Athenry, or ‘ford of the kings’, is a place still very much dominated by its medieval past. As a strategically significant Anglo-Norman outpost in an area dominated by Gaelic Irish families, it had a tumultuous history. Medieval Athenry was twice the size of Galway and its town walls rank amongst the best in Ireland. Dating from c.1310, approximately two-thirds of the original walls still remain. The walls aren’t the only legacy from the Middle Ages that still stands in the town. The castle, abbey and market cross are all still there for your viewing pleasure!
A brief history of Athenry
The history of the town can be seen through its monuments. The earliest remaining building in the town is the Castle, built at the ford by Meiler de Bermingham, probably shortly before 1240. This castle, one of the finest 13th century castles remaining in Ireland, now consists of a three-storied keep surrounded by a strong curtain-wall which had two corner-towers and a corner-buttress near the strongly fortified gate. Meiler de Bermingham also caused the Dominican Priory of SS. Peter and Paul to be erected in Athenry. The Priory was started in 1241 and finished in 1261. It still contains a fine collection of 17th century grave slabs and wall-plaques. One of the slabs dated 1682 commemorates a blacksmith called Tannian. It is not only carved with a large cross, but also has two bellows, a horseshoe, an anvil, a hammer, and a pincers. Other graveslabs have carvings of ploughs or parts of ploughs.
The walls of Athenry are easily the finest medieval town-walls remaining in Ireland. A three-year murage grant was obtained in 1310 and it would appear that the town was originally walled in or about that time. Only one of the five town-gates now remains, the North Gate, and it may be a late 16th or early 17th century addition. Most of the wall still stands, together with five wall-towers.
The remains of St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, the former parish church of Athenry, dates from the mid-13th century. In 1828 a church with a particularly elegant spire was built in its chancel and was in use by the Church of Ireland until very recently.
In 1629 permission to hold a regular market and a fair in October was granted to Sir William Parsons, Bart. The market was held each Sunday within the town, at the spot where the remains of a very fine market cross still stand. This cross is unique in Ireland, being of lantern or tabernacle type, and it dates from the late 15th century.
In February 1597 Red Hugh O’Donnell sacked the town, following which Athenry descended into a continuous decline – briefly halted in 1644 when the Dominican Priory was revived as a University – to be finally put down by the Cromwellians in 1652. The coming of the railroads in the 19th century, making Athenry an important junction, revived the town.
© 2000 Etienne Rynne
For further information on the town’s history contact:
Alan Burgess, Manager, Athenry Arts and Heritage Centre,
Marie Mannion, Galway County Council Heritage Officer
If you want to read more about Athenry, click on the PDF below: