I journeyed to Kilmallock in the County of Limerick last weekend in the company of a number of local historians, anxious like myself to visit a town often described as one of the finest medieval towns in Ireland. Located on the crossroads to Munster it was once a settlement to rival Kilkenny city for importance.
Like Athy, Kilmallock was founded after the Norman invasion of 1169 and both towns still bear evidence of the early Norman influence with long main streets so typical of the linear layout favoured in Norman times. The medieval streets of Kilmallock are still in use today and like Athy trying to cope with modern day traffic.
The similarities between Kilmallock and Athy are many. Both were fortress towns walled to repel invaders and both were granted charters at an early period. The Munster branch of the Geraldine family held sway in Kilmallock, while it was their Leinster cousins who controlled the town of Athy and indeed the County of Kildare.
No trace of the town walls remain to be seen in Athy, the Town Commissioners having removed their last remnants in 1860 following an accident at Preston’s Gate when the Rev. Frederick Trench, the local Rector, was killed. In Kilmallock the line of the town’s medieval wall is preserved for almost its entire circuit of the town. The best preserved stretch comprises about 600 metres of the west wall. There were in medieval times five entrances to the walled town and today two of the medieval gates are still standing.
There are many fine buildings to be seen in Kilmallock, including the two story remains of what was a medieval mansion. Town buildings of a later vintage indicated prosperity which has apparently long left Kilmallock, leaving behind remnants of a faded grandeur. However, the most interesting and impressive buildings in the town are the Dominican Priory and the Collegiate Church of S.S. Peter and Paul.
The latter church predates the Dominican Priory and the substantial ruins incorporates additions made by Maurice Fitzgerald in 1420. The church’s nave is 80 by 65 ft. with the chancel measuring 49 by 25 ft. A round tower is incorporated in the church which was raised to the rank of Collegiate Church by papal decree in the 16th century. Similar churches with Canons attached to them were found in Galway, Kilkenny and Kildare and interestingly during the Reformation the entire college of Canons in Kilmallock accepted Protestant Rule. Not so the Dominicans whose impressively large priory stands roofless today.
The Dominicans established their priory in Kilmallock in 1291, approximately 34 years after the Athy priory was founded. The remains of the 13th century priory are very impressive and include a very fine five light window in the chancel which is quite magnificent. Indeed the Kilmallock Priory is generally accepted to be the best preserved of all the larger pre Reformation religious houses in Ireland. Kilmallock, the chief town of the Geraldines of Munster in the 14th century is well worth a visit if for nothing else but to see the magnificent remains of the Dominican Priory.
Athy and Kilmallock share links not only through their Norman foundation, their Geraldine family connections and their Dominican Priories but also by reference to the famous ‘Kilmallock Chalice’. Presented to the Kilmallock Priory in 1639 by one of the Geraldine family it was taken to the Dominican Priory Athy in 1812 by Fr. Kenneally who was then Prior of Athy, although nominally attached to Kilmallock. The Kilmallock Priory had been dissolved during the Reformation, but like their Athy brethren the Kilmallock Friars later returned to the town only to suffer again at the hand of the Cromwellians in 1648. Two of the local Dominican Friars were killed during the attack by Cromwell’s troops on the walled town of Kilmallock and thereafter the Dominican Priory remained unoccupied. Fr. Kenneally concluded in 1812 that the Kilmallock Priory was unlikely to be restored and so took the famous Kilmallock Chalice to Athy where it remained until it was sent to the Limerick Dominican Priory in 1864.
The 1798 Rebellion is commemorated in Kilmallock with several streets named after ’98 martyrs including Sheares Street, Orr Street, Emmet Street, Wolfe Tone Street and Lord Edward Street. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the one time Member of Parliament for Athy, visited Kilmallock in the spring of 1798 to organise the local United Irishmen.
The medieval town of Kilmallock has managed to clear its streets of ESB poles and overhead wires which is something we would all like to see happen in Athy. The survival of Kilmallock and Athy as urban centres came about as other Norman settlements flourished briefly only to wither and die. One such settlement was the village of Ardreigh which was the subject of an extensive archaeological investigation. On Thursday 24th March Marc Guernon who was a member of the Ardreigh archaeological team will give what promises to be an interesting lecture on ‘Ardreigh – the lost village’. It will take place in the Heritage Centre at 8.00 p.m. and all are welcome.