Fennor Castle

FENNOR CASTLE (in it’s historical context)

John Ryle

Fennor Castle, now in ruins, stands on an elevated site on the south bank of the river Boyne at Slane, Co. Meath. It has a commanding view of the picturesque valley from Slane Castle to the West, down river to the great prehistoric passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth to the east. To the south the fertile land rises gently to the hill of Cullen. To the north lies the Hill of Slane, one of the earliest and more important Christian sites in Ireland. Nearby, in the shadow of the castle, is Fennor Cemetery and the ruins of the old church. In 1991 a fragment of a Celtic cross dated circa 875 AD, and now on display in St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Slane, was discovered here. In the valley below, a sturdy stone bridge spans the Boyne and the Boyne Canal. The old Slane Mill, just below the bridge, was the largest in Ireland when it was built in 1776.

In order to appreciate Fennor Castle in its historical context some understanding of the building and development of castles in Ireland would be most helpful.

The Annals of the Four Masters, compiled between 1630 and 1636, the most important written source of early Irish history, states that prior to the coming of the Normans in 1169 there were only seven stone castles in Ireland. This was due in all probability to allegiance to and observance of the age old political system and social structure, which obtained at that time. Each clan had its own well defined territory which was recognized by all others. Struggle and strife between the clans was more for status and supremacy, the payment of tribute, settling old scores, the theft of cattle etc. but never for conquest. Therefore it would be reasonable to assume that they did not see the necessity to build strong fortifications to defend their territories. They were well capable of building such as there is ample evidence of magnificent stone masonry throughout the land. However, all was to change dramatically with the coming of the Normans in 1169.

Dermod McMurrogh, the cruel, tyrannical king of Leinster, was expelled by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland in 1166. Determined to regain his kingdom at any price Dermod fled to England to seek help from Henry II, the Norman king of England, and his barons in England. Those adventurers who went to his aid were more intent on acquiring new lands for themselves than restoring Dermod to his former status.

The Norman invaders, apart from their numbers, were militarily vastly superior to the Irish forces that they encountered. Consequently, they quickly established themselves in the eastern part of the country. Being extraordinarily well skilled in building strong fortifications, they set about ensuring that what they had conquered they would hold. They started building castles.

Medieval castle building in Ireland can be roughly divided into three phases.

  1. The palisaded earthworks 1169 – 1220
  2. The great stone castles 1190 – 1330
  3. The later medieval fortalices.

THE PALISADED EARTHWORKS

The earliest hurried campaign castles built by the Normans were mainly of the motte and bailey type. A deep circular ditch was dug and the excavated earth was heaped as steep and as high as possible forming a flat topped mound or motte. A larger and lower area, the bailey, was constructed in similar fashion its ditch linked to the main ditch of the motte. The top of the motte was ringed by a strong timber palisade and crowned by a large central tower, the refuge of the castellan. The bailey, similarly palisaded, housed the ancillary buildings of the lords household, hall, chapel, stables, byre, smithy and of course the garrison.

The fortifications were erected in great numbers as they could be built comparatively quickly by unskilled labour and being very steep, were difficult to attack and capture. There is a fairly good example of one at Thurstianstown, about a mile from Fennor.

THE GREAT STONE CASTLES

When the Normans had established themselves effectively speed of erection was no longer crucial. To consolidate their conquests they built stronger, more permanent, fortifications – stone castles. Though varying in size these castles were basically similar in concept to the motte and bailey. The motte was replaced with a great stone tower called a donjon, defended by an enclosing stone wall with a ditch. The earlier donjons were square or rectangular buildings and the extremely thick walls were strengthened with external buttresses. The finest example of this earlier type is undoubtedly Trim Castle. Completed in 1220 its extensive fortifications cover three acres.

The latter part of the 13th and the early parts of the 14th centuries were the “golden age” of castle construction. Defensive weaknesses were recognised and corrected. The corners of the older buildings were susceptible to mining. Consequently, circular towers were added to protect the corners. Later, large polygonal or circular towers called juliets replaced the circular towers. The walls were strengthened by gradually becoming thicker on the outside towards the ground, known as a basal flare or batter. A missile, dropped from above, would strike the battered wall and bounce off outward into the face of the enemy.

Many innovations and improvements were introduced, Gatehouses, controlling entry became more important and outer gatehouses, known as barbicans, were erected for further protection. St. Laurence’s Gate in Drogheda is a magnificent example. A second enclosing wall, lower and beyond the main wall, was added, giving a concentric defensive system. Battlements appeared as did the portcullis and drawbridge.

 Political strife and especially the plague of the Black Death in 1349 caused the building of castles to virtually cease not only in Ireland but in Europe as well. The age of the great castle had passed and when building restarted it was initially on a fairly modest scale.

THE LATER MEDIEVAL FORTALICES

As the years progressed, the descendants of the Normans were assimilated more and more into Gaelic civilisation, becoming as is said, ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. They had adopted the language, music and culture of their neighbours with whom they shared the island of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish were beginning to re-establish themselves as a potent force once again and the Norman lords were quite happy to live in peaceful terms with them. The great Norman lords transformed themselves in time, into, more or less, independent Irish princes but with the significant differences that they never lost consciousness of their traditional position as English barons and they never renounced their allegiance to the English crown. This tenuous loyalty served the interest of the crown until under the Tudors, it was strong enough to undertake the policy of reconquest. Ironically, they were nourishing a flame that would one day burst into conflagration and claim themselves among its first victims. Thus, during the 15th century, three major power groups evolved, the Irish, the Anglo-Irish ( the descendants of the Normans ) and the English.

The English kings claimed sovereignty over the whole of Ireland but being preoccupied with wars in Scotland an France, their influence lessened over the years and latterly confined to a small area around their administrative capital of Dublin. This area, roughly comprising most of Co. Louth, most of Co. Meath, a section of Co. Kildare and Co. Dublin is known as the Pale. However, the loyal residents of the Pale were subjected to many trials and tribulations – from within, at the hands of the crown forces provided to protect them and from those Irish chieftains beyond, who continuously raided their lands, stole whatever possessions they had and exacted tribute from them.

Within the Pale the building of fortified dwellings was encouraged, in particular by a statute of Henry VI in 1429. ‘It is agreed that every liege man of our lord the king, of the said counties (the Pale ) who chooses to build a castle or tower sufficiently embattled or fortified within the next ten years, to wit twenty feet in length, sixteen feet in width and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties, shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower, ten pounds by way of subsidy’. Later minimum internal dimensions were stipulated, fifteen feet by twelve feet. So housing subsidies are nothing new. Several of these tower houses were built, in particular along the banks of the Boyne. It is reckoned the older part of Fennor castle was part of one of these ten pound castles. The third phase of castle building had commenced.

The building of tower houses was not confined to the Pale alone. They proved to be quite popular and were built all over the country by the Irish and Anglo-Irish lords alike. Of over four hundred castles in Co.Limerick nearly all are of this type. Some were very basic constructions, others were very large complex structures, e.g Bunratty Castle. The greater number now lie in ruins. Fortunately some are standing in all their glory as they were built so long ago and some others were restored or are being restored at present. Many of the original tower houses were extended in later centuries in the style that was in vogue at that time.

Tower houses were usually four story buildings. The chieftain lived on the topmost floor where the windows were made larger than the narrow defensive loop style lower down. Fireplaces were common, as were lavatories or garderobes, which can be identified by the rectangular shaft going down through the wall and discharging to the outside at ground level. The roof was of oak and finished with slates or thatch. The outside walls were gracefully battered and the more sophisticated towers featured battlements with merlons and embrasures. Some had machicolated turrets resting on long corbels often placed half way up the tower as well as at roof level. The door was at ground level. The ceiling inside the door had a murder-hole through which unwelcome intruders could be shot. The outer defensive wall was called a bawn. Donore Castle, near Killyon, Co.Meath, is an outstanding example of one of the original tower houses or £10 castles of the Pale. It stands today, more or less, as it was built so long ago.

The first use of cannon in Ireland is believed to have been in 1488. Initially they were not very effective as weapons of attack. They were very heavy, cumbersome, unreliable and hazardous in operation. As defensive weapons, they also presented many drawbacks but castles and tower houses survived. However, in time, improvements and expertise meant that the typical medieval fortification was no match for the smashing power of iron cannon balls. The occupants began to look upon their fortified towers in a different light. The desire for more space and light than was provided in the tower house led in the closing years of the sixteenth century to the development of a different type of building. This could still be defended but gave many of the benefits of a country house. Fennor, like many such buildings of that era, was extended and was one of the earliest examples of this type of building, incorporating as it does, many interesting features of that time.

ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES OF FENNOR CASTLE

Fennor castle is now a total ruin – only the shell remains. However, the T-shaped three storey structure plus attic gives us many clues as to how it looked in its prime. The stem, projecting northwards, was just a part of the original tower house, as is a section of the north wall of the main building extending westwards from the stem. That which survives could have been a subsidiary chamber turret of a substantial tower house. Although modified during the construction of the house, evidence of the original features can still be seen.

The ground floor was vaulted – a specific feature of tower houses. Traces of the springing of the vault still exist on both the east and west walls. Also at this level, there is a fine example of a double splayed loop with limestone lintel. Other internal features include lintel headed recesses, probably used as cupboards. The larger windows are post medieval. Perhaps they replaced loops when the building was extended! Externally, the tower is gracefully battered, about three metres in height. The end of a garderobe shaft in the east wall at ground level is clearly visible, peculiarly enough, adjacent to what may have been the main entrance. At roof level, there is evidence to suggest that an original parapet has been replaced with a post medieval gable. Many tower houses had an enclosing wall or bawn but there is no trace of such at Fennor.

The later structure consists of ground level basement, first floor, second floor and attic. The stem was used more than likely as a staircase. There is a chimney stack at either end, there being fireplaces at both ends at basement, first floor and second floor level. The fireplace at basement level has a sizeable oven attached. Obviously this was the kitchen. What appears to have been the only entrance is at this level. However, it was possible that like other houses of this era, there may have been an entrance at first floor level, where the south wall was breached to create an opening. This opening is a downward extension of a first floor opening which could have been either a door or a window. The south wall, probably the main aspect of the house, has six medium sized windows at first and second level. There are openings at all levels on either side of the chimney stack on both the east and west gables.

In the absence of historical documentation the dating of buildings such as Fennor is not an exact science. We have to rely mainly on archaeological evidence and historical opinion, not forgetting local tradition and lore. The original structure was most likely a ten-pound tower house. There are many examples within a radius of twenty miles. Opinion is divided as to the later building. Some hold that it is late 16th century, others maintain that it is early 17th. Whichever it is, its proximity to being Elizabethan is quite important. Building was almost at a standstill in those turbulent times in Irish history but is was the beginning of a distinctive transitional period in Irish architecture, leading eventually to the construction of the more elaborate and ornate stately homes of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This far I have outlined as I see it, Fennor Castle in its historical context. There is another story to be researched and told – the story of the people who built it, those who lived there and how and why it is as it is today. There are many, many questions to be asked, to which, hopefully, the answers will be found. There is an intriguing road ahead.

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