The motte of Ardscull has been a dominant feature on the Dublin road as it sweeps down towards Athy into the Barrow valley for eight centuries. Today its summit is crowned by trees and it forms a calm tranquil refuge from the volume of traffic which skirts its edge during the day. The placename of Ardscull is derived from the Irish Ard Scol but its origins are unclear. It has been translated at various times as the ‘hill of the shouts’, the hill of the heroes’ and even the ‘hill of schools’. Whatever it’s origins the motte itself has a relatively recent history. It is a Anglo-Norman construction, a defensive enclosure built in the late twelfth century which would have been topped by a timber castle. The Normans built these mounds of earth all over the country in the initial years of their conquest of Ireland. There are no direct references to the motte itself which is unusual given it’s size which makes it one of the largest mottes in Ireland. It was first referred to in 1654 when the inhabitants of Kildare requested the state to contribute thirty pounds ‘towards the finishing of a fort that they have built at the Mote of Ardscull so that same may be a garrison’. These buildings were still evident on the summit of the motte in 1789 but have since disappeared.
At some point in the early 13th century a small town was established close to the motte. In 1282 it was noted as having one hundred and sixty burgesses which indicates it was a town of some size, similar to Castledermot at the same date. It possessed the normal elements of a town of that period with a church, mill and market place. The town was burned in 1286 and after this date nothing is known of the town.
As the native Irish fortunes revived in the fourteenth century many of the smaller boroughs vanished. So while a town like Athy built on a important fording point flourished towns such as Ardscull were abandoned. Ardscull was not the only settlement in this area to disappear.
Just one mile south of Athy the borough of Ardreigh was established in the late 12th century. The land had belonged to ‘Thomas of Flanders’ for whom Hugh de Lacy built a castle in at Ardreigh in 1182. This was probably a timber castle which sat on a motte somewhat similar to Ardscull. Around the castle the town developed. The town appeared to flourish in its early years. Hugh Dullard a landowner in the area granted part of his property in Ardreigh to the Prior of St Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin and it seems likely that the prior had a church built on the site. The church did not remain in the hands of the prior long as in the early 13th century the Diocese of Dublin was noted as having two clergy and a number of Chapels at the site which suggests that it was a relatively important ecclesiastical site.
As with many small towns of the time individuals were appointed to govern the settlement. In the fourteenth century Nicholas Fitzaustin was the Provost while William FitzElye was his deputy. The duty of these men was to collect the tolls on market day. A weekly market was granted in 1318to Milo le Poer who then held the town
Another duty of the provost and his deputy was to maintain law and order. It must have been at times a difficult task. In 1297 Gilbert de Stanton appeared before the court in Athy charged with stealing 60 cows from the town of ‘Ardry’.
The most prominent member of the local community was William de Athy of whom I wrote last week. William owned substantial property in the town which included a large timber house which had its own orchard which was probably prey to the boys of the locality as the orchards of Athy were in my own childhood. At some point in the late 14th century the town of Ardreigh went into decline, presumably it was overshadowed by its larger and more prosperous neighbour Athy. Settlement at Ardreigh did not die out entirely. Sir Piers FitzJames Fitzgerald had a little castle there ‘thatched with straw and sedge in his town of Ardree’ which was burnt down in 1593 by the sons of Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne. The family of Sir Piers perished in the fire. The population at Ardreigh never died out completely as the census of 1659 noted that there was twenty four inhabitants. Today as the town of Athy expands out to meet Ardreigh we can only marvel at the past which has seen the earliest settlement founder in the 14th century only to be revitalised by the resurgence of the Celtic Tiger at the close of the twentieth century.