Growing up in Offaly Street in the 1950’s boys such as myself had none of the diversions which the youth of today now enjoy. Computers, videos and televisions were still decades away for most of us and we amused ourselves as best we could. Football was the bread and butter of our daily lives and most evening after school began with a game of football at the Church of Ireland end of Offaly Street. Although it is difficult to imagine today there was little traffic on the street in my youth except Dr. O’Neill’s car on it’s way to another patient and the odd bit of Agricultural traffic during the Harvest season. Games were played with much vigour and energy resulting in many scuffed knees and grazed heads by the end of these urban matches. The focus of most of our matches was in the part of Offaly Street close to the Athy Picture Palace or best known to my generation as Bob’s Cinema where with our penny toffees and lemonade we spent many a Saturday Matinee. The Lower end of Offaly Street at the present day Credit Union Offices was outside the bounds of our Offaly Street pitch as a road narrowed dramatically to barely the width of a set of goalposts
Even as a young lad it struck me as curious as to how a street could be so wide at the top half and so narrow at the lower half. Many years later when I developed an interest in local history I discovered that the narrowing street owned it’s origin to the fact that the last remaining stretch of Athy’s medieval town wall had once stood there. The width of the street reflected the width of Preston’s gate which was demolished in 1860.
The exact date for the construction of walls around the town of Athy is unknown. In 1431 the Dublin Parliament had a granted to the town a contribution towards the expenses in defending the town while in 1448 it was taxes were levied on goods sold in the town and also on those carried through which were to go towards the costs of building walls around the town. It was only with the granting of the charter of 1515 from King Henry VIII to the town that the first clear record of town walling is available. The purpose of the Charter was to assign to the town it’s various rights and privileges.
Under the Charter the inhabitants of the town were given licence that “They may erect construct build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime”. In order to fund this construction it was stated in the Charter that a tax of one penny was to be levied on every horse, cow, pair of wheels and any good worth five shillings sold in the town. The Earl of Kildare who owned the town, was the person who would determine how the monies would be distributed in order to repair and build the town walls. Although there were further Charters to the town from the English Crown in 1613 and 1688 there was no further reference to the walls.
Indeed it is difficult to know to what extent the wall was completed. Mercarators map of Laois and Offaly completed in 1568 shows the town with the East bank surrounded by a wall. It is difficult to determine now whether or not this was a genuine reflection of what lay on the ground. Without doubt some walls were built because in 1532 the Earl of Ossory in writing to Thomas Cromwell the Lord Privy Seal referred to the gates of the town of Athy. John Dymok who visited Athy in 1600 gave a description of the town describing it as been divided into two parts by the River Barrow over which there was a stone bridge and upon it a castle occupied by James Fitzpierce. However he did not mention any walling while an anonymous writer who passed through the town in 1598 described Athy and Castledermot’s as the only important towns in Kildare which were walled but then in ruins.
The earliest detailed maps which survived for the town are Roques’ surveys of 1756 but even by this time, except in Preston gate in Offaly Street, no other parts of the town wall survived. It is likely that the town wall was built sometime in Athy after the Charter of 1515 after to Athy but its probable that the vast majority of the wall was destroyed during the confederate wars of the 1640’s. It has been suggested in the past that the naming of Preston’s gate relates to General Preston a leader of the Cromwellian forces whom occupied the town in the 1640’s. I would think that its name derives from a corruption of the word ‘postern’ which refers to a secondary gate or entrance to the town.
There exists in the British Library in London a pamphlet which details the siege of Athy in 1641. Mr. Hierome a man who appears to have been a priest in Athy detailed a variety of atrocities committed by the Irish Rebels against the English Protestants there. He described the Rebels as ‘killing the English Protestants, ravishing their women, cutting them to pieces, hanging them by their hair of their head, scalding them, cutting off their heads and firing their town and houses’. Whatever the truth of this descriptions the violence of the attacks on the town were such that it is surprising that even so much as Preston’s gate survived.
But there it stood in it’s splendid isolation at the end of Offaly Street until 1860 when a fatal injury to the Reverend Trench precipitated it’s removal. As I look at Offaly Street today I see a place where many of the names and faces familiar to my youth are long gone, but the houses are the same and the little narrowing of the street is a potent reminder of a time when Athy inhabitants walleed their town to protect themselves from the exigencies of the outside world when violence and strife threatened not only their property but their lives.