Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Whites Castle and the early years of medieval Athy

Last week’s Kildare Nationalist carried a news item concerning White’s Castle and an announcement of the forthcoming auction of what was described as a 2.5 acre development site in the centre of Athy. It was an unusual coincidence which highlighted on the same paper two important elements of Athy’s past history, even if the development site description might not immediately signal any historical significance. But in fact the site located off Emily Square has a history which predates that of White’s Castle by over 150 years or more. The site was correctly identified in the notice as being located within the old ‘Abbey lands’, a reminder that a few years ago it was the site of the Abbey, a fine 18th century house which was pulled down overnight. The name came down to us over the years because it was the site of the first Dominican Abbey or Friary founded in 1257. The French speaking Anglo Normans who sailed up the river Barrow and opened settlements at various locations in the Barrow valley founded one of their most important settlements at the Ford of Ae. They built a fortified castle at Woodstock around which the medieval village of Athy developed. Within a few years the Crouched Friars founded a monastery on the west bank of the River Barrow in the area still known to this day as St. Johns. A few years later the Dominicans founded their monastery on the opposite bank of the river in the area which the auction notice called the ‘Abbey lands’. The Dominicans occupied their monastery until the Reformation when Henry VIII suppressed the Irish and English monasteries and sequestered the Abbey property which was leased to Martin Pelles, constable of the castle of Athy. The Abbey consisted of a church with a bell tower, a chapter house, dormitory, kitchen, rooms and two halls in addition to an open cloister, a cemetery, an orchard and a garden. The buildings were in time destroyed and levelled to the ground leaving only, I believe, traces underground. The Abbey site has an important story awaiting to be told and it is a story which can only be fully explained after a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site has been carried out. Following the Battle of Ardscull on 26th January 1316 when the Scottish troops under Edward Bruce defeated the Anglo Normans, the Book of Howth records that ‘of the Scot side were slain Lord Fergus Anderson, Lord Walter More and many others whose bodies were buried in the Abbey of the Friars Preachers Athy.’ Also buried there were the Dominican Friars who in the first 300 years of the Abbey’s existence lived, worshipped, and prayed in Athy’s Abbey. This important historical site needs to have an archaeological assessment and investigation carried out as a matter of urgency. White’s Castle recently purchased for the third time in recent years by a private individual without any interest being expressed by Kildare County Council, has been awarded funding under the Community Monuments Fund. I understand the purpose of the funding is to help protect the historical building and facilitate access to it by the general public. White’s Castle is an iconic building at the heart of our town which stands not alone but is twinned with the adjoining Crom a Boo bridge to provide a symbolic representation of the town’s ancient history. Picture Athy in your mind’s eye and almost certainly images of the castle and the bridge will come into view. For so long at the heart of town life in Athy the Castle, as a garrison fortress, as a prison and as a police barracks has witnessed the passing of so many different generations stretching back over 600 years. I had hoped that White’s Castle would again become an integral part of community life in Athy with its development as a heritage centre/museum to complement the Shackleton Museum in the former market house. I don’t know what plans the new owner has for the castle but the successful application for Community Monument funding is an encouraging sign that private enterprise might yet take up the challenge which Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council so abysmally failed to do in the past.

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