Although the town of Fethard is not now of any great importance compared to ancient times, it was at one time a rather prosperous merchant settlement. The name was originally Fid ard i.e. high wood.
The fact that the letter ‘d’ in the first word was pronounced in the anglicised form of the name proves that the areas was colonised by early Norman settlers before 1250 at least. Up to that point the sound of what is now ‘dh’ in modern Gaelic was pronounced unlike the modern practice of eliding the sound.
And so it seems very likely that Fethard had an early Norman settlement. Some speculation has taken place about where the wood in question was. It has been said that the town-land of grove nearby was the wood. Maybe this is true, but it is seems unlikely. It is more likely that the wood was just where the town is now and always was from the beginning.
Our ancestors did not have the habit of naming places falsely as we do, for example, when we find a street called Hawthorn Drive and there is not even the ghost of a hawthorn there, or even the memory of one. It is interesting also to note that while the name Fethard became the official English form of the name, the form “Ffyard,” representing the later and modern pronunciation of the place name occurs in a later medieval document.
It has been said that the town came into being in 1376, but it was certainly there before that date. The fact that the Augustinian Abbey was founded there in 1300 also proves that. The Canons Regular of St. Augustinian, as they were called, had a very large number of abbeys in Ireland and were organised in many ways like the Benedictines. At times the two Orders, or rather the Canons Regular and the Cistercians have been confused.
The first names of some of the merchant families of Fethard are to be found in the 14th century. For example, in 1338, there is mention of Maurice Rothe Kyle, i.e. Red Maurice Kyle, who bought some property in Carrick-on-Suir. In 1395 there is mention of Nicholas Everard of Fethard, a surname that is associated with the town for centuries. The family name of Walsh also turns up.
In 1376 the murage permission was granted to Fethard, i.e. the citizens were allowed to build walls around their town. This is an index of the commercial importance of the town at this stage. Goods being brought to the town had to go by road because there was no navigable river to carry them. The principal link with the outside world was with Kilsheelan and the great highway of the Suir. The pack animals, laden down with goods, travelled from Kilsheelan to Ballyboe, where there had been a strong-point since early Norman times. The old church of Templetney was passed and so on to Kiltinan where the road passed underneath the castle which towered above it on its rocky perch. Finally Fethard was reached. The roads were appallingly rough and almost impassable in bad weather. It is strange to relate that the great Roman art of road-building, not only never reached Ireland, but was much neglected by the new Christian states that succeeded the Roman Empire. It could be true to say that commercially the medieval town of Fethard was probably isolated from about November to April.
The language of the people of Fethard seems to have been Gaelic, although after 1367 an effort was made to prevent the descendants of the original settlers speaking the old language. This was a failure. In Fethard there was the “Capulmarket” i.e. the Horse-market. There is mention of “Borebalistret” i.e. “Barr a bhaile street” i.e. the streets at the top of the town. Both these places were alongside one another. Tradition has preserved the name “Sparra go leith” i.e. gate and a half, for the still-standing north gate of the town. This apparently refers to the fact that we had a postern gateway and the main gate here.