Last week the South Kildare Branch of An Taisce hosted a talk in the Town Hall dealing with Woodstock Castle. Concern has been expressed at the present state of disrepair of this important building which has stood on the site for over 700 years. The recent granting of heritage status to Athy was in part a recognition of the building heritage of the town. If we wish to maintain Athy's claim to that heritage status then we must show a willingness to save and protect those local buildings which are an important part of our heritage. Chief amongst those must be Woodstock Castle which stands some distance from the centre of the town. It was built in the 13th century by the St. Michael family of Rheban following the allocation to them of lands in the area by Strongbow. Following such land division it was customary to construct a fortified building at a place of strategic importance and so it was that Woodstock Castle was built on the western side of the Ford of Ae, a river crossing on the Barrow.
The first castle built on the site was probably of wood which was replaced in time by the stone building which still stands as a lonely sentinel guarding the west bank of the River Barrow. More properly referred to as a Hall Keep it was the Manor Castle of Woodstock and figured large in the developing history of Athy, especially in the medieval years. It was to Woodstock Castle that the Friars of the Holy Cross came in the early years of the 13th century to establish their monastery. The area in which that monastery was located was known as St. John's, a name still retained for the laneway which runs parallel to Duke Street. The future town, then a mere village, was taking shape on the west bank of the River and in 1253 the Dominican Order founded a second monastery in the area, now known as The Abbey at the rear of Emily Square.
The village of Athy was home to French speaking Anglo Normans and understandably the native Irish, who lived in the wooded regions of the area now known as Laois and beyond, soon vented their displeasure by attacking the village. On at least four occasions during the 13th century the village of Athy, including Woodstock Castle and the monasteries, was attacked and badly damaged by the warring Irish.
The settlers were a resilient lot and on each occasions rebuilt their settlement. At this time another settlement was to be found near Rheban Castle which was also built by the St. Michael family again near a river crossing. Nothing now remains of that settlement other than the remains of Rheban Castle itself. The survival of the Athy settlement while neighbouring settlements were disappearing might have been due to nothing more than mere chance. Rheban, like Athy, was attacked on many occasions but unlike its neighbour Rheban was soon deserted and reverted to its original rural status as did the nearby medieval village of Ardscull. Another village settlement to disappear was Ardreigh on the Carlow side of Woodstock Castle.
It was Sir John Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, recognising the strategic importance of Athy on the Marches of Kildare who built a bridge across the Barrow and a Fortress to protect it. In time Whites Castle became the focus of future development on the east bank of the river. The earlier village settlement on the west bank may have been abandoned at this stage given the difficulties of protecting it from the Irish. Whites Castle, then garrisoned and protecting the only bridge across the river afforded greater protection for the settlers who lived and worked in the village on the east bank. Woodstock Castle which was still occupied and remained so up to the 17th century was left virtually isolated. Nevertheless it continued to present itself as a formidable fortress while it was occupied.
As originally constructed Woodstock Castle was a rectangular keep which in architectural terms might be more correctly described as a "Hall Keep". It is a classical example of an Anglo Norman construction of the early 13th century and similar if larger examples can be found at Grennan, Co. Kilkenny and Greencastle, Co. Down. Woodstock has been subject to alterations especially in the 16th century. A tower at the southeast angle of the original Keep was added then as an additional defensive feature. On the west face of the tower at first and second storey level are a pair of circular gunports set within rectangular openings. This form of gunport first appeared in England in the 1520's. The gunports which are now blocked up served to defend the Castle on the only side which did not have an enclosing wall. They were used in connection with floor cannons and above each gunport are to be seen viewing slits to enable the gunner to look out while firing the cannon. These features are of national importance, being very fine examples of 16th century gunports, very few of which are to be found in Irish castles.
Other alterations made in the Castle in the 16th century including the raising of the walls to provide another storey and the insertion of large windows in the west, east and south walls. All these windows have hood mouldings with the finest example to be found at the northeast corner of the east wall. These features probably coincided with the leasing of the Castle to William Sheregolde in 1560 under a Lease which provided for improvements to be carried out by the Lessee.
Woodstock Castle has survived for over 700 years but it now needs urgent repair work to protect some of its more important features. It would be shameful if we were to allow the first building erected on the future town of Athy to be lost to future generations. It is a priceless if somewhat sadly neglected building which could and should be restored to enhance Athy's claim as a heritage town. Athy Urban District Council are the owners of Woodstock Castle and now that the area around the Castle is being landscaped perhaps it is now an opportune time to look at the possibility of saving this 13th century building.