ByRoute 8.1 Co. Kildare & Co. Laois

Athy (Co. Kildare / South)

Athy (Baile Atha) (pop. 8,000) on the River Barrow was for many years the largest town in Co. Kildare,  but was outstripped in growth and importance during the C20th.

Athy Town Hall was built c. 1730 as a Market  and Court House, The original building, thought to be have been designed by Richard Cassels, was extensively enlarged at the turn of the C19th, and now houses the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum and Athy Library. (Photo by herve)

Athy Heritage Centre-Museum has exhibits about various aspects of local history, the Grand Canal, WWI, motor racing etc., and hosts regular lectures, thematic exhibitions and arts events. The museum features a remarkable collection of artefacts and memorabilia of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, including a scale model of the Endurance, and organises an annual Shackleton Autumn School.

Athy History


Ath-Ae, the Ford of Ae, was named after the son of Deargabhail, fosterer of Eochy Finn, slain at a C2nd AD battle between the men of Munster and the men of Leinster.


It was an important fording point, as evidenced by the quantity of archaeological objects retrieved from the bed of the river in the 1920s, including Neolithic axeheads, Bronze Age swords and spearheads and a variety of Iron Age tools. However, there is no evidence of any locally resident population until the late C12th..


The Norman Baron of Rheban, Robert de St Michael, built Woodstock Castle near the ancient river crossing, and a mainly French speaking settlement sprung up around it. The Crutched Friars (of the Holy Cross order) and the Dominicans founded monasteries locally in the C13th.


Athy’s location on the Marches of Kildare made it particularly vulnerable, and the town is believed to have been walled by 1297. The O’More clan burned Athy four times during the C14th.


In 1417 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, John Talbot (the future Earl of Shrewsbury so admired by Shakespeare) built a tower to protect the new bridge over the River Barrow, essential for the continued supply of men, weapons and stores for the often beleaguered English settlers of the midlands. This fortication subsequently came to be known as White’s Castle, possibly after Sir John’s successor James ‘White’ FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Desmond, who slew many of the O’Mores at Athy in 1420. It was said that the sun stood still for three hours to facilitate the slaughter.


The O’Mores returned to attack the town several more times, burning it again in 1546, after which White’s Castle was rebuilt.


King Henry VIII granted a charter to Athy in 1515 for a weekly market, still held every Tuesday In 1613 King James I declared Athy a Borough with a Corporation to be run by a Sovereign and Burgesses.


Athy saw fighting when both castles were held by Kilkenny Confederacy leader Owen Roe O’Neill against General Preston‘s Parliamentatian troops from 1645 to 1648, only to be seized by Royalists in 1649; the town fell to Cromwell’s Roundheads later that year, when Woodstock Castle was severely damaged.


The Fitzgerald dynasty, Earls of Kildare and later Dukes of Leinster, were local landlords and owned both Woodstock Castle and Whites Castle . Their strong connection with the town lives on in the street names of Athy: William Street, Duke Street, Leinster Street, Stanhope Street and Emily Square all commemorate members of this family. Several Fitzgeralds served as Sovereigns of Athy prior to the abolition of the Borough in 1840.


Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the United Irishmen leader executed for his role in planning the 1798 Rebellion, represented Athy in the Irish Parliament; coincidentally or otherwise, 1,500 guns and 3,000 bayonets were captured on a boat on the new Grand Canal southern spur at Athy. in December 1797.


The town square was the place where the first wooden triangle was set up in a nationwide  campaign to identify potental insurgents. Witnesses were spread-eagled and flogged by the militia.  Robert Kee, in his book Ireland: A History, quotes an eye-witness: “There was no ceremony used in chosing victims, the first to hand done well enough… They were stripped naked, tied to a triangle and their flesh cut through without mercy. And though some stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not and one single informer in the town was enough to destroy all the United Irishmen in it“.


Trials of United Irishmen and other rebels were held in the Market & Court House under the notorious “Hanging judge” Lord Norbury.


The Kellyites were followers of Rev.Thomas Kelly from Kellyville in Ballintubbert, a charismatic schismatic who broke away from the Church of Ireland in the first half of the C19th. Their main centre was in Athy, and they also had meetinghouses in Portarlington and Blackrock, Co. Dublin. On the death of their founder in 1855, most members rejoined the Established church.


A British Army recruitment centre in Athy saw almost 2000 local men join up in 1914-15 to fight in WWI; four years later, at least 200 of them were dead. John Holland (1889 – 1978), son of the local vet, won the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at the Somme, celebrated by special meetings of the local authorities (he subsequently emigrated, and died in Tasmania). By 1918 the town was very divided on the war effort, especially conscription.

White’s Castle was used as a gaol during the 1798 Rebellion, prisoners were marched across the river to be hanged; their heads were then impaled on the bridge as a warning to others. 57 years later, having been repeatedly condemned by HM Inspector of Gaols as the most primitive prison in Ireland, it was converted into a barracks and living quarters for the RIC. The castle is now a  private residence. (Photo – Timmygadget)

Crom Aboo Bridge, built in 1796 by “Sir James Delahunty, Knight of the Trowel“, to replace a medieval span, is named for the bizarre FitzGerald armorial motto, first shrieked as a battlecry at the family’s seat in Croom (Co. Limerick).

Woodstock Castle on the western riverbank is an atmospheric ruin.

The chained monkey motif of the Duke of Leinster’s’ Coat-of-Arms commemorates the rescue by a family pet of the infant John FitzThomas FitzGerald, future 1st Earl of Kildare, from a mid-C14th fire in Woodstock Castle. An occasional suplementary motto is Non immemor beneficii (Not forgetful of a helping hand).

St. Michael’s church, now in ruins, was founded in the C14th by the powerful St Michael family, and is believed to have been the first church in Athy itself. The former church bell, dated 1682, hangs in the Town Hall.

St Michael’s church (CoI) was designed by Fredeick Darley and built c.1840 on land provided by the 4th Duke of Leinster. A new parish centre and community hall has recently been inaugurated next door.

St Michael’s church (RC) was erected in 1969 to replace a previous edifice,  built c.1796 on land provided by the 2nd Duke of Leinster.

Athy Presbyterian church was was designed by Fredeick Darley and opened in 1856, mainly to cater for a group of families from Perthshire who had settled on local farms provided by the Duke of Leinster.

Athy Methodist church was inaugurated in 1872, just under a century after John Wesley‘s visit to the town and the appointment of the first minister. The congregation had used the former Quaker meetingouse since 1812.

The Dominican church, a fan-shaped edifice downriver from the castle, is a striking example of modern ecclesiastical architecture.

Athy Courthouse was designed c.1855 for the 4th Duke of Leinster by Frederick Darley as a Corn Exchange, and adapted before the end of the century. It was torched during the War of Indepedence, rebuilt in 1928 and renovated in 2001. (Photo-

Carlton Abbey, an impressive Victorian pile originally built c.1850 as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, was converted into a highly rated 4-star hotel, noted for its chapel bar, good restaurant and spa facilities, but is currently closed for business.

Athy is a hub, within easy reach of Carlow Town,Kilkea on ByRoute 7 and Kildangan, Vicarstown and Stradbally / Ballintubbert on ByRoute 9.


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