Athenry & Kiltullagh (Co. Galway / East)
Athenry (Baile Átha an Rí) (pop. 3200) became an agricultural market town in the C19th and is now home to several modern industries, but is best known for its medieval heritage.
Athenry Castle & Walls
The toponym derives from an ancient ford crossing the River Clarin called Áth an Ri / Riagh, meaning either “Ford of the River” or “Ford of the King”, where the east-west route along the Esker Riada crosses the most westerly direct north-south route at the meeting point of three kingdoms (Hy-Many to the north-east, east and south-east; Aidhne to the south and south-west; Maigh Seola to the west and north-west).
Before 1000 the place was included in Uí Briúin Seóla; by the mid-C11th it was part of the trícha cét of Clann Taidg. However, it was the Anglo Normans who made Athenry what it became. In 1178 the Barony of Athenry was granted to Piers de Bermingham, whose son founded the actual town, granted a charter by Richard de Burgo of Connacht in 1235. Meyler / Meiler de Bermingham, 2nd Baron of Athenry, built the Castle overlooking the ford, the market square, St Mary’s church and the Dominican Priory.
The First Battle of Athenry was fought on 15th August 1249, at what was then little more than a military base in highly hostile territory. The victor of the day was Jordan de Exeter, Sheriff of Connacht. According to the Annals of the Four Masters:
“An army was led by the Roydamnas heirs presumptive of Connaught, namely, Turlough and Hugh, two sons of Hugh, the son of Cathal Crovderg [Ó Conchobair / O’Connor], to Athenry, on Lady Day in mid-autumn, to burn and plunder it. The sheriff of Connaught was in the town before them, with a great number of the English. The English demanded a truce for that day from the sons of the King of Connaught, in honour of the Blessed virgin Mary, it being her festival day; but this they did not obtain from them; and although Turlough forbade his troops to assault the town, the chiefs of the army would not consent, but determined to make the attack, in spite of him.”
“When Jordan and the English saw this, they marched out of the town, armed and clad in mail, against the Irish army. The youths of the latter army, on seeing them drawn up in battle array, were seized with fear and dismay, so that they were routed; and this was through the miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on whose festival they had refused to grant the truce demanded from them. Of their chiefs were here killed Hugh, son of Hugh O’Conor; Dermot Roe, son of Cormac O’Melaghlin, the two sons of O’Kelly; Brian an Doire, the son of Manus; Carragh Inshiubhail, son of Niall O’Conor; Boethius Mac Egan; the two sons of Loughlin O’Conor; Donnell, son of Cormac Mac Dermot; Finnanach Mac Branan; Cumumhan Mac Cassarly, and others besides.”
Rickard de Bermingham, aka Rickard Mac Fheorais and Risteard na gCath (“of the battles”), whose mother may have been an O’Kelly, succeeded his father Peter around 1309. In 1310 he obtained a murage charter to enclose Athenry in stone walls. When finished, they enclosed over one hundred acres on the west bank of the River Clarin, making it one of the largest walled towns in Ireland. He later incorporated the river into the town moat, and built a number of tower-gates along the wall.
During the Connacht Wars of 1315-16, de Bermingham defended the Anglo-Irish settlement against Ruaidhri O Conchobair / O’Connor, who was supported by Prince Edward Bruce of Scotland in his wish to become king of Connacht. Ruaidhri defeated the then king, Fedlim Ó Conchobair / O’Connor, who turned to the Anglo-Irish such as de Bermingham for help. A coalition of Gaelic and Anglo forces defeated and killed Ruaidhri at the Battle of Mullach Fidicci in January 1316. De Bermingham was wounded, how seriously is unknown.
Fedlim then betrayed his Anglo-Irish allies and began destroying their settlements, killing their inhabitants and stealing their goods, with the ultimate aim of re-establishing an independent Connacht kingship. Due to the on-going warfare with Edward Bruce in Meath and Leinster, no help was forthcoming and the Anglo-Irish of Connacht were left to fend for themselves. Famine had broken out the previous year and its effect exacerbated the situation.
De Bermigham’s feudal overlord, Sir William Liath de Burgh, captured at the battle of Connor in 1315 and held hostage in Scotland, had his released negotiated by his powerful cousin the Earl of Ulster, and made his way to Athenry with new forces. Upon hearing of this, Fedlim broke off a march towards Roscommon, assembled an army estimated as much as 8000, and marched towards Athenry, intending to raze it to the ground.
The Second Battle of Athenry was fought somewhere very close to the town on 10 August 1316, and the Gaelic forces were comprehensively defeated. John Clyn states that 1400 heads were collected from the battlefield and sent to Dublin for bounty. among the dead were Fedlim and Tadhg Ó Cellaigh, chieftain of Ui Maine. Their heads were afterwards set on pikes on either side of the town gate. This image is still the coat of arms of Athenry.
In 1318 Rickard’s kinsman, John de Bermingham of Offaly, fought and defeated Edward Bruce at Faughart, for which he was made Earl of Louth.
Rickard was succeeded by his son Thomas in 1322.
The local Mac an Iarla Wars saw the Earl of Clanricard‘s sons twice attacking Athenry in the early 1570s, causing considerable damage. The Lord Deputy Henry Sydney began repairs about 1576 and decided to reduce the town in size by half, although he did not fulfil this objective. The Clanricards attacked again in 1577, setting the new gate on fire and driving off the masons working on the wall. Another sacking in 1597 , this time by Red Hugh O’Donnell, so severely damaged the town that it never really recovered.
The Cromwellian redistribution of land and subsequent developments put the territory surrounding Athenry firmly in the hands of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy, as evidenced by numerous “big houses” dotted around the countryside.
Caquebert de Montbret, a French diplomat who visited Athenry in 1791, described it as covering 50 acres but containing no more than 60 houses. He commented on the Dominican Abbey (“the ruins are almost all standing”), the Castle and the Market Cross before continuing “I noticed at the door of a tavern a large cake decorated with a bouquet. It was a prize for the best dancer. …… The road from Athenry is very beautiful and there are no barriers [turnpikes]”.
The Great Famine and its aftermath reduced the population of the district by more than 50%. Many of the landowners were forced to sell their estates, while others evicted tenants and turned the estates into cattle and sheep farms. This disastrous period ended with the 1851 arrival of the railway, which soon brought a new level of prosperity in the town and surrounding area.
The Land Acts enabled tenants to reclaim possession of their lands, and many people came to the Athenry area from the congested districts of Claregalway and Lisheenavalla. The new owners cleared the land, built new houses and dividing walls and established a thriving farming community.
Athenry became more important agriculturally in the 1960s with the establishment of one of Ireland’s major Co-op Marts and its Creamery, which is now a major part of Mid-West Farmers Co-operative Society.
Athenry had little importance from the late C16th to the mid-C19th, as a result becoming a fossilised example of a medieval town, retaining its major medieval edifices and its typically medieval street plan within its medieval walls, plus two medieval bridges across the River Clarin. A former head of Archaeology at UCG (now NUI Galway), Professor Etienne Rynne, once remarked on the “features that make the town not interesting or important but in various ways absolutely unique“.
Athenry Castle / Bermingham’s Court, built sometime before 1240 by Meyler de Bermingham, and extended by his grandson Rickard some 75 years later, stood over three stories and had a vaulted roof, thought to be slated as thatch would make it vulnerable to lighting, fire-arrows, and accident. It was abandoned by the familyc.1550 for more comfortable dwellings in the town square, and left to rot after the events of 1597, but the stone work survived almost intact. It was in a roofless and ruinous state by 1990, when the OPW started renovations; now re-roofed, it is open to visitors and looks much as it die four centuries ago. Certain features of the door and two windows are not to be found in any other castle in Ireland.
St Mary’s parish church, founded c.1240, became a Collegiate church (i.e. served by a chapter of Canons) in 1484, and was destroyed by the Earl of Clanricard’s sons in 1574. The Church of Ireland used the old chancel as the basis for a new Anglican church with an elegant spire, erected in 1828 and used for worship until the death of Canon North Bomford in 1968. Today, it serves as the Athenry Heritage Centre.
The Dominican Priory of Ss Peter & Paul, founded c.1341, was constructed by settlers in co-operation with natives on the opposite side of the river from the rest of the town. It survived King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries, but was desecrated in the 1570s during the local Mac an Iarla Wars, and wrecked by Cromwellian soldiers in 1652. From the mid C18th to the mid-C19th it was used as an army / militia barracks (soldiers vandalised the grave slabs). The main tower collapsed in 1845. The site was declared a National Monument in 1892 (only to have a handball alley installed at one end ten years later!) The probable burial site of Meiler de Berrmingham is covered by the only grave marker of its type in the country.
Athenry’s Medieval Town Walls, the best preserved of their kind in Ireland, still stretch for over two thirds of their length. Six of the original watch towers are still standing, two in exceptionally good condition.
The North Gate, incorporating an opening for a portcullis and a “murder hole”, is the only survivor of four medieval entrances to the town, although the remains of the Lorro Gate were partially unearthed in 2007.
Athenry’s C15th Market Cross, a fine late medieval Gothic Cross of tabernacle or lantern type, still stands in its original position in the central town square; it is the only one of its kind in Ireland and the only medieval cross still in situ in the country.
Athenry railway station was opened in1851 at the junction the Galway–Dublin line and the old Limerick–Sligo line (now undergoing resurrection as the Western Railway Corridor). The Ennis-Athenry sideline re-opened in March 2010, and the Athenry-Tuam section is due to be ready in 2011. Steam train excursions are regulaly organised to and from Galway City.
Athenry also has the base of a bargaining cross in the old Fair Green, and remnants of the pre-reformation St Bridget’s church are visible just outside the town walls.
Lady’s Well, a Holy Well about one mile east of the town, traditionally held to have been the venue for one or more appearance(s) by the Virgin Mary before / after one / both of the Battles of Athenry, was still a place of annual pilgrimage on 15th August within living memory.
The Fields of Athenry, composed by Pete St John in the 1970s and first recorded in 1979, now a regional / national sporting anthem, is a catchy ballad about a local man sentenced to penal servitude in Australia for stealing food for his starving family during the Great Famine.
Moyode Castle is a tall C16th Tower House built by the Dolphin family, later owned by the Persse family, who maintained a pack of hounds uninterruptedly from 1770 to 1896. The castle is now restored and inhabited.
Esker is the location of a Redemptorist Retreat House.
Kiltullagh / Kiltulla / Killimordaly / Killimor (pop. 1200), six miles southeast of Athenry, used to form part of ancient territory of Hymany and was the stronghold of the O’Kelly clan. The north western portion of Hymany was known as Maonaig (“the plain of Maon”), and in the C14th and C15th the district was aka Kiltullagh Moanmaigh.
The Dunsandle Estate
Dunsandle Castle & Woods, recently restored over a period of ten years by Malcolm Goodbody under the guidance of architect David Newman Johnson, is an interesting place to visit, highly praised for its authenticity and non-commercial atmosphere, presented in an honest and at times challenging fashion. Guided tours and walks are available.
Dunsandle Castle, one of 18 Tower Houses between Craughwell and Kiltullagh, was erected c.1460 by the Clanricarde branch of the De Burgo / Burke family, extended into a manor house c.1650, andpurchased in 1708 by Denis Daly of Carrowenkelly / Carnakelly, a Gaelic-speaking Roman Catholic judge who converted to Anglicanism. The building appears to have been abandoned by 1791.
The building has been likened to an Escher print, with tiny alcoves and rooms branching off in all directions. Striking architectural features include a groin vault construction and intra-mural tie beams, 5ft thick lime-washed walls, a murder hole, an oubliette and a garderobe, while the highlight is the impressive Great Hall with its green oak ceiling, based on a similar one in Dunshaughlin Castle, created with the use of a single nail. The premises also include the remains of a bawn with a defensive corner tower complete with gunloops and an C18th Ice House.
The surrounding ancient woodlands, where indigenous trees are interspersed with winding tracks and a path meanders along the bank of the River Clerans to a pleasant picnic area, provide excellent opportunities to spot wildlife from squirrels to kingfishers.
The Daly family of Dunsandle increased their power and wealth throughout the C18th and C19th, holding several important judicial, ecclesiastical and political positions, notably the post of Mayor of Galway, which they controlled either directly or by proxy almost continuously from 1769 to 1817. Denis Daly (1747 – 1791), MP for Athenry, married the 1st Earl of Farnham‘s only child, Henrietta Maxwell. Their son James Daly (1782 – 1847), MP for Galway Borough and later County Galway, was created Baron Dunsandle & Clanconal in 1845, and was succeeded by two sons in turn. The title became extinct upon the death of his third son’s child, James Frederick Daly (1849 – 1911).
By the 1870s they were amongst the leading landowners in Ireland, with over 33,000 acres in County Galway alone, plus extensive properties in County Tipperary, including much of the town of Thurles.
Dunsandle House, built in the late C18th for Dennis Daly MP, was demolished in 1958, though parts of the walls, stables and kitchen garden are still visible. (Photo –www.landedestates.ie)
Dunsandle Railway Station at Carrowkeel, opened on the branch line built for the Loughrea & Attymon Light Railway Co. by the Midland Great Western Railway Co. in 1890, was much used by locals such as Lady Gregory and her guests, and was not finally closed until 1975.
Kiltullagh House, destroyed by fire in the mid-C19th, was the birthplace of Patrick D’Arcy (1725 – 1779), a descendant of the great early constitutional lawyer and Kilkenny Confederacy leader of the same name, and grandson of Sir Robert Blosse Lynch. Sent to Paris at the age of 14, he soon gained renown as an exceptional mathematician and physicist, publishing ideas on optics, hydraulics and electricity that were years ahead of their time. In 1749 he was elected a member of l’Académie Royale des Sciences, and was made a Chevalier. As a Colonel of the Irish Brigade in the French army, he fought at the Battle of Rossbach in 1757. He married his cousin Jane D’Arcy, known in later years as La Belle D’Arcy, who became lady-in-waiting for Queen Marie Antoinette. He died of cholera in Paris in 1779, and was buried in the Church of Saint-Philippe du Roule.
Raford House, a fine four storey residence beside the Dunkellin River, was built in 1791 for William Daly, who unusually for a landlord of that time was a Roman Catholic. It has had many owners, not a few of whom were keen followers of the Galway Blazers foxhounds, and was also briefly run as a convent by the Mercy Nuns of the Clonfert diocese. In 1981 it was acquired by Lord and Lady Hemphill, descendants of the Martyn family who had owned Tulira Castle back as far as the C16th.
The parish church of SS Peter & Paul (RC) was completed in 1855 on land leased for a nominal sum from the local landlord, Denis St George Daly, 2nd Baron Dunsandle & Clanconal, whose family provided all the seats and two beautiful stained glass windows in memory of deceased relatives. TheStations of the Cross hanging on the walls were painted by Evie Honeand are highly regarded.