Twelve years ago Laurence Athy of Ohio, U.S.A. visited the South Kildare town of the same name seeking to unravel the mystery of which came first - the place name or the family surname. Ten years later Michael Athy and his family of Illinois, U.S.A. made the same journey. Michael, who had himself emigrated from the West of Ireland over 40 years ago was less interested in the historical minutiae of 12th century Ireland and was content to show his American family the Irish town which bore his name. Two weeks ago we had a visitor from Auckland, New Zealand. Ted Athy and his wife stayed a few days in the town where he could reasonably assume his forbearers held sway 800 years ago. All these visitors were understandably intrigued by the possible link between the town and their ancient family.
It was Michael Athy who in 1984 put forward the thesis that the surname Athy originated in France in the late 12th century when a Norman military leader named Gerard adapted as his surname Athee from the name of the village of his birth - Athee Sur Cher in the province of Touraine. Michael claimed that while in England Gerard de Athee became at different times Athies, Athyes and eventually Athy. He was satisfied that the town named Athy in Ireland was not derived from the Anglo Norman surname.
The leading authority in Irish family names and their origins was the late Dr. Edward Lysaght, former Chief Herald of Ireland who published his authoritative book on the subject in 1972. In his opinion the surname Athy is of a type which is common in most countries but very rare in Ireland being formed from a placename. The Athys he states were of Norman stock, settled in Athy, Co. Kildare whence they soon migrated to Galway.
Rev. Patrick Wolfe of Kilmallock, Co. Limerick in his book "Irish Names and Placenames" wrote "at the time of the Norman invasion surnames were still far from universal in England and many of the first settlers came to this country with only first names. Some of them took surnames on Irish soil after the Norman fashion from the places where they settled."
So here we have two leading Irish authorities for the proposition that the Athy family name derives from the South Kildare town where the Irish branch of the family were some of its earliest settlers. But of course when the French speaking Anglo Normans came to Ireland they knew nothing of the Gaelic language of the native Irish who had already named the Ford on the River where Woodstock Castle was to be built. It had been known as Ath Ae ever since the second century when Ae the son of a Munster Chieftain had fallen there in battle. It is reasonable to assume that the Gaelic placename soon became Athey, Athay, Athie and eventually Athy as it came down to us firstly as a French speakers interpretation, and latterly the Anglicised form of the ancient placename.
The Anglo Norman settlers who had adopted their surname from the South Kildare placename were soon to leave the area and migrated to Galway. There they were destined to become one of the fourteen tribes of that city and had the distinction of erecting the first ever stone building in Galway.
The Athy family name is no longer to be found in Galway and indeed I have not come across the surname anywhere else in Ireland. America is home to a vast network of Athy families most of whom spell their surname Athey. Dr. Charles Athey of Ohio published in 1932 his "Genealogy of the Athey Family in America 1642 - 1932" which was followed in 1972 by "The Descendants of Henry Athey of Maryland, South Carolina and Alabama" published by Thomas Whitfield Athey III. In more recent years the "History of the John and Frances Rue Athey (Athy) family 1637 - 1980" was published in America.
Ted Athy of Auckland, New Zealand, our most recent visitor is a descendant of the Athys of Co. Galway, his great-grandfather having emigrated from there in the 1860's. A genial semi-retired building contracter, he pronounced his name in the New Zealand fashion Ath Ee which on reading is so reminiscent of the original Gaelic place name Ath Ae. He expressed great interest in the town and cast an expert eye on Whites Castle which might have been his home today had his Anglo Norman ancestors not made a quick exit to Galway. Looking at the Athy family crest I was intrigued to find that their motto is "Ductus Non Coactus" - "May Be Led, Not To Be Driven". You know it accurately summarises so much of our attitudes in matters affecting the town of Athy. Maybe we should adopt the motto and renew the link which once existed between the town of Athy and the Anglo Norman settlers of 800 years ago.