White’s castle has stood as a sentinel on the river Barrow at Athy for at least four centuries. In it’s time it has been a garrison for troops, a prison, a constabulary barracks and now a private residence. It easy to forget the significance of a such a building that is so much a part of our everyday lives. There may have been an structure on the site as early as 1297 when David Fitz le feure was held in the ‘ward of Athy’.
The castle as it presently stands was first built in 1417 by Sir John Talbot to protect the bridge at this important crossing point. In 1422 William Scryvener was appointed constable, a position he was to hold until at least 1426. Athy has always been a very important part of the early Anglo-Norman settlement of Leinster and its strategic role was enhanced by the addition of a fortified tower to the bridge. The government in Dublin noted in 1431 that it considered that Athy was the ‘greatest fortalice and a key town’. By 1505 the castle was beginning to show its age and the 8th Earl of Kildare set about its refurbishment along with that of his other castles at Rathvillly and Castledermot.
The primary purpose of the castle was to protect the bridge but it also served as part of a chain of defences along the Leix-Kildare border particularly from the 15th century onwards. Few doubted the strategic importance of the town. Patrick Finglas, Baron of the Exchequer for Ireland, writing in 1515 in ‘The Decay of Ireland’ believed it necessary that an English captain should have been given control of both White’s and Woodstock castle in order to form a bulwark against the predatory incursions of the native O’More’s of Leix into south Kildare. They had been responsible for the burning of the town of Athy at least four times in the 14th century.
It would appear that originally White’s was not the only tower on the bridge at Athy. In 1516 the Prior of the monastery of St Thomas the Martyr of Athy granted to the Gerald, the Earl of Kildare a castle on the western side of the bridge at Athy. This tower was still evident on the bridge in the late 16th century when Athy was represented on Mercator’s map of the Leix-Offaly plantation.
Maintenance and upkeep of the castle was always an consideration given the importance of the castle. Lord Leonard Grey wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1536 informing him that materials and masons were being provided for the re-edification and fortification on the castle. The repairs continued through the summer months of June and July. The castle was still being referred to as the ‘new castle’ when Giles Cornewell leased land near the bridge in 1569.
In 1598 James FitzPiers was in charge of the garrison in the castle. The privy council was informed that FitzPiers, formerly a sheriff of County Kildare had broken into rebellion. He refused to surrender the castle and when finally he abandoned its command he broke down the bridge in his retreat.
The castle was to play a prominent role in the confederate wars where the competing Royalist and Confederate armies frequently vied for it’s and the town’s control. The era of the castles final great prominence came in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion when it served as the prison for the captured rebels. A large extension was built onto the castle’s north face in 1802 to improve the town gaol as it then was. But conditions remained primitive. As a prison the castle had little to recommend it. An prison inspectors report for 1824 stated that White’s castle was ‘without exception the worst county jail I have met with, in point of accommodation having neither yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’.
The old prison had nine cells and three small kitchens and the prisoners principal diet was bread and water. In the new gaol, built on the Carlow road in 1830,the prisoners were employed in stone breaking, mat making and oakum picking. The Governor was a Mr. Drill who had the assistance of three turnkeys to supervise the prisoners. He was later succeeded by Edward Carter who was governor when the prison closed in 1859.
After its closure as a prison the castle was used as a barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary until the turn of the century. Today it serves a private residence.