Some of you might remember my visit to St. Mullins recently, well on the way I passed through Carlow town and spotted a part of this Castle rising up above the towns rooftops in the distance. And so my curiosity got the better of me as it does, I just had to take a detour and check it out. It’s quite easy to find, just a short distance from the river Barrow. Carlow Castle rests on what was once a large rock like island surrounded by Marshlands and flood water from the nearby river. In fact the original name for Carlow, Ceatharlach in Gaelic means ‘stone-on-the-lake’. And that’s exactly what the site of this Norman era Castle would have looked like prior to its construction in the 13th century. With its natural defensive features this was without a doubt the perfect place to build such a Castle. Today the environment has changed greatly and the remains of this Norman Castle sit quietly in between modern day ‘Castle Hill‘ & ‘Mill Lane’. Carlow Castle was a large rectangular three-story limestone keep, dating from the early 13th century. A towered keep, where a huge rectangular tower is surrounded by four smaller three-quarter-circular towers at the corners of the rectangle there is no towered curtain, no gate house, and no undivided great hall. It is quite an unusual find for a castle of this time in Ireland as many of its neighbours would have been more of a fortified Tower house. The view from the west side of the castle is quite stunning, with its west wall still intact and a tower at each end. But this is where it all ends, sadly this is pretty much all that remains of this once fine fortification. As mentioned it was built on a large rocky section of ground, so there are no actual foundations here. The large crenulated walls which once enclosed the castle, ran between four towers. The main entrance in the west wall is at the first floor level, but is now broken out. The original floor plans seen to closely resemble the Castles an Ferns in Co, Wexford and Lea Castle in Co. Laois.
So how did this fantastic structure come to be? Well to answer that question please bear with me as we have to go back to before the Norman invasion of Ireland and the middle of the 12th century, when the Gaelic controlled island of Ireland had not one king but five. Yes, five kings, well four kings and the Ard na Rí/High King. Each ruled their respective province of Ireland, Mumhan or Munster to the South, Laighin or Leinster to the East, Connacht to the west and Ulaid or Ulster in the North, and finally, Mide or Meath (the seat of the Ard na Rí at Tara) in the centre. Each king although responsible for their own province were answerable to the Ard Rí and in keeping with the ancient tradition of Ireland, could be disposed of or sacked from their position if deemed to be not doing a good job. During the middle of the 12th century Diarmaid mac Murchadha was the King of Leinster, his seat was at Ferns Castle in County Wexford. After a dispute with Tighearnán Ua Ruairc the King of Breifne, over his alleged kidnapping of Tighearnán’s wife Derbforgaill, Diarmuid fell afoul of the High King Ruaidri Ua Conchobair, whom in turn disposed of Diarmuid by removing his right to rule Leinster. The location of the deciding battle between Ruaidri and Diarmuid’s armies is unknown, but believed to have taken place in either the Carlow or Wexford area, possibly at Fiodh Dorcha ( Dark Wood ) near Clonegal. After losing his kingship Diarmuid ran off to England seeking the support of Henry II to reclaim his kingdom. Henry at the time had no interest in helping Diarmuid as he had his own difficulties to deal with including rebellion by two of his sons in France. He did however give Diarmuid a Royal Decree, which gave the Kings blessing to any of the Anglo-Norman Lords whom wished to help him. Eventually a down on his luck Norman Lord, Richard De Clare, the Earl of Pembroke also known as Strongbow agreed to help the cause and was joined by his half-brothers Robert Fitz-Stephen and Maurice FitzGerald.
In return Diarmuid promised Strongbow, his daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage, which would make the Earl, King of Leinster on Diarmuid’s death. So in 1169 the Norman forces landed in Wexford and so began the Norman Conquest of Ireland. Diarmuid died 1 May 1171 and did not live long enough to enjoy his reclaimed kingship. He was buried in Ferns Cathedral, where his grave can be seen in the outside graveyard. An so Richard and Aoife had two children Gilbert de Clare, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, whom as a child died in 1185, and Isabel de Clare, , who became Countess of Pembroke in 1185 (on the death of her brother) until her own death in 1220. Now Henry whom was facing major troubles in France also became worried about the success of Strongbow and his Norman lords were having in Ireland and arranged a second invasion to ensure that they did not establish their own kingdoms and remained loyal to the crown. In order to protect their new territory the Norman invaders began to build fortifications at various strategic positions. and Carlow was one of these structures. By the middle of the 14th century over 150 Norman castles had been built in Ireland. The site of Carlow Castle was said to have once had a religious settlement in its place. Upon which the first Norman fortification which was probably a common Motte and Bailey structure was erected by Hugh De Lacey for John de Clahull who held the lands of Carlow around 1181AD. In 1189AD Isabel De Clare, Strongbow and Aoife’s only surviving child married the up and coming solider William Marshall whom became the Earl of Pembroke by marriage and later Lord of Leinster. He was not only a great solider, but astute politician whom served under four Kings of England and prospered immensely with Isabel as a result.
And so back to our story of Carlow Castle. By 1200 – 1210 John de Clahull had lost control of Carlow and William Marshal had taken his place in Carlow as lord of Leinster. It was William Marshall whom is said to have been responsible for the reconstruction of the Castle at Carlow, from a most likely Wooden Motte & Bailey, to a fine Stone Castle. The towers were as thick as twenty-five feet and they rose higher than the battlements, which is no mean task even today as the castle has no foundations. The finished inner castle is said to have measured 16 X 9.2 metres and the four towers had a diameter of 15 feet (4.6 m), and the walls were 9 feet thick. The inner castle had three storeys and timber was used for the upper floors. The long west wall incorporated a number stairways and two latrines. It is said that Marshall wished to create a market town that could trade with other towns situated along the river Barrow. And the castle served as a strategic defence and administrative post for the garrisoned town. Throughout the following years Carlow Castle played an important role in the history of the town. In 1361 the Duke of Clarence and Judiciary of Ireland moved the exchequer from Dublin and relocated it at Carlow. As a result they spent £500 in strengthening the fortifications, which would have been huge money at the time. However due to the unstable environment in the area due to continuous raids by the remaining Gaelic clans, it was decided to return the exchequer back to the safety of Dublin.
The castle was handed back to the crown in 1306, and then granted some six years later to Thomas Plantagenet in 1312. In 1397 Carlow was taking by suprise when one of the Kavanaghs, named Donald McArt, who claimed the title ‘King of Leinster,’. The Castle stayed in his possesion for a number of years. The town continued to suffer attacks from hostile clans and tribes such as MacMurrough Kavanagh’s (whom were descendants of Diarmaid mac Murchadha), the O’Toole’s, O’Byrne’s, O’Lalor’s and the O’Moore’s. In 1494 the castle was attacked and actually seized by James Fitzgerald of Kildare ( the Geraldine’s/Earls of Kildare where one of the original Norman families whom went native and were said to have become ‘more Irish, than the Irish themselves’,). With the introduction of the siege gun to Ireland in 1488, these stone castles became vulnerable and relatively useless as strongholds. Among those who over the next 150 years were to lay siege to the castle were Silken Thomas (one of the Fitzgerald’s) in 1534, By 1537 the Crown again took control of the Castle due to absent landlords. Then Rory Oge O’Moore whom was in rebellion against Elizabeth I, attacked in 1577, even though the town had been extremely well fortified, they were unable to sustain the long siege and eventually submitted. Some say that Rory had much of the towns garrison put to the sword. By 1616 the Earl of Thomond, Donogh O’Brien bought the castle. Sir Morgan Kavanagh (a descendant of mac Murchadha) attacked in 1641. In 1642, a detachment from the Duke of Ormond’s army rescued 500 Englishmen, who were imprisoned in the castle, where they were said to be almost starved to death.
Then the next historical reference concerning the castle is in 1650 when the Castle was taken over by the scourge that was Oliver Cromwell, but it would seem that instead of laying waste to the Castle as he did with so many others, he actually returned it to the Earl of Thomond, Murrogh O’Brien. Despite its numerous attacks and violent history Carlow Castle remained in fairly good condition, that is until 1813 when the then owners, the Hamilton family leased the property to a Dr. Philip Parry Price Middleton. He is said to have spent £2000 to make the Castle habitable, but in an attempt to convert it to a lunatic asylum, on 13th February 1814 the good doctor used explosives under the eastern wall , the wall collapsed and brought down the east towers and adjoining walls. Thus destroying much of the 600 year old castle. In hindsight perhaps it should have been the doctor, whom needed admittance to an asylum? Back in the late 1990’s some major landscaping on the castle grounds was carried out which included tree planting where the former castle walls once stood. Today all that’s remains of this once fortress is the outer face of the west wall and the two neighbouring towers. There is a nice walkway throughout with a number of interesting plaques which outline the history of the town. Access to the two remaining towers is blocked by one of the Ruinhunters age old enemies, the locked Iron gate. But on this occasion I was not too bothered as the towers have become home to numerous pigeons. Thankfully the castle remains are now protected as a National Monument.