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by Tadhg O'Keeffe

Remarks by Senator Martin Mansergh at the Launch of Irish Historic Towns Atlas: No. 13 Fethard, by Tadhg O'Keefe, Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin, Monday, 15 December 2003, at 5.00pm.

Photographed at the launch of 'Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 13, Fethard', in Dublin on Monday 15th December are L to R: Anngret Simms (editor, Irish Historic Towns Atlas), Tadhg O'Keeffe (author), Senator Martin Mansergh, and Michael Ryan (President, Royal Irish Academy).

Walking around Fethard looking at its historical and archaeological features in the company of the chairperson of the Fethard Historical Society Terry Cunningham last Saturday was a rather different exercise from going round the town knocking on doors. Fethard provides the juxtaposition of a modern but smallish market town breaking out of the framework of a mediaeval walled town, which originally had four gatehouses, of which just one, the Northgate, survives.

There may be different views as to how well town planning is coping with the challenges of the situation. I was amused to find in an article on the old Fethard Corporation, by Michael O'Donnell in the Tipperary Historical Journal in 1988, an order of 1711, that “John Nugent was ordered to move a wall which he lately built without authority of the corporation as it reflected on the building adjacent to it. Otherwise it shall be in the power of the corporation to remove it”. Another citizen was ordered a few years later to remove a forge, because it was too close to a line of cabins. It is interesting to note that at least there was as much sporadic vigour in the enforcement of good planning some 300 years ago!

I warmly welcome the publication of Historic Town Atlas No. 13 on Fethard, the first Co. Tipperary town to figure in the Royal Irish Academy's brilliant Historic Town series. It highlights and may lead all concerned to appreciate the value of historic Fethard, and the need to conserve it, whilst encouraging positive development in harmony with it.

Fethard along with Athenry has a substantial and impressive section of the town wall intact, facing four bridges over the Clashawley River, with a very old Church, a number of castles and the old Tholsel from the early 17th century. A number of buildings in the town with modern facades are of a shape that suggests a much older origin. I once remarked, after arriving late on a bad night some seven years ago, to the launch of a new monograph on the mediaeval funeral monuments of Co. Tipperary by Denise Maher of UCC's Archaeology Department that perhaps her next study should be on the mediaeval roadways of Co. Tipperary. I commend this to Dr O'Keeffe as well. It will be a little time yet before they are improved beyond recognition.

The town is somewhat out of the way, and is not on the main road from anywhere to anywhere. To this may be attributed the survival of so much that is ancient. If it had been more successful in the past, more development might have destroyed much of what we see today in addition to what was lost like Madam Bridge in the 19th century.

Dr. Tadhg O'Keefe is an archaeologist and historical geographer in UCD, with a particular interest in Irish Romanesque architecture. He has provided a detailed yet succinct history of Fethard, which, unlike Tipperary, is well documented back to its origins in the early 13th century. The town seems to have been well planned and laid out at the outset. The size of Holy Trinity Church might suggest anticipation of a larger community. The town wall was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, and was as much a statement about the town and its commerce as a defence, which in the l7th century the elders decided not to test against Cromwell, This earned, what were from him, some relatively benign comments.

Founded by William de Braose, then passing rapidly under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Cashel, from the 16th to mid- l8th century the key family was the Everards, an Anglo-Norman family that remained Catholic. The dominant influence passed then for a period to another family with strong French connections in the wine trade, the Bartons of Grove. The population of Fethard peaked at around 4,000 in 1841, falling by a third in the famine years, and in the latest 2002 census the count is 843. The blowing up of the military barracks in 1922 on the site of the old Everard mansion removed a significant piece of the central Streetscape.

Dr. O'Keefe has drawn on his own historical research including his own Archaeological and Historical Survey of Fethard of 1995 and pieces published by other authors in the Tipperary Historical Journal, which deal, for example, with town administration in the early 18th century, town criers, pounds, stocks, treadles, that type of thing; the Presbyterian community in the town, 1660-1860; pre-Famine Fethard in 1821; Fethard during the Famine, and General Thomas Burke born in the town, of Fenian fame. Down the old laneways, one can still reconstruct in one's imagination the cabins of the past, and appreciate the provision which came only slowly of better housing stock and civic amenities, such as street lighting, electricity, running water, sewerage, clean streets and a dispensary.

Key features of every Atlas are the maps, drawings, and photographs, especially in this case the drawings and maps of Redmond Grace in the first decade of the 18th century, supplemented by maps from the 1750s and 1760s, including a complete inventory of the owners of fields and small plots in the immediate vicinity of Fethard, which should be of much genealogical interest. The Atlas also contains early photographs of the town from around 1900 and broader aerial photographs from the end of the century.

Because Tipperary is rich in mediaeval heritage, it is important that the unique character of Fethard be properly appreciated. It is also set in some of the most fertile countryside, and is the nearest town to world-famous horse-breeding and training establishments, who contributed with others to the restoration of the town wall. Fethard's history has been relatively peaceful.

There are two very old churches in the town, Holy Trinity which goes back to the town's foundation, and the Augustinian Friary. Both will need continuing conservation. The Tholsel also needs work and above all to find a suitable use.

I recently launched a history of Carrick-on-Suir by Patrick Power over the past 200 years. Immersing oneself in the history of a town gives one great insight into its evolution and changing character, as well as throwing light on the impact of broader events. Fethard like many other towns began as an Anglo Norman town, with a population in origin largely drawn from across the water. In the course of the centuries it became a completely Irish town. The struggle for existence having eased considerably over the past half century, we can appreciate more readily the value of our heritage going into the future.

This is a wonderful series, which an institution like the Royal Irish Academy is ideally equipped to bring together, an institution that predates partition and whose remit covers the entire island. Great credit is due to the editors Anngret Simms, whom I had great pleasure in meeting at a concert in the German Embassy a week ago. H.B. Clarke of UCD and Raymond Gillespie of NUI, Maynooth, and the Consultant Editor for the series J.H. Andrews and Editorial Assistant Angela Murphy. Sarah Gearty has acted as project editor and cartographer. I look forward to future publications in the series, as there are many other towns, which would benefit from similar treatment. They are of course a hugely helpful teaching and research aid to students. Having been asked to give a lecture in Bandon next autumn, I am keen to acquire the Atlas of that town. I am glad that today it is Fethard that is in the limelight, and I hope that further fruit for the town will come from this venture.

L to R: Sarah Gearty (Cartographic Editor), Tadhg O'Keeffe (author), and Angela Murphy (Editorial Assistant).


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