Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.
Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.
Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since.