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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 1 October, 2014

History hotspot: Carlingford, Co Louth

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman shines a spotlight on a town chock-full of interesting sites for you to visit this weekend.

WHAT A SCORCHER of a week, eh? Fantastic weather to do a little exploring, at one of Ireland’s wonderful heritage sites.

For a slight change this week I thought I’d focus on a historic town rather than individual sites, as I visited Carlingford in Co Louth recently and absolutely loved the place. A spectacular blend of stunning scenery and atmospheric medieval streets make it an ideal place for a day trip.

Carlingford is a beautiful town that still retains its medieval character. It was founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century by Hugh de Lacy (the younger son of the Hugh de Lacy who constructed Trim Castle). He began by constructing a strong castle on an outcrop of rock that overlooked the Lough, and soon afterwards a settlement began to flourish in the shadow of the fortress.

The name Carlingford has a number of possible origins, many of which appear to have a blend of the Gaelic Irish Cairlainn meaning ‘bay of the hag’, and the Norse Viking fjord.

Carlingford would have been an ideal location for a Viking longphort or overwinter camp, but no evidence has been discovered so far to conclusively prove a Viking settlement.

The town flourished during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and many of the beautiful buildings listed here date to that period. The town entered a steep decline however throughout the 17th century, a turbulent time in Irish history of war, famine and plague.

The town was overshadowed by the near neighbours Dundalk and Newry, which quickly developed into bustling urban centres while Carlingford stagnated. However this decline served to protect the historic structures of Carlingford, as there was little development here in comparison to Dundalk, ensuring that today it is a wonderfully atmospheric place to visit. Here are some of the main features of the town (in no particular order).

King John’s Castle

The castle at Carlingford was established by De Lacy in around 1200 AD. It was named after King John who took the Castle in 1210. The castle is essentially a D shaped enclosure with a large curtain wall and projecting towers. It appears to have undergone regular alterations throughout the later medieval period, but by the later part of the 16th century it appears that the castle had already become derelict as it was described as being ‘in a wretched condition’. The Office of Public Works began conservation works on the castle in the 1950s, and it is currently undergoing more conservation works so there is no access to the castle for the moment.

The Tholsel and Town Wall

The ‘Tholsel’ is the only surviving medieval gateway into Carlingford, and probably dates from the 15th century. Originally this would have been a three storey structure, but it has been modified in the 19th century and is now two storey with a modern slate roof. This gateway would have given access to the main street at the eastern end of the town, with a levy being paid at the gateway before any goods could enter the town. There is very little of the medieval town walls left today, you can find a short section just south east of the Tholsel, and the other is at Back Lane at the northwest end of Carlingford.

Holy Trinity Church

The church of the Holy Trinity is an early 19th century Church of Ireland place of worship that has many clues of medieval structures that may have originally been on the site. The pointed doorway on the south wall appears to be from the 17th century or perhaps slightly earlier, and the church is attached to a tall three storey crenellated tower that may originally date back to the 15th or 16th century. The 18th and 19th century renovations makes the origins of this site a little unclear, but it is still well worth dropping in as the Church was leased to the Carlingford Lough Heritage Trust and is now a visitor centre.

Carlingford Priory

The remains of this Dominican friary date back to the early 14th century. The Dominicans were invited to establish a foundation in Carlingford by the powerful Richard de Burgo. The friary followed the usual convention of a Dominican establishment, with a cloister, a church, dormitories, a refectory and kitchen and a small mill that would have operated on the stream that runs alongside the site. Today you can still see the nave and chancel church with a fine tower.

The friary reflects the turbulent times during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, when raids on such monastic sites were common. The buildings were fortified and battlements were added to make the site more defensive, including a machicolation above the entrance.

The site was dissolved during Henry VIII’s reign in 1540, but Dominicans returned to the site in the late 17th century.

You can access the interior of the site and explore the nave and chancel church, and the partial remains of the residence block.

The Mint

The Mint is located on the main street a short walk from the Tholsel Gate. It is a fortified townhouse that dates to the 15th – 16th century. The name ‘The Mint’ presumably derives from a 1467 charter that granted Carlingford permission to strike its own coins, however it is more likely that this structure is simply the well-built and defended townhouse of one of Carlingford’s prosperous merchants during the late 15th or early 16th century.

One of the great features of this building is the beautfully decorated limestone windows. Each one bears a different design, and perhaps shows a harkening back to pre-Norman Romanesque design that may have been fashionable at this time.

Taaffe’s Castle

Taaffe’s Castle is another good example of a fortified medieval Irish townhouse. As it is positioned close to the harbour front it was probably the home of a wealthy merchant, and is likely to have also served as a well protected warehouse for their goods. The usual layout of a fortified townhouse from this period is to have all the public business conducted on the bottom and lower floors, and the upper floors as the residence. The name is likely to derive from the powerful Taaffe family, who became Earls of Carlingford in the middle of the 17th century.

This is just a very brief overview of a wonderful historic town. Carlingford is certainly worth a trip to enjoy the atmospheric medieval streets and beautiful scenery. Nearby you can visit a number of sensational heritage sites, particularly the fantastic Castleroache (you can read more about that incredible site here).

This is part of a regular series of articles on great sites to visit in Ireland. I’m hoping to visit as many sites across the country as possible, so if you have any suggestions for sites in your locality please let us know by leaving a comment below or send an email to info@abartaaudioguides.com.

  • You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland. Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from AbartaAudioGuides.com. Try the free audioguide to The Rock of Dunamase, a spectacular site in Co Laois here.
  • All photographs © Neil Jackman / abartaaudioguides.com

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See more in the Hidden Ireland series here>

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