“It looks like a scene in a gothic novel,” my friend remarked when seeing my photos of Athenry. And right she was.
Athenry, Ireland, is a medieval walled town. Over 70 percent of the original 700-year-old wall is standing, marking the town’s boundaries. Athenry’s footprint has changed very little since the 13th century. Within the town walls are the remains of a castle, abbey, church, and other buildings and monuments built by the Anglo-Normans. The town retains its 13th-century street plan of a market town. The township honors history and tradition, and in Athenry, you are continuously surrounded by it.
The town is in County Galway. Galway Town is 16 miles west or a 20-minute train ride. This community is close-knit, with a strong emphasis on the children and their future. Preservation of the architecture that holds the town’s history is a treasured legacy for generations to come.
Take a day trip or spend the weekend. Athenry is fascinating.
1. Athenry Heritage Center
Your first stop in Athenry is at the Athenry Heritage Center. Located in St. Mary’s Church, you will discover 800 years of the town’s history. The heritage center is interactive and has something for all interests. Entertaining and knowledgeable docents will lead you on tour, explaining the artifacts and exhibits. A tour is included with your admission. Here are some things featured on a tour of the Athenry Heritage Center:
- One of the tour’s highlights is the scale model of Athenry in the 13th century.
- There’s a full-sized model of a dungeon where you might find yourself in the stocks.
- Your tour guide leads you through the village market as it looked 700 years ago.
- Get a selfie or group shot after you stroll through the costume closet, where you can dress up as a lord, soldier, or peasant.
From the Market Cross, look north. Just ahead, through the arched-stone opening, is a path to St. Mary’s Church and Athenry Heritage Center.
Pro Tip: Ask for the complimentary Athenry Heritage Trail map. It’s a curated walk to all the heritage sites in town.
2. The Magnificent Athenry Town Wall
Enclosing 69 acres, the first construction of the stone wall began in 1310. Athenry is one of Ireland’s best preserved medieval towns; more than 70 percent of the masonry stone wall still stands. The citizens of Athenry have spent years refurbishing, stabilizing, and rebuilding the stone wall built by the Anglo-Normans. As a result, you will encounter segments of the wall all around the town. Still remaining are six guard towers, the north gate, and portions of the moat outside the wall.
Athenry belongs to the Irish Walled Towns Network, where you can learn more about the Athenry wall and other walled towns in Ireland.
3. Athenry Castle
Meiler de Bermingham, lord and founder of Athenry, built the castle sometime between 1235 and 1240; though, records list different dates. The “Hall Keep Castle” sits in the northeast corner of the town wall. It was the first building constructed in the town.
The castle laid in runes for over 5 centuries. It was restored by the Office of Public Works National Monuments branch in 1990.
Take some time in the ticket office before entering the castle. It’s filled with information about the castle and Athenry. Athenry Castle is in the east of town, just off Court Lane. The tall rectangular building is visible from most of the town.
4. St. Mary’s Collegiate Church
Once again, Meiler de Bermingham was involved. He built St. Mary’s, the Athenry parish church from 1240 to 1574. After it was destroyed, a new church was built next to the runes. So today, St. Mary’s has a split personality, with half in ruins and the other half used as the Athenry Heritage Center.
Take your time wandering the grounds. There are many gravestones and monuments to honor. In addition, there are several appealing angles of St. Mary’s for photo buffs. The church is located in St. Mary’s Square. From the Market Cross, look north. Just ahead, through the arched-stone opening, is a path to St. Mary’s. Her graceful spire is easy to spot from most parts of town.
5. Athenry Dominican Priory
The remains of Athenry Dominican Priory are a treasure of architectural beauty. The stonework remaining is rare. Walking among the 700-year-old walls, you can almost hear whispered prayers.
This church was for the nobles of the area, as was the graveyard around the church. And again, Meiler de Bermingham enters the story. He built the Priory in 1241. The graves are from several centuries ago. Many have modern monuments placed by current-day relatives. Athenry Dominican Priory is located in east Athenry, and just east of the Clarinbridge River.
6. North Gate
There is only one survivor of medieval Athenry’s five town gates. Unfortunately, not much of the 16th-century structure remains. As it crumbled through the ages, the gate was patched and repaired. In 2019, it was rehabbed, emphasizing the remaining 16th-century stones, ensuring they are featured and preserved.
This gate would have restricted traffic into and out of Athenry when constructed. Today, it still controls the traffic through this one car opening. Located on North Gate Street, from the Market Cross, head northwest for one block on Burkes Lane. At Burkes Lane, turn right. You will see the gate to the northeast.
Pro Tip: To get a perfect gate photo, get up early before the traffic gets too heavy. Sunrise will also give a lovely light.
7. Market Cross
Athenry’s Market Cross is the oldest of its kind, still sitting in its original location from the 15th century. But unfortunately, the stone cross atop the marker went missing some time ago.
The carved stone monument marked the town center where people would gather and trade goods and services in an open-air market. It still serves that purpose. A farmers market assembles at this location a couple times a week. We shopped here for fresh fruit and vegetables, plus some caught-that-morning cod. We were happy to see a farmer we had purchased from in Galway’s Saturday market. Market Cross is located in the town center where Burkes Lane, Bridge Street, Cross Street, and Davis Street converge.
Pro Tip: Fill your vacation rental larder or picnic basket from the street market for a deep taste of County Galway.
8. Athenry Park
In the shadow of Athenry Castle, a lovely park offers lively playgrounds, walking paths, and tranquil waterways. The park is made for a family picnic or a romantic stroll. The fenced playground is popular with local families, and folks visiting the castle or priory across the street.
The children’s playground has well-maintained equipment, including a ground-level zip line for youngsters. Slides, merry-go-rounds, see-saws, and swings will keep the kids busy while the adults sit and chat on the playground’s park benches. To get to Athenry Park, from the Market Cross, take Bridge Street one block to the east.
Pro Tip: Bring along your own drinks and snacks. There aren’t any concessions open in the park.
9. Village Shops, Pubs, And Eateries
I loved shopping in Athenry. Just one block from my vacation rental, I had access to a food store, a butcher, pharmacy, home décor, clothing, art, and my favorite, a thrift shop. About a half-mile walk was a large supermarket with a fantastic deli.
There are several pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and takeaway eateries in the town center. For takeaway, I suggest China Palace on Old Church Street. You will be delighted at the New Park Hotel on Cross Street for exceptional food, lovely libations, and a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Try a movable feast one evening. First, stop into a pub for a before-dinner drink. Then, leave there and step into the first restaurant you see for an appetizer. Next, go to a new place for your entrée, then head out for coffee and dessert in a café. In Athenry, this won’t mean lots of walking. From the Market Cross, head south down Cross Street. You will be spoiled for choice; the street is lined with places to eat, drink, and shop on both sides.
Traveling To Athenry And Getting Around
There are direct trains from Dublin, Galway, and Limerick to Athenry. You don’t need a car in this compact town. Everything I have mentioned is within a few minutes of walking distance from one another. If you are cycling, you’ll find Athenry to be cycle-friendly. Just be super cautious on narrow streets in the town center.
If you are flying into Ireland, you will most likely arrive at DUB (Dublin International Airport) or SNN (Shannon Airport). From DUB, take an Express Bus to the Dublin train station where you can catch a direct train to Athenry. From SNN, take a bus to the Limerick train station, where you can board a direct train to Athenry.
If you are driving, Athenry is just off M6 near the junction of M6 and M18.
The medieval architecture is outstanding; some of the oldest and best preserved in Ireland. The community celebrates its heritage with great abandon at festivals and fairs each year. They invite you to do the same; they’ll even lend you a costume.
The location is ideal. Twenty minutes from Galway but worlds away from the city buzz, Athenry is the perfect home base while exploring the Wild Atlantic Way, Galway, Galway Bay, and Westport.
I give Athenry the highest compliment I can give a destination, “I will return.” I stayed 12 days and lived like a local. I was welcomed everywhere I went. Smiles and friendly greetings were always on hand. Folks were happy to help a couple of American travel writers and wandering photographers with information and suggestions. You will be treated the same.
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