The Norman fortress that gave rise to Carlingford

Timeless Carlingford is, without doubt, one of the most unique attractions in Ireland, seamlessly blending past and present. The area is unspoilt by industry and commerce, its medieval origins still very much apparent to the trickle of visitors that drop in on the dreamy east coast village. Carlingford is mysterious, enigmatic, intriguing yet quietly spectacular - all traits inherited from its centrepiece monument - the ruins of King John’s Castle. By Gerry Robinson.

Carlingford boasts many landmarks that mirror its fascinating past. Though each is exceptional in its own right, the ruins of King John’s Castle command special attention, not least because the village that exists today was built around the imposing fortress that hovers over the tranquil Lough. There is something about this edifice that provokes a catching of the breath, a moment of wonder, a flicker of nostalgic reflection. Unmissable and unforgettable, prominent and strategically placed, the remains of this proud 12th century citadel dominate and mystify.

Though not a great deal is known about the Castle’s recent history, it seems likely that the picturesque village of Carlingford as we know it today would not exist were it not for the commissioning of this building over 800 years ago.

It is widely believed that the village originated in the erection of the Castle by the pre-eminent Norman lord Hugh de Lacy (probably by order of King John of England) between 1190 and 1210. The exact details of how the castle came into being are sketchy, but it is certain that the Norman baron de Lacy had a central role to play.

While the Vikings undoubtedly made use of the sheltered harbour at Carlingford as a temporary base many aeons previously, it was the Anglo-Normans who first established a permanent settlement in the region. Bertram de Verdon assumed ownership of the entire Cooley peninsula around 1189 and Hugh de Lacy, who married his daughter, received a large portion of it as a marriage settlement.

The story goes that de Lacy erected the stone castle on a rocky outcrop, directly above the harbour, providing occupants with a bird’s eye view of all movements on Carlingford Lough. Depending on which version of the story you listen to, work on the Castle started either in 1190, 1195 or 1200 - or some time in between!

The site upon which the fortress was built was ideal: a rocky promontory dominated a sheltered natural harbour, protected to the rear by the imposing but comforting presence of Slieve Foy. The surrounding hinterland was suitably fertile, too.

The town that gradually appeared in the vicinity of the Castle consisted primarily of castellated buildings due to its location on the frontier of the pale.

From the overbearing fortress, a town developed with typical medieval design - burgage plots, defensive walls, narrow streets, Friary, Mint and townhouses. The village comprised a defensive bastion for the old English colonies in the Cooley and Carlingford areas in the middle ages. Later, Carlingford became one of the main trading posts on the east coast, housing a rich merchant class, a status alluded to by the survival of focal points such as the Mint and Taaffes Castle. Walking through the village today, it’s immediately evident how little its structure has changed since those early formative years.

While in neighbouring towns like Dundalk all traces of medieval defences were removed by the first half of the 18th century, Carlingford retains its essential character with many original buildings still evident. As well as King John’s Castle, other major historical buildings remain, including the Dominican Friary, the Mint, the Thostel, a medieval toll house and Taaffe’s Castle.

The Castle is named after King John, who visited Carlingford in 1210 and reportedly stayed there a total of four nights. The story goes that King John ‘captured’ the village that year, on his way to take corrective measures against de Lacy. Apparently, the King’s visit in 1210 may have been a retributive one as Hugh had joined a revolt (led by William de Braose). Thus, King John claimed the compact, lofty fortress, possibly to set up a royal garrison to deal with the revolt, which he did that summer. It is also said that before fleeing into Ulster, de Lacy fired the Castle as he knew the King would seize it and put it to strategic use.

The Castle is in the shape of a ‘D’ and covers a space of 160sq metres. The original shape was probably that of an ‘O’.

While the western portion (the curved part of the ‘D’) predates the visit of King John by up to 20 years, the eastern wing, which contained the living quarters, was built some time in the mid 13th century, circa 1261 (Records show that payments for quarrying and transportation of stone to Greencastle and Carlingford were made that year), and had alterations and additions in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 1229, Hugh de Lacy granted the castle and the town of Carlingford to David, Baron of Naas, upon his marriage to his daughter Matilda.

St John’s Castle was first described as being out of repair and unsafe in 1388, when custody was granted to Edmund Londres.

The Castle comprised two main floors over a basement which is now filled with masonry. The great hall on the first floor overlooked the harbour. Although it boasted an important defensive position on the Lough, St John’s Castle was described as being in a wretched condition by the 16th century and continued to deteriorate until conservation work was carried out on the ruins in the 1950s. It is now a National Monument, though the interior is inaccessible due to the hazard of falling masonry.

Changing hands several times over the centuries, the Castle was fired upon by retreating Jacobite forces in 1689 and was used as a hospital in the period leading up to the Battle of the Boyne.

Little remains to document the history of St John’s Castle. It surely provided a solid refuge to the townspeople when Carlingford was attacked by the Irish clans between 1350 and 1600, but we know nothing of the lifestyle therein. Nor do we know anything of its transformation from military fortress to striking ruin, though Lord Anglesey carried out repairs on the building in the late eighteenth century.