Thursday, July 22, 1999

Early Medieval Athy

The Development of Athy as a military stronghold at the beginning of the 15th Century followed 200 years of its development as a village settlement. This latter development reflected the failure of the anti Irish laws to force the hostile Irish into submission. The Anglo Norman authorities had looked with disfavour on the ever strengthening links between the Irish and the early settlers and it sought to maintain a division between the two by passing anti Irish laws from a very early date. The Parliament of 1297 convened by Sir John Wogan gave expression to the first Anti Irish decrees of the new Rulers.

“English men who have become degenerate in recent times dress themselves in Irish garments and having their heads half shaven, grow their hair from the back of the head which they call the “culan” confirming themselves to the Irish as well in garb as in countenance whereby it frequently happens that Englishmen reputed as Irishmen are slain, although the killing of Englishmen reputed as Irishmen are slain, although killing of Englishmen and of Irishmen requires different modes of punishment. And by such killing matter of enmity and rancour is generated amongst many. The kindred also, as well of the slayer as of the slain, are often by turns struck down as enemies. And therefore it is agreed and granted that all Englishmen in this land wear, at least in that part of the head which presents itself most to view, the mode and tonsure of Englishmen”.

An interesting account of the disabilities endured by the native Irish is given in a petition of the Irish Chief addressed to Pope John XXII in the latter part of 1317. In the petition the Chiefs complained that the English Courts in Ireland were not available to Irishmen except where the cause of action lay against them, and that the killing of an Irish person, whether lay or religious, by an Englishman was not punishable by the Courts. Even more offensive to the Chiefs was the assertion by the none Irish religious that it was “no more sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute. And in maintaining this heretical position some monks of theirs affirm boldly that if it should happen to them, as it does often happen, to kill an Irishman, they would not on that account refrain from saying mass, not even for a day”. The Statutes of Kilkenny 1366 were the most outstanding effort by the English rulers to regulate the relations of the Irish and the settlers in Ireland. The Statutes were at once an acknowledgment of the isolation and vulnerability of the strongly fortified Anglo Norman towns and an attempt to regulate their future development untainted by Irish influences. The Anglo Normans were forbidden to marry the Irish, to use Irish laws, or to receive Irishmen into their monasteries. They were enjoined to use English speech and to have English surnames under penalty of attainder. The statutes failed in their purpose because the Anglo Norman towns could not survive without commercial or social intercourse with the native Irish. However, the anti Irish measures did prove detrimental to the growth of the provincial towns. Laws forbidding the sale of corn, salt, iron and victuals to the Irish without a licence served to dampen the enterprise of the early 15th century town merchants while a 1431 Act forbidding them to frequent Irish fairs or markets attempted to cut them off from much needed and readily available sources of supply. While the use of the anti Irish laws fell into disrepute, Athy appears never to have lost its Anglo Norman influence, no doubt due to the oligarchic control of the town which was so typical of Anglo Norman towns of the time. This Anglo Norman influence is reflected in the numerous occasions on which the Irish saw fit to attack its inhabitants. The fact it was an Anglo Irish foundation without any prior Irish influence prompted the Irish to seek its destruction instead of its assimilation into Gaelic Ireland. The isolation of the manorial town of Athy and its proximity to the lands of the O’Mores undoubtedly created a special difficulties for the early Anglo Norman settlers. However their success in maintaining a clear division between themselves and the Irish can be measured by the non gaelic traditions and outlook to be found in the town of Athy long after other similar towns in Ireland had succumbed to Gaelic influences.

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