The Athenry Mace and Seal

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The Athenry Mace and Seal

The original mace and seal of the town are both made from brass and set on wooden handles. They are considered by most authorities to date to the 14th century. The seal would have been used for important documents and letters. There are 2 heads on spikes above the town wall/gate depicted on the seal. Town walls/gates are commonly depicted on other seals from Ireland, England and the Continent, and are thought to symbolise civic pride and the rights and freedoms of the townspeople. The decapitated heads, however, are very unusual, perhaps even unique to Athenry. Tradition states that the heads are those of the two leaders of the Irish force that attacked the town in 1316, Felim O’Connor and Tadgh O’ Kelly. The rebellion failed and it is believed that Felim (King of Connacht) and Tadgh (lord of Uí Maine – a large tribal territory around the river Shannon) were beheaded and their heads displayed above the town walls. It is thought that this event was memorialised on the town seal because the ‘Battle of Athenry’ (as it is now known) was such a pivotal moment in the history of Athenry.

Athenry Seal

The seal is inscribed with Latin text +SIGILLUM: CONMUNITAS: DEHENRI translated as ‘the seal of the community of Athenry’. No mention is made of any lord (i.e. de Bermingham), and this is significant as it implies that by this time the civic community had at least some control over the affairs of the town. The 14th-century date proposed for the seal is based mainly on the hair and beard styles of the decapitated heads, and the fact that it commemorates the 1316 Battle of Athenry. It could, however, be significantly later, possibly dating to 1577 when Athenry received a charter of incorporation from Queen Elizabeth I. 

The Mace is also unusual, as it represents a clenched fist. While different forms of Mace were used in battle, it is felt that this one would have been used like a judge’s gavel by the Portreeve (mayor, judge and administrative head of the town), perhaps during civic ceremonies or meetings. There is nothing inscribed on the Mace to inform when it was made, but it is generally considered to date to around the same time as the mace (i.e. 14th century).The mace and seal were given to the last Portreeve of Athenry (Theophilus Blakeney) in 1840 when Athenry ceased being a corporate town and Governments began ruling towns and cities. The story of how the Mace & Seal were returned to Athenry is described by local historian Finbarr O'Regan.

Athenry Mace

 The return of the Mace & Seal by Finbarr O'Regan

The corporate insignia, a gavel-like brass mace and a heavy brass seal, were first brought to notice in 1875 when the two objects were exhibited by the Rev. James Graves, the noted antiquary, at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in Dublin.  At the time they were "in the keeping of John Blakeley, Esq., of Abbert, Co.  Galway, whose family were formerly the patrons of the borough [of Athenry] and were lent for display through the good offices of Mr. W. F. Wakeman and the Rev, Mark Perrin, Rector of Athenry (Wakeman's father-in-law). Both objects were briefly described in the Society's Journal for that year and the seal was illustrated in that edition. 

In 1899 W.F. Wakeman described and illustrated "The Mace of the Ancient Corporation of Athenry, County Galway" in the same Society's Journal. After that the Athenry insignia seem to have disappeared from public knowledge until June 1963 when they were brought into the National Museum of Ireland, for examining, recording and apparently also with a view to offering them for sale to the Museum by the owner, Mr. H.C.A. Blishen, M.B.E., then living in his home called 'Athenry', on the Isle of Wight. They were recorded and photographed in the Museum but not purchased. Involved in the recording was Professor Etienne Rynne, who was at the time, Assistant-Keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division there.  Some years later, Mr. Rynne was appointed Lecturer in Celtic Archaeology at University College, Galway and choose to live in Athenry. Taking a great, if predictable, interest in the medieval remains in the town he kept in mind the ancient mace and seal which he had handled several years earlier and it was always his wish and that the people of Athenry try to recover them for the town.  

Athenry Mace
Athenry Mace

In September 1993, with Athenry's fine castle restored by the Office of Public Works, Athenry had eventually a place in which the Mace and Seal could be housed in safety. It was decided to contact the Blishen family. Professor Rynne on behalf of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Athenry wrote to Mr. Blishen recounting Athenry's interest and hopes for their return but the letter, illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the Mace and Seal, was returned unopened, as Mr. Blishen was no longer resident at the Isle of Wight address. 

In August 1996, Finbarr O'Regan, coordinator and editor of 'The Athenry Journal', decided to publish in the summer edition (Volume 2 Number 2) this letter illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the Mace and Seal. The annual Medieval Festival of Athenry, organised by The Athenry Women's Group was on, and the publication aroused much local interest.  One of the visitors to the Festival was Tom Bermingham, an expert on the history of the Berminghams who founded the town of Athenry in 1235.  He decided that he would endeavour, on his return to England to trace the Blishen family and to find the present whereabouts of the Athenry corporate insignia. Tom Bermingham was as good as his word and contacted the Chancery of St. James in Buckingham Palace where he learned that Captain Henry Charles Adolphus Blishen was made an M.B.E. on the 15.12.1944 and died on the 29.01.1980. Shortly afterwards contact was made with his son Mr. Anthony 0. Blishen, of Richmond, London, who now had the Mace and Seal in his possession.

Their history now emerges: It is thought that a corporation existed in Athenry by 1310, and that the town was administered by a portreeve and burgesses. Certainly, the portreeve and burgesses received a royal grant of privileges in 1564, which constituted the instrument under which the borough was governed up until the dissolution of such bodies in 1840. The portreeve and burgesses also elected two members of the Irish parliament until disenfranchised by the Act of Union in 1800.  The sum of £15,000, paid in compensation for that act of disenfranchisement to the members, was paid to the trustees of the marriage settlement of Theophilus Blakeney, one of Athenry's sitting members at the time. The Blakeneys of Abbert were landed gentry and the family's political connection with Athenry is a matter of record. They profited from the Act of Union at a time when the fortunes of many of the landowners of Ireland were on a downward trend. 

When the corporation was dissolved in 1840, its last Portreeve was Theophilus's son, John Henry, a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Galway.

The Mace and Seal of the town thereupon passed into his keeping.

To all intents and purposes, the mace and seal disappeared from sight, reappearing only briefly at the end of the century. The Blakeney family declined in economic status throughout the century, and its dispersal was hastened, perhaps, by litigation, childlessness and early death. The estate then passed to John Henry's younger brother Robert Edward, who first intended to sell the timber alone, but was eventually obliged, in 1919, to sell the house and land as well. Neither of the two brothers had children and Robert Edward's heir was his younger (by some 20 years) half-brother, Henry Robert.

Dispossessed, he left Ireland, the home of his family for ten generations, fought in the First World War, was badly shell-shocked and died of this condition in his 40s, leaving a widow and three small children. He had only one son, who also died in his 40s, but childless. The senior branch of the family was thus extinct in the male line. Henry Robert's eldest child, however, was a girl, Joan Cecile. In course of time she and her husband, Charles Blishen, recovered as many as they could of the Abbert possessions, including the mace and seal, that had passed from her uncle through her father into the hands of her now deceased younger brother. On her death, in 1983, they became the property of her eldest son, Anthony Blishen. Mr. Blishen had been considering, for some time, how best to dispose of the mace and seal upon his own death. The Irish connection was fading and it did not seem right to him that objects, which were locality specific, should continue, as it were, in exile. At this point serendipity played its hand, for he was contacted by Mr. Tom Bermingham and it was swiftly agreed that, provided that the town of Athenry could provide an appropriate home, Mr. Blishen was more than happy to return the mace and seal to the town. Mr. Blishen saw himself more as a hereditary keeper in the old Irish tradition of sacred reliquaries than as an owner of the insignia and was more than willing to return the treasures to Athenry "if they were assured a good home". This wonderful news coincided with the setting-up of The Athenry Heritage Centre in the former Church of Ireland church. This church was built, on the site of the medieval parish church of Athenry, in 1828, with the aid of a gift from the late Board of First Fruits, a body, which owed much to Dean Swift and is also remembered as the church in which William Frederick Wakeman and Frances Alice Perrin were married. It was also a coincidence that John Henry Blakeney was one of the first churchwardens of St. Mary's. It was deemed an eminently more suitable final resting-place for the insignia than Athenry Castle.

Negotiations were put in train and in April 1998, Professor and Aideen Rynne travelled to London on behalf of the people of Athenry to meet the Blishens. It was arranged that Mr. and Mrs. Blishen would ceremonially hand over the mace and seal to the people of Athenry when the Heritage Centre was finally ready to receive them.  The Athenry Heritage Centre was officially opened by An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, on Friday 07.05.1999. Mr and Mrs. Anthony Blishens travelled over to Ireland in July and presented Athenry with its long-lost (160 years) corporate insignia, the mace and seal, on Saturday 04.07.1999. The Presentation took place in the Market Square of Athenry at 8.30 p.m. The successor to the portreeve and burgesses of the corporation of Athenry in its capacity as the locally elected town body is the present Athenry Community Council. It was thus to the Chairman of the council, Mr. Gerry Burke, that Mr. Anthony Blishen, great-great grandson of the last portreeve, handed the mace and seal at a ceremony in the town square on 24 July 1999. Mr. Eamon O Cuiv, Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and Mr. Noel Treacy, the Minister, for Science, Technology and Commerce attended the ceremony as did a very welcome Tom Bermingham. Before a large gathering of Athenry people Professor Rynne, as adept in address as in archaeology, explained the historical, political and cultural significance of the mace and seal. Indeed the mace, a clenched fist cast in antimony, might well double as a handy weapon. Both Mr. Treacy and Mr. O Cuiv welcomed the insignia's return and paid tribute to the generosity of the donor. Mr. O Cuiv also remarked that the event was part of the process of improving relations with Her Majesty's Government. Mr. Blishen restored the insignia to Athenry at the same time reviving his own family's connection with the town and Gerry Burke accepted their return with gratitude whilst Brian Walsh, Manager, on behalf of the Heritage Centre, guaranteed their safekeeping. The insignia was then carried into the Heritage Centre where they were installed in the case specially prepared for them. Finally, Madelyn Brody, chairperson of the Heritage and Tourism Company praised all concerned in the 'Grail-like 'search for the Mace and Seal and especially commended the generosity of Anthony Blishen for his unselfish gesture and said that there would be always a place for the Blishens in the homes and the hearts of the people of Athenry.

Detailed view of the Athenry Seal
Athenry Seal

 

 

 

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