31 October 2016
Trim Castle on the banks of the River Boyne in Co Meath looks for all the world like the ideal castle for a mediaeval block-buster, peopled with valiant warriors and cloistered monks. And it has been. Mel Gibson and the makers of Braveheart chose Trim Castle as their location.
But history is always more impressive than fiction – or movies – and I walked around Trim Castle, towering above the banks of the River Boyne, early one afternoon this weekend when I stopped there on my way to visit friends who live near the neighbouring Navan.
Trim Castle is the largest, the best-preserved and the most impressive Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. In the Middle Ages, this was a strong symbol in stone of Anglo-Norman strength and power at the edges of the Pale.
In Irish, Trim was known as áth Truim or ‘The Ford of the Elder Trees,’ indicating how this was once an important crossing point on the River Boyne, with a local chieftain’s fort and an early monastery on the site.
Shortly after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, King Henry II granted the Kingdom of Meath to Hugh de Lacy, along with custody of Dublin in 1172 as he tried to curb the expansionist policies of Richard de Clare, best remembered in Irish history as Strongbow.
For strategic reasons, Hugh de Lacy decided to make Trim, rather than Drogheda, the centre of his newly acquired lordship. He converted a ringfort into a wooden castle with a spiked stockade, but this structure was seen as a threat to the Gaelic Irish and in 1174 Rory O Connor, King of Connacht and last High King of Ireland, attacked and destroyed the castle.
The following year, work began on a more permanent stone replacement and over the following decades Hugh de Lacy and his son Walter built the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Europe.
Initially a stone keep, or tower, replaced the wooden fortification. Work on building the massive three-storeyed keep, the central stronghold of the castle, began ca 1176 on the site of an earlier wooden fortress. This massive 20-sided tower, which is cruciform in shape, was protected by a ditch, curtain wall and moat.
The keep was remodelled and then surrounded by curtain walls and a moat. The wall, punctuated by several towers and a gatehouse, fortified an area of about three acres. Walter de Lacy’s castle was completed by about 1224.
The unique 20-sided cruciform design of the keep, with walls that are three metres thick, typifies the experimental military architecture of the day. This keep was both the domestic and administrative centre of the castle.
When Walter de Lacy died in 1241, Trim Castle was inherited by his grand-daughter Mathilda (‘Maud’). When Mathidla died in 1304, her second husband, Geoffrey de Geneville, Lord of Vaucouleurs in France, entered the Priory at Saint Mary’s in Trim. Trim then passed to their oldest daughter, Joan. In 1301, she married Roger Mortimer and the castle passed to the Mortimer family.
The next phase of building and expansion of Trim Castle came at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, when a new great hall was built, with an under-croft and attached solar in a radically altered curtain tower. A new forebuilding and stables were also added to the keep.
During the late Middle Ages, Trim Castle was the centre of administration for Meath and marked the outer northern boundary of The Pale. King Richard II stayed there before being deposed in 1399. Richard II left behind two boys as wards: Prince Hal later became Henry V, while Humphrey of Gloucester later became known as the ‘Good Duke’; the guests were housed in the gate-tower at the drawbridge.
The Mortimer family continued to hold Trim Castle until 1425, when the descendants of Roger Mortimer died out.
The estate passed to the next heir in the female line, Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York and great-grandson of Edward III. He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, and in 1461, Richard’s son, King Edward IV, appointed Germyn Lynch of London to be his representative at Trim.
During the 15th century, the Irish Parliament met in Trim Castle seven times, notably in 1465 when it passed a law authorising the beheading of all robbers or those under suspicion of robbery.
By 1500, Trim Castle was in decline, but it remained an important outpost on the north-west edges of the Pale. Much of its fabric has remained unchanged since then. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, Trim Castle had declined in importance, except as a potentially important military site, and the castle soon began to deteriorate.
The castle was refortified during the Confederate and Cromwellian wars in the 1640s. After the Drogheda was sacked in 1649, the garrison of Trim fled to join other Irish forces and Trim was occupied by Cromwell’s army.
After the wars of the 1680s, the castle was granted to the Wellesley family who held it until Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who received his early schooling in Trim, sold it to the Leslie family.
From the Leslie family, Trim Castle passed through the Encumbered Estates Court into the hands of the Plunkett family of Dunsany Castle. They left the lands open and from time to time allowed various uses, with part of the Castle Field rented for some years by the Town Council as a town dump.
The Plunketts of Dunsany held Trim Castle and the surrounding until 1993. After years of discussion, Lord Dunsany sold the land and buildings to the State, retaining only river access and fishing rights.
The Office of Public Works began a major programme of exploratory works and conservation, costing over €6 million, including partial restoration of the moat and the installation of a protective roof. The castle re-opened to the public in 2000.
There was some local controversy in 2003 when the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Martin Cullen, decided not to oppose a five-storey hotel being built across the road from the castle despite the opposition of local councillors and heritage bodies.
The surviving curtain walls of Trim Castle were built in three phases. The west and north sides of the enceinte are defended by rectangular towers, including the Trim Gate, dating from the 1170s. The Dublin gate was erected in the 1190s or in the early 13th century. The remaining wall to the south with its round towers dates to the first two decades of the 13th century.
The castle has two main gates. The gate in the west side dates to the 1170s and sits on top of a demolished wooden gateway. The upper stories of the stone tower were altered to a semi-octagonal shape, ca 1200. The Dublin Gate in the south wall is a single round towered gate with an external barbican tower. It dates from the 1190s or the early 13th century and is the first example of its type to be built in Ireland.
Apart from the keep, the main structures that survive to this day consist of:
1, An early 14th century three-towered fore work defending the keep entrance and including stables within it. This is accessed by a stone causeway crossing the partly filled-in ditch of the earlier ringwork.
2, A huge late 13th-century three aisled great hall, with an under croft beneath its east end opening via a water gate to the river.
3, A stout defensive tower, turned into a solar in the late 13th century at the north angle of the castle.
4, A smaller aisled hall, added to the east end of the great hall in the 14th or 15th century.
5, A building that may have been the mint and that was added to the east end of the smaller aisled hall.
6, Two 15th or 16th-century stone buildings added inside the town gatehouse.
7, Some 17th-century buildings, added to the end of the hall range and to the north side of the keep.
8, A series of lime kilns, one dating from the late 12th century, the remainder from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Trim Castle is open in November and December on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a small entrance charge.
When I first met the late Father Sean Fortune I was deeply disturbed.
I was asked to be an external examiner on a PLC (Post-Leaving Certificate) course in journalism he was teaching in Dublin.
Initially, I was disturbed by the exam papers and assignments which indicated an inconsistent approach to designing and delivering the course and a less than professional approach to marking and assessing the examinations and assignments.
He protested when I decided to be more rigorous and more thorough than most external examiners. In a completely unprofessional way, he entered the room where I was working on my own, and engaged me in personal conversation.
I had never met him before and I had no reason to question his integrity and professionalism. But I was already uncomfortable.
By then I was a senior journalist with The Irish Times and I was not going to be challenged about my professional and academic judgment. But I caught the whiff of a Wexford accent, and with polite curiosity I casually asked which part of Wexford he was from.
He lied to me.
He had no reason to lie to me.
But that morning he told me was from Wexford Town.
At the time, I did not know he was from Gorey in north Co Wexford. I had lived in Wexford Town, on both School Street and High Street.
I asked him which part of Wexford Town he was from.
With a straight face, and looking me in the eyes, he answered immediately: ‘John Street.’
Generations of Comerfords lived on John Street. It is on the other side of the mediaeval walls of Wexford from High Street. They had moved there from Bunclody in the 19th century, and a large chunk of the old town wall separated the back garden of the house I had lived in on High Street from a short stretch of John Street between the Friary and Rowe Street Church. I had lived only a stone’s throw from houses in John Street where members of my own family had lived.
Without realising what I was doing, I quickly retorted, in an immediate and unguarded response: ‘John Street? Above or below the Cock?’
He stared at me blankly.
He had no idea what I was talking about. In retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, he probably thought I was not only being rude but had some innate insights into his criminal behaviour.
But I knew from his stare he had lied to me. He was not from John Street.
Within a short space of time, the whole tragic tale of Father Sean Fortune would unfold, and he would bring about his own sad demise.
One of the true tests of whether you are from Wexford town is to know whether you from above or below the Cock. The others include whether you can properly pronounce the name of the Faythe, and whether you know about the Gondolas in the Crescent.
Because I had lived on School Street and on High Street, I was told that I was very definitely from below the Cock.
The Cock on John Street determines your identity and your place in Wexford. I had been involved in Wexford Wanderers, the town’s rugby and cricket club. But I knew the Cock decides who you supported in football and hurling – the John Street Volunteers or the Faythe Harriers.
It is a division that goes back more than two centuries to 1798, and the organisation of the John Street Volunteers during the Rising.
On Friday afternoon, I could not resist photographing the Cock in Upper John Street in Wexford. It is a disused wall-¬mounted cast¬-iron fountain, dated 1854, and designed on a half¬-octagonal plan.
The fountain was erected by John Greene, who was Mayor of Wexford in 1854. Long before town planning, streetscaping and public water systems, he had a vision for supplying clean water to the people of the town, raising the quality of life and the standards of living of Wexford’s growing population
He died in 1890, and today the Cock is easy to pass by without noticing.
Earlier in the day, as I walked along the Quay in Wexford under a bright blue autumnal sky, the tide was out at the Crescent, and there was more silt than water in this landmark part of the town.
It was the Wexford Festival Opera, and I recalled the apocryphal story of the Wexford town councillor who proposed during an early opera in the 1960s that because an Italian opera was being staged in the Theatre Royal in High Street it would be appropriate to put a gondola in the waters of the Crescent.
Not to be outdone, one of his political rivals got to his feet and asked why two gondolas could not be placed in the Crescent. Then, when the festival was over, they could breed, and we would have generations of gondolas for festivals for generations to come.
A third councillor was quick to ask why go to such expense? Everyone knows if we had two gondolas in the Crescent, he quipped, they would get very friendly and soon fly off to breed in Venice, never to return again.
Wexford still has no gondolas/. But true Wexford people know where to find the cock in John Street.