The continual harassment of Anglo-Norman settlements had induced a policy of retrenchment by the middle of the 14th century. The policy of withdrawal from more hostile areas to the more easily defended Eastern countryside focused attention on Athy as a settle-ment of strategic importance. Athy consequently became a frontier post in the Marches of Kildare. As a result from the late 14th century onwards the defence of Athy was an important consideration for those who governed it. The frequency of the attacks on the town arising from its geographical location makes it highly likely that Athy was a walled town.
In 1431 expenses of 100 sovereigns were granted to the town for its defence. A further murage reference was noted in 1448 when it is stated that tolls were only to be charged on goods sold within the town of Athy and not those carried through. These references demonstrate that some measures existed for the provision of town defences and although no definite evidence can be found as to the nature of these defences the assumption must be that some form of town defences were in place. The vagueness of the information available to us presents problems in ascertaining the extent and nature of the town’s defences prior to the town charter of 1515. This charter granted by King Henry VIII is the clearest record with regard to town walling in Athy. Throughout this document there are frequent references to the walling of the town. Obviously the wall and its construction were integral not only to the defence but to the civic dignity of Athy. Under the charter authority was given to the inhabitants of the town to raise tolls
.....that they may erect construct build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime; and provision was also made for financing the maintenance of these walls.
The reason for the provisions for the town wall as stated in the charter was
.....in opposition to the malice of our Irish enemies.....
The town charter is of utmost importance to any examination of the history of the medieval walls as it constitutes the only definite documentary evidence we have on the matter. However, no further reference can be found to its construction. Neither the subsequent charters of 1613 or of 1688 refer to the walling of Athy. Apart from Mercator’s map of 1568 we are uncertain as to the state of completion it ever reached.
In 1532 Ossory, in a communication with Thomas Cromwell the Lord Privy Seal referred to the
.....gates of the Earls (Kildare) town of Athye.....
There lies a difficulty in interpreting early documents not only in ascertaining the veracity of details but also the degree of bias inherent in them. When a town is described as being burnt and plundered certain doubts must be entertained as to the degree of destruction. What some writers might represent as a raid others may portray as a scene of rapine, plunder and slaughter. Likewise references to the walling are compromised not only by their scarcity but also by their lack of detail.
However, it is clear that whatever defences were built following the 1515 charter they did not afford sufficient protection against the Irish. In 1546 O’More of Laois attacked Athy burning the town and the Dominican Monastery. The plantation of Laois and Offaly in the mid 16th century put renewed emphasis on the importance of Athy as a military stronghold. The defence of Athy was integral to the success of the Plantation as the town on the Barrow became a vital supply link for the beleaguered English settlers of Laois/Offaly.
Although the military importance of the settlement continues into the 17th century it is interesting to note that writers such as John Dymok in his ‘Treatise on Ireland’ in 1600 gives a description of Athy with no reference to walling.
Athie is divided into two partes by the river of Barrow over the which lyeth a stone bridge, and upon it a castle occupied by James Fitzpierce, ...the bridge of the castle... being the onelye waye which leadeth into the Queene’s county.
Dymok further described a town which because of the wars initiated by the rise of the O’Neills had been beggared low. In the advance of Essex’s army of 1599 he mentions Athy as
A great market towne, but brought by these late wars into thestateofapore village.
However in 1598 an anonymous writer referred to Castledermot and Athy as the: ‘only important towns of Kildare, walled and now ruined’ (Hogan 1878).
Perhaps the frequency of attacks on the town may have reduced Athy to an impoverished state and may also account for the town walls never acquiring a completed state rendering them effective for defective purposes. On the other hand medieval walling, no matter how strong, could always fall to a determined and aggressive attacker. One could further conclude that the west bank of the town, as portrayed in Mercators map, may never have been walled. The bridge at Athy acted as the passage into Laois and that bridge could be more easily held and defended if only the eastern bank of the river was walled. A force concentrated on one bank of the river would be more practical than one having to straddle both banks of the River Barrow. The existence of the towerhouse at Woodstock would have functioned to cover the western approach to the town while the castles at Ardreigh and Grangemellon to the south and at Rheban to the north of Woodstock and the town may have formed a loose chain of defence for the frontier town.
The evidence that Athy was a walled town can be regarded as inconclusive and we may have to await the results of an archaeological ‘dig’ before the issue is decided one way or the other. However, the best evidence available to us would indicate that the settlement on the west bank of the River Barrow was enclosed within walls and the gate on Offaly Street removed in 1860 was in all probability the last remaining part of that enclosure.