‘For Sale – a town castle with a chequered history but little used in recent years.’ If only the thick walls of that great fortress in the centre of Athy could talk, what tales they might tell of times past. Whites Castle, or perhaps more correctly, the White Castle, is fast approaching its 600th anniversary. Despite its antiquity, it still lies many years, indeed many decades, behind the Dominican Order which in recent years celebrated the 750th anniversary of its Athy foundation.
The story of the White Castle is the story of Athy over the centuries. It is a story littered with battles and sieges and death which once stalked the streets of Athy. Ever since the castle was erected at the start of the 15th century deaths by execution or otherwise have been directly or indirectly linked to the iconic building which for centuries has stood guard over the nearby Crom a Boo bridge.
It figured prominently in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s as it did during the 1798 Rebellion. Owen Roe O’Neill, famous in Irish history, held the White Castle for a time on behalf of the Confederates, only to relinquish it to the Royalists. Over 150 years later Thomas Rawson, a member of Athy Borough Council, barricaded the bridge and manned the castle with militia men to safeguard, as he claimed, the Protestant loyalist residents of Athy.
From that same castle six young men from Narraghmore, together with a Trinity College graduate from the Curragh, were marched out in June 1798 to the recently opened canal basin where they were hanged. They were executed as part of a campaign of terror waged against the local population by government militia during the lead up to the unsuccessful rebellion planned by the former Member of Parliament for Athy, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and other leaders of the United Irishmen.
The prisoners incarcerated in the White Castle jail were subjected to conditions described in the Inspector General’s Report for 1824 as ‘without exception the worst County Jail I have met with, in point of accommodation having neither yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’. The castle had been used as a jail from the 1720s when the military, previously housed there, moved to a newly built military barracks at Woodstock. After a new town jail was built in 1830 the castle was used as a police barracks. Perhaps two of the most noteworthy prisoners to have been incarcerated in the White Castle Jail were Thomas Reynolds, the 1798 informer and Nicholas Gray who was appointed by Robert Emmet to lead the men of County Kildare to join Emmet’s Rebellion in Dublin in 1803. The White Castle ended its most recent life as a private residence, initially occupied by the Norman family and later by the Doyle family.
The sale of the castle unfortunately comes at a time when the State coffers and by association, local authority finances are at a low ebb. Nevertheless it is a unique opportunity for both Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council to come together to acquire a building which more than any other is an iconic representation of the town and its history. There are few vistas to equal that of the bridge and the castle in terms of ease of recognition. Both are a combination displaying strength and durability and as such truly reflect the innate qualities of our townspeople. After all, Athy from its very foundation as a settler’s village was the subject of continuous attacks. As the centuries passed and peace descended on the South Kildare settlement the townsmen enlisted in numbers to fight wars on alien soil. This fighting spirit reached its height during the 1914-18 war when young men, often demoralised while at home, spilt their blood on the soil of lands as far apart as Gallipoli and Flanders.
The White Castle is part of our heritage – its history is the history of our town. As such it behoves our local authorities at town and county level to use every resource at their disposal to acquire this important building for the people. As a protected structure it would be very difficult for any private individual to adopt the building for commercial purposes. The curtilage of the castle is also protected, so any development or use of that space which would not maintain the castle’s integrity is unlikely to be permitted.
I would hope that The Council’s of both Kildare county and Athy will take steps to ensure that the White Castle is taken into public ownership. It would, I feel, be most suitable for use as a tourist office and a genealogical research centre for the entire county of Kildare. Indeed it could also house a Local History studies section, as well as providing space for archival records of all types which need to be preserved for historical research. The White Castle could be a unique centre for historical and genealogical research over a wide range of subjects covering the county of Kildare. The opportunity to secure this irreplaceable part of our built heritage may never occur again.