Athy was initially developed as part of the Anglo-Norman settlement in Ireland. The Anglo-Norman invaders led by Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, also better known as Strongbow, whom had been recruited by Diarmuid Mac Murchada the former King of Leinster whom had been expelled from Ireland. Most of the province of Leinster came under Stongbow’s control. He granted lands in the area of Athy to Robert de St. Michael who was created Baron of Rheban. The St Michaels family built Woodstock Castle in the early years of the thirteenth century near the ancient river crossing of Ath-Ae. The construction of this fortress in a strategic location was a necessary defence against the native Irish who had been dispossessed of their lands by the Anglo-Norman settlers. Fortifications usually consisted of earthen banks topped with palisades but were later replaced by stone walls.
The first castle built on the site was probably of wood which was replaced in time by the stone building which still stands as a lonely sentinel guarding the west bank of the River Barrow. It is rather ironic that the castle which once served to protect the town from the native Irish is now itself protected from the same people by a steel fence. Most of the larger windows appear to have been bricked in, the structure itself seems solid.As originally constructed Woodstock Castle was a rectangular keep which in architectural terms might be more correctly described as a “Hall Keep”. It is a classical example of an Anglo Norman construction of the early 13th century and it was the Manor Castle of Woodstock and played a large part in the development of Athy, especially in the medieval years.
It would have been Woodstock Castle that the Friars of the Holy Cross came in the early years of the 13th century to establish their monastery. The area in which that monastery was located was known as St. John’s, a name still retained for the laneway which runs parallel to Duke Street. The future town, then a mere village, was taking shape on the west bank of the River and in 1253 the Dominican Order founded a second monastery in the area, now known as The Abbey at the rear of Emily Square. Some local stories claim that there is an underground passage between the castle and White Castle. It is believed that Roe O’Neill spent a night at the castle for a meeting of the Confederation. The inner walls of the castle were removed and used to build the Town Hall. One of the windows still remains in the Castle. Another tale of Woodstock Castle, tells of a monkey which saved Tomas, the son of Maurice Fitzjohn from a fire in the castle. Afterwards he introduced the monkey to his crest in recognition of the deed. Today, the monkey appears on the Kildare Arms Stone in White’s Castle.