Subscribe for Unlimited Access to Turtle’s History Quarter.

Includes content from Vanishing Ireland, Easter Dawn, Dublin Docklands, The Irish Pub, Maxol and many more, as well as Waterways Ireland, the Past Tracks project and hundreds of historical articles on Irish families, houses, companies and events.

Athy, County Kildare – Historical Tales

Edward the Bruce’s army invaded the region around Athy in 1316. Illustration: Derry Dillon.

The stories of Ernest Shackleton, a saviour ape, a Scottish invasion of Kildare, a World War One hero, a bare knuckle champ, amongst others, from the very first Past Tracks panel – installed in 2019 and illustrated by Derry Dillon.

Nationwide filmed an episode with Turtle guiding viewers through the panel.






Just over 700 years ago, a Scottish army invaded Athy. It was commanded by Edward the Bruce, a brother of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, who you may recall from the movies ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Outlaw King’. The Bruce brother’s game plan was to create a new empire called Greater Scotia, uniting Ireland and Scotland.

Edward was crowned High King of Ireland in 1315 but his ambitious dream ended when he was killed in battle three years later. One of his greatest victories was at Ardscull, 6km north-east of Athy, on 26 January 1316. A number of his senior officers who perished in the battle are buried at the Dominican priory in Athy.




There can be no more definitive example of stamina than the explorer Ernest Shackleton. In 1914, just as the First World War was breaking out in Europe, he sailed the Endurance south in an attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. The ship was trapped in ice and crushed, leaving its 28-man crew stranded on drifting pack ice for just over a year. With few prospects for survival, Shackleton placed a crew of five aboard a small boat and led them through 650 miles of perilous seas to find help on South Georgia Island. He then made his way back to rescue his remaining crew.

Shackleton was born in 1874 at Kilkea House near Athy into a Quaker family with a long educational history. The original garden at nearby Burtown House was planted by his cousin Isobel Fennell, whose descendants now run the Green Barn restaurant. A statue of the explorer stands outside Athy’s Shackleton Museum, opening in 2022,; its many artefacts include the wooden cabin in which he died off the coast of South Georgia.


The FitzGerald coat of arms  has a monkey perched on top. Illustration: Derry Dillon.



Athy or Baile Átha Í (“the town of Ae’s ford”) is named after Ae, a renowned warrior, who was killed in battle while crossing the River Barrow here.




The coat of arms of the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster, has a monkey perched on top of it. This honours an African ape that the family kept as an exotic pet at their castle in Athy eight centuries ago.

One day a fire broke out in a tower where a baby son of the Fitzgeralds was asleep. To the astonishment of on-lookers, the ape appeared on the battlements carrying the baby in his arms and brought him to safety. The boy’s name was John FitzGerald and he would later become the first Earl of Kildare. See Kilkea Castle story here.

I concede that this story is also claimed by other castles but those who cast doubt on its veracity should note that contemporary accounts show many aristocrats kept pet apes during this period




Athy was the birthplace of John Vincent Holland, a World War One army officer, who won a Victoria Cross for his courage in the battle of the Somme.


New York Clipper, 8 December 1883.



Peter Corcoran, Britain’s first Irish bare-knuckle champion, was born in Athy in about 1740, his father being described  ‘as poor as a parish beadle’. Promoted by Colonel O’Kelly, Peter was heavyweight champion from 1771 until 1776. [1]




In the 18th century, an Athy woman by name of Mrs Munford had nineteen sons riding in Captain Wolseley’s troop at the same time. According to a contemporary source, ’she lived to bury them all.’




The Quakers, or Society of Friends, established a major stronghold around the nearby village of Ballitore. This included a celebrated 18th century boarding school run by the Shackleton family whose past pupils included the philosopher Edmund Burke, the rebel Napper Tandy and Archdeacon Michael Kearney of Raphoe, an ancestor of Barack Obama. The explorer Ernest Shackleton descended from the school’s first headmaster.




  • Captain Thomas Lee, Elizabethan adventurer, was apparently a native of Athy, see here.
  • James Quinn, Bishop of Brisbane, born at Rathbane, near Athy), see here.
  • Edward Caulfield, who passed himself off as Miss Gore in the 1780s – see here.
  • Philip Crosthwaite (1825 –1903), who was appointed Suplente (Substitute Justice of the Peace or Mayor) of San Diego Pueblo, California, in 1847, and later purchased Rancho San Miguel, near Ensenada, Baja California. See here.
  • Dr James Christopher O’Rafferty, Mayor of Daventry – see here.
  • Benjamin Firney Readshaw, Dansville citizen – here.
  • George Lyttleton Rogers (1906-1962) tennis player, promoter and coach, here.
  • Helen Evans (1834–1903), pioneering physician, here.


With thanks to Belinda Evangelista.




[1] In Boxiana Vol 1, 82-84, the journalist Pierce Egan (1772–1849) claimed Corcoran was born at Athoye in County Carlow, as repeated by the New York Clipper, 8 December 1883, p. 628. There is no such place but Athy was considered part of the Carlow district at this time. That said, Fred Henning’s book ‘Fights for the championship: the men and their times,’ p. 68, claims Corcoran was from ‘the little village of Ballyconnerly’ (Ballyconeely?) in County Galway. See also Pugnus.