Thursday, November 23, 2000

John Henry's History of Athy

During the years of the Great Famine John Henry, a citizen of Athy, began to write his history of the town which he called Athy and its Recollections. An extract from his history appeared in the local newspaper The Eastern County’s Herald on St. Patrick’s Day 1849. His manuscript which he subsequently presented to the Duke of Leinster makes for interesting reading, even if some of his claims for the medieval town cannot be substantiated.

The following extract relating to the castle and bridge of Athy are from Henry’s manuscript.

“The castle never appears to have been an extensive building, one square tower, with the usual out works was found sufficient to command the bridge, for which purpose it was evidently erected, but by whom there are now no means of ascertaining. It may however be reasonably concluded that it was built about the time of the first bridge, and that it underwent alterations and improvements from time to time, suitable to the advanced state of military science, and to the taste or necessities of the parties who successively occupied it. Its position will at once discountenance the supposition that it was erected at an early period to protect the town, and it is equally improbable that it was built to command the ford. Such structures were very rarely used for purposes of the kind, and would be almost unnecessary at the ford of Athy, because Ardreigh, Dunbrin and Maganey fords lay only a little to the southward, and Barrowford, Shrowland and Bertfords within the short distance to the north, none of which were defended by a castle, although they were nearly as available to be passed as that of Athy. There was no ford at Woodstock, for the river there must have always formed a deep pool, on the margin of which the Castle of Woodstock was built, for the sake of the additional security such a position afforded.

From a careful examination of the materials available for enquiry, it is pretty certain that the first bridge was built by either or both of the religious houses, long established on each bank of the river. As an instance that this was the practice of such community, Maurice Jakes, a Cannon of Kildare, erected the bridge of Kilcullen, St. Wolstans and Leighlin. The tolls or duties however as pontage, payable by the passengers, formed a considerable part of the revenue of those establishments in latter years, and the religious authority of the brotherhood was a sufficient protection from violence until the rivalry of parties introduced licentiousness, and a thirst for reprisals and bloodshed that had small respect for any law or religion whatever. When interest was to be served or vengeance satiated, under those circumstances a Military defence was called for, and accordingly the Castle was built and successively strengthened as occasion required. The letter already quoted, having reference to Lord Furnival, mentions the erection of a “New Tower” for a ward to Athy bridge, with a great fortification about the same for resistance of enemies, “by which bridge” it is said “your faithful lieges were often times preyed and killed”.

Maurice, the fourth Earl of Kildare, attended Edward III at the Siege of Calais, and was knighted for his valour on the occasion by that monarch, who afterwards in 1350 appointed him to the Government of Ireland at a salary of £500 a year. This Earl had great experience in military affairs on the continent and in England, and when appointed Governor of Ireland, his knowledge was of the greatest importance in strengthening the defences of the Pale, and from him the Castle of Athy may be said to have first received anything like the appearance of a regular fortification.

It is very probable also that it was about this time it received the name of the White Castle, perhaps in contradistinction to the Black Castle, which, as already stated stood near the present site of the Reverend John Lawlers residence, or, as the Black Castle was for a long time in the possession of the Knights Hospitallers, a half religious, and half military order, it is not unlikely. Neither is it unsupported by some authority, that from the circumstance of the usual costume of those Knights being black, the Castle received its name, and for the same reason, the White Castle might be so called from the colour of the livery worn by the retainers of the Earl of Kildare. From authentic records, it is known that Gerald, the fifth Earl built a castle at Leighlin Bridge in 1408, which was named the White Castle, another building which previously existed being called, as in Athy, the Black Castle.

About eighty years ago, the fragment of a stone bearing a certain inscription was found in the old mill attached to the Castle. This stone can now be seen in the castle wall, near the former entrance door, and from the inscription on it, a writer in the Anthologia Hibernica, imagined that he had discovered the reason the castle received its present name, and since, in almost all the accounts of this building, this error has been followed.

As has been stated, the stone is but a fragment, and the portion of the inscription remaining scarcely conveys any sense, but admitting that it does record the setting of that stone by William White at the repairing of the Castle in 1575, it surely cannot be contended that the Castle received its name from this William White, when it was known as the White Castle for upwards of two hundred years before, and subsequently in the charter granted by James I to Athy, the Castle is correctly called the White Castle and not Whites Castle. The writer in the Anthologia Hibernica alluded to was a Mr. William Beauford who was a schoolmaster of no ordinary abilities residing in Carlow at one time, but afterwards a creditable inhabitant of Athy, where he also was the principal of a highly respectable school.

Although possessed of great versatility of talent, he appears to have held erroneous opinions of the ancient history of Ireland and its antiquities. To establish a favourite hypothesis he has sometimes been known to adopt a process of etymological investigation unparalleled in the annals of antiquarian research of which his translation of the inscription on the stone in question, is a thoughtless and glaring instance.”

Obviously local historians, of whatever age, were like politicians, never assured of acceptance by their own colleagues. I wonder what someone will say of me in 60 years time!

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