When I wrote some weeks ago inviting the readers to suggest 25 objects through which the history of Athy could be explained I little expected the arguments it would raise. Using the dictionary definition of an object as ‘a material thing that can be seen or touched’ I had included in my possible 25 objects local buildings such as the Town Hall and Whites Castle and other historically important local buildings. One of my correspondents felt that this was inappropriate on the grounds that the objects chosen should be portable and capable of being displayed in our local Heritage Centre.
Another reader, unconscientiously perhaps, lent weight to that argument when she sent me a copy of a small booklet produced by Cornwall’s Museum Development Team. It was called ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’, being an exploration of Cornwall’s heritage through objects housed in the county’s museums, heritage sites, art galleries and historic houses. No buildings were included amongst the 100 Cornish objects, although a mine engine from Levant Mine near Pendeer was gazetted as the oldest mine engine in existence.
To highlight the history of Athy in 25 portable objects makes my task extremely difficult as I must find replacements for such history highlighting elements such as the local castles of Woodstock and Whites.
The story of the pre settlement years of the future South Kildare area when it was a 2nd century battlefield for the warring Munstermen and the men of Leinster must inevitably be told by reference to the ancient swords found in the bed of the River Barrow during the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the 1920s. The items found are in the National Museum in Dublin.
Another 800 years or so were to pass before there was any further reference in Irish history to the South Kildare area and again it was the warring factions of Munster and Leinster which came to be recorded. The Munster men returning from the Battle of Clontarf fell foul of the Leinster men and the waters of the River Barrow flowed crimson with the blood of wounded warriors. The artefacts dredged from the river bed almost 90 years ago probably bear witness to that conflict and bring us to the founding and early development of the town we call Athy.
As I embark on the town’s history trail which starts at the end of the 12th century I find it difficult to identify an object which can be verifiably associated with the town’s foundation. We know that the Anglo Norman village of Athy was the location of two monasteries very soon after the first settlers came here. The Dominicans arrived in 1257, some years after the founding of the Monastery of St. Thomas and the Hospital of St. Johns. It was this latter religious settlement, established near to the first castle structure erected at Woodstock, which gave its name in later years to St. John’s Lane and nearby St. John’s Street. There is in the local Heritage Centre a carved head of a monk discovered more than 100 years ago in the grounds of St. John’s House which adjoins St. John’s Cemetery. Was this carving a relic of the monastic settlement of St. Thomas which was disbanded even before the Reformation closed the nearby Friary of St. Dominic’s. I cannot be sure of this but even if it is not contemporary with the Monastery of St. Thomas, the rough carving is sufficiently associated with that ancient site to warrant inclusion as our third object.
To illustrate the Confederate Wars of the 1640s we have the fireplace pieces taken from Woodstock Castle and now presently in the local Heritage Centre. The castle, the walls of which are still standing, was not the first fortified building erected on the site by the Anglo Norman settlements. It was more than likely preceded by a wooden structure which served as a defensive fortress against the marauding Irish who constantly attacked the settlement during the 13th and 14th centuries. The present stone building is believed to be of the 14th century and figured prominently in the Confederate Wars, as did the nearby Whites Castle.
The 5th object to be chosen must be the 8 page pamphlet printed in London in 1641 with the title ‘Treason in Ireland’, with several subtitles including ‘With a plot discovered at Athigh’. It gives an account of Ireland’s involvement in the English Civil War and is particularly important for the pictorial depiction of the mid 17th century town shown surrounded by town walls. The pamphlet was printed for Mr. Hierone ‘Minister of God’s Word at Athigh in Ireland’.
TO BE CONTINUED ..............................