Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Athy's Medieval Defences and Geophysical Survey

One of the many interesting discoveries I made while undertaking some research years ago in the National Library was the pamphlet by Mr. Hierome, Minister at Athy, relating to the siege of Athy in 1641.  The pamphlet had a wood cut depiction of the town showing White’s Castle, numerous houses and a church all enclosed within crenellated town walls.

The first reference I found to town walls in Athy was in reference to Murage Grants which issued in 1431 and 1448.  These grants allowed for goods passing through Athy to be tolled, a right which was later confined to goods sold in the town.  The tolls or taxes so collected were to be utilised in building town defences.  There is no record of what those town defences consisted of, although it is highly questionable whether the tolls collected were sufficient to finance the construction of town walls.

The town charter of 1515 gave the inhabitants of Athy the right to impose tolls and taxes so that ‘they may construct, build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime.’  To the Earl of Kildare was assigned the right of deciding how much of the tolls collected were to be expended on building town walls.  Undoubtedly given the past history of attacks on Athy, some form of town defences were put in place, but whether these extended to total encirclement of the settlement cannot be verified. 

The Hierome pamphlet of 1641 is the only pictorial evidence we have of the town walls, apart from George Victor Du Noyer’s watercolour of Preston’s Gate of 1837.  It is believed that Prestons Gate was the only surviving remains of the old town walls but it was demolished in 1860 following an accident involving the local Rector, Rev. F. Trench. 

It is clear that whatever defences were built following the 1515 charter afforded insufficient protection for the town.  In 1546 the O’Mores of Laois attacked Athy, burning the town and the Dominican Friary.  This raises questions as to the extent and quality of the town walls.  In that regard it is interesting to note that John Dymok in his ‘Treatise on Ireland’ published in 1600 gave a description of Athy with no reference to town walls.  He described Athy as ‘divided into two partes by the ryver of Barrow, over 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’.

However, an anonymous writer two years earlier referred to Castledermot and Athy as ‘the only important towns of Kildare walled and now ruined.’  It is more than likely that the town was encircled by town walls because of the importance of Athy as a frontier town during the medieval period.  Located as it was on the Marches of Kildare Athy was garrisoned from an early age to protect those living within the Pale which came within twelve or fourteen miles of the town.

The Confederate Wars which lasted for eight years from 1641 were played out in many arenas throughout Ireland.  Here in Athy there was considerable military activity, with the town at different times being held by the different warring factions.  Inevitably the repetitive attacks and counter attacks on the town defences must have resulted in at least the partial destruction of the town walls.  The walls were never re-built and inevitably over time those portions which were damaged were removed, leading to the eventual disappearance of the medieval fortifications.

An Urban Archaeological Survey carried out in the mid 1980s confirmed the existence of the town walls and a plan showing the possible outline of those walls was included in the survey’s final report.  It encompassed the Dominican Friary (now the vacant Abbey site) and incorporated Preston’s Gate (at the junction of Offaly Street and Emily Row), running in a circular route through the top part of Meeting Lane, across through Chapel Lane and down to the Barrow, roughly opposite the existing Parish Church.  Avril Thomas in her 1992 book on the Walled Towns of Ireland gave a slightly different layout for Athy’s town walls which was based on existing street patterns and the remains of burgage plots.

Later this month a geophysical survey of a small area of the town will be carried out in an attempt to confirm the existence underground of the remains of Athy’s medieval town walls, the survey will be a brief one extending over one day and will hopefully be followed by further similar surveys over the next few years.

The image with this article shows Prestons Gate viewed from Emily Row.  This was believed to have been the only remaining part of the medieval town wall visible in 1837 when the Huguenot Du Noyer visited Athy as part of the ordnance survey of that time.

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