Athenry Castle

Athenry Castle consists of a keep and surrounding bailey otherwise known as a bawn in Ireland.  It was built shortly after 1235 when Richard Burgh (d.1242), the lord of Connaught, granted a charter to Meilor Bermingham (d.1263), a descendant of Robert who had come over to Ireland with Henry II in 1172 and was still living here in 1179 when he is last heard of.  In 1241 this  Meiler was sufficiently established at Athenry to invite the Dominicans to come and build a priory in the town and on 10 June 1244 was granted a town market.  In September 1249, Toirrdelbach was routed outside Athenry while attacking new settlements.  Meilor Bermingham died in 1263 and was buried at his foundation of Athenry, leaving the lordship to his direct descendants for many generations.

In 1315 Edward Bruce (d.1318) landed in Ireland and made himself high king.  This resulted in a war that terrorised an Ireland already starving from the dip in the climate temperatures at the time.  One result of this was 2 battles fought at Athenry as the Scots tried to overwhelm the south of the island from their base in Ulster.  Consequently, early in 1315:

On 26 January (the morrow of the conversion of St Paul) the battle of Athenry (Skethrys) between the English, where only 5 of the English were killed, and the Scots where about 70 [were killed].  There died that noble warrior Hamo le Grosse as well as Lord William Prendergast and but 3 others; the English, however, left the field with the Scots, whose leader was Edward Bruce, pretending to be king of Ireland, who brought many evils upon men who cared for peace.

Three years later on 10 August 1318 another action took place near the same castle.  Then Richard Bermingham (d.1322) and William Leigh Burgh (d.1333) defeated Fedhlim O'Connor, who was supporting Edward Bruce, at battle of Athenry and killed him and 8,000 of his men. 

On the feast of St Laurence the martyr 1316, the battle of Athenry in Connaught where the Irish were killed by Richard Birmingham and Lord William Burgh and other Englishmen, many rulers and nobles, according to common report in total some 5,000 in all, the number being decapitated being 1,050.

The castle outer walls are said, without evidence, to have been built with the spoils from the battle.  Richard himself died young in 1322, but his Bermingham descendants continued to hold Athenry.

During 1575 Sir Henry Sidney began the refortification of Athenry town.  In June 1577 the Mac-an-Earlas took and sacked the castle, setting the new gates on fire and dispersing the masons who were working there on a town wall.  The place, other than the castle, remained a ruin until 1584 when the surviving inhabitants petitioned Queen Elizabeth (d.1603) for encouragement to bring English artisans and trandesmen to resettle the town.  Work had progressed well, when on 15 January 1596, Hugh Ruadh O'Donnell invested Athenry town, burned the gates and attacked the castle unsuccessfully trying to scale the battlements.  They then took possession of the town with its walls and towers, but again failed to take the castle.  Consequently they burned everything but the castle, church and abbey.

The castle consists of a multiangular enclosure with an old style hall-keep within.  There are at least three main phases of building.  The structure called the keep, some 54' long and 35'  wide with a powerful plinth, was low and squat, the roof being at the level of the present second floor.  This can be seen by the large holes (for draining away roof-water) at each gable end.  Later the keep was raised in height by another storey, while in the fifteenth century the gable-ends were raised to accommodate a new and higher roof rising above the battlements.  The present basement vault is an insertion.  Entrance to the keep was by an external wooden stair leading up to a decorated do
orway in the east wall at first floor level.  Two sets of opposing windows remain at this level, both decoratively carved like the doorway.  Such carved work is unique to Athenry castle, though quite common in ecclesiastical buildings.  Over the doorway are traces of a small canopy-like structure which consists of projecting slabs.  Access to the first floor was by a wooden stair as no trace of any other stairs remain.  Egress to the upper floor was gained by an intramural stairway within the east wall and beginning roughly above the 1st floor entrance.  The main first floor room also had a projecting garderobe at its north-west corner.

The ‘keep' was built close to the 
north-west side of the surrounding curtain which was well supplied with crossbow loops and a tall plinth similar to that of the keep.  To the north-east and south-east on the river side, barely projecting circular towers protect the corners of the enceinte and enclose the site of a hall with large windows cut through the curtain.  When the fact that a hall stood against the curtain and the keep had such unusal decoration is taken into account it suggests that the inner tower began life as a chapel and was subsequently converted into a keep.  The gatehouse stood to the south-west where the modern entrance is.

The castle seems to have generally been cold and dark, there being no windows at second floor level and no fireplaces anywhere.  In the fifteenth century the Birminghams moved to their town house near the market cross and the castle was abandoned for accommodation, but still proved its worth in the two sixteenth century sieges. 

Why not join me at Athenry and other Irish castles this October?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry