One of the most distinctive features in the Irish landscape is the stone castle. We are particularly fortunate in Athy to have two fine examples in our town, Whites Castle on the bridge in Athy and Woodstock Castle on the west bank of the River Barrow.
We have a tendency to take these features in our town for granted, forgetting what extraordinary survivals they are from a period of over 500 years ago in our town’s history. The landscape in Kildare is peppered with castles from various ages ranging from the magnificence of the 12th/13th century Maynooth and Carbery Castles to the simple little tower houses such as those at Jigginstown in Naas.
Apart from being a wonderful historical repository of our past they also are an indicator of the stresses and strains of past times. The area with the greatest concentration in castles in Kildare lies upon the borders between Kildare and Dublin and Wicklow. The border with Laois and Offaly has few castles, excepting a concentration of castles in the north of Kildare around Carbery and Rathangan. A town such as Athy at the very edge of the settled Anglo Norman area in the 12th and 13th centuries was regarded by some as ‘the last outpost of civilisation’ before reaching the areas of Laois and Offaly where the ‘wild Irish’ resided. The frontier element to Athy’s location was recognised by the administration in Dublin in 1300 when provisions were made for the construction of a ‘fortalice’ not only at Kildare and Rathangan but at Athy.
What exactly a ‘fortalice’ was is not entirely clear but it is likely to have been an area in the town defined by a stout upright palisade of timber posts and an earthen bank. The defence of Athy and the area surrounding it remained a constant concern all through the late 13th century. In the closing years of the century monies were spent on armies in Kildare directed against the native Irish. In the 1280s John Fitzthomas, Lord of Offaly (an ancestor of the Duke of Leinster) in conjunction with Peter de Bermingham, Lord of Tethmoy, began a vigorous campaign against the Irish with such success that the administration was content to entrust the defence in the region to him in the period 1297 to 1316. The Sheriff for Kildare in 1306, Albert de Kenylee, was assiduous in recording his expenditure in arming the men to keep Kildare safe and in his words ‘to resist the malice of the Irish of Offaly’. John Fitzthomas himself later in 1306 was granted aid in furnishing his lands at Geashill with appropriate monies ‘to have 20 men at arms with as many horses equipped.’ However it appears that these provisions were unsuccessful as his property was destroyed by the Irish in 1307.
The period defined by the late 13th and early 14th centuries seems to have been at the time of extraordinary upheaval in this area. An assessment of lands in Wicklow in 1305 on the borders of Kildare were described as being worth ‘in time of war nothing, because the issues are not sufficient for half the costs of keeping them, and that is a land of war among the Irish, who are more often at war than at peace.’ Athy itself was not immune to the degradations of war and it appears that on at least four separate occasions in the 13th century the town was effectively sacked by warring factions. The Norman settlers of Kildare found themselves in the unhappy position in the early 14th century as existing between two areas of Irish influence, to the east the Leinster mountains were occupied by the McMorroughs, the O’Byrnes, O’Tooles and O’Nolans and to the west in the marshes of Laois and Offaly the O’Morroughs, O’Connors and the O’Moores offered resistance to the English settlements. The O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had been expelled from Kildare at an early stage of the Norman settlement in the late 12th century and their uneasy presence in the mountains was a dominant factor in perpetuating an almost continuous state of war between the areas they controlled and the lands of the colonists. In the years from 1306 to 1313 the Dublin administration mounted seven expeditions against the Irish of the mountains, with the resultant warfare absorbing between 10 and 60% of the Exchequers annual revenue. This almost continual state of warfare was exacerbated by the invasion of Ireland by the Scottish armies of Bruce in the period 1315 to 1318. In 1315 the Scottish Army devastated much of Kildare including Castledermot, Athy and Rheban, while in 1317 the towns of Naas and Castledermot were plundered. Whatever recovery South Kildare made in the period after the war ended in 1318 it was probably wiped out by the arrival of Black Death in 1348. The campaign by the English King Richard II in Ireland in 1394 offered a brief respite, while restoring Royal control of Kildare the areas around it descended into intermittent warfare in the early 1400s. Those castles that still survive in the area bear silent testament to those uncertain and violent times.