Athenry Castle: Court Bermingham or King John's Castle? by Adrian Martyn


Athenry Castle (year unknown)




The following article is by local historian and author of 'The Tribes of Galway' on Athenry Castle. Who has wrote a short article for this blog. - Thank you Adrian.

For generations, Athenry Castle has been known locally as King John's Castle. Though this is sanctioned by tradition, it does not mean tradition is right!

The earliest known published reference of this term occurs in 1698, when bookseller John Dunton wrote that "When King John came into Ireland to reduce some of his rebellious people here, he built the town of Athenry, and environed it with a good stone wall to be a curb upon them in those parts". In 1828, tourist Herman von Puckler-Muskau wrote of the castle that "King John held his court of justice when he came over to Ireland'. In 1838, historian John O'Donovan that 'Athenry ...seems to have been built by King John in the year 1211"  to put down local clans. 

The problem with all this is that King John died in 1216, at least twenty years before Athenry was founded. He visited Ireland twice, in 1185 and 1210, but never visited Connacht, travelling no further west than Athlone and Limerick. Nor do any grants of his mention the area.

Oliver St. John in 1611 wrote that "At the first conquest, during the reigns of King Henry II (1153-89) and King John (1199-1216), the English had but little footing in Connacht, leaving no other remarkable monument of their conquest but the castles of Athlone...and Roscommon." 'Only in the 1230's/40s did the Anglo-Normans begin to settle in Connacht, over twenty years after John's death.

Construction of Athenry town and castle began between 1237 and by 1241, the year work began on the Dominican Friary. On 10th June 1244, Meyler De Bermingham, the found of the town, was granted "a market at Adneri on Thursday, and of a yearly fair there for 8 days, namely, on the (feasts) of Sts. Peter and Paul, and 6 following days [June 28th-July 5th]."

In 1249 the princes of Connacth went, "co hAd na Rig da loscad/to burn and pillage Athenry" only to be defeated when Sheriff of Connacht Jordan de Exeter (ancestor of the Jordan family) "sin tancatar asin bali immach i coinne na mac rig-sin/issued from the town against the princes".

In 1266 "Toga espuic do techt on Roim co Cluain Ferta Brenainn & a grada espuic do tabairt i nAth na Rig in domnach ria Notlaic./A bishop-elect came to Clonfert from Rome and his bishop's Orders were conferred at Athenry on the Sunday before Christmas".

In none of these and other early Athenry references is there any mention of King John. So where does the association between him and the castle originate?

O'Donovan also stated that "The Castle of Athenry called by some King John's Castle and by others Bermingham's Court". He further stated that the ford from which the town takes its names was in 1838 called Beal na Rig, "which is a contraction of Baile Ata an Rig the Town of the ford of the king, and it is believed that it took its name from King John."


The last Lord Athenry to live in the town was either John De Bermingham (1529-47) or his son, Richard (1547-80). Perhaps some confused memory of the last resident ruler to live in the town lies at the back of the association. Perhaps It is signinificant that he was the only Lord Athenry to bear the forename John?

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