Trim - the real capital of Meath

Though it has been eclipsed by Navan in recent years, Trim was for centuries the capital of Meath with a long and proud history and home to the oldest and largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. By Liam OšRourke

The town has its roots in the fifth century, where St Loman, a nephew of St Partick founded a monastery here and became the first Bishop of Trim. So in religious, historical and legal terms it has strong claims to be regarded as the real capital of Meath.

A few years ago a new courthouse, with its award-winning design, was opened. It houses District, Circuit and occasionally High Court sittings.

It’s arguable that its heyday coincided with that of the castle that was occupied until 1649 when it ceased to be used as military base as cannons could easily breach the castle walls.
It was the principal urban centre in Meath during Norman times and was the location of an earth and timber castle built by Hugh De Lacy in 1172 as the first step in the conquest of Meath. De Lacy, who had been granted all of Meath by King Henry II, placed Hugh Tyrell in charge.

The original construction lasted a mere three years before it was burnt down by Tyrell rather than surrender it to the advancing Roderick O’Connor, King of Connacht. Shortly afterwards Tyrell replaced it with a stone castle.

De Lacy’s plan was to install himself as King of Meath and in 1185 had a crown made for himself but he was killed the following year and was succeeded by his son Walter as Lord of Meath.
It became known as King John’s Castle after the visit of the English king in 1210. The purpose of the royal visit was to bring Walter de Lacy, who was becoming increasingly independent, into line. The visitors were forced to camp in a nearby meadow after de Lacy locked up the castle and fled the town.
Its current formidable appearance dates from this time. The present three-story tower, with walls eleven feet thick was started a couple of years later and completed in 1220 by William Peppard.

Apart from being the main town in County Meath Trim was also one of the principal administrative centres of the English Pale in medieval time. Its importance is underlined by the fact that the Irish Parliament sat here on a number of occasions, notably in 1465 when it passed a law authorizing the beheading of all robbers or those under suspicion of robbery such was the lawlessness that prevailed at the time.

The heads of those executed were mounted on spikes and publicly displayed as warning to thieves or would-be thieves. During excavations in 1971 the remains of ten headless men were found.
The castle had five D-shaped towers projecting from the southern half of its wall while the old town wall joined the castle near the south-western corner. Originally about 500 metres long, most of the outer wall is still standing today. It included eight towers and a gatehouse.

Trim Castle passed out of hands of De Lacy family when Hugh’s daughter married into the Mortimer family, the Earls of March. They rarely visited the place.

Geoffrey de Geneville, grandson-in-law of Hugh de Lacy, continued the development of the castle in the mid to late 13th century. De Geneville participated in the Crusades, and later became a monk setting up the Dominican Abbey in 1263, just outside the north facing Athboy Gate. In the 14th and 15th centuries Trim Castle was at various times the residence of the Lord Lieutenant, the King of England’s representative in Ireland.

In 1399, another royal visitor came calling and Richard II left behind two boys as wards. Prince Hal later became Henry V while the other royal occupant Humphrey of Gloucester in latter years became known as the ‘Good Duke’. The guests were housed in the gate-tower at the drawbridge.

There was a church in the north corner of the castle and facing the river was the Royal Mint. Richard, Duke of York, who was sent to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant in 1449 ordered that special coins be minted here called ‘Patricks’ and ‘Irelands’.

The town walls were erected in 1359 by Roger Mortimer, Earl of Ulster and what remains of Sheep Gate are all that’s left of the original fortification.

While the castle was used as a base for the Lord Lieutenant and the Lords of Meath, no family was continually in residence there from the middle of the 14th century. Repairs were ordered in 1541 but by the end of the century the castle was in ruins.

In 1610 Sir James Carroll was granted lands in the area on the condition that he rebuild the castle before March 3, 1611 and also to erect a jail within it walls.

When the Confederate Rebellion broke out in 1641, the castle was taken by the rebel forces only to be recaptured by Sir Charles Coote, the elder, the following year. In 1643, four of the King’s Commissioners met at Trim to hear the complaints of the Confederate Catholics. However, the complaints were ignored.

In 1649, the castle was taken over by Cromwellian forces, but it is unlikely that Cromwell himself ever visited Trim. After this the castle was no longer used for military purposes.

St Loman’s successors combined the roles of Bishop of Trim with that of Abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, which was under the charge of the Canons Regular of St Augustine.

As a result of a decision taken at the Synod of Kells in 1152, the small Diocese of Trim was absorbed, along with several others of its kind, into the new Diocese of Meath. The tall tower known as ‘Yellow Steeple’ is all that remains of St Mary’s Abbey.

Close to the town on the banks of the Boyne lie the ruins of Newtown Abbey. Bishop Simon de Rochfort made this the centre of the diocese of Meath. He also founded a priory for the Augustinian Canons of the order of St Victor to serve as his cathedral. De Rochfort also built a hospital nearby which he dedicated to St John the Baptist and entrusted to the care of the Crouched (crossed) Friars.
Talbot Castle was built on part of the site of St Mary’s Abbey when in the 15th century, Sir John Talbot, the viceroy of Ireland transformed part of the abbey into a fortified manor house.

St Mary’s Church of Ireland Cathedral dates by to the early 19th century and incorporates a 23-metre tall tower from a medieval church. It is believed to be on the site of the original church built by St Loman almost a millennium and a half earlier. In 1955, Trim was chosen as the main centre of the Church of Ireland diocese of Meath.

At the southern end of the town is the monument to the Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Standing 23 metres (about 75 feet) tall it was built in 1817 just two years after the Battle of Waterloo.
Trim was a notable centre for education in the middle of the 19th century with two public schools attended by about 300 pupils while there were seven private schools attended by 230 children.

A Church of Ireland diocesan school was located at Talbot’s Castle. The Duke of Wellington received his early education here as did the famous mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton, later appointed Astronomer Royal of Ireland. The bicentenary of the latter’s birth occurs in 2005.
Up until the Act of Union, Trim was a parliamentary borough. In 1831 it population was 3,282 and was down to 2,269 a decade later.

In the 19th century Trim assumed a new importance in legal terms. A courthouse was built in a prominent position at the top of Market Street while on the site of the Convent of Mercy a jail was constructed in 1834. No trace of the three-storey building remains.

Around this time there was a proposal to extend the Drogheda-Navan canal to Trim but the idea fell through due to lack of finance. The railway arrived in Trim in 1864 and closed almost 90 years later in 1953. No trace of the local station remains.

In his late-nineteenth century publication, “A ramble around Trim, amongst its ruins and antiquities with short notices of its celebrated characters”, Eugene Conwell notes that the place was “at present a town of no great magnitude and very dimly reflects the important person it occupied in the affairs of Ireland a few centuries ago.

It continues, “Trim being formerly a place of great strength and consequence was at a very early period – some say in the 13th century – constituted as a borough with a corporation and it sent members to Parliament until the Union. The Corporation of Trim (evident from the survival of the corporation records after 1659) was at one period, one of the most respectable bodies of the kind in Ireland and men of high position south admission to its ranks.”

Trim was passed over in favour of Navan as the administrative capital of Meath when the Urban Rural and County Councils were established under the Local Government of 1898 thus lessening the influence of this historic town.

In recent years, Trim – along with Kells – has been deservedly granted the status of heritage town and received another boost in 1994, when part of the Mel Gibson historical epic ‘Braveheart’ was filmed at the castle. Part of the castle has been open to visitors since 2000.

Taken from Royal County
December 2004