Just outside my gate the bulldozers are levelling what until recently was the site of a prolonged archaeological investigation on the site of one of the many deserted medieval villages in this area. The work at Ardreigh will eventually give us a road which will bypass an ancient burial ground and take traffic away from a section of the roadway which was perhaps first laid down by Anglo Norman settlers 700 or 800 years ago.
The Barrow Valley in which Ardreigh is located was the centre of Anglo Norman activity from the end of the 12th century, with the River Barrow providing access to the sea. The Anglo Normans from Wales and further afield were encouraged to settle in the Barrow Valley by land grants, which in the case of Ardreigh saw the area being granted to Thomas Le Fleming. At the same time Hugh de Lacy gave land in the region of the present day Castledermot to Walter De Riddlesford.
Moone was the site of another Anglo Norman settlement, this time centered on an earlier Christian site. Elsewhere the St. Michael family took possession of lands in the Athy area, while Ardscull appears to have been in the possession of the Mohun family.
Ardreigh, Athy, Ardscull and Moone were an integral part of the Anglo Norman economic exploitation of this part of the Barrow valley. Each of these areas were settled, some more successfully than others and all sought to emphasise their status and importance with the erection of fortifications around which villages could develop.
As part of the settlement process Ardreigh, Ardscull, Moone and Athy were probably accorded the medieval form of urban status marked by the law of Breteuil. This was a set of privileges named after the Norman town of that name and included the granting of burgage holdings at a fixed annual rent of one shilling. Burgage holdings were held by town burgesses and consisted of long narrow strips of land with narrow road frontage. We still have in the south side of Leinster Street examples of burgage holdings which have survived from the early days of Athy’s history.
The provision of burgage plots in small settlements created a privileged group of citizens called burgesses and was widely used to encourage settlers to come to Ireland. The medieval villages so created prospered for a time but of the four mentioned at the start of this article only one, Athy, later developed into an urban settlement of town size. Nevertheless these early villages did have an existence as local administrative areas and as centres of local power and status.
William Marshall, who assumed the lordship of Leinster on Strongbow’s death, established a borough at Moone during the first decade of the 13th century and more than likely did so also at Ardscull. It is accepted that the Ardscull borough, which in the mid 13th century had 160 burgage holdings, was a sizeable municipal authority with a Provost who presided over the village which also had a church and a mill. Records show that William de Mohun held Ardscull in 1282 as part of his lands at Moone which included the borough of Moone. Both are believed to have passed to the Mohun family on the marriage of Reginald de Mohun to William Marshall’s granddaughter. Marshall, who was the Anglo Norman Lord of Leinster after Strongbow, died leaving five sons, but none of them left heirs so that his vast land holdings eventually fell to be partitioned between his five daughters and their heirs.
The Ardscull village is likely to have been centered near the church, the remains of which lies about 1km South East of the present motte of Ardscull. The Ardscull Church was mentioned in 1270 as belonging to St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, as was the church in the neighbouring medieval village of Moone. In 1286 Ardscull village was burned by William Staunton and 30 years later Edward Bruce defeated the Kings troops at the Battle of Ardscull. Pender in his ‘Census of Ireland’ gave an estimated population for Ardscull in 1660 of 130 people based on a recorded taxpaying population of 36. However, the medieval village of Ardscull did not survive, becoming one of the many deserted medieval villages which form part of the Irish landscape.
Neighbouring Moone had the same number of burgesses as Arscull in the late 13th century. It had received a Charter in or about 1223 from William Marshall. The Charter designed to encourage settlers to the area gave the burgesses of Moone freedom from tolls and customs, as well as the right to marry and dispose of property. They also had the right to be tried only in the town’s hundred or burgess court which was held once a week. In 1302 we find a reference to the Provost of Moone, an office holder equivalent to the modern day Town Mayor which would also be created for Athy under its 1515 Charter and which confirms that Moone was an autonomous municipal authority. The 1223 Charter referred to a castle, a hospice and mills at Moone and there was also, as in all boroughs of that time, a church. The borough of Moone existed until the 14th or 15th century, but did not develop beyond the early village stage and succumbed, as did Ardscull and Ardreigh, to the growing power and influence of Athy.
Hugh de Lacey who built a castle for Walter de Riddlesford at Kilkea also built a castle at Ardreigh in 1182 for Thomas of Flanders who has been identified as Thomas le Fleming. Nearby a village with burgage holdings was soon established. In 1318 the King of England granted the right of a weekly market to be held in Ardreigh to Milo de Poer who was then the Lord of the Manor. Further references to Ardreigh include an atrocity in 1594 when Sir Piers FitzJames Fitzgerald and his family were burned to death in the castle of Ardreigh by Fiach McHugh and his followers from Wicklow. References to the Church at Ardreigh are quite numerous, with firstly its grant to St. Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin and a subsequent grant to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It has been claimed that the church was of importance during the late 12th and 13th century, having at least two attached clergy and a number of annexed chapels. Archaeologists who carried out a survey of sites in County Kildare about 20 years ago believed Ardreigh to be a good example of a deserted medieval village which ‘afforded the interesting opportunity of examining an Anglo Norman borough founded on virgin soil’.
The recent archaeological excavations at Ardreigh were carried out under licence granted by the National monument section of the Department of the Environment. The extensive exploration of the site centred on what was the medieval village and a large number of items were uncovered from the site, all dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries. A number of prehistoric items were also found, including stone axe heads, flint tools, pottery pieces and a pot, all of which are 3,000 to 4,000 years old. A huge number of human remains were also found and these are presently being analysed by a bone specialist. Everything including the skeletal remains found on the site are the property of the State but it is hoped that at some time in the future the various finds will find a home in the local Heritage Centre. The human remains I trust will be returned for reburial near to where they were originally laid.
Why Athy of the four medieval settlements in this part of the River Barrow Valley should be the only one to develop to town status is a question worth investigating. Ardscull, Moone and Ardreigh are just a few of the many Irish medieval boroughs which never became towns. Was it the riverine attractions of Athy which allowed it to survive and develop slowly over the centuries?
Next time you pass the motte of Ardscull or drive up the hill at Ardreigh remember you are passing what were once medieval villages and around you lie the remains of buildings and streets which were once the centre of village life.