The name Athy commemorates a 2nd century battle between the Munster chieftain Ae and King Lewy. The local chieftan was killed, and the town was named Ae Ford Town, or Baile Ache Hi in Gaelic, which was later anglicised to Bally Athy, and shortened to Athy.
Growing from an Anglo-Norman settlement, the town developed into important military outpost, marking the border of The Pale, the name given to a Dublin-centred region on the east coast that was ruled by England. The Earls of Kildare – a famous and historically important Irish peerage – were for centuries landlords of Athy. The town’s importance grew with the completion of the Grand Canal in 1791, linking it directly to the heart of the capital.
St. Michael's, a 14th century church, is the oldest ecclesiastical site in the town, though some of the vestry and sidewalls have disappeared. The St. Michael family were lords of Athy at this time, and were probably founders of the church. Athy is also famous for being the home of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who was born in nearby Kilkea House. An exhibition in the Athy Heritage Center, houses some interesting articles from Shackleton's expeditions. Athy is also popular for its fishing, offering salmon and trout on the Grand Canal and the River Barrow.