I turned to Byrne’s ‘Dictionary of Irish Local History’ for a definition of the word ‘moat’ as found in the in the Moate of Ardscull. It’s a word missing from Byrnes authorative reference book but he does deal with the word ‘motte’, a word championed by archaeologists when writing of fortified earthworks constructed by the Anglo Normans during the late 12th century. The Ardscull earthworks is generally accepted to have its origins in the late 12th or early 13th century when the Anglo Normans controlled this part of the island of Ireland. Byrne’s definition of ‘motte’ as a ‘truncated conical mound of earth often motted, palisaded and surmounted by a wooden tower, together with a lower adjoining mound or courtyard known as a bailey’ is less engaging than that included in ‘The Companions to British History’, an epic tome of thousands of definitions, facts and origins compiled by its author the late Charles Arnold Baker. This amateur historian who died last year aged 90 years defined ‘motte’ as ‘a steep sided mound covered with turf and surrounded by a ditch. The motte was topped with palisade, occasionally broken by towers, and it contained the owners house. Below there was commonly an enclosure (bailey) which might, but in early days seldom did, surround the motte. It was fortified by ditch and bank with a palisade or thorn edge. This accommodated the garrison and their animals.’
Remarkably, despite general acceptance that the Motte of Ardscull is a 12th or 13th century manmade fortification of Anglo Norman origins, no reference to this enormous structure can be found in medieval documents. It was only in Cromwellian times that a reference was found to the Ardscull Motte. In 1654 the Book of General Orders noted a request from the inhabitants of south Kildare for the State to contribute towards the cost of finishing a fort, the building of which had commenced at the Motte of Ardscull.
The motte was mentioned in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal of 1897 as standing ‘on the summit of the high ground which rises 140 feet above and 3 miles to the north east of the town of Athy.’ It rises to a height of 55 feet above ground level and as such is one of the more substantial mottes in Ireland.
If, as we believe, it was an early example of an Anglo Norman fortification then as the 13th century unfolded it led to the development of the Borough of Ardscull on a nearby site. The borough was a settlement with a right to self government and entitled its burgess holders to a burgage which was a medieval holding recognisable by a narrow street frontage and a long narrow garden behind the burgess’s house. Medieval Athy also enjoyed borough status, as did Moone village and recognisable remains of burgage holdings can still be seen at the rear of shops and houses on the southern side of Leinster Street in Athy. Unfortunately, while there were 160 burgages in the medieval borough of Ardscull, no trace of the borough remains, largely due to deep ploughing over the years which has effectively removed all evidence of the medieval settlement. Undoubtedly there are underground remains of the settlement which may in time yield up their secrets if an archaeological dig is ever undertaken in the area.
The borough would of course have had a church and reference is indeed found in the Dublin Diocesan records at the latter part of the 13th century to the Church in Ardscull which was linked with St. Patricks Cathedral in Dublin. The Church was approximately 1 km. south east of the Motte and while no feature of the Church building survives above ground there is a raised area within the graveyard which is believed to have been the Church site.
While Ardscull would appear to have formed part of the demesnes of the Lordship of Leinster it passed to the de Mohan family through the marriage of Reginald de Mohan to Isabel, the granddaughter and heiress of William Marshall who had succeeded Strongbow as Lord of Leinster. It was Marshall who founded the borough of Moone and he is also likely to have done the same at Ardscull.
The borough of Ardscull was burned in 1286 and at the same time the nearby village of Narraghmore was also destroyed. This may have prompted John de Mohan to surrender all the lands he held in the area to the English Crown in 1299. Soon thereafter the King granted Mohan’s land, which included Ardscull, to John Wogan. The Wogan family were later believed by some writers to have played a part in bringing the Dominican Order to Athy. That claim however remains unproven. Ardscull, as distinct from the Motte, figured prominently in the events of the day and in 1309, on Candlemas Day, Lord John Bonneville was killed at Ardscull by Lord Arnold Powre and his accomplices. Bonneville was buried in the Dominican Friary in Athy, as were some of those killed six years later at what we now call the Battle of Ardscull, although it took place in nearby Skerries. Murder always seemed to catch the attention of the record keepers of the day as we have an account of Thomas Wogan and Walter Lenfalt killing thirty of the O’Dempseys of Laois at Ardscull on the Feast of St. Clement in 1346. The borough of Ardscull was to disappear almost without trace and certainly without any record of its passing, while the neighbouring village of Athy retained its position as the most important Anglo Norman settlement in south Kildare.
William Beaufort who lived in Athy in the latter part of the 18th century wrote articles, not always favourably received, on matters of archaeological and historical interest. He prepared a drawing of the Moate of Ardscull and produced a detailed description of the ancient fortification which was included in a revised edition of ‘Camden’s Brittania’, published in 1789. It referred to two apartments in which Beaufort discovered nearly 2 feet beneath the surface a fire hearth and the foundations of other buildings which unfortunately have all since been removed. They may have been linked with the Cromwellian fort work which were the subject of a petition in 1654.
Even the name ‘Ardscull’ provides unanswered questions for there is no general agreement as to its meaning. John O’Donovan in his Ordnance Survey Letters written in 1837 described the large fort at Ardscull as nothing remarkable except for its size and commanding situation, an opinion which would not be shared by many historians today. ‘Ard Scol’ he translated as ‘Hill of the Shouts’ or ‘Hill of the Heroes’ as the site of a battle between the Leinster men and the Munster men in the 2nd century which was mentioned in the Book of Lecan.
On Easter Sunday the local churches came together at sunrise on the Moate of Ardscull to celebrate Christian unity. The last time the Moate had witnessed such numbers was in more warlike days. Briefly and for a short time only early on that Sunday morning the site of the ancient medieval settlement was once again the centre of community activity as it had been many centuries before.