Athy is a working town. It has always changed. Sometimes this has been though choice, other times through war. The result is an interestingly layered place that although established in the Middle Ages is in many ways much more connected with the Georgian and Industrial Revolution periods. Despite this, there are still some fine medieval structures visible and a street pattern that is 800 years old. Dominated by the River Barrow and the Grand Canal the best way to get a sense of the town and visit its castles and churches is by ditching the car and deciding to walk.
A brief history of Athy
Athy is an anglicised version of the Irish words ‘Áth Ae’, meaning the ‘Ford of Ae’. The town acquired its name from a battle in the 2nd century when Aed was killed on the ford of Dara, on the River Barrow. Archaeological finds retrieved from the riverbed in the 1920s confirms its importance as a fording point.
The town of Athy was part of the initial settlements of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. In 1175 the area of Le Norrath was granted to Robert FitzRichard by Richard de Clare. By 1181 Anglo-Norman lords had settled the lands around the town. These included Robert St.Michel who was granted lands in Rheban and Thomas Le Flemming at Ardreigh.
The St.Michel family was responsible for the building of Woodstock Castle at the beginning of the 13th century. It was outside this that the first Anglo-Norman settlement developed. By the 1250s the Crouched friars and the Dominicans orders established abbeys in St John’s on the west bank and on what today is known as the Abbey on the east bank.
With the town’s strategic location on the Kildare March it was inevitably the focus of attacks by the displaced Irish. Indeed, during the 14th century Athy was attacked and burned four times by the O’Moores of Laois. As early as 1297 the town may have been walled. There is evidence of a man called Thomas the Janitor being responsible for the main gates in the town. In 1300 a provision was made to strengthen Athy’s fortifications with the building of an additional castle. By the late 14th century Athy had become even more important militarily. In 1417 Sir John Talbot rebuilt the castle at the bridge. There were also other murage grants made available in the 15th century to strengthen the walls.
In 1515 Henry VIII granted the town a Charter giving the inhabitants the right to rebuild the town walls and other civil liberties. It also gave the town the right to hold a market. Later during Henry’s reign the Dominican priory was surrendered to the government as part of the reformation. The 17th century was a period of rapid changes in fortune for the town. It started promisingly enough with its incorporation as a borough but ended with its burning.
For further information on the town’s history contact:
Margaret Walsh, Manager, Athy Heritage Centre-Museum