The Athy family are of great antiquity in Galway. They were originally Anglo-Norman, but on coming here, they quickly became one of the original Tribes. Their estates were mainly in the Oranmore area, they owned the Rinville Estate. They are credited with being the first family to erect a stone building in the city in the 13th century. Castles associated with the family through the years are Ballylee, Carrigín, Glinsk, Castletown, Rinville, Claregalway, Ardmullivan, De Bermingham’s, Aughnanure, and Castledaly.
They became involved in a feud with the Blakes in the 1440s during which several members of the family were killed. Maybe this was because the Blakes were regarded as ‘positive’ and the Athys as ‘jealous’. Another family member, Margaret Athy, founded the Augustinian Monastery on Forthill in 1508.
Our photograph today was originally taken by the late Professor Michael Duignan and shows the Athy Doorway and window in their original situation in Augustine Street. I am not sure if this was where the original ‘first stone building’ was but this one was situated just to the left of Mayoralty House. The carved doorway and window are described as: “Perhaps the loveliest fragment of 16th century urban domestic architecture in the whole of Ireland. The details of the doorway are characteristic of the period in Ireland in combining late Gothic forms with classical mouldings — ovolos and cymas — and Celtic interlacements. The conventionalized vine leaf of the lozenge and squared form also plays a large part in the ornament. In the right hand spandrel of the door arch is a small shield bearing the date 1577, while a coat of arms — a chevron over a grille of some kind — is the principal ornament of the other spandrel. The jambstones are decorated with panels of plain punching.”
The arms were clearly intended for Athy.
The doorway was purchased by the sculptress Clare Sheridan for five pounds and removed by her in the first week of December 1947. She placed it in her garden at the top of the Spanish Arch, a fact which was lamented by Richard Hayward in his book Connacht and the City of Galway, published in 1952. He argued that no private purchaser should be allowed to purchase such a civic treasure, particularly as these precious fragments belonged to a building which, at the time of their removal, was still capable of being restored and which would have made a splendid and much needed old Galway museum.
Whatever one thinks of Clare Sheridan’s actions, the fact is that she preserved these beautifully carved stone fragments for posterity, and ironically, they featured for many years as part of the exhibitions in the old Galway City Museum in Comerford House. They are currently kept in storage by Galway City Council.
An Taisce is having its annual lunch in The Ardilaun on Sunday next. It will be followed by a slideshow given by this writer. All are welcome.