘fossilisation’ of Athenry, which is why there is such a high degree of preservation today. In 1652 Oliver Cromwell’s troops were garrisoned in Athenry and caused great damage to the Dominican priory, smashing and defacing many monuments and grave slabs. There is a suggestion that the citizens of Athenry were removed from the town at this time and replaced with Protestant settlers.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church and graveyard lie between the castle and the marketplace in the northern end of the town. The location of the church adjacent to the central marketplace conforms to the spatial arrangement at Galway and Loughrea and is a feature of 13th-century planted towns throughout medieval Europe. Only the ruined remains of the nave and two transepts survive from the medieval period; the eastern, chancel-end, is now occupied by the former 19th-century Protestant church building, currently home to the Athenry Arts & Heritage Centre.

The exact foundation date of the church is unknown, but a parish church was an essential element of all Christian medieval towns and would have been built about the same time or very soon after the castle (1237–40). The earliest documentary evidence comes from 1289 when William de Bermingham, ‘rector of Athenry’ became Archbishop of Tuam. The church is also mentioned in the ecclesiastical taxation of 1306. In 1411 the church was in need of repairs and c.1484–5 it was made collegiate by Donatus, Archbishop of Tuam. John de Burgh, a canon of Tuam Cathedral, founded the college and became its first warden alongside eight priests. In 1489 the Papal Curia ordered the dissolution of the college and excommunication of de Burgh due to his burning of Abbeyknockmoy. However, this order was ignored and the college continued until 1576, when it was destroyed along with the church and subsequently suppressed. At that time repairs had only just begun on the church which had already been destroyed in 1574 by the sons of Earl Clanrickard. The medieval church was never fully rebuilt after that time and it no doubt suffered more desecration by Cromwellian soldiers garrisoned in the town c.1643. In 1828 a new church was built by the Board of First Fruits on the site of the former chancel, which fortunately left the ruins of the earlier church standing.

The architectural grammar of St. Mary’s medieval parish church is challenging to read and includes several phases of building, re-building, enlargement and reduction. As such it reflects the turbulent history of the church and town, and its different episodes of destruction from the 15th century onwards but also corresponds to periods of increased prosperity, such as its brief elevation to collegiate status. Most of the surviving diagnostic fabric of the church (i.e. windows and doorway) is 15th or 16th century, but there are earlier features, most notably the in situ remains of an original 13th-century aisle column, capital and arch, visible in the partially blocked up southern nave wall. Three further capitals survive; one lies among other loose masonry fragments in the north transept and two have been reused in the churchyard entrance gate, possibly atop their original columns.

Town Walls

Athenry Town walls
Town walls

Walls made of earthen banks topped by a strong wooden fence (palisade) and surrounded by a ditch (and the river) probably protected the fledgling town of Athenry. But in 1310 a special tax called a murage grant raised money for work to begin on its impressive and long lasting masonry walls. The grant lasted for three years and it is unlikely that this was sufficient to pay for the entire building project. Tradition states that following the devastating (to the Irish) ‘Battle of Athenry’ in 1316, weapons and armour taken from the dead on the battlefield were sold to finance its construction. Athenry’s town walls are arguably the best preserved in Ireland, with over 70% surviving to almost full height. They define a trapezoidal-shaped circuit roughly 2km in length and enclose an area of about 28.5 hectares, making Athenry one of the largest medieval towns in Ireland, over twice the size of Galway and Dublin!—at least in terms of area (only the northern half of the walled space was ever urbanised). The walls originally had at least six D-shaped towers, of which five survive. There were five entrance gates but only the restored North Gate, or ‘Arch’ still stands; the foundations of another, the Loro Gate, were recently discovered during road-works at the southern end of the town. Defending the town and its inhabitants from attack by the native Irish was the main reason for building Athenry’s town walls, but there were other reasons as well:

  •  Like the castle they were a bold physical statement as to the wealth and power of the town and its rulers.
  • They were used to direct traffic through the gates, thereby controlling who did and who did not enter or leave the town.
  • The gates would also have been used to tax/toll merchants bringing goods into town for sale at the market.
  • The walls defined the jurisdiction of the town and legally separated it from the countryside, where different laws and rights applied; it has been argued that medieval towns were ‘non-feudal islands in a feudal sea’.  Significantly, Athenry’s town wall is coterminous with the townland boundary.
  • Town walls were a physical expression of community pride and are commonly depicted on corporate insignia such as town seals, as  they are on Athenry’s.
  • Finally, recent studies suggest that towns and their defences held sacred designs and religious meanings to those who planned, built and lived within them. In the medieval mind the imagery of Athenry’s seal was imbued with Christian symbolism, ultimately depicting the town wall as a metaphor for God’s protection and warning of the physical and spiritual enemy at the gates. 

Market Cross

Within the marketplace is an impressive and rare 15th/16th-century stone market-cross of the ‘tabernacle’ or ‘lantern’ type, surmounting a more recent stepped base. This is Ireland’s only in situ medieval market cross. It is unusual in that it is ornately decorated, including carved depictions of the crucified Christ and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove on one face, and the Madonna and Child on the other. Although the cross post-dates the foundation of the Anglo-Norman town, given its location it may well have replaced an earlier cross, perhaps made of wood. Most, if not all, medieval marketplaces would have included a market-cross.

Hospital and Leper House

Historical records (Calendar of Papal Registers) tell us that in 1400 the ‘Lazar House’ (leper hospital) of St. Mary Magdalen, Athenry, was granted an indulgence for the repair and conservation of its chapel. The foundation date and location of the hospital are not stated, but the fact that it needed repairing suggests it had stood for some time prior to 1400. In the Dominican priory Register, it is recorded that Dermitius O Trarasay and his wife Margareta built a fecerunt hospitium magnum or great hospital/lodging, but no date is provided for that work. Although the ‘hospitum magnum’ may have formed part of the priory complex, another reference in the Register records the building of an infirmary there, so it is likely that the hospitum was a separate building. The presence of the Spitle Gate suggests that a hospital was located near the southern entrance to the town, and the name of the Loro Gate possibly derives from the Irish lobhar, meaning leper. The Loro gate is situated in the southwest corner of the town, and on the Ordnance Survey map of 1931 there is reference to a former leper colony located in a large undeveloped area in that part of the town, within the curtain wall (although it is not recorded on the earlier O.S. maps).

The foundations of a masonry building were discovered and excavated near the union of Cross St and Clarke St, just inside the main gate of the former Athenry House estate. This site is on the southern periphery of the urbanised part of Athenry. The building, which was interpreted as a probable hospital, consisted of three rectangular compartments conjoined along their shorter sides. The two northern compartments were of similar construction and probably of 13th-century date, while the fabric of the southern compartment suggested that it was probably a late-medieval or early modern addition. The 13th-century compartments were aligned parallel to a disused medieval road that connected the Spitle Gate to Cross Street and the urban nucleus of the town.

Imported French pottery (13th-14th-century) and architectural fragments were recovered in and around the building, in addition to a number of floor and roof tiles, one of which was decorated and of medieval type. Significantly, identical floor tiles were found during excavations of the hospital of St. James in Drogheda, which, like the medieval foundations uncovered at Athenry, was square in plan and divided into two rooms. Charcoal from the northern compartment of the structure provided a radiocarbon date between 1157 and 1227.
Six wells were also excavated within the vicinity of the ‘hospital’ with three containing evidence of later-medieval activity. Professor Carol Rawcliffe points out that many hospitals/leper houses grew up next to holy wells and springs in order to benefit from the perceived healing properties of the medicinal waters. Significantly, perhaps, in the vicinity of the hospital there is a ‘Spa Well’ recorded on the second ed. O.S. map (1895) and as ‘Spa Well Chalybeate’ on the fourth edition map (1931).

Based on the documentary, physical, toponymic and artefactual evidence it is probable that the excavated building is the fecerunt hospitium magnum, or great hospital/lodging, mentioned in the ‘Register’ of the Dominican priory. Although this places the hospital within the masonry town wall, a rare occurrence in medieval towns. When it was first built it probably would have stood just outside the fledgling town’s earliest, earth and timber defences. It may have even ceased functioning as a hospital by the time the masonry town wall was constructed in 1310. It is possible that the Leper hospital or ‘Lazar House’ referred to in 1400, was 350m southeast of the Spitle Gate, where the vestigial remnants of St. Bridget’s church stand. The church is recorded as ‘a ruinated chapel with walls standing’ on the 1657 Down Survey map and there is no surviving architecture to inform an earlier date. St. Bridget, however, is commonly associated with leper houses and hospitals in Ireland,  indeed, a St. Brigid’s church stands just beyond Loughrea town that may have served in that capacity, and a leper house/hospital associated with that saint is located just east of Galway town on Bohermore, although it is a 16th century foundation.

Railways and Roads to Recovery

In 1843 the borough of Athenry was abolished, and also in the 19th century the railway came to Ireland. Athenry was an important railway junction and from that time on the fortunes of the town slowly began to improve. More recently (2009) the opening of the new M6 motorway has put Athenry firmly on the map again as an important satellite town of Galway and only two hours drive from Dublin. It is significant that both the railway and the new motorway broadly follow the footprint of the ancient routeway—the Slighe Mor—that probably brought the first people to the area, and certainly influenced Meiler de Bermingham in his decision to build a town at Athenry.



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Athenry Heritage Centre.

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

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