John O’Donovan, the Irish scholar and antiquarian, visited Athy in November 1837, and remained in the town for ten days from the 17th of the month. Employed in the historical department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, he was carrying out research into local placenames and collecting historical material. O’Donovan’s previous work on Irish manuscripts in the Irish Record Office gave him a particularly good insight into Irish history, genealogy and Irish topography and not surprisingly, the same ancient Irish manuscripts were used extensively by him as he sought to explain the meaning of local placenames. The results of his work for the Ordnance Survey between 1829 and 1842 were later published as the Ordnance Survey Letters. Fr. Michael O’Flanagan, the Republican Catholic Priest, edited and prepared the volumes for publication between 1924 and 1932. The two volumes relating to County Kildare printed as one, and entitled “Letters containing information relative to the Antiquities of the County of Kildare collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1837”, were published in 1930.
O’Donovan, who was to publish his translation of the Annals of the Four Masters between 1848 and 1851, delved into the early history of Athy during his stay in the town. Athy, he wrote, “was referred to in ancient times as the Ford on the River Barrow” and he proceeded to quote from Keating’s History of Ireland and the Annals of Clonmacnoise, of accounts of the second century battle at the Ford between the Munster men and the Leinster men. This was to give the name Áth Ae, translated as the Ford of Ae, to the battle site. The ancient “Leabhar Oiris of the Dal Cais” was also quoted by O’Donovan when explaining the early history of Athy. There he found references to a battle on the Ford of Ae between the Dalcassians and the men of Desmond as they journeyed home from the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
Writing from Athy on the 26th of November 1837 John O’Donovan noted “this weather is very unfavourable to our researches”. Nevertheless he continued his work in the area writing on the 27th of November, “I could find no antiquarian remains in Athy but the two old Parish Churches of St. Michael’s and St. John’s, the Castle of Woodstock and the South East Gate”. The St. Michael’s Church referred to by O’Donovan is the medieval church located in the cemetery on the Dublin Road. It is believed to be of fourteenth century origin, and may represent the first parish church in the Anglo Norman town of Athy. When built, it was located outside the walls of the medieval village, while inside those walls were to be found the monasteries of St. Dominic and what O’Donovan referred to as the parish church of St. John’s. In fact St. John’s was the name of the Trinitarian monastery which was built in the early part of the thirteenth century in close proximity to Woodstock Castle. St. John’s cemetery may have been part of that monastery, but a detailed archaeological survey of the area is our only hope of ever determining the nature and extent of the monastery buildings which had fallen vacant even before the dissolution of the Irish monasteries in 1540.
The castle of Woodstock still stands, a stark lonely reminder of the years of neglect which have allowed many of its important features to be vandalised or removed from the site. Maybe the Town Council could show a little urgency in putting in place its plans for the preservation of what’s left of Woodstock Castle, so that future restoration workers will have something worthwhile to work on.
Already gone is the South East Gate which O’Donovan noted in 1837. It was to fall prey to the Town Council of 1860, which had the gate removed following an accident involving the local Church of England Rector, Rev. Frederick Trench of Kilmoroney. Commonly known as Preston’s Gate, it was located at the point where Offaly Street and Emily Row meet. The immediate area was called Preston’s Gate, and as an address it is noted on at least one headstone in St. Michael’s cemetery.
John O’Donovan was brother-in-law of Eugene O’Curry, himself an Irish scholar, famous for his translations of ancient Irish texts and the first Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland. O’Donovan and O’Curry co-founded the Irish Archaeological Society in 1840.
O’Donovan, the greatest historical topographer that Ireland ever produced, died in Dublin on 9th December 1861. An unusual but as yet unverified claim relating to O’Donovan is to be found in “Three Hills” by Eoin Ua Modha published in 1920. The small booklet contains what the author in his introduction claimed “are the mere musings of an idler” who delved into local history as viewed from the top of three hills - Ossory, Leix and Lancashire. From the top of the hill of Laois, Moore described how “among those trees rises Heath House where John O’Donovan, the Irish scholar and topographer, then a young man of 24, spent several months in 1830 and was first induced to study the Irish Annals”.
Whatever the truth of this claim, students of Irish topography, history and genealogy owe an enormous debt to John O’Donovan whose works have become standard texts for the study of the history and language of the ancient Irish.