Ferns – the one with the unusual round tower

Ferns, Co. Wexford is a fascinating place in its own right and I plan to write a little bit more about it soon. For now, I’ll concentrate on the round tower which is is part of the site.

Ferns is closely associated with Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmaid MacMurchada), the King of Leinster who was deposed from his throne in 1166. In an effort to regain his title and his lands, he travelled abroad in either 1167 or 1168 to seek help from King Henry II of England. This led to some Anglo-Norman Lords from south Wales invading Ireland in 1169/1170 and the beginnings of English involvement in Ireland.

Dermot MacMurrough's Grave
The final resting place(?) of Dermot MacMurrough. The grave is marked with the broken shaft of a high cross.

MacMurrough is also associated with the Augustinian Abbey which is where the round tower comes into the picture. The Abbey was founded by him in 1158 but was burned around 1160. MacMurrough had it rebuilt. Presumably the tower/belfry was built at this time. The Abbey was plundered in the 14th century during the wars triggered by Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward invading Ireland. It was still in existence in the 16th century when King Henry VIII was suppressing the monasteries. It was recorded at the time as consisting of a church and belfry, a dormitory, a chapter house and a hall. The Abbey had 600 acres of land at the time.

Ruins of Abbey and Round Tower in Ferns. St. Edan's Cathedral is in the background
Ruins of Abbey and Round Tower in Ferns. St. Edan’s Cathedral is in the background

These days, all that remains is the belfry (round tower) and the ruins of its attached church. Because the tower isn’t free-standing like most round towers and is only round for its upper half, there are some who don’t consider it to be a proper round tower. On the other hand, there are some examples of towers with unusual shaped bases and which are attached to churches. Or as Brian Lalor puts it in his book “If it isn’t an early medieval Round Tower, than what is it?”. It has similarities with the free-standing round tower at Kinneigh, Co. Cork. All of which are good enough for me.

The tower has a doorway and a brick spiral staircase can be seen through the locked gate. It is believed that the internal staircase dates from the 17th century

Click on a thumbnail below to open the gallery

Getting There

The tower is in the middle of a field behind St. Edan’s Cathedral. There is plenty of street parking nearby.

Is it worth visiting? Absolutely. Aside from the ruins here, there is lots to see in Ferns. Seeing as I’m confined to the house because of Covid-19, I might just write about it next.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 18.24
Square Base: 2.9m x 2.9m
Diameter of base at circular section: 2.9m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

 

Kilkenny – this one is climbable!

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I nearly got locked into the cathedral grounds overnight when taking this photo (oops!)

The round tower in Kilkenny stands beside the rather wonderful and historic St. Canice’s Cathedral. It is a complete tower, although it lacks the usual capped roof. Instead, the top of the tower is a low stone wall with a modern day cage around it. This is to stop people who’ve climbed to the top of it (yes!) from falling off. The ground is a long way down – just over 30 metres in fact. And yes, it does lean a bit but let’s not think about that. The cathedral and the tower are built on top of a hill, which gives it a fine view over Kilkenny. It is thought that this led to the tower doubling up as a watchtower and why the roof was either removed or not added in the first place.

The original monastery here was founded by St. Canice in the 6th century. The original church for which the tower was a belfry has vanished without a trace. The doorway of the tower faces away from the cathedral, suggesting that the church stood elsewhere.

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Weather permitting, the tower can be climbed. As you can see from this photo, the weather was not permitting on this particular day.

The original ladders and floors in the tower are long gone but happily, it can still be climbed. There are a number of wooden floors and connecting ladders which will bring you right up to the top. It’s probably not a climb for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. The interior of of the tower is quite small and the climb to the top involves ascending a series of steps which are glorified wooden ladders. Still, if you make it to the top, the view is worth the effort. There are so few of these towers which can be ascended, it’d be a shame to pass up the opportunity.

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A more youthful me atop the tower

Getting There

The cathedral and tower are best visited on foot. Parking is limited in the area and a quick glance at Google Streetview  might dissuade you from driving the lane-way that goes past the front gate 😉  There is ample parking in the city’s car parks (Market Yard and Market Cross Shopping Centre are 5 minutes walk away). Besides, nobody visits Kilkenny just for the tower…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 31m
Diameter of Base: 4.77m
Height of Door Sill: 3.3m
Suggested Date: 11th century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Timahoe – the one with the fancy doorway

Timahoe is a village about 12km south of Portlaoise, Co. Laois. It’s a rather pretty place and more importantly, from this blog’s point of view, it has a round tower! A rather fine one at that.

timahoe_round_tower

Timahoe gets its name from a monastery which was founded by St. Mochua in the 7th century (Tígh Mochua = St. Mochua’s Church). Little remains of this monastery now, apart from the tower. The former church which stands alongside the tower was built much later and is now a heritage centre.

St. Mochua founded a monastery here sometime in the 7th century. He is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters as having died in 637AD and that “His wondrous acts are mainly legendary”. Now that is what you call an obituary 😀

The tower itself is believed to date from the 12th century and is built from sandstone (bottom 3m) and limestone. It is leaning a little but it is fully intact. What’s striking about it, apart from it being in such good condition, is the doorway. It is unique – no other tower has a Romanesque style doorway. It is also quite a wide tower at its base. 5.58m. The tower itself stands 29.26m and the door sill 4.5m from the ground.

Timahoe (4)

There is little else of note to be seen in the churchyard but it is in a rather nice setting. The ruins near the tower probably stand on the spot of where the original church originally stood. Most of what is there now dates from the 17th century, with parts of an older 15th century church included in its wall. timahoe_2

Click on a thumbnail to open the gallery

Getting there

The tower is very easy to find and access. It’s visible from the roads leading into Timahoe and is in a churchyard close to the village green. Simply cross a footbridge and you’re there. There’s plenty of car parking space around too.

Vital Tower Stats

measuring

Height: 29.36m
Diameter at Base:5.58m
Height at Door-Sill: 4.3m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Clonmacnoise – 2 round towers for the price of 1

Recently, I posted about round towers so I thought I’d write something about the ones I have visited so far. Some of my memories might be a bit shaky but when did that ever stop me? 😀 I shall begin with the first round tower I ever clapped eyes on. O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.

Clonmacnoise Co Offaly,Ireland  Early Christian Site

The remains of the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise are located about 11km south of Athlone. It sits on the banks of the River Shannon, in an area that was of great strategic importance at the time.  It was originally founded in the mid 6th century by St. Ciarán and went on to become a significant monastery. Some manuscripts, including the Annals of Tighernach (11th century) and Book of the Dun Cow (12th century), were written here. It wasn’t just literature which was a feature of life here. The Clonmacnoise Crozier was unearthed when Temple Ciarán (reputed to be St. Ciarán’s final resting place) was being excavated. It can now be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. Or on a postage stamp (remember those?). There are numerous early Christian carved stone slabs on display too.

Clonmacnoise was a settlement of some importance, growing to include a cathedral,  seven churches, three high crosses and two round towers. The monastery was raided numerous times by the native Irish, the Vikings and the Normans. It began to fall into decline around the 12th century, partly because Athlone was starting to rise in prominence by this stage. It was finally destroyed and closed in 1552. Just about all of the monastery remains in ruin, apart from Temple Connor which was restored by the Church of Ireland and continues to be used occasionally. These days, Clonmacnoise is a popular tourist attraction. If navigating the winding roads of west Offaly aren’t for you, you can explore the place without getting out of your chair.  Google Streetview has paid a visit.

clonmacnoise_from_shannon

Photo taken on a boat out on the river

O’Rourke’s Tower

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O’Rourke’s Tower with some humans for scale

O’Rourke’s Tower was built in the 12th century. It is recorded as having being completed in 1124AD. It is built from ashlar limestone masonry (in other words, the limestone has been cut into square blocks) and it is thought that the master mason had knowledge about European tower building techniques. Sadly, the tower is no longer as tall as it originally was. It is estimated that ⅓ of its original height is now missing. A lightning strike is the most likely reason for this. The stonework on the last 3 metres of the tower is thought to have been added at a later date – if you look you can see for yourself where this newer masonry is. The 8 windows at the top are unusual and it is unlikely the original tower had as many on the bell floor.

The doorway of the tower faces towards the cathedral which is to the south-west. The cathedral is the oldest dated stone church in Ireland and is recorded as having been completed in 909AD. If you’re still reading this and are taking a note of the dates, you might have noticed that cathedral is quite a bit older than the tower. In Brian Lalor’s excellent The Irish Round Tower book, he wonders was there a timber predecessor to the tower? These towers were belfries after all…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 19.3m
Diameter at Base: 5.62m
Height at Door-Sill: 3.5m
Date: 12th Century (Annals references for 1124 and 1135)

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

 

McCarthy’s Tower

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McCarthy’s Tower and Temple Finghin

Clonmacnoise is a little unusual in that there is a second round tower on-site. This tower is shorter than O’Rourke’s Tower and is attached to the remains of Temple Finghin. It stands 16.76m high with a diameter at the base of 3.97m. It is believed to have been built in the mid to late 12th century. Because this is an engaged tower, it doesn’t have the usual features found on free-standing towers. Its doorway is at ground level and would have been accessed from the interior of the church. It has some small windows in the drum but none on the top bell floor.

mccarthys_tower_doorway
Entrance into the tower

In 1864, the church attached to the tower was vandalised by “by a person from Birr on a ‘pleasure party’ to the Seven Churches (Clonmacnoise)”. They were prosecuted and the proceeds from this were used to repair the roof of the tower. Unusually, the tower’s roof has a herringbone design, though this is difficult to see in any photos I have. Which is yet another reason for me to pay a visit – it has been a while 🙂

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 16.76m
Diameter at Base: 3.97m
Height at Door-Sill: N/A
Suggested Date: Mid to late 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Is there anything else worth looking at while you’re there?

Absolutely. Because Clonmacnoise was such a significant site, there was a lot going on here. The three high crosses are well worth a look. Even the North Cross which is mostly missing. The original crosses were taken indoors to preserve them and are now on display in the visitor centre. There are exact replicas of them standing in their original locations outside. There are also plenty of ruins and old Christian burial slabs dotted around the place. The Nun’s church, as seen in the collage below this, is 1km away but worth the short walk/drive.

clonmacnoise_castle

Beside the monastery are the rather precarious looking remains of Clonmacnoise Castle. It is now fenced off but it’s still worth taking a look at. If only to try and figure out what is holding it up. The interior of it can be seen in the 1971 film Flight of the Doves. But unless you really really like Oirish films, I recommend you steer clear.

clonmacnoise_collage

Getting there

Clonmacnoise is easy to find. It is well signposted and there is a car park outside the visitor centre. It is run by the Office of Public Works (OPW). More info here

Round Towers: The Start of an Occasional Series

I’ve been a bit of a tower enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a small child, no journey in my parents’ car was complete without me spotting water towers and excitedly pointing them out to them. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day 😀 Anyway, I came to my senses and decided that water towers were rather underwhelming and really not worth seeking out. Instead, I turned my attention to round towers.

These are somewhat enigmatic, narrow, cylindrical stone towers which were built almost 1,000 years ago mostly in Ireland. Just three of them exist abroad; one in the Isle of Man, two in Scotland.  Even at that, it’s likely there was an Irish hand or two involved it their construction. The first one I ever saw was O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise and it made quite an impression (“What happened to the roof? Where’s the door?”). When I moved into my teens, I led my cousin and her friends on an expedition to explore the nearby round tower in Swords. These towers also inspired me to make a collage at primary school but more of that later.

ORourkes_tower_1
O’Rourke’s Tower, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
cloigtheach
Cloigtheach/Round Tower as depicted on an old Ordnance Survey map

The clue to what an Irish round tower is lies in the Irish name for them. Cloigtheach means “bell house” or belfry. Indeed, some of these towers still stand beside the churches for which they were built.

It is believed that 80(ish) of them were built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are references to some of them in ancient writings, such as the Irish Annals. The first reference to one dates back to 950AD when the Vikings burned one in Slane, Co. Meath. The latest one was in Annaghdown Co. Galway in 1238. Both these towers have sadly vanished without a trace. As of 2020, there are 74 of them which can be visited. Some are in very good condition and there are still two of them which can be can be climbed (Kilkenny and Kildare). The tower on Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh has also been climbable but it is unclear whether it is still the case. If anybody knows for sure and lets me know, I will happily amend this post. The others are in various states of repair; going from towers which still have their roofs to those which barely exist at all.

Despite the towers being labelled as Cloigtheachs, my primary school teachers didn’t get the memo. Being told that the towers were used as safe refuges for the monks and their treasures when marauding Vikings came-a-raiding fired my imagination. Aged 10 or 11, I made a collage of a daring monastery raid using felt and some other scraps of cloth which were lying was lying around in the classroom. The collage is long gone of course but you will be delighted to know that I’ve replicated it using modern technology. Sadly, drawing apps don’t give you the same smell of glue as 1980s art classes. What the teachers didn’t tell us was that (a) round towers can’t actually hold many people/things and (b) they’re just about the worst place you could hide out in from raiders. They are eminently burnable. Given the shape of the towers and the wooden floors that were in them, they had the potential to become deadly furnaces if they were set on fire. And it appears that that is what happened sometimes. There are records of towers being set on fire and people dying in them. The King of Fermanagh met his end in the tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh. The son of the King of Tara was murdered in Kells. The tower at Dysert O’Dea in County Clare was burned at some point. Nobody knows when or why but there is still a crack in its wall.

viking raid
A Viking raid on a fictional monastery. Not based on true events.

No two round towers are alike. There are variations in the building materials used, the style of the doors and windows and in the width and height of them. Still, they all follow a certain formula. They’re slender, stone towers which stand up to 40 metres in height. Their doorways tend to be located 2-3 meters from the ground and can only be accessed by a ladder. The windows are higher up in the tower and are narrow slits. Most of the towers are/were topped with a conical shaped roof. The doors of the towers face the west doorway of the churches they were a bell-tower for. And despite their heights, none of the towers appear to have had particularly deep foundations. Despite this, most of them are still standing

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The image on the left isn’t my handwork (I think you can see who the real artist is here…) but it gives a good idea of what the interior of the towers was like. I found it on Pinterest so if by some chance someone knows who drew it, I will happily give credit for it.

Each tower had a basement and then a series of floors going from the doorway right up to the top of the building. It is thought that the floors were connected by ladders. Having climbed the tower in Kilkenny, I can confirm that this isn’t for the faint-hearted. There wasn’t always much room inside the towers either so it’s debatable how many things were ever stored in there.

In the coming weeks, I shall write a little about the round towers I have visited. Here is a selection of them. Being a biased Offaly woman, I plan to start where the madness all began – Clonmacnoise.

round_tower_collage

 

To the Tower (or how I visited the Tower of London and got to leave again)

tower_of_london_ticketThis month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.

The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.

Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.

tower of london white tower
The White Tower

After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.

Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.

There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history.  It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.

 

 

 

 

Shee Almshouse

Shee_Almshouse
The main entrance into the building – the one for the ladies

The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.

It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.

shee_almshouse_rear
The entrance for the men which leads straight onto the first floor

To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.

The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.

Click on a thumbnail to view some more photos

 

Science Museum in Maynooth

In the early 1990s I attended Maynooth University, eventually graduating with some letters after my name, oodles of soon-to-be-forgotten information in my head and a horror of getting out of bed before 10am. Happy times 😉 Then, as now, the campus was split between two campuses. The shiny shiny North Campus has changed almost beyond recognition from my undergraduate days. Then there’s the South Campus which is shared with the Catholic Seminary established back in 1795. It has scarcely changed since my student days and there’s something nice and comforting about that. It’s a nice place to walk around, though I’m not sure many people do. My guess is that even fewer people know that there’s a rather good science museum a few minutes walk from the entrance gates.

st-josephs-square
St Joseph’s Square and the approximate location of the museum

The museum has been in existence since 1934. Indeed, it was there when I was a student but somehow I never got around to popping in for a look. Then, as now, it had restricted visiting hours. It only opens on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons during the summer months and by appointment at other times.  When it was first set up, the museum housed just ecclesiastical items. There is still a section in there dedicated to that but I’m afraid priests’ vestments, holy pictures, chalices, rosary beads etc. don’t really float my boat. Perhaps bridging the gap between religion and er…the grisly, Daniel O’Connell’s death mask is on display. Far more interesting to me is the science section which was later added.

At first, many of the early scientific artefacts added to the collection were connected with Maynooth’s most famous scientist. The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan, a man who should probably be better known than he is. In 1975, Chemistry Professor Fr. Michael Casey became curator of the museum and he remained in that position until 1998. Under his watch, the collection was expanded greatly. Staff went through the cupboards in the various science departments in the college and unearthed items they felt would be worth putting on display. As it turned out, these cupboards turned out to be a something of an Aladdin’s cave. The museum now has Ireland’s largest collection of scientific instruments on public display. The display cabinets in the place are full of everything from microscopes to telescopes to an early GPS unit. The sheer quantity of items on display is astonishing, seeing as it’s in an obscure little museum.

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Professor Nicholas Callan’s Maynooth Battery. Revolutionary in its time but maybe not small enough to fit in a smartphone

The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan (1799-1864) invented the Induction Coil. For a number of reasons, including him being attached to a seminary rather than a scientific institution, his work was overlooked. He wasn’t given credit for its invention during his lifetime (its invention was attributed to Heinrich Ruhmkorff) but that has since changed. He also invented what became known as the “Maynooth Battery” which improved greatly on previous batteries that already existed. It was commercially successful and has been described as the Duracell of its time. Some of his batteries are on display, as is his induction coil and many other pieces of scientific equipment he created or worked with.

Perhaps now is the time for me to mention my favourite anecdote about the Reverend Callan. He liked to experiment with his batteries and once connected 577 of them together. There weren’t any ways at the time to measure how strong the batteries were so he used to experiment in different ways. One of them was to administer electric shocks to his students. One shock was so severe, it knocked out the future Archbishop of Dublin. After that, he switched (or was ordered to switch) over to turkeys instead.

The museum is well worth a visit if you have an interest in the history of electricity and in old scientific instruments. From what I can gather, very few people know it even exists. Perhaps it is a victim of its restricted opening hours and its location. It’s well worth the effort though. Entry is free but you can pay a voluntary donation.

How to find the museum

Walk in through the college gates which are close to Maynooth Castle. Then immediately turn left and follow the path for 250m or so. You will start to see signs for the museum.

Link to official website

To open the gallery, click on one of the thumbnails below.

Duncannon Fort

I’ve been in or around the seaside town of Duncannon many times but until this year had never got around to visiting its star-shaped fort. I’ve seen it from a distance, I’ve looked up at it from the beach that lies underneath it and I’ve even walked past the entrance gates. The fort, which has long since ceased to be an active facility, is open to the public during the summer months. And as I discovered when I finally did get around to visiting and took the excellent guided tour, it’s a fascinating work in progress.

duncannonfort
The layout of the fort as it is today

A Brief History

The fort is built at the tip of a peninsula, overlooking the entrance into Waterford Harbour. As strategic locations go, it’s one of the better ones.  The width of the bay and the layout/depth of the channel means that one fort is enough for keeping an eye on anything coming and going by sea. More bang for your buck when it comes to forts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fort which stands here now isn’t the first one to have been built on the site. The present fort dates from the 16th century but it was had previously been home to a Norman fort of some sort in the 12th century. There is also evidence that suggests there was a wooden fort here going further back into history. Old maps from the 16th/17th century show a ruined church, a castle and some defensive structures on the site. These are long gone but the stone from them has no doubt been reincorporated into what’s here now.

Some of the rebuilt buildings in the yard

Fearing an invasion by the Spanish Armada, the present fort was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587-88. They never arrived but that didn’t mean that it didn’t get to see some action. In 1645 it was captured by  Irish Catholic Confederation forces and remained under their control until 1650. Oliver Cromwell, arguably the least popular Englishman to ever tread on Irish soil, tried but failed to recapture it a year earlier. His son-in-law Henry Ireton got his hands on it a year later. It is believed that both monarchs who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 stayed in Duncannon Fort before leaving the country.  King James II left for France on 3rd July 1690 whilst the victorious William of Orange stayed there in September of the same year.

During the 1798 Rebellion, the fort remained under British control. Indeed, it became a prison for captured Irish rebels and a place where some of them were executed. Depending on which version of the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy” you listen to, the title character meets his end in Duncannon. Or Dungannon which is at the other end of the country..

The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat
The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat

In Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) the fort is described as “..adapted for mounting 42 pieces of cannon, and, including ” the bombproof” erected in 1815, contains barracks for 10 officers and 160 men, residences for the chaplain, fort-major, storekeeper, and other officers, and a chapel for the garrison; the whole is surrounded by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge, and the only entrance is defended by a portcullis.” 

The buildings in the fort were built at different times but look more uniform these days because of changes made to the site in the run-up to World War I. They were covered with roughcast and Tarmacadam was poured on the ground. This covered over the cobblestones which had been there. At least one archway was knocked so that tanks could be driven into the fort. Despite the alterations, there are still many older features remaining intact. The dry moat and sloping walls, circular lunette fortifications, tunnels and gun batteries being some of these.

The fort was handed over to the Irish Army in 1922 when British rule ended here. It was largely burnt down during the civil war the following year. With the onset of World War II (a.k.a. “The Emergency” because we didn’t do wars here) the fort was partially rebuilt and a military presence reinstated. The old Governor’s house now has 1943 (the year it was rebuilt) and the logo of the Irish army on the front of it.

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Burke’s House

A caretaker’s house (locally known as Burke’s house, after the family who lived in it) was built in 1939 as part of the refortification. Unlike the other buildings here, its front door isn’t level with the ground but has steps up to its front door. This is because when they began to excavate the foundations, they found some human remains. It’s thought this is where a graveyard had been. It’s known that at one stage there was a church close by.

The fort was used as a camp for the Reserve Defence Forces for many years, before finally being handed over to Wexford County Council in 1993. As of 2018, there are still parts of the fort which are too dangerous for members of the public to access. Happily, there are still many places which are safe and will give the visitor a good overall view of what life was like in a place like this.

The fort is also visible from the beach below. As the tour guide remarked, the window which overlooks the beach now has iron bars on it to ward off a newer type of invader.

fort from the beach

Visitor Information

Duncannon Fort is only open during the summer months. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day. The official website for opening dates/times is https://duncannonfort.ie/ Admission is by guided tour only but it’s well worth it.

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Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol has been on my “to visit” list for a while. Finally, I got around to visiting it in March 2018. And boy, was it worth it. And yes, they let me out when the tour was over 🙂

A Little Bit of History

Kilmainham Gaol opened in 1796, built on top of the cheerily named Gallows Hill. There had been an older prison nearby before this and, as the hill’s name suggests, a history of executions in the area. To really add to the general misery of the place, the prison itself was built from a local limestone known as calp.  A stone that was good at being damp and poor at retaining heat. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was no glass in the little windows running along the corridors. Ah yes, they don’t make prisons like they used to do.

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Part of the older wing of the prison. Grim, I think they call it.

In the first half of the 19th century, deporting convicts to prison colonies in Australia was still a common occurrence. The prison became the holding place for over 4,000 convicts before they were sent on their long, one-way trip Down Under. Life was scarcely better for the people they’d left behind. Overcrowding had been a problem in the prison anyway but once the Great Famine began in the mid-1840s, it escalated. In those times, one could be jailed for misdemeanours as trivial as begging and stealing food. Needless to say, the prison became very overcrowded during those years. Often people deliberately got themselves arrested so they could go to prison. It might have been miserable in there but at least they’d be fed. The cells which were designed to house just one person became home to four or five people. Women and children slept on the chilly corridors outside. The food wasn’t all that great either and as time went on, the miserly rations were reduced to deter people from going to prison in order to to be fed. Still, it was still a hell of a lot better than what they would have received outside.

In Ireland, the prison is most associated with its role in the struggle for Irish independence. Or perhaps more accurately, for the number of “big names” from Irish nationalism who were imprisoned there. Indeed, there are death masks for Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett in the prison’s museum. The prison mostly closed in 1910 but found itself unexpectedly brought back into use in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.

Hundreds of participants from the Easter Rising were imprisoned here. And in a move which was to change Irish history forever, 14 of the leaders of the Rising were hastily tried and sentenced to death. Over the course of a few days, they were executed by firing squad in the Stonebreaker’s Yard. The executions helped turn public opinion firmly against the British and triggered a series of events which led to Irish independence.

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The old wing of the prison. Not warm!

The prison finally closed in 1924 and over the years, fell into disrepair. With the unhappy role it had played in Irish history, it’s understandable why it was left to rot. Thankfully, that all changed in 1960 when volunteers began to restore the prison. It was reopened in 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising). Ironically, the opening ceremony was performed by Eamonn DeValera. In 1924 he had been the final prisoner to be released from the prison; 42  years later he was President of Ireland. It was finally handed over to the Irish state 1986 and is now run by the Office of Public Works.

Since 2016, Kilmainham Courthouse which is right beside the prison has been part of the complex. As well as being a good place for visitors to wait for their guided tour to begin, it is an interesting place in its own right. I found the courtroom, with its maze of seats and partitions, to be a sobering enough place in its own right. And that was before I spotted a replica of a judge’s black cap in a glass case next door. What a terrifying spectacle that must have been for the condemned man/woman to see.

The tour of the prison is by guided tour only. Anyone I know who has done these guided tours has had nothing but good things to say about the tour guides. I can’t disagree – the man who took our tour group around was excellent and managed to make the tour both informative and entertaining.

The black cap judges used to don when sentencing defendants to death
The black cap judges used to don when sentencing defendants to death

Even though nobody has been held in Kilmainham Gaol for almost a century, it’s still not much of a reach to imagine what life must have been like in there. Although the prison building itself is more comfortable than it was back in the day, it’s still from 5-star accommodation. It was striking how chilly the corridors in the oldest part of the prison were, even though it has since been somewhat insulated. I for one was thankful that I was wearing warm, modern day clothing and didn’t have to sleep on a stone floor with little more than straw bedding. At least it was only the cold that was a tangible reminder of yesteryear – the stench from the overcrowded cells won’t be for sale as an air freshener in the prison shop any time soon.

Surprisingly, not all the rooms in the old part of the prison were stinking, overcrowded, chilly hellholes. We were brought into a reasonably large room which had once been occupied by the Irish MP Charles Stuart Parnell. He may not have enjoyed his stay in prison but it was definitely made more comfortable by the coal fire burning in the grate (coal paid for by him), the library across the hallway and being served the same food as the prison governor.

The best-known part of the prison is the East Wing. Completed in 1862, it was designed so that prison wardens would be able to keep an eye on a large number of prison cells at the same time. Not that it mattered because nobody ever escaped from Kilmainham Gaol without help from others. This part of the prison is stunning and it’s possible to walk into quite a few of the cells here. Film fans might recognise it from the likes of The Italian Job, Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father and er…Paddington 2.

After that, we were taken outside to the exercise yard which of course hadn’t just been an enclosed area for prisoners to stretch their legs. A plaque on the wall marks the place at which four volunteers were harshly executed in 1922 by the Free State Army.  One of them was a 19-year old called James Fisher who was arrested for having some guns. He wrote a letter to his mother on the eve of his execution and it’s a desperately sad read. It’s in the prison’s museum.

Onwards we went to the Stonebreaker’s Yard, where 14 of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were shot. There’s a cross marking the spot where 13 of them stood and faced the firing squad. A second cross is located just inside the entrance gate. This is where the gravely ill James Connolly was taken from his hospital bed, strapped to a kitchen chair and shot on the spot. I’d heard that story numerous times down the years but when you see it all for yourself it really brings it home. And regardless of your politics, there is something sobering about standing in that relatively small yard, knowing that you’re following in the final footsteps of some iconic figures from Irish history.

Stonebreaker's yard in Kilmainham Gaol with both crosses
Stonebreaker’s yard with both its crosses in view

Finally, we were brought out to the front of the prison and the site where public hangings had once taken place. This served as a reminder that it wasn’t just Irish nationalists who never made it out of the prison alive. Lots of ordinary people were executed in this place too. And even though there’s now a Hilton Hotel across the road and the area has been gentrified, it’s not difficult to imagine what these people saw in their final moments.

The prison museum was surprisingly good too. Somehow, seeing the possessions belonging to people whose names I knew from history class made them more real. Very mundane items such as glasses, a shoe, a scratched pocket watch, even a lock of hair. The arts and crafts created by bored prisoners banged up in prison are worth a look too. There’s something amusingly jarring about prisoners of war making pretty macramé bags or crucifixes from bullets. The Victorian era marked the start of the mugshot and there some of those original photos to be seen here.

What startled me the most were the photos of the prison before it was restored by the volunteers. Knowing how many buildings were lost in Dublin in the last few decades (don’t get me started!), it’s a minor miracle there’s anything there to visit now. Kilmainham Gaol might not be one of the happier places connected with Irish history but it is an important and very moving one. In short, it’s well worth visiting.

Tickets can be booked online from here. The visits are by guided tour only and places are limited on each tour. I strongly advise you to book in advance.

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