Athenry Medieval History and The Fields of Athenry
...The name of the town is an Irish one, Baile Atha an Riogh, thus indicating that the ford there must have been of importance in pre-Norman times. As no kings of any note are known to have been connected with the area at any time, the name should perhaps be translated as 'River Ford' rather than as 'Kings Ford', rige being an ancient Indo-European word associated with rivers. The river at Athenry is 'The Clareen' which, in turn, gives its name to Clarenbridge where it enters the sea.
Fifteen miles east of Galway city, Athenry has a past that goes back several millennia. Quite apart from polished stone axe heads from the general area, other prehistoric objects found locally include a fine late bronze age spearhead and bronze shield, and the bronze cape from an early iron age Celtic sword-scabbard. The region also featured prominently in Early Christian Irish history, notably nearby Tysaxon (Tech Sachsan, the Saxon's house) where Balan, who came to Ireland with Colman after the synod of Whitby in A.D. 664, founded a monastery.
For about five centuries Athenry Castle has been abandoned, roofless and fallen into a ruinous state. In 1990 however, the National Monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works started work on its restoration, following on some minor excavations within the curtain wall and have now completed their work and the castle is now open to the public.must have been built by about 1240, because in 1241 Meiler was sufficiently well ensconced there to invite the Dominicans to come and build their priory in the town.
Meiler de Bermingham, 2nd Baron of Athenry and founder of the town, bought the site from Sir Robert Breynach (= Breathnach = Welsh/Walsh) for 160 marks (=£106:13:4 - £106.67) in 1241 and presented it to the Dominican friars together with another 160 marks so that they might build an abbey - reputedly at the request of St. Dominic himself; the saint, however, had died in 1221. He also gave gifts of wine, English cloth, and horses for drawing stones, and furthermore induced his knights and soldiers to contribute to the work. Meiler himself died in 1252 in a battle near Cashel, Go. Tipperary, and his body was brought back to Athenry and buried near the high altar.
Shortly after Athenry was founded, a corporation of some sort was instituted, consisting in 1310 of a “Portreeve, Burgesses and Freemen of the Corporation of the Town and Liberties of Athenry”. The portreeve was elected annually, as were of about 20 burgesses- the portreeve was a Justice of the Peace, Clerk of the Market and sole Judge in the area. The portreeve had the use of a mace and the Corporation the use of the seal. The Athenry mace is unique, not being the usual silver ceremonial mace but a small brass latten clenched fist mounted on a stout wooden handle and clearly for use as a sort of gavel to keep order at meetings rather than to merely grace a civic occasion.
The town of Athenry is immortalised in the song 'The Fields of Athenry' which was written by Pete St. John in the 1970s. It tells the story of a young man who is caught stealing corn from Lord Trevelyn during the Irish Famine and who is deported to Botany Bay in Australia as punishment.
The song has been recorded by several Irish Artists, the most successful of which was Paddy Reilly whose recording remained in the Irish Charts for 72 weeks in 1983.
It may now be regularly heard on terraces and stands throughout Ireland and internationally as it has been adopted by Rugby and Football teams.
A movie demonstrating an interactive 3D model of Medieval Athenry which aims to reconstruct how Athenry would have look in the late 16th century, just before the attack by Red Hugh O'Donnell in 1597 who destroyed much of the town. This is only phase I of the project. Athenry today has one of the best preserved town walls of any Irish walled town. This work has been developed by Realsim on behalf of Athenry Community Council Trust, The Heritage Council and Galway County Council and has been funded by the Heritage Council and Galway County Council.