This week and next week I intend to devote the Eye on the Past to reviewing all the available evidence regarding the existence or otherwise of a town wall surrounding the town of Athy in medieval times. Town walls functioned not merely as defensive measures but also served to both define developing villages, later urban settlements, while acting as a symbol of civic pride, power and authority. Avril Thomas in her two volume publication on ‘The Walled Towns of Ireland’, made reference to 56 Irish locations where it is certain that town walls were once in place and a further 35 settlements where there is some evidence of the existence of town walls. Such evidence generally consists of a reference to a murage grant, which was a right granted by charter to citizens of a town to levy customs on persons selling goods in their town to finance the construction of town walls or defences.
The quality of the evidence available for the walling of Irish towns varies enormously from Kilkenny with an impressive array of medieval documentation to Derry city, with its famous walls still intact in part to this day. What I want to do in this and the next article is to look at the evidence for town walling in Athy. The town does not possess a wealth of evidence, documentary or structural, and indeed the evidence for town walling in Athy is unremarkable. However, it is sometimes more informative to study the unexceptional as it gives a greater insight into the more common problems and difficulties encountered in typical Irish walled town sites.
The town of Athy developed on a fording point on the River Barrow which had been in use since prehistoric times, as indicated by the recovery of a variety of prehistoric objects during the Barrow Drainage Scheme in the 1920s. The town’s initial foundation came soon after the arrival of the Normans with the construction of Woodstock Castle and the establishment of monasteries on the west bank by the Crouched Friars and on the east bank by the Dominicans. Around these three main sites the village and later the town of Athy developed into the linear-type settlement it is today, straddling both banks of the River Barrow.
Athy suffers from a dearth of information with regard to the structure and extent of the medieval town wall in that the modern town possesses no fragments of the wall above ground. Furthermore the lack of archaeological investigation within the town’s medieval core has meant that the general layout of the wall is unclear. The possibility of such an investigation is a consideration for the future as the Urban Survey conducted in Athy in the mid-1980s indicated the possible existence of archaeological remains relating to town walling. There are at present two suggestions as to how the walls may have been laid out, both of which concur at a number of points and their difference predominantly lies in the sources they use for the reconstruction. The layout as suggested in the Urban Survey is based primarily on the course of the walls recorded by local man with the surname Henry who wrote, but never had published, a somewhat fanciful history of Athy in 1849, while that proposed by Avril Thomas in her 1992 publication relies on a study of the layout of the towns streets and burgage plots to be found behind the buildings on the south side of Leinster Street.
Before commenting on the historical background and references to the medieval town wall it is necessary to consider any existing pictorial representation of the town’s defences. The town of Athy only began to appear consistently in topographical prints in the late 18th century where journals such as the Anthologica Hibernica published views, primarily of the castles in the Athy area, or more commonly, views of Whites Castle and the Bridge of Athy. By this time the walls were no longer a feature in the town itself and this is confirmed by a study of Rocques maps of the town which he prepared in 1756 and 1768. There exists only one depiction of one part of the town wall. In 1837 George Victor DeNoyer while employed on the Ordnance Survey recorded in water colour what was believed to be the last remaining section of the old town wall known locally as Preston’s Gate. The importance of this drawing is fundamental, not only to the acceptance of the definite existence of a town wall, but also allows a certain degree of supposition as to the extent and orientation of that wall. Preston’s Gate itself was removed in 1860 following a fatal accident involving the local Church of Ireland Rector Rev. Frederick Trench. The local historian, Mr. Henry, writing sometime towards the end of 1849, described the gateway as follows: ‘On examining the gateway in question it will be evident that the centre part was built long previous to the outer and inner jambs. The centre was originally constructed in a superior manner and of a different description of stone to the outer portions and the foundations of it were not laid so deep as those of the more recent additions.’ This description, coupled with DeNoyer’s watercolour, seems to suggest a rectangular gatehouse of a 15th/16th century type with a segmented arch.
The town of Athy first appeared in detailed cartographic form in Rocques survey of 1756. By this period the town wall excluding Prestons gate had disappeared. The only other representation of Athy and its wall appears on Mercators map of the Leix/Offaly plantation of 1568 where Athy featured with a wall surrounding the settlement on the East bank. So we can tentatively conclude that walling existed before 1568 and had been virtually removed by 1756. The only other definite representation of the town with walling appears in a pamphlet published in London in 1641 at the behest of Mr. Hierome ‘Minister of Gods word at Athigh in Ireland”. This publication titled ‘Treason in Ireland’ detailed a variety of atrocities committed by the Irish rebels against the English Protestants
‘.....killing them, ravishing the women, cutting them to pieces, hanging them by the haire of the head, scalding them, cutting off their heads, and firing their townes and houses.’
The pamphlet concludes with the rebel defeat at Athy and also an illustration titled ‘description of Athigh.’ Unfortunately, although the illustration contains some components of the town, notably the river, a church and the town wall it may be otherwise deemed an inaccurate portrayal of Athy of that period. The drawing is highly stylised showing the town to be surrounded by water on three sides while the moat-like river is bounded by a star-shaped earthwork. It is quite regrettable that the illustration must be regarded as inaccurate but equally the inclusion of features such as the walling may lend further credence to the existence of town walls in Athy in the 1640s.
Historical evidence may provide more compelling evidence whether through direct or indirect references. The predominant interest in studying Athy is that until the plantation it functioned as a frontier town, a point at which the settlers and native Irish frequently clashed. It was only in the 16th century that it evolved from a military stronghold into an important urban centre. Next week I will deal with the historical references to Athy insofar as they help us to settle the question of Athy’s medieval town wall.
Happy Christmas to you all.