Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Carlow Castle

Carlow Castle c.1680

Click to enlarge

This is one of the earliest surviving sketches of Carlow Castle made by Thomas Dineley when he paid a visit to Carlow in 1680.  Some distinguished historians who have studied this sketch find it difficult to relate his 14 windowed east wall with later drawings and descriptions of the Castle

The first castle in Carlow was built by the invading Normans - by the middle of the 14th century over 150 castles had been built in Ireland.

The present Carlow Castle building commenced circa 1205 and was completed in c.1209 by William le Mareshal, Earl of Pembroke and Lord of the Manor of Carlow. The castle served as a strategic defence and administrative post for the garrisoned town. In 1361 Lionel, son of King Edward III, moved the Exchequer from Dublin to Carlow and spent over £500 on improving the fortifications of the town. It was not long before the officials of the Exchequer were looking for an increase in salaries claiming that they 'were being forced to sit in Carlow far from proper habitation'.

The Castle and the Garrison of Catherlaugh  c.1680 and sketched by
Thomas Dineley during his tour of Ireland in the latter years of Charles II’s reign.
Source: Turtle Bunbury website.

This combined with the fact that attacks and raids on the town had intensified meant that Carlow had become a dangerous place to live in. In 1382 a raid on the town by the McMorough's, O'Karroll's and other Irish enemies caused great havoc. The residence of Carlow sent a petition to King Richard II for funds to rebuild the town. The fifteen year old Richard had his own problems to deal with, he ignored the appeal and so what was left of the Exchequer was removed back to Dublin. twelve years later, in an attempt to submit the Irish, Richard II arrived in Ireland with 34,000 men at arms and 5,000 archers. A major part of this campaign was fought in Carlow.

Note from Michael Purcell: Charter sanctioned by King John (1199 - 1216) - (for whom John Street in
Carlow was named) with first Seneschal officially appointed in 1210.

The town was subject to further attack by hostile clans and tribes such as MacMurrough Kavanagh's, the O'Toole's, O'Byrne's, O'Lalor's and O'Moore's. In 1494 the castle was attacked and seized by James Fitzgerald of Kildare. The introduction into Ireland of the siege gun and cannon in 1488 meant that stone castles became vulnerable and ineffective as strongholds. Among those who over the next 150 years were to lay siege to the castle were Silken Thomas (1534), Rory Oge O'Moore (1577), Sir Morgan Kavanagh (1641), Thomas Preston (1646) and finally Oliver Cromwell (1650), who along with his son-in-law, General Ireton, lived up to their reputation and left the castle in ruins.

The castle and much of the town had been granted to Donogh O'Brien, Earl of Thomond, in 1616. Following the seizure of the castle by Cromwell it was returned to the Earl of Thomond, O'Brien Murrogh O'Brien; it later passed to the Hamilton family.

In 1397, and the 20th year of Richard 11. this castle was surprised by one of the Kavanaghs, named Donald McArt, who styled himself 'King of Leinster,' in whose possession it remained a considerable period.

In 1577 this town then fortified, sustained a long siege against Rory O'Moore, who was then in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, but it was ultimately compelled to submit to this plundering assailant, who inhumanly put many of the brave inhabitants to the sword.

In 1642, a detachment from the Duke of Ormond's army rescued 500 Englishmen, who were imprisoned in the castle, where they were almost starved. In 1650, speedily submitted to the parliamentary forces and Cromwell, on his first approach. In a late effort to modernise this venerable pile, its foundations were so undermined, that the whole fabric gave way, as the only monument of its former magnificence no longer remaining, is a confused mass of ruins.

An engraving by J. Graig of the remains of Carlow Castle showing chimneys from a drawing by G. Gabrielle, from Excursions Through Ireland, Thomas Cromwell, 1819 and published in July 1819. Source: Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society Facebook page.

The Castle was attacked on numerous occasions and survived in reasonable repair until 1814 when Dr. Middleton attempted to convert it into a lunatic asylum. He undermined the foundations so badly that all remains of the Castle today are two towers and a wall.



Carlow Castle, Carlow Town:

Hugh de Lacy built a stronghold here about 1180 to defend the River Barrow, the frontier of the Pale. The present remains are the west wall of the keep with two of its former towers. The castle withstood repeated attacks during various periods of history, but in 1814 an ambitious local doctor tried to remodel it as an asylum. In an effort to demolish the interior he placed explosive charges at its base - the blast demolished all but the west wall and towers. Best views are from across the nearby River Barrow.

Carlow Castle is now the imposing centre piece of a major urban renewal programme.

(Source:  Michael Purcell & The Official Guide to Carlow 1985-86)

Ownership of Carlow Castle

Who are the present-day owners of Carlow Castle?,

Is it possible that the Crown retains ownership?

According to a Lease from King James dated 1604 Donough O'Brien 4th Earl

Thomond was to hold -  “estate in fee-simple for ever of the Manor of Catherlogh, at the yearly rent of £23. Reserving and excepting out of the said grant the Castle of Catherlogh. The said Donough and his son and the longer liver of them to have the Constableship of the said Castle of Catherlogh, with all the entertainments as Robert and William Hartpole lately enjoyed”.

 Source: Michael Purcell c.2013 <>

Brief History of Carlow Castle

The late Rev. J. F. Shearman, in “Local Patriciana,” states that St. Comghall, who lived in the 6th century, established a monastic Church in Carlow on the site given him by “Cormac of Hy-Bairrche.” In old “Itineraries.” There is reference to the ruins of a “very fine Abbey in Carlow. This Abbey stood on Castle Hill, and must have been of some considerable size, for the compiler of “The Post Chaise Companion.” Etc., in 1786, states that the Abbey “is a small Protestant Church.” The Abbey was known as “St. Mary’s Abbey.” Could it have been on the site of St. Comghall’s Church?  Not a vestige of the building now remains.

The ruthless hand of the vandal, and the march of civilisation which is, in many cases, the horror of the antiquary, have removed every trace, save the burial ground, which extended to near Graigue Bridge. The lowering of the “hill”, the widening of the streets, and the erection of houses, have left but a hillock on which a few graves remain, and portion of one old alter tomb.

Rev. J. F. Shearman mentions also that, before St. Comghall erected his church in Carlow the residence of a recluse named Croine Beg, daughter of Sedna, a descendant of Nial of the Nine Hostages. Her memory was kept alive in the town; for a narrow lane that led from Church Street towards the quay, by Mr. McDonnell’s wall in Hay Market, bore for centuries the name “Templeroney Lane,” afterwards changed to “Fairy Lane,” The houses having been leveled in that locality to make way for the present Hay Market, the identity of the old lane was lost.

The adjoining Parish Church was built in 1731, on the site of a still older church, which dated probably from the beginning of the 17th century. The steeple was of a rather ugly appearance, surmounted by a stone ball. It is shown in the engraving of Carlow Castle, taken from Grose’s Antiquities in 1792.  Sir Wm. Wild, in is memoir of Jonathan Swift, says that it was in connection with this church the witty Dean uttered his famous couplet:-

“High church, low steeple,
Poor town, proud people.”

Nearly 80 years ago the old steeple as pulled down, and replaced by the present steeple, which, from its very graceful proportions, is greatly admired.

This piece was purported to have been written sometime in the 1920's

Source: Carloman c.2005

Carlow Castle

Up-Date 2007 -

Due to recent excavations carried out at the grounds of Carlow Castle (1996) some of the previous theories have been proved inaccurate.

Built on what was originally a large rock-like island surrounded by marsh and water this was to prove one of the structures greatest defensive advantages (Ceatharlough: stone-on-the-lake). If one stands today at the Castle Tavern pub on Castle Street facing the castle ruins you will be aware of the drop in street level facing you, that hill leads down to near-enough the level of the river Barrow in the adjoining area.

First structure erected on this island was a timber and earth manor and castle and was erected circa 1180 by Hugh de Lacy for John de Clahull who held Catharlogh (to avoid confusion hereinafter referred to as Carlow) at that period.

By 1200 - 1210 John de Clahull had lost control of Carlow and William Marshal had taken his place in Carlow as lord of Leinster. The building of a masonry castle was commenced circa 1210 without any foundations being laid, such was the level of the ground and was completed in 1220.

Marshall wished to create a market town that could trade with other towns situated along the river Barrow. A Charter dated 1223 records that the borough of Carlow had been established adjacent to the castle by July 1210. The castle, manor and town later passed into the ownership of Hugh Bigod, earl of Norfolk , later the holdings passed to Donagh O'Brien the earl of Thomond and in time much of it was acquired by Robert Browne, ancestor of present-day Robert Browne-Clayton who in September 2006 handed over the Browne family archives to me. I have now handed the archive to County Librarian Tom King in trust until such time as a Archival / Heritage Centre is established for and in Carlow .

Carlow Castle 1952 source Ebay sellerThe castle area was excavated for the first time ever in 1996 by a team of archaeologists under the direction of Dr. Kieran O' Conor of the Office of Public Works. In the 1997 Autumn Journal of "Archaeology Ireland" Dr. O' Conor published a summary of his findings. When I interviewed Dr. O'Conor in 1996 he stated that Carlow castle " is one of the most important in the evolution of castles in either Ireland , England or France, there is nothing to match the architectural style of Carlow Castle to be found anywhere until at least 20 years after it's completion" The caption under picture # 2 in 1994 edition of "Carlow in old picture postcards" records that; in 1813 the Hamilton family leased the castle to a physician , Dr. Philip Parry Price Middleton.

He spent two thousand pounds in an effort to make it habitable. His intention was to convert the building into a lunatic asylum He attempted to create an underground passageway by using dynamite blasting powder. On 13th February 1814 having denoted some explosives under the eastern wall , the wall collapsed and brought down the east towers and adjoining walls. It was said at the time that had he being successful in his ambitions to establish a lunatic asylum the first lunatic admitted would have been Dr. Philip Parry Price Middleton.

Between the Thomonds and the Ormonds they owned all the land within a 3 or 4 day horse ride of Carlow, I believe they or their agents anglicised or named many of the townlands within that area.

(Source:  Michael Purcell 2007)

BCG (Best Castle Gang)

1956. Some members of the BCG (Best Castle Gang) pictured in 1956;
Front row L-R. Thaddeus Brennan, John Ivory, Michael Purcell.
Back row - Peader Munnelly, Michael Dempsey and Michael Ivory.

Having been to "the pictures" and seen films like Robin Hood etc. we were well acquainted with Castle warfare. Armed with sticks as swords and catapults firing "muck-balls" we defended Carlow Castle and the area surrounding it ( known as The Black Sand ) against other local gangs, such as the Numbers' gang, the ZOZ gang, the Bridewell Lane gang (aka The Top of the Town gang) .
Thanks to the influence of John Clemmens from England (who used to holiday with his granny, publican, Mrs McSwade) we were introduced to making explosives from carbon and thus ended any challenges to our territory.
Cromwell's army may have caused the surrender of Carlow Castle by Cannon but 300 years later we retained custodyship of the Castle area by the use of explosives.
(Source:  Michael Purcell 2013)

The first Seneschal of Carlow Castle,  

Geoffry Fitz-Robert, was appointed in 1207 .....Extract of one reference to the castle from the Charter, granted in 1208 to the Burgess of Catherlagh by William Earl Marshall, Earl of Pembroke,  states "That no Burgess shall be drawn into any suit, or answer any plea which shall arise within the bounds of the Borough, in the castle, or elsewhere, than in the hundred court of the town; except pleas which concern the men of my castle or my bailiffs; but it shall be held in the hundred court of the town".....the Charter was witnessed by John Marshall, Thomas Fitz-Winton, (Seneschal of Leinster), Falk Fitz-Warine, Walter Purcell, William Grasse, Junior, Hamond Grasse, Roger Hyde, Rudolph de Ralegh, Robert de Crupt, Masters Henry, Hugh, Ralph and Robert, clerks, and many other assembled Burgesses and bailiffs.

In March 1971 Victor Hadden gave a talk to the Old Carlow Society, I recorded the talk and later it was transcribed by Brian O' Flynn, at the end of his talk Victor stated: "The Castle of William Marshal here in Carlow is probably unique, not for its size, or its strength, or its date, or its architecture but for the wonderful records and accounts which are still extant and which show beyond all doubt the highly evolved system of administration and accountancy which enabled the Normans to control the agriculture and economic welfare of most of Leinster, from their Castle in Carlow".

This led me (Michael Purcell) on a search to find the records relating to the Castle at Carlow, following Victor's advice I contacted Lord Norfolk, as the ownership of the castle had passed into the hands of Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. In 1306 Roger died without issue, naming King Edward 1 as his heir, in 1312 the castle was granted to Thomas Plantagenet de Brotherton, under his instruction all the records consisting of several hundred rolls of accounts were removed to the Tower of London. I travelled to London many times and viewed the rolls and with the aid of a scholar in mediaeval Latin we were able to transcribe many of the documents.

I have a history of Carlow Castle ready for publication and hope to do something with it in 2013. There are also many other records extant including the Exchequer rolls, Gifts and Grants and  also a letter dated 1588 from Queen Elizabeth 1  addressed to her "Right Trusty the Lord Deputy in which she refers to the Castle and lands of Catherlagh, belonging to our cousin Henry, Earl of Kildare". The records date from circa 1200 to 1650, after the surrender to Cromwell's forces on the 24th July 1650 the castle was allowed to fall into decay.

Matching the research of Victor Hadden and Dr Kieran O'Conor, I think it is safe to assume that the Castle at Carlow and its keep was finally completed in 1213...another reason for a celebratory event in 2013 may be the fact that the first Royal Charter for Carlow was granted on 29th September 1613 by King James the First, in which he appointed twelve "good and honest men" to a new Corporation with John Kerton, Gentleman, "the first and modern portrieve" (Town Clerk or recorder) of Carlow town assisted by "the first and modern 12 free burgesses" (Councillors) named as  - John Bare, Esquire, Sergeant-at-Law. Sir Robert Jacob, Knight. Sir Adam Loftus. Anthony St Ledger. Peter Wright. William Greatrake. Nicholas Harman. John Bloomfield. John Ely. Robert Whiteacre. Robert Sutton. Richard Keating. ......Granted to the inhabitants of Carlow by James the First, by the grace of God, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, and soforth "under our royal signet and sign manual, at our palace at Hampton Court in the tenth year of our reign of England, France, and Ireland, and of Scotland the forty-sixth year of our reign".

(Source:  Michael Purcell 2012)

 The following is extract from my work in progress on Carlow Castle:- Shortly before his death in December 1306, the 58 year old Roger le Bigod had appointed King Edward 1st as sole heir to all his honours, titles, estates, castles, manors, boroughs, lands, goods and chattels which included, The Manor, Castle and borough of Catherlach, with all their appurtenances; and the Body of the County with assizes and perquisites. This proved to be a fortunate turn of events for future historians because as soon as the King acquired the Manor and Castle all the Rolls, Court Records, Writs, Accounts and other material compiled by the Seneschal, Treasurer, Constable, sheriffs, bailiffs, reeves, receivers and lesser clerks were transferred to the Tower of London where the originals were preserved. I believe the archives were transferred to the National Archives at Kew. We know that in 1604 King James handed over the remainder of his Carlow property to Donough O'Brien but the King reserved ownership of the Castle for himself and his "successors". Michael Purcell Sept 2013

Images of Carlow Castle
A late 17th century sketch of the then intact castle appears in 'Grose's Antiquities of Ireland'.
Carlow Castle early 1790 after Gabriel Berenger. Source: NLI
Illustration of Carlow Castle, probably eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
Source: Photo Carlow County Museum.
The old Bridge and Carlow Castle
Source: Carloman2
Click to enlarge
This is one of the earliest surviving sketches of Carlow Castle made by Thomas Dineley.
Source: Carlow in old postcards by Michael Purcell 1994
Carlow Castle c.1904
Source: eBay 08
Carlow Castle c.2007.
Carlow Castle
A rear view of Carlow Castle 1999
Image by M. Brennan
Carlow Castle c.1930's Postcard.
Carlow Castle c.1990's
Image by M. Brennan

A S:W: View of Carlow Castle by Cooper, Austin, c.1782. Source: NLI

Carlow Castle by Beranger, Gabriel, ca.1770 and 1780 
Source: NLI

A drawing of Carlow Castle based on Thomas Dineley's drawing of 1680. Source 1957 Carloviana

Carlow Castle by Grose, Daniel, Lieutenant, ca. 1766-1838.  Source: NLI

Carlow Castle by French, Robert, 1841-1917. 
Source: NLI
A view of Carlow Castle from Mill Lane. Carlow

Carlow Castle in 17th century

This is a fabulous photo taken by Keith Goad. It's difficult to get a good photo like this with all the new developments around it.

Carlow Castle.
(Sources:  Michael Purcell, Google Street Maps & The Official Guide to Carlow 1985-86)
Click on images to enlarge

Carlow Castle

Here Carlow Castle with its shattered wall
Black with the miner’s blast upon its height
Yet shows of what it was when shell and ball
Rebounding idly upon its strength did light.
A tower of victory! from whence the flight
Of baffled foes was watched along the plain;
Yet peace destroyed what war could never blight,
And left those proud walls bare to summer rain,
Of which the iron show‘r for years had poured in vain.
University Magazine.

Source: Official Guide to County Carlow c.1986

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