The town wall is over a kilometre long and stands over seven metres high. More than 90% of the circuit survives. The first ‘murage’ grant was in 1292 during the reign of Edward I.
Fethard’s medieval church, still in use, has the oldest scientifically-dated timber roof in Ireland. In 2011, the roof was dated by Queen’s University, Belfast by dendrochronology to around 1489.
Fethard was founded in about 1208 by William de Braose, Lord of Limerick. De Braose was apious but brutal man, known to history as the ‘Ogre of Abergavenny.’ In 1175 de Braose invited three Welsh princes and their supporters to a Christmas feast at his castle at Abergavenny in a gesture of peace. All were murdered including the seven year old Cadwalader.
The church and great tracts of land were given in perpetuity by William de Braose to the Crutched Friars of the priory-hospital of St John the Baptist, New Gate, Dublin. Established in the Holy Land during the Crusades, the friars were a group of Augustinians who ministered to the sick. They held the rectory of Fethard until 1539 when all their property fell forfeit to the Crown under Henry VIII.
A dispute arose in 1420 over the ownership of Kiltinan Castle, a mile outside Fethard. The property had been owned by a branch of the Butlers, the Barons Dunboyne, but it was claimed by their cousin, Thomas Butler, Prior of the Knights Hospitaller at Kilmainham. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormond (another cousin), stepped in and ordered trial by combat. The duel took place on the lawn of the castle. Young James Butler, fighting on behalf of the Prior (his father) was badly wounded and Edmund Butler, 6th Baron Dunboyne was killed.
Holy Trinity (Church of Ireland) has a fragment of the coat-of-arms of Henry VIII. This may well have been mounted on the church soon after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Papal insignia were removed.
Oliver Cromwell marched to Fethard during the night of February 2nd 1650. Some 250 defenders lined the town walls under the command of Pierce Butler, the provost. However, Cromwell’s reputation had preceded him: ‘after almost the whole night spent in treaty, the town was delivered to me next morning on terms that we usually call honourable.’ The burgesses were spared transportation to Connacht.
As Cromwell entered the town he is said to have fallen from his horse in Barrack Street and cursed the ground. Even today, no funeral procession will pass over the spot.
Many of the original Norman families stayed in Fethard and their names survived the Cromwellian era of persecution and transportation. Amongst these families are the Everards, Hackets, Burkes, Butlers, Tobins, and Walls.
Father William Tirry was appointed prior of Fethard in 1652. In January 1653, a proclamation was published charging that ‘all priests, friars, bishops and other clergy deriving their authority from the See Apostolic of the Pope of Rome to depart out of the Kingdom of Ireland on pain of death within forty days.’ Father Tirry went into hiding in the ruined friary but was arrested on Holy Saturday 1654 and executed in Clonmel on 12th May 1654. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992. His body is believed to lie within the grounds of the friary.
Late in life John Butler, the former Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork 1763-1786, resigned his bishopric and converted to Protestantism in order to inherit the Dunboyne title and continue his line. Aged 58, he married his 24 year old niece Maria Butler. They had a daughter who was born deformed and died in infancy. The couple were divorced and Butler suffered great remorse and begged for absolution. He was reconciled to his Catholic faith and died in 1800 a ‘relapsed papist.’ He is buried with his daughter in the grounds of the friary in Fethard.
In 1895 Michael Cleary was tried and convicted of killing his wife Bridget Cleary in the neighbouring village of Cloneen. Michael had burned Bridget’s body in the belief that she was a changeling – a demonic substitute swapped by the fairies. The world’s press descended on Fethard and put up in Stokes’s Hotel (a sixteenth century inn that was sadly demolished in 1993). A spooky little rhyme survives; ‘Are you a witch? Or are you fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’
In the medieval church and graveyard are a number of interesting monuments, some of which are connected with the British Army cavalry barracks. One records the death of Private Isaac Bennett of the King’s Dragoon Guards ‘who was shot in an unequal contest with a party of Rebels on the night of 27th of May 1813 at Ardmayle.’
There were four British Army Cavalry barracks in South Tipperary, at Cahir, Carrick, Clogheen and Fethard. The countryside was perfect for horses. At Waterloo, Major-General The Hon. Sir William Ponsonby was in command of the Union Brigade and was responsible for the ill-fated charge of the Scots’ Greys. Ponsonby had been MP for Fethard until the Act of Union and was killed at Waterloo.
In the National Museum in Dublin you can find three late fifteenth century painted oak statues. They are almost human in size and they represent God the Father, Christ on Calvary and St John the Baptist. They had been hidden in Fethard during the Reformation and kept safe for over five hundred years. They are amongst a tiny number of these precious artefacts to have survived in Ireland.
The first modern ‘Country Market’ in Ireland was initiated by Olivia Hughes in Fethard in 1947 on behalf of the Irish Countrywoman’s Association.
Fethard’s town wall is protected by its very own obscene and ancient carving, a Sheela-na-Gig. You can see her as you come into the town over Watergate Bridge.