Norman fortress that gave rise to Carlingford
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 Johns Castle. By Gerry Robinson.
boasts many landmarks that mirror its fascinating past.
Though each is exceptional in its own right, the ruins of
King Johns 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 Castles
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
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 birds 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,
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, its
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 Johns Castle,
other major historical buildings remain, including the Dominican
Friary, the Mint, the Thostel, a medieval toll house and
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 Kings 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
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 Johns Castle was first described as being out of
repair and unsafe in 1388, when custody was granted to Edmund
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 Johns 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 Johns
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.