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IRISH HISTORIC TOWNS ATLAS No.13, Fethard
by Tadhg O'Keeffe

Remarks by Dr Willie Nolan at the Launch of Irish Historic Towns Atlas: No. 13 Fethard, at the Abymill Theatre, Fethard, on Saturday, 7 February 2003, at 8.30pm.


Photographed at the launch of 'Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 13, Fethard', in the Abymill Theatre, Fethard, on Friday 7th February are L to R: Terry Cunningham (chairman Fethard Historical Society), Michael Ryan (President, Royal Irish Academy). Tadhg O'Keeffe (author), Willie Nolan (who officially launched the atlas) and Anngret Simms (editor, Irish Historic Towns Atlas). Fethard is the thirteenth town to be produced as part of the prestigious Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA), series, a Royal Irish Academy publication and research project.

The Irish Historic Towns Atlas project brings a significant European dimension to research on the evolution and morphology of towns in Ireland- A recommendation in 1968 by the international Commission for the History of Towns, a body founded in 1955; that member countries proceed to publish historic town atlases was accompanied by a set of guidelines concerning the content and layout of such atlases. The diffusion of the atlas project of Ireland is dated initially to a conference 'Irish towns and medieval Europe' held at University College Dublin in 1978. By 1981, after I presume many meetings, the Council of the Royal Irish Academy had agreed to publish the atlas in its constituent fascicles and the government agreed to pay funds for the employment of a cartographic editor. The noted international scholar of cartography, J.H. Andrews, was the author of the first atlas in the series - that for the historic town of Kildare in 1986, since then thirteen fascicles have been published including the subject of tonight's launch, Fethard.

Editorial responsibility has resided in a number of key people, without whom the project would neither have got off the ground nor survived the years. Central from the beginning was Anngret Simms - whom we may refer to as the driver - J. H. Andrews and Mary Davies and they were later followed by Howard Clarke and Raymond Gillespie. Projects need co-ordination and central to the Atlas's continuity has been the work of Sarah Gearty and latterly Angela Murphy who, to use a work metaphor, 'mind the shop'.

Fethard, No.13 in the Irish Towns Atlas series, now proudly joins Kilkenny as the representatives of the south-east of Ireland where the traces of the European heritage are particularly evident Francis McManus once said of County Kilkenny, that Norman castles dotted the landscape like rivets on a shield and the same may be stated of south Tipperary. A book such as this is a wonderful thing: it abolishes time and pulls back the veil of history to reveal the very foundations of this intriguing place. Tadhg O'Keeffe has utilised, with the skill of the master craftsman he is, every possible clue to the beginnings of the town, the identity of its creators and the possible model they based the infant town's morphology on. His section on the topographical development of the town is supplemented by wonderful drawings - Tadhg is one of the few academics who possess the traditional sketching skills of the early topographical artists. We can all now take possession of Fethard and it is indeed of interest to observe that the towns of Ireland may now and in future times be the only 'open spaces' we can access in our rapidly closing countryside.

Fethard, as Tadhg shows, was a small, compact place- the central castle, the parish church, the Augustinian Canons within walls. The walls when finished were 1.1 kilometres in length and enclosed an area of 7.5 hectares in size. His dating of the various phases in wall construction from the late thirteenth to the late fifteenth century suggests that Fethard waxed and waned as economic cycles prevailed. Accorded charters in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, respectively, Fethard's patrons were the Everard family and we get the sense of paternal renaissance men who were parliamentarians and ecclesiastics with a great feeling for their town where old limestone retained the heat of the sun.

Exile and political tribulations reduced the Everard patrimony and eventually the town was sold to the Barton family in 1757. Yet the political representation for much of the eighteenth century was held by the Callaghans subsequently of Shanbally Castle near Clogheen. The reproduction in this fascicle of estate maps compiled in the early eighteenth century enable us to visualise the integration of the town with its contiguous fields in the pre-enclosure age. Population growth did not overwhelm the place in the nineteenth century and Fethard became a garrison town with the Bartons and afterwards the Ponsonbys keeping an eye on the place from their vantage point at Grove which may have been the earliest settlement hereabouts. The survival of so much of the medieval fabric sadly represents relative failure in an economic sense for the bypassed town; one has to place Fethard in the regional context of thriving Kilkenny and Clonmel and the smaller towns of Callan and Fethard's sister, Cashel.

Tadhg O'Keeffe was an inspired choice to write this fascicle. His talents defy categorisation - he straddles the disciplines - from Dublin but of Cork as his name proclaims. He is not the first person of Corkonian descent to make his way to Tipperary whether to watch Tipp beat Cork in a Munster Hurling Final at Thurles or to train horses or milk cows on the rich pasturelands of Middlethird. If he had kept on his hurling career he could be defender, midfielder, forward and goalkeeper. In our own humble imprint we have been honoured to have published Tadhg. I was present at the launch of his splendid book on Romanesque Ireland on 23 November, which deals so comprehensively with Cashel's ecclesiastical gem, Cormac's Chapel, and its companion building on the Rock. A passionate scholar with enormous energy, I on behalf of Tipperary salute him for Fethard, and thank Margaret for providing him with scholarly support and Evan for giving him the odd quiet hour for his endeavours.

I wish also to refer to some of the people who have measured and traversed Fethard in other days, some of whom are listed in the fine bibliography to the Atlas. Michael O'Donnell, a native of Fethard, is a one person institute who has made an enormous contribution to the history of his own town through the pages of The Tipperary Historical Society Journal. Olivia Hughes published a most endearing little book Fethard and its churches in 1987. Tadhg as a student of culture would love her uncovering of the true Fethard and I quote:

“There was all the appearance of a religious community. However, as it seemed to me, the real interest of the Fethard people then, as is now, was horses and dogs.”

In 1989 Mary Healy's For the Poor and for the Gently was published by Geography Publications. It was an extraordinary account by a Kilkenny woman who came to work as a servant in Grove House, settled in Fethard and wrote an engaging honest account of coming to terms with the town and its people.

Just a hundred years ago the Augustinian priest, Rev J.A. Knowles, published his Fethard its abbey etc. He saw the ruins not as a clue to the town's morphology but as evidence of a disturbed past and the destruction of the Catholic nation. I quote:

“What sweet and hallowed memories crowd in upon us, as we look upon those stained relics of a past that is written in letters of blood on the dark and sorrowful pages of Ireland's history.”

Later on in the book he positioned Fethard in history (as the Atlas does again in 2004):

It is however to the days that are gone that Fethard points with joy and pride. Few towns, if any, in this country can boast of such interesting almost fascinating records of the past. Many more important centres of population would feel elated to be able to recount the glories that once were the inheritance of this town now unhappily bereft of most of them.

Archbishop Fennelly writing to Fr. Knowles from the Palace, Thurles on 22 April 1903 congratulated him on his work and purchased copies of his book: As an earnest of my desire that the good work you have done for Fethard should be done for every historic centre in Tipperary, I ask you to send on twenty copies of your book, for which, please find herewith an adequate enclosure'.

Tugann sé áthas ó chroí dom on leabhar seo a laimseáil.

Willie Nolan.



Photographed at the launch of 'Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 13, Fethard', in the Abymill Theatre, Fethard are L to R: Clodagh Ryan and Margaret Quinlan (Clonmel)

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