Members of Kildare Archaeological Society recently met in Athy at the start of a Sunday afternoon outing. They gathered in the shadows of Woodstock Castle just as another gathering of enthusiasts had done almost 105 years ago. It was on Thursday, 15th September, 1892 that the then newly formed Kildare Archaeological Society first held an outing to Athy. On that occasion the members travelled by train, arriving at Athy Railway Station from where they walked the short distance to St. Michael's Medieval Church. There the local curate, Fr. J. Carroll gave a talk on the history of the 13th century building, after which the Society members walked or were brought by carriage to White's Castle. Bishop Comerford's paper on the history of this most important building in the centre of the town was then read, after which the Society members inspected the interior of the Castle.
The most recent visit started with Woodstock Castle when the opportunity was taken to detail the significant features of the 13th century ruin. Now surrounded by local authority houses the Castle stands unprotected and somewhat sadly neglected, near to the banks of the River Barrow. As originally built, it was a rectangular keep of two stories, with a large hall on the first floor. The entrance door was on the first floor facing the river and was probably reached by a wooden stairway which could be readily removed in the event of an attack. Such a precaution was necessary at a time when the native Irish were at war with the Anglo Norman settlers. Indeed the Castle was attacked and the developing village of Athy was burnt on at least four occasions during the first one hundred years of their existence.
The stone Castle built with uncoursed limestone rubble has walls 1.3 metres thick. It was lit by round headed window slits, two of which, although blocked up, are still visible on the north facing wall. These are 13th century features and help to date the Castle which has been modified many times since it was first built. An interesting feature of the Castle once recorded in the journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society but no longer to be found there was an ancient chimney piece. It showed the sculptured arms of the Fitzgerald family supported by Lions Couchant and must be dated to before 1300 when the future Dukes of Leinster adopted the monkey as part of their Coat of Arms. This of course is another element in the detective work which goes to show the age of a building which in the case of Woodstock Castle we can reasonably satisfy ourselves is of 13th century origin.
The legend of the Fitzgerald monkey is probably well known to most readers, but for the sake of completeness I repeat the story. Apparently John FitzThomas, child of Thomas FitzMaurice and Rohesia de St. Michael was missing when Woodstock Castle went on fire. He was later found safe in the arms of the family's pet monkey whereupon the FitzGeralds adopted the animal as part of their Coat of Arms. Those of you who have an opportunity to do so should examine the sculptured FitzGerald Coat of Arms set into the South facing wall of Whites Castle. There you will see the monkey incorporated as part of the ancient arms of the Duke of Leinster's family.
Woodstock Castle was the first building in what was the future town of Athy, but because of the hostility of the native Irish the settlers eventually withdrew to the more easily defended East bank of the River Barrow. This may have coincided with the building of Whites Castle in 1417. This Castle was intended to defend the bridge at Athy and it afforded far greater protection for those living on the East bank of the River than Woodstock Castle did for those on the West bank. The subsequent development of the town of Athy was centred in the area now known as Emily Square and Leinster Street.
In the meantime Woodstock Castle continued to be a focal point for warring activities, especially during the Confederate wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Owen Roe O'Neill and the Marquis of Ormond at different times occupied Woodstock Castle while General Preston made an unsuccessful attempt to capture it. His failure to do so owed much to the courage of Catherine Sheil, wife of Dr. Eoin Sheil and a friend of Owen Roe O'Neill. Preston threatened to hang her nephew from an upturned cart in front of Woodstock unless she handed over the Castle. She refused and Preston's threat was not carried out, only because he was prevailed upon by some of his officers not to execute the young man who had been captured while carrying a flag of truce. General Preston and his men marched off to Carlow, passing under the town gate at Offaly Street which was thereafter known as Preston's Gate. This was the medieval town gate located opposite Paddy Garrett's house which was removed in 1860 following an accident in which Rev. F.S. Trench, the local Rector, was killed.
Woodstock Castle underwent extensive refurbishment in the 16th century. This turned what was an Anglo-Norman keep into a fortified house. Large windows were inserted into the walls of the Castle and we can still see on various sides of the Castle remains of those mullioned windows with hood mouldings. A tower was erected at the South side of Woodstock for defensive purposes and this has a number of 16th century gun ports which are of national importance. All of the features referred to have been blocked up for safety reasons, but are still readily identifiable and could be restored with relative ease.
The most recent visitors from the Archaeological Society passed on to Rheban Castle and Ballyadams Castle later that afternoon. They expressed surprise at the rather sad state in which Woodstock Castle has been left to deteriorate and wondered, as we must all do, why this most ancient of buildings has not been restored. It commands an imposing position on the banks of the Barrow and with neighbouring Whites Castle, form an important pair of medieval buildings worth preserving for the future.