The Cork Historical and Archaeological Society will be paying a visit to Athy on 5th June. This follows on an earlier visit by the Military History Society of Ireland who stopped briefly in Athy on one of its weekend outings.
The Cork Group have expressed an interest in the history of Anglo Norman Athy, the 12th century settlement which has latterly began to reclaim some of its prominence and importance in the historical context.
Living in the town tends to cause us to ignore the many qualities which strangers readily recognise. The juxtaposition of Whites Castle on the Bridge of Athy, with Woodstock Castle on the Western bank of the River Barrow clearly indicate an important settlement in Medieval times. The imposing Town Hall, an early 18th century building providing a backdrop to the central town square is evidence of the commercial development which marked Athy apart as a Market town.
The various stages of the early village and later town development saw it pass through many interesting phases. The early manorial settlement of the 12th and 13th century saw the village develop around the Castle of Woodstock. This was on the West Bank of the River Barrow, and it was there that the first early 13th century Monastery was also located. Founded by the Trinitarians at the area now known as St. John's it was soon succeeded by a Dominican Monastery build on the East Bank of the River in 1253.
Because of the proximity of the wild Irish in Leix and their tendency to attack the village of Athy the town as it developed did so on the East Bank of the River. This made it easier for those in the town to defend themselves and in time a bridge was built with a Castle garrisoned to defend it. Whites Castle still stands today like a lonely sentinel protecting as it has done since 1417 the passage over the Bridge of Athy.
It was the presence of this Castle which allowed the town to develop in the area now known as Emily Square, Leinster Street etc. Of course in those early days the only street names were High Street for the principal street in the town and Market Street where the markets were held. The town or village continued to grow over the years, by and large populated by settlers from the English mainland.
The cosmopolitan nature of the towns population was in time to be reflected in the large number of mainstream religions to be found in Athy. Roman Catholic, United Church of England and Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, all had a presence and their Churches are to be found located at the four corners of the town. Marginal religious groups also played a significant role in life in Athy and the Kellyites, Quakers and Plymouth Brethren at one time or another were to be found in Athy.
I have often referred to the rich tapestry of life in Athy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but truly it was then a vibrant community and a leading player in the commercial life of the Irish midlands.
I'm not at all sure that in Athy we have ever appreciated the wealth of history which has bedrocked our towns advancement into the 20th century. Ours is a fine example of a linear type Anglo Norman settlement nearly 800 years old. The architectural remains of our past, represented by Whites Castle and Woodstock Castle are vitally important to our understanding of that past and crucial to our development of Athy Heritage status.
Unfortunately Woodstock Castle remains a forgotten relic of our past, ignored by our Town Council which has done nothing over the years to ensure its preservation and protection from further dereliction. A recent visit to the site indicates that the Castle walls have been breached and further damage is being caused on a weekly basis to this priceless part of historical heritage.
Whites Castle looks to be in urgent need of repair as cracks appear in the outer wall. If either Castle should cease to be a landmark, then we will have failed in our responsibility to preserve what cannons could not dislodge in years gone by. Why not add your voice to those who are calling on our local town Council to act promptly to protect Woodstock Castle and Whites Castle. There are not many towns in Ireland which can boast two castles of such importance and we should take an interest in seeing that those charged with responsibility for civic affairs in Athy extend their interest to the preservation of these two Castles.
Incidentally An Taisce will be holding a meeting in the Community Service Centre, Stanhope Place on Thursday the 4th of May at 8.00 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.