Monday, July 22, 2013

Maynooth Castle, County Kildare

 For over fifty years in the late fifteenth to the mid sixteenth century, Ireland was not ruled from Dublin, it was ruled from Kildare, by the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty based here in their castle in Maynooth.

After the Norman invasions of Ireland, the land around Maynooth in Kildare that had formerly belonged to the O’Byrne family, was granted by Richard de Clare the leader of the Norman forces to Gerald fitzMaurice fitzGerald in 1176. FitzGerald chose Maynooth to be the capital (known at the time as the caput). Originally it was thought that like many other Norman castles in Ireland, the first defensive structures on site would have been made of earth and timber. However in a recent article for Archaeology Ireland, Professor Tadhg O’Keefe of UCD convincingly argues* the case for the first construction to be of stone.
He notes in particular many similarities with the great donjon of Trim Castle, situated relatively close by in County Meath and suggests that there was sharing of knowledge, architects and builders between the two powerful medieval magnates of de Lacey and fitzGerald.

The keep or donjon of Maynooth Castle
By the end of the thirteenth century, the Fitzgerald’s became one of the leading Anglo-Norman families in Ireland. Their profile was boosted considerably in 1316 when King Edward II raised John fitzThomas fitzGerald to the Earldom of Kildare for his services during Edward the Bruce’s invasion of Ireland. However it was in the late fifteenth century when the fitzGerald’s reached their apogee. Gerald fitzGerald was trusted by King Henry VII to rule Ireland in his name. This brought huge wealth to fitzGerald and it was noted that Maynooth Castle was richly decorated. His son, [also called Gerald but known as Gearóid Óg] was Lord Deputy of Ireland for King Henry VIII three times (1513–34, 1524–28 and 1532–34).

He had unprecedented power in Ireland and jealously guarded his families interests. FitzGerald was summoned to London in 1534 by King Henry VIII, and he left his son Thomas as deputy governor in his absence. Thomas was a flamboyant young hothead, known as Silken Thomas for the silk his men wove into their helmets. A false rumour spread that the Earl had been executed by the King, Silken Thomas was enraged at the thoughts of his father being put to death in the Tower of London. He flew into a rage, and charged into St. Mary’s Abbey where the Kings Council in Ireland were meeting. He threw down the sword of state in an act of defiance, and immediately began a campaign against the Kings forces in Ireland. He had his men cut off the water supply to Dublin and laid siege to the City. The campaign was going well, until the Crown forces realised that Silken Thomas had neglected to defend his own stronghold of Maynooth. The English army under William Skeffington managed to negotiate their way into Maynooth Castle, but once inside they slaughtered many of the inhabitants. Silken Thomas heard of the bloodshed and immediately marched to try and save his family home, but he was ambushed and captured on the way. He was brought in chains to London, where he heard that his father had actually died of natural causes and had not been executed after all. Thomas and his five uncles were brought to the place of execution in London, Tyburn, and brutally executed by being hung drawn and quartered. The castle was thought to have been betrayed by Thomas’s foster brother Christopher Paris. The morning after Skeffington took the castle he offered his thanks to Christopher Paris and paid him for his services, but then ordered Paris to be beheaded, probably because he had shown himself to be a duplicitous character not to be trusted.

The undercroft or cellar level inside the keep has a number of interpretative panels
The execution of Silken Thomas and his uncles marked the effective end of the fitzGerald ascendancy, and by the early seventeenth century Maynooth Castle had started to fall into disrepair. Richard Boyle, father of the famous scientist Robert Boyle, became the guardian of the young George fitzGerald and became his father-in-law when George married Boyle’s daughter Joan. He spent large sums renovating Maynooth Castle and constructed a fashionable Manor House. As part of his works many of the original medieval domestic buildings were demolished. The castle suffered a number of sieges and attacks during the Catholic Confederacy Wars of the 1640s and was largely ruined. Squatters took over the castle and made their money extorting money from travellers by tolling the dirt track that runs through the castle which was once the main Dublin to Galway road. The fitzGeralds left their ancient family seat and eventually made Carton House their home.

The area of Boyle's Manor House with its fine arches
Today the castle is an OPW heritage site and you can you can still enjoy the lovely grounds and a trip around the imposing medieval keep. The lower levels have a number of panels that interpret the story of the castle and guided tours of the keep are available on request. The site is free to enter, for opening hours and further information please visit

The surviving gatehouse to Maynooth Castle
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*O'Keefe,.T. 2013, 'Trim’s first cousin: the twelfth-century donjon of Maynooth Castle' Archaeology Ireland, Vol 27 No.2. Pages 26–31.