A poem by the Bard Ferganin McKeogh celebrates the predatory excursion of Shaun O’Byrne, of Glenmalure in the 16th century when he attacked the “royal town of Caislean Rheban and gained much treasure which spread his fame”. Today, all that remains of this once important town are the fragmentary remains of Rheban Castle guarding the Ford on the Barrow near Athy as it has for many centuries. The ford was an important route not only in the medieval period but also in prehistoric times as is shown by the quantity and variety of stone axes and other prehistoric objects recovered from this crossing point during the Barrow drainage scheme in the 1920’s. From the 13th century onwards the town and castle of Rheban formed an important link in the defence of the developing county of Kildare. In 1288, the Justiciar who was the King’s representative in Ireland, spent four days in Rheban supervising the construction of defences in this dangerous and volatile border area of the country.
The castle was an important element of this defence and the earliest reference to it is from 1297 when the unfortunate Geoffrey Tauel was taken from his home near the castle and killed by three of the O’Mores of Leix.
This incident is an indication of the lawlessness prevalent in the area in the year in which Kildare was established as a county by King Edward I. Incidentally I hope that Kildare County Council will ensure that the 700th anniversary of the Lilywhite county will be suitably commemorated in two years’ time.
In 1325 Lysagh O’More captured eight castles in the area of Kildare and Laois, including Dunamaise and Rheban. Thereafter little is know of Rheban town or the castle until the 16th century when it was again subject to violent attacks by the O’Mores.
A letter to Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, in 1536, described both the castles of Rheban and Woodstock as “laid waste” and recommended their re-occupation and repair.
From the 13th century until the early 17th century, the castle was in the possession of the de St. Michael family, who are credited with the construction of Woodstock Castle in Athy and also the Priory of the Crouched Friars in the St. John’s area of the town.
The fortunes of the de St. Michael family waned as those of the powerful Fitzgerald family increased. Their sole property by the middle of the 16th century was the castle at Rheban.
In the 16th century, it was leased by Walter de St. Michael to Captain Thomas Lee, an English settler, for a period of 21 years. Lee was executed in 1598 for co-operating with the O’Mores of Leix in opposing the English King.
Walter de St. Michael sought the return of the lands and castle which had been confiscated by the Crown while Sir Robert Lee, the brother of Thomas Lee, petitioned to have them kept within his family. His petition was successful and in 1612 his relation, Sir Henry Lee, was in possession of Rheban Castle.
The numerous references to the castle in the 13th century do not appear to refer to the structure surviving at the site today.
The earlier castle was probably constructed from timber, a common material in use for the building of castles at the beginning of the 13th century. The earliest extant structure dates from the 15th century and consists of a pair of barrel vaults which probably supported two storeys which are now destroyed. The base of the walls of this structure were protected by a battered face and by a series of arrow loops.
The destruction and damage to the castle by the O’Mores in 1537 was made good and a large impressive three-storey structure with mullioned windows was added to the south of the then existing building. It represented the transformation of the castle from a purely defensive structure to a more comfortable residence, akin to an early country house.
However, measures for defence were still taken with the addition of a small but lofty courtyard with special loops to allow the occupants to defend the castle. After 1600 the Rheban area enjoyed an era of relative calm until the unrest caused by the competing Royalist and Cromwellian armies in the 1640’s.
During that conflict Rheban Castle, like Athy town, was garrisoned by Government troops to protect the passes into Leix. Sir Arthur Savage, a distinguished commander in Queen Elizabeth’s time and Governor of Connacht had charge of the garrison in Rheban Castle.
Despite his best efforts, the castle was burnt by the Irish Rebels in 1641. Repaired, it was garrisoned again this time under Captain Flowers who was no more successful in protecting it against the Confederates to whom he surrendered Rheban in 1646.
By the time the English Parliamentary Forces had gained control over the country in the summer
of 1652, Rheban Castle and Woodstock Castle in Athy were in ruins and were never again to be occupied. Since that time the castle has fallen into ruin. The town of Rheban itself has long disappeared and the castle is the only remains of the flourishing settlement which once existed on the banks of the River Barrow.