Recent archaeological excavations at Ardreigh have revealed a wealth of material and remains sufficient to give us a unique insight into the forgotten history of this once prosperous borough. Established in the thirteenth century, the settlement with its market place, church and castle rivaled neighbouring Athy in terms of importance and prosperity. Home to a thriving agricultural community and an emerging merchant class, it weathered the vicissitudes of war, disease and famine of medieval Ireland before it was finally abandoned as a settlement in the late seventeenth century.
The documentary sources for Ardreigh’s past are few in comparison with Athy and the records which survive are tantalisingly fragmentary. The earliest reference to a settlement in the area referred to a church established in the late 12th Century. By the late 13th Century, Ardreigh borough appears to be in existence and the Justiciar records have frequent references to thefts of cattle and grain from the boroughs inhabitants. Thereafter references to the borough are few and infrequent. One individual of whom quite a bit is known was William d’Athy. A wealthy and prominent merchant, he imported wines and produce from Europe supplying the tables of the rich and famous in Dublin. He frequently had recourse to the local courts in disputes with fellow merchants. One such case that he brought involved a man who robbed his orchard at Ardreigh. The Calender of Justiciary Rolls of Ireland for 1306 has the following entry.
“William de Athy complains of Will. le Poer that he rooted up the apple trees of the garden of W. de Athy at Ardry and pulled down his houses, and carried the timber of them to his house in Dunlost, and burned it, and did other injuries, to his damage, and against the peace.
William comes and cannot deny it. Let him be committed to gaol, As to damage, they agree that W. le Poer acknowledge that he owes to W. de Athy, 6 marks. And W. de Athy remits all action and damages.”
To this small store of knowledge we can now begin to add the results of the labour of the team of archaeologists who have been working at excavations at Ardreigh over the last 12 months. These excavations have been concentrated on the route of the new roadway to be constructed to replace the current dangerous bend on the Athy-Carlow road. Covering a substantial ground area the excavators began their work in the vicinity of the old graveyard at Ardreigh. Their work has shown that the small 19th century cemetery at Ardreigh is now known to form the nucleus of an older and much larger graveyard which extended beyond the present boundary walls. The burials excavated to date, are from the late 13th to the mid 17th century, but it is possible that burials dating to the Early Christian period might yet be found to confirm to an earlier church site in the area. The remains uncovered represent all ages and sexes and would suggest that the cemetery served as the burial ground for the local community with no evidence to date of any social exclusivity.
The care and formality indicated by the excavated grave sites proves that the ancient burial rites were an important ritual in the medieval period. No grave markers have been found but this is not unexpected as only the wealthy and powerful possessed the means to be commemorated in a permanent form. Currently displayed in the Heritage Centre in Athy are two 14th century cross inscribed burial markers found in medieval cemetery of Old St. Michael’s in the town. These are rare and unusual survivals from that period.
A unique discovery in the excavation has been a feature described as a “Plague pit”. This was a grave hurriedly dug with none of the care and attention normally associated with an intended burial. Into this were cast the remains of up to a dozen individuals of all ages. The speed of the burial, the haphazard disposition of the bodies indicate that an event of some suddenness or violence compelled the community to bury their dead quickly and without ceremony. Perhaps the borough of Ardreigh was visited by one of the plagues which were a constant threat during medieval times and that those not struck down but weakened by disease and fearing for their own lives buried their dead speedily as a defence against the plague. Maybe it was the Black Death of 1348 which gave rise to the “plague pit” in Ardreigh as we know it had a devastating impact on nucleated settlements such as Ardreigh. Whatever and whenever the devastation brought upon Ardreigh the settlement continued although it did not seem to thrive as it did before.
Allied to the excavation of the graves the archaeological team has been digging down to the medieval layers where evidence from the farming of the land around Ardreigh has been uncovered. Cultivation ridges formed by the ard and plough of the medieval farmer still survive confirming that tillage farming was obviously important within the community. Another survival on the site of the borough was an impressive stone built corn-drying kiln, consisting of a central chamber served by two equally large flues.
One hopes that in the future, the archaeologists work on the site might uncover domestic structures which could give us a further insight into the world of our ancestors. There have been very few large-scale excavations of medieval rural settlements in Ireland, a point which has been emphasized by Dr. Kieran O’Connor of University College Galway in his recent book on the subject. There are exciting possibilities in the months ahead when hopefully the excavations at Ardreigh will recommence. Kildare County Council is to be congratulated on its commitment to the thorough investigation and excavation at this ancient site. Perhaps when the excavation has been completed the finds from the site will find a home in the local Heritage Centre so that a wider audience can learn and appreciate something of the life of our medieval forebearers.