The name Athy comes from the 2nd century, when the Chieftain Ae the son of Deargabhail, was killed in a battle between the men of Munster and the men of Leinster. This battle was fought at a ford on the river Barrow, hence it was know as Ath-Ae or the ford of Ae until it was later anglicised to Athy.
St. Michaels church
There are many church ruins in Athy, the oldest of which is St. Michaels. It was built in the fourteenth century. Some of the vestry and sidewalls have disappeared, but some of the original church is still remaining. The dedication to St. Michael is derived from the St. Michael family who were lords of Athy and it is probable that it was this family founded the church.
Woodstock castle originally built in the 13th century, was a rectangular keep of two stories, with a large hall on the first floor. The entrance was on the first floor facing the river and was probably reached by a wooden staircase which could be readily removed when under attack. This was a key feature at the time as the Irish were at war with the Anglo Norman settlers and the castle was attacked, as well as the village of Athy. It is believed to have been burnt down on at least four occasions during the first one hundred years of existence.
The castle was the first building in what is now the town of Athy, but as a result of the hostility from the Irish, the Anglo Norman settlers were forced to relocate to the easier defended East bank of the Barrow. It is believed that this coincided with the Building of Whites Castle in 1417.
The castle was modified many times over the course of its existence, extensive refurbishment was carried out in the 16th century. This converted the once Anglo-Norman keep into a fortified house. Larger windows were inserted into the walls of the castle as well as the erection of a tower at the south side for defensive purposes. On the west face of the tower, at first and second storey level are a pair of circular gunports set within rectangular openings. The gunports which are now blocked up served to defend the Castle on the only side which did not have an enclosing wall. They were used in connection with floor cannons and above each gunport are viewing slits which are still to be seen, this allowed the gunner to look out while firing the cannon. These features are of national importance, being very fine examples of 16th century gunports, very few of which are to be found in Irish castles.
In 1417 Sir John Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, built a castle to protect the bridge over the river Barrow and the inhabitants of the Pale. Built into the wall on either side of the original entrance doorway are two sculptured slabs. On the right of the former entrance is the Earl of Kildare’s coat of arms, representing ownership of the castle in former days. On the left the slab bears the date 1573 and the name of Richard Cossen, Sovereign of Athy. It is believed to have been taken from a mill which once stood on the site of the present Castle Inn. Nearby is Crom-a-boo bridge, from which you can look across the river Barrow to Woodstock Castle. “Crom-a-boo” was the war cry of the Geraldine family, and the inscribed stone in the bridge shows that it was built in 1796 by “Sir James Delahunty, Knight of the Trowel”
In 1791 the Marriage of the river Barrow with the Barrow line of the grand canal was completed and occurs near here. Whites Castle is now a private residence.
Moat of Ardscull
The Moat of Ardscull located outside Athy, is steeped in local myth and legend and is believed by some to be the home of the ‘little people’. It is generally accepted to have been built in the late 12th or 13th century. However the first clear reference to the Moat is not until 1654, when the Book of General Orders noted a request from the inhabitants of County Kildare for the State to contribute £30 “towards the finishing of a Fort that they have built at the Moat of Ardscull”. The appearance of the Moat was greatly enhanced in the 1800’s with the plantation of trees and the construction of the wall which surrounds it. More recently, Kilmead Community Council have developed a picnic area which has become a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. It is located on the main Kilcullen to Athy Road.
Athy Town Hall
The Town Hall was built circa 1730 as a Market house and Courtouse, it marked the transition from village to market town of the twelfth century Anglo-Norman settlement. The two carved symbols of justice entwined with the Crown of England and the Harp of Ireland on the northern wall of the building illustrate it’s past use as a courthouse. Lord Norbury commonly called ‘the hanging Judge’ presided at criminal trials in this building before and after the 1798 Rebellion.
The bell on the Town Hall is from the former St. Michael’s Church of Ireland once located to the rear of the Town Hall and bears the date 1682. The original building, which may have been designed by Cassels, who also designed Leinster House and Carton House, was extensively enlarged at the turn of the 19th Century.
The first of the many mills and maltings to be found along the Barrow, which sprang up availing of the side cuts to drive the water wheels and the improved transport facilities, was at Ardreigh Lock. Sadly most of these mills failed to move with the times and by the 1840’s there had been a rapid decline in the industry; the antiquated Irish mills were unable to compete with the flow of cheap flour which the emigrant ships brought back from America as ballast. Hannon’s mill at Ardreigh survived until the early 1920s.
The Ribbontail Footbridge was erected to facilitate people going to the nearby church but it is not clear how it received its name. There is possibly a connection with the Ribbonmen, (an illegal organisation whose aim was to protect the interests of the working classes) who are said to have congregated around the bridge when they were active in the area. The bridge was restored by the Longwood Branch of the RCAG. A major breach of the embankment, east of the Longwood Road Aqueduct, occurred in June 1993. Its repair over the following months by the OPW was the biggest restoration project on the canal in any single location.
Ernest Shackleton (15 February 1874 – 5 January 1922) was born at Kilkea House, near Athy, County Kildare. He was one of the principal figures of the age of Antartic exploration, he joined Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition 1901 – 1904 and went on to lead three of his own expeditions to the Antarctic. When the race to the South Pole ended in 1912 with Roald Amundsen expedition, Shackleton turned his attention to what he said was the one remaining great object of Antarctic exploration, crossing of the continent from sea to sea, via the pole. This was known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917. This was perhaps his most famous adventure as his ship “Endurance” became trapped by pack ice and crushed it. This resulted in the abandonment of the ship before they had reached land, however they managed to escape without the loss of life which later ensured Shackleton’s heroic status. He died in 1922 in South Georgia and was buried here at his wife’s request. This happened during his fourth expedition to the Antarctic on the ship named Quest. He had intended to carry out a programme of scientific and survey activities.
Athy Heritage Centre-Museum has the only permanent exhibition anywhere devoted to Shackleton.
To visit the Shackleton Museum website click here
For more information on Athy Heritage Centre-Museum click here