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The Castles of Ireland

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Ireland was, till almost the opening of the eighteenth century, "a land of war," and consequently is to-day a land of ruins. The number of ancient forts of which some trace remains is incredible; over 2,100 have been identified in the county of Limerick alone. Yet of these strongholds, many of which in their time became modernised fortresses or great habitations, only a few remain in repair. The castles at Dublin, Limerick, Athlone and Carrickfergus all played a notable part in Irish history, and these are still public buildings and in a sense military posts. Kilkenny Castle, the seat of the Ormond family, is almost unique as a fortress of the first magnitude which has come down by unbroken transition to be a noble mansion to-day.

In so far as castle means fortress, a division must be made between pre-Norman and post-Norman, and the former divide themselves into raths, or ring forts, of earthwork, and cahirs of drystone masonry. The difference is mainly of material, for in each case the plan was the same-a circular enclosure surrounded by a rampart. As a rule the rath had two rings, with an inner and outer ditch. Sometimes, especially in the limestone regions such as East Galway, where large flat slabs were easily procured, there was a souterrain, often of two chambers, with an entrance to the inner partially blocked, so that an intruder could be conveniently knocked on the head. The earthwork was no doubt palisaded.

Cahirs are found in great numbers along the south-west coast; nearly every promontory had one, defended seaward by the cliff. The most famous are those on the islands of Aran, and here the approach is made difficult by the pointed stones set to form chevaux de frise. These are generally considered to have been the work of the pre-Gaelic peoples, Firbolgs and other tribes whom the Gaels drove to the utmost limits of the land, beyond all regions of fertility. Stone was employed here, because there was no clay for rampart nor timber for palisade. In a few cases, of which the best known example is Staigue Fort in Kerry, near the road from Kenmare to Cahirdaniel, large forts of drystone masonry were built with no protection but their walls. These at Staigue Fort were some twenty feet high and thirteen feet thick at the base, narrowing to five at the top by a batter on both faces. At two points chambers are left in the thickness of the wall. Another example, more famous in history, is the Grianan of Ailech, a few miles from Derry, on top of the ridge which divides the Foyle valley from Lough Swilly. This was for many centuries the traditional seat of the northern Hy Neill who held, alternately with the southern branch, the High Kingship of Ireland. It is thus comparable with Tara or with Emain Macha, now called Navan Fort, near Armagh, seat of the earlier kings of Ulster. Ailech was partly thrown down by one of the O'Brien kings of Thomond in the eleventh century, and the walls now standing are a modern restoration. At Tara and at Emain Macha nothing is left but great earthworks.

None of these fortresses ever seems to have served seriously for defence. There is no story of a siege, either in Irish epic or in Irish annals of pre-Norman times, and when the Normans landed there is no record of their being opposed by walls except at Wexford, Waterford and Dublin-all of them strong holds of the "Danes," who had enclosed themselves there with wooden walls. Tradition assigns the squat circular stone tower on the quay at Waterford to Ragnal the Dane; but when Strongbow's men took the place they hewed their way in with axes at another point in the walls.

The incastellation of Ireland begins with the Normans, and its logical complement was the use of the bow and crossbow, which the Irish did not employ. Unlike the Gaels, for whom war meant overrunning a territory, driving or carrying off booty, and perhaps imposing a tribute, the Normans kept the ground which they won by erecting mottes or high mounds, with a wooden blockhouse on top, in which a few archers could hold off many times their number. Sometimes a natural mound, such as one of the eskars or sandhills of the central plain, or a rocky knoll (as at Askeaton in co. Limerick) was enclosed with a ditch and rampart. Often a rath afforded the site for a motte in the centre, and the old ramparts made outworks. This central defence, of which the blockhouse was called a bretesche, was generally circular; but the whole was enclosed in a rectangular garth or bailey, fenced to hold cattle.

As the conquerors' hold strengthened, these temporary structures were replaced by walls of stone, often with flanking towers and with a donjon keep. Later again, in the fifteenth century, banqueting halls or fortified dwelling-places were added. For instance, the ruins of Askeaton, the great stronghold of the southern Geraldines, Earls of Desmond, show two towers of early masonry to which have been added the keep and hall of the fifteenth century.

To some degree the Gaelic princes endeavoured to utilise this new military idea, and there are examples like the Caislean na Kirke, or Hen's Castle, in Lough Corrib, which was built for the sons of Rory O'Conor, the last High King of Ireland, probably with assistance from some Norman. On Lough Mask, a few miles off, is Caislean na Caillighe, Hag's Castle, a ruder attempt, also built on an island, but largely of dry-stone masonry, and recalling the work of Staigue Fort, with scarcety any jointure of mortar.

Technically, the castle of Trim, in Meath on the Boyne above Navan, may be taken as typical. Henry II in 1172 granted Meath to de Lacy, whom he left as his first Lord Deputy in Ireland. By 1173 de Lacy had built at Trim, which he chose for the seat of the lordship, a castle surrounded by a deep ditch, and he put Hugh Tyrrell in charge of it. But when Rory O'Conor advanced with an army, Tyrrell evacuated the castle and burnt what was presumably a wooden structure. Strongbow, marching up, reinforced the Normans, and Hugh Tyrrell was again put in charge to rebuild. In 1210 King John, passing north, spent two days at Trim, but dates his letters from "the meadow under Trim," so that presumably no castle was there fit to house him.

The place was besieged during the internecine wars - - between de Lacy's descendants and other Norman barons, and in 1220 William Peppard is said to have "built the Castle of Trim" - presumably the fortress now standing as a ruin. In 1224 the Lord Justice received orders from Henry III to "allow Walter de Lacy to occupy a hall, houses and chambers in the Castle of Trim, so long as the said Walter remained there for the annoyance of his and the King's enemies." On the death of Walter, his possessions passed to daughters and were broken up; but Trim remained the head of a Liberty. In 1326 John d'Arcy was Constable of the Castle, with a wage of 30 phounds, and received a penny a day each for two hostages for an Irish chief, McGeoghagan.

The castle stands in a triangular walled enclosure; one side faces the Boyne, which formerly, before drainage, washed the wall. This wall, 170 yards long, had four flanking towers, one at each angle of the defences, and two spaced out between them. The west side, giving on the town, was shorter, 116 yards, and had in it the entrance gateway, with a tower defending it, and a tower at each angle. The gate tower is grooved for a portcullis, and there appears to have been drawbridge and barbican, crossing the water ditch which ran along this wall and that of the south side-fed by a small stream. The third and longest side of the enclosure, opposite the open country, sweeps round by a curve of 192 yards from the angle tower of the west wall to the Boyne. Six towers defended it, one being over a gate, also with portcullis, giving entrance on this side. Thus the whole length of the walls was 486 yards, with ten towers and two gates.

In the north angle of the enclosure, close to the town and the river, are ruins of several buildings, no doubt the dwellings, and either a chapel or banqueting hall, which is marked by four very large windows facing the river, with niches between them to support an arched roof. The donjon is rectangular, not of the circular type, which came later. Its construction is thus described. A square of 64 feet being laid down and enclosed with walls, rectangles are constructed on the middle of each side, the sides perpendicular to the square being 20 feet and those parallel to it 24 feet. This produces a figure of twenty sides. The thickness of the walls enclosing the central square was 12 feet: that of the smaller rectangles projecting from it about 5 feet. The walls rose 60 feet above the level of the ground on all the twenty faces, while on each angle of the large central tower were built square turrets, each 16 feet high, from which missiles could be readily launched in any direction.

This fortress may be regarded as showing the best that could be done in the early thirteenth century: for Meath was the centre of the territory centring about Dublin, which Henry II from the first made his capital. Ten generations later, when the palatine power of the great earldoms was at its height, the Earls of Kildare, who virtually commanded the Pale, established their stronghold much nearer to the seat of the king's government, at Maynooth. Here during the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII the Great Earl and his successor kept their state; till the Tudor monarchy decided to make an end of their too powerful subjects. Silken Thomas, son of the ninth earl, rose in rebellion while his father was a prisoner in London, and moved freely through the country, believing this ancestral stronghold, which he had left strongly garrisoned, to be impregnable. But Skeffington, the Lord Deputy, brought down cannon, which wrecked the tower. Maynooth's fall in 1535 marked the end of feudal domination by fortresses, and established the ascendancy of the central power, which alone controlled a supply of cannon. Sieges play a great part in later Irish history, but they are all of them defences of a much larger perimeter. From the sixteenth century on, no wall could stand battery at point-blank range by the new artillery. Derry, whose walls were made immortal, was a town fortified in the seventeenth century, and it had no castle.

To review a few of the most historically interesting edifices or ruins, one may begin with Dublin Castle, which keeps little about it that is medieval. But it stands on the seaward end of a spur of firm high ground which ran down along the Liffey to the tideway and slob, and here undoubtedly the Danes first stockaded themselves; it was the germ of the city, which they enclosed with wooden walls. Meyler FitzHenry, one of the first conquerors, is said to have begun the Norman fortress, which was completed in 1220 by de Loundres, the Norman Archbishop of Dublin. It had then a single curtain wall with four flanking towers, and a moat filled by the Poddle river, which now passes unseen under the streets. One of the four original towers, now called the Record Tower, was, under the British rule, the office of the Ulster King of Arms. From the reign of Elizabeth, when Sir Henry Sidney as Lord Deputy established himself there, Dublin Castle was the seat of Irish government till the foundation of the Irish Free State. Since 1923 it has sheltered the Law Courts. It was, up to the departure of the British, in some measure a stronghold and a storehouse of arms: attempts to seize it failed in 1641, in 1803 (Emmet's rising) and in the rebellion of 1916.

More military interest attaches to Carrickfergus, which was built first in 1178 by John de Courcy, when that paladin went forth with a few score men-at-arms and conquered a little kingdom. This point of vantage on a rock thirty feet high overlooking the sea commanded what was till the end of the eighteenth century the principal harbour in Belfast Lough. De Courcy built strong; the square donjon was ninety feet high; and after he was deposed his successors the de Lacys held out here for a time in rebellion against King John. Early in the fourteenth century Edward Bruce captured the place, which had great importance for his communications with Scotland; but after his defeat and death in 1318 it remained the principal centre of English power in the northeast. Even when Tyrone, in Elizabeth's day, held all Ulster, and far more than Ulster, Carrickfergus made an English bridgehead. It changed hands often in the strife of parties during the wars of king and Parliament; and when James II was de facto King of Ireland, though not of England, it was held for him till Schomberg took it, and so prepared for June 14, 1690, when William of Orange landed and set his foot on the stone which is still held sacred. Since that day the castle of Carrickfergus has been a garrisoned stronghold.

Very different is the history of Dunluce, about three miles north of the Giant's Causeway, one of the most picturesque and famous of our ruins. Crowning a rock that projects from the main line of cliffs, to which there is access only by a narrow arch built to replace the old drawbridge, this stronghold was built by some of the McQuillans (that is MacHugolin), Norman settlers who, unlike those of County Down, had become practically a Gaelic clan. From them it passed to their overlords the MacDonnells, Lords of the Isles, who held the Glens of Antrim; and in Elizabeth's reign Sorley Boy MacDonnell was one of her toughest opponents and Dunluce his stronghold. In 1584 it was besieged for nine months before Sir John Perrott took it. This length of resistance in so narrow a space was only possible because there is a well on the rock fed by a spring, and because a cave in the seaward face gave entrance by boat at high tide to a stair leading up from it into the castle. Communication with Scotland was thus easily managed.

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