Today Athenry, County Galway is best known for featuring in a lachrymose ballad usually sung by performers somewhat worse for alcohol. However, the town was of significance from the Middle Ages onwards, as evidenced by large sections of the mediaeval walls that still survive, and a number of important buildings in the centre, not least a castle dating from c.1235. Originally guarding the crossing point over the river Clarin, it consists of a keep and the remains of a separating banqueting hall all enclosed within their own defences. The town subsequently developed around this castle, constructed by the Anglo-Norman knight Meyler de Bermingham whose descendants would become Barons Athenry and Earls of Louth. De Bermingham was also responsible for the other significant mediaeval remains in Athenry, the nearby Dominican Priory.
One of the Dominican order’s most important houses in Ireland, Athenry Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was founded by Meyler de Bermingham in 1241 when he purchased the land on which it stands for 160 marks and then provided the same amount for the construction of the church, as well as providing some of his men to help with the work: he would be buried inside its walls following his death in 1252. Many of his descendants were likewise interred here. Other local families, both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic assisted in the development of the site: Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory, Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house, and others the cloister, infirmary, guesthouse and so forth: almost nothing of these domestic buildings survives. Alterations were made over successive generations. In the late 13th/early 14th century for example, rebuilding work took place on the west gable of the church, to which an aisle and transept were added on the north side. In the fourteenth century William de Burgh (forebear of the Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, with whom the priory would later be associated) left money to enlarge the church, adding some 20 feet to the choir, and building a new entrance at its west end (now largely lost after a handball alley was built on the exterior of the building in the last century). Meanwhile in 1408 Joanna de Ruffur left funds to construct a new east window. A fire destroyed much of the priory in 1423, after which indulgences were granted by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV to shoe who contributed to the buildings’ repair. During this period, a crossing tower was erected in the church, with a number of windows being replaced or blocked, and the aisle arcade being reduced.
In the 16th century, Athenry Priory initially escaped the dissolution that befell other such religious establishments. In a letter dated July 1541 Anthony St Leger, Lord Deputy of Irleand advised Henry VIII that as the priory ‘is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit.’ However, the head of the priory Adam de Coppynger and his fellow friars agreed to abandon their religious habits and dress in secular clothing. In 1568 Elizabeth I directed that the Earl of Clanricarde could preserve the friary for a burial place but nine years later the priory and 30 acres of land in Athenry (plus more elsewhere) was granted to the town of Athenry: around the same time both town and priory were sacked by members of the Earl of Clanricarde’s family. Towards the end of the century the Dominicans reoccupied the priory but it suffered when the whole town was burnt in 1597. Still the Dominicans lingered on in the area, until the early 1650s when English soldiers wrecked the priory. Later the domestic buildings were largely demolished, and an army barracks built in their place. This remained in use until 1850. A late 18th century image shows the church without roof but the central tower still standing: it collapsed in 1845. Relatively little change has since occurred.
Despite quantities of damage inflicted on it over the centuries, the interior of the priory church retains much of interest. Of particular note are two large monuments in the choir. That tucked into the south-east corner was a mausoleum for the de Burgh family, who it will be remembered were permitted by Elizabeth I to use the building as a burial site. The monument in its present form dates from 1835 when repaired by Ulick de Burgh, first Marquess of Clanricarde. The upper portion (which looks as though designed to have something further on top of it) carries a peer’s coronet and the family coat of arms with its motto: Un Roy, Un Foy, Une Loy. A considerable portion of the choir is then taken up with a monumental tomb to Lady Matilda Bermingham, youngest daughter of the last Lord Athenry (also first, and last, Earl of Louth), who died in 1788 at the age of 20. Of cut limestone, the tomb was decorated with an abundance of Coade figures and stone panels, one of which bears the date 1791, and an urn which features the deceased’s profile. As an instance of contemporary misinformation, one frequently reads online that this tomb was badly damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in search of treasure: since Lady Matilda Bermingham died over 130 years after these troops were in Ireland this seems somewhat improbable, and yet still the story circulates in the internet. The truth is more prosaic. In October 2002 vandals broke into the church, breached the tomb’s walls and pulled out the coffin: who needs to import despoilers when they can be found at home? It was reported at the time that repairs were being carried out on the monument, but these do not appear to have been very extensive and much of the Coade stone ornamentation has been forever lost.