Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Whites Castle

A castle for sale!  For perhaps the first time since it was built almost 600 years ago Whites Castle has come on the property market.  Recognised far and wide, the medieval building with the adjoining bridge is the familiar representation of the 800 year old town of Athy which developed around the earlier built Woodstock Castle.  A private residence for almost 100 years, the Castle when built in 1414 as a bridge tower was a much smaller building than it is today.  It was Lord Furnival, the Viceroy of Ireland, who recognising the importance of the only river crossing on the Barrow giving access to the O’Mores of Laois, arranged for the re-building of the bridge at Athy and the construction of a bridge tower to house a garrison.  The village of Athy comprising French speaking Anglo Normans had already suffered at the hands of the dispossessed Irish and none were more ferocious in their opposition to the foreigners in their midst than the O’Mores of Laois.  It was imperative therefore to keep the O’Mores at bay and hence the strengthening of the bridge and placing of a garrison there to protect those living within the village.  Furnival’s plan had a two fold purpose.  In protecting the inhabitants of Athy he was also providing the first line of defence for those English settlers who were living within the Pale. 

So it was that from an early age Athy was a garrison town, a description which it well merited well into the 20th century.  By then English garrisons had vacated the Military Barracks in Barrack Lane and indeed had done so soon after the Crimean War.  Nevertheless the town which had been home for centuries to English soldiers would spawn its own military tradition and give more volunteer soldiers to the war effort of 1914-18 than any other town of similar size in Ireland.

By then of course the role of Whites Castle in the life of the town had changed, indeed had gone through several changes over the centuries.  A defensive fortress for the first 250 years of its life, it figured prominently in the military battles which were such a common feature of later medieval Ireland.  Nowhere was that involvement more pronounced than during the Confederate wars of 1641-1653, commonly regarded as the Irish Civil wars.  The protagonists were the Irish and the old English who at different stages made up the Confederates, the Royalists and finally the English Parliamentary Forces to whom we assign the un-military sounding name of the Puritans.  Athy, a little more than a village in modern terms but in 17th century Ireland a substantial settlement of strategic importance, was seized by one side or the other at different times during the 12 year war.  Owen Roe O’Neill, leading the Confederates, captured Whites Castle and the adjoining Woodstock Castle in 1645 and held them for the next three years.  Towards the end of that period Anthony Preston, son of the former Confederate General, Thomas Preston, who had fallen out with O’Neill, approached Athy from the Carlow direction and attacked Whites Castle.  Unable to shoot his canon higher than the first floor of the castle which was surrounded on all sides by water, he instead turned his attention to the nearby Dominican Friary.  This he captured but O’Neill’s troops subsequently attacked Preston’s men and contemporary accounts tell us that “having gained the upper hand they cut them to pieces in the lawn, the gardens and the cloisters.  Those who escaped drowned in the River Barrow.”

Preston retreated to Carlow and later returned via the west bank of the River Barrow, intent on taking Woodstock Castle as he had already failed on two occasions to take Whites Castle.  In this he also failed and he retired to Carlow, leaving future generations of Athy people to identify as Preston’s Gate the medieval town gate which stood at Offaly Street up to 1860 and under which Preston passed on his retreat.  Whites Castle and the adjoining Woodstock Castle were seized by Royalist troops the following year and in August of 1649 Cromwell landed in Ireland.  As the old saying goes, the rest of history.

When a Military Barracks was built near to Woodstock Castle in 1730, Whites Castle became a town gaol and remained so for over 100 years.  Many were imprisoned there during the 1798 Rebellion and we have Patrick O’Kelly’s account of the six young local men taken from the gaol and marched across the Barrow Bridge to be hanged.  Afterwards their heads were placed on pikes on top of the Barrow Bridge as a warning to other would-be rebels.  We pass and re-pass over that same bridge today, little realising the horrible sight which greeted local people as they passed on their way in 1798.

The gaol was also the place of incarceration for Nicholas Grey and several more who were implicated in Emmet’s Rebellion of 1803.  Whites Castle was for many years regarded as the most primitive prison in Ireland and was the subject of several damning reports from the Inspector of Gaols.  The Castle was extended in 1808 or thereabouts and the new addition doubled the size of the original bridge tower.  If you stand in Edmund Rice Square and look across at the Castle you will see the division almost in the middle of the wall which indicates the extent of that extension.  In time a new prison was built on the Carlow Road and thereafter Whites Castle became the local police station. 

The Royal Irish Constabulary were housed in Whites Castle which was not only a barracks but also home to the policemen and their families for many decades.  Around 1894 the R.I.C. moved out of Whites Castle and were re-located in the vacant military barracks in Barrack Lane.  There was much local controversy about this decision as it was felt that the policemen needed to be based in the centre rather than the outskirts of the town.  However, the police authorities of the time ignored the pleas of the local people and the Town Commissioners in much the same way as the Department of Justice and the Garda Commissioner ignores the perennial request for 24 hour policing in the expanding Athy of today.

The Castle was called Whites Castle because of the colour of the stone used in its building, in contrast to the Black Castle which is believed was to be found in the area of the car park opposite St. Michael’s Parish Church.  It has had a varied and intriguing history, all the time at the centre of life in the medieval village of Athy and in the town which developed over the centuries.

Nothing better symbolises the strength and character of Athy and its people than the ancient castle which has stood like a sentinel guarding the bridge of Athy for almost 600 years.  It is part of our heritage, part of what we are and a familiar point of reference to those who for one reason or another have had to leave their home town of Athy to work and live away from family and home town friends.

One such family, most members of which left Athy many years ago, are the Fox family who lived in No. 3 Meeting Lane.  Several of the Fox brothers played Gaelic football for County Kildare and I am anxious to trace any surviving members of the family.  I understand that Dinny Fox, one of five Fox brothers, is living somewhere in Dublin.  If anyone can help put me in contact with Dinny Fox or any of his siblings I would be most grateful.

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