heritage ireland

The huge 17th century fort in Cork where a key battle between two English kings was fought

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores a huge fort in Kinsale and one of the most exquisite romantic gardens in the country.

FANCY BRAVING THE weather and stretching your legs over the bank holiday weekend? In the latest edition of the Hidden Heritage series, we have more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland. In this edition we take a trip to lovely Kinsale to visit Charles Fort and we visit one of Ireland’s finest historical gardens at Heywood in County Laois.

As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Charles Fort, County Cork

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Kinsale was always a place of importance and strategic value throughout Irish history. This lovely town developed on the site of a 6th-century monastery founded by St Multose. The Vikings established a trading port here in the 10th century, and following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the town became a vibrant trading hub by the 13th century. By the end of the medieval period, Kinsale had established itself as one of the most significant towns along the southern coast.

In 1601, Spanish forces in Kinsale took the strategically vital points at Castle Park (where James Fort was later established) and Ringcurran. This prevented the English fleet from using Kinsale Harbour. The Battle of Kinsale that followed ended the Nine Years War, and led to the Flight of the Earls. The defeat of the Irish Earls and their Spanish allies allowed the policy of plantation to continue, and the English tightened their control over Ireland.

In the decades following the aftermath of the siege of Kinsale, the English forces began to fortify the headlands and promontories to deter any further attempts to capture the strategically vital port of Kinsale. In around 1677, the Earl of Orrery, who was charged with the defence of Munster, ordered the construction of a new fort to command Ringcurran Point on the eastern side of Kinsale Harbour. The fort was to be built in the most modern design of the time, as a pentagonal bastion fort that offered a seriously daunting obstacle for any enemy ships.

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The fort was named Charles Fort in honour of King Charles II who was on the English throne at the time of its construction. It has a series of pointed bastions with two levels of batteries giving overwhelming fire power in all seaward directions. It was designed by noted architect William Robinson, who designed other key public buildings like the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham.

The military engineer Thomas Phillips who inspected Charles Fort in 1685 was impressed by the quality of workmanship and the fort’s bristling seaward defences, but pointed out that the fort was vulnerable to land-based attack as it was overlooked by higher ground. His fears were proven to be all too accurate, when Charles Fort found itself under siege for the first and only time in its history in 1690. King James II had landed in Kinsale the year before at the head of an army of Catholic supporters and French allies in order to retake the English throne that he had been denied by the English Parliament following The Glorious Revolution in 1688.

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Parliament, wary of James’s attempts to return England to Catholicism and fearful of another Civil War like the one that wreaked havoc across England and Ireland just a generation before, deposed James and offered the crown to William of Orange. James and his army marched north from Kinsale to meet the Williamite forces. The two armies clashed at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and although a relatively minor skirmish, it led to James fleeing the battlefield and eventually Ireland. The war continued in his absence, and the Williamites marched south to take Kinsale.

Charles Fort was defended by forces loyal to King James, but after his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, the Williamite Army swept southwards and arrived at Kinsale soon afterwards. The Williamites established cannon batteries on the high ground above Charles Fort, and dug trenches to protect the assault troops. After a thirteen day siege, which included five days of continuous cannon fire, a breach was made in the mighty walls. Fearing a massacre, the defenders had no choice but to surrender, and Charles Fort fell.

In the years that followed, Cork Harbour overtook Kinsale as the key strategic southern port, and Charles Fort reverted to becoming an English militia depot. The fort remained in use until 1921, when the British garrison withdrew following the establishment of the Irish Free State. Shortly after, anti-Treaty forces destroyed the barracks and burned the buildings. Charles Fort was listed as a National Monument in 1973, and today it is under the auspices of the OPW.

You can enjoy a great tour of the site; it really is a spectacular and evocative place to see. For opening times and entry fees see here. Please bear in mind that this coming Wednesday is the first of the month so you can enjoy free entry to Charles Fort or any other OPW heritage site across Ireland.

Heywood Gardens, County Laois

Ireland is blessed with some stunning historic gardens and they always look incredible at this time of year. Located just north of Ballinakill village in County Laois, Heywood Gardens is the site of two garden types: the great park created by Frederick Trench in the late 1700s and the small interlocked formal gardens created by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll in the early 1900s.

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After Trench built Heywood House in 1773, he landscaped the area between his house and the village of Ballinakill. Inspired by his Grand Tour of Europe, Trench moved hills, dug lakes, planted trees and built follies. His results were considered to be the most exquisite romantic landscape of their time. Trench himself was a noted architect and engineer and was a friend of renowned architect James Gandon.

He named Heywood after his mother-in-law, Mary Heywood of County Tyrone. Heywood passed through various families during the 19th century, eventually coming into the possession of the Poe Family. It welcomed many visitors, including the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1870.

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In the early 1900s, Colonel Hutchenson-Poe hired the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to create formal gardens around Heywood House. Lutyens is considered one of the greatest British architects of all time, as he was responsible for architecture on a truly epic scale, including the design of New Delhi in India. The gardens were probably landscaped by Gertrude Jekyll who faithfully worked to Lutyen’s design.

Like many aristocratic families, the Poes left Ireland following political independence and the house was acquired by the Catholic Salesian order in 1941. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in 1950 and demolished. After the demolition, a modern secondary school, Heywood Community College, was established on the land. Despite the loss of the house, thankfully the gardens survive and are among the best examples of Lutyens’ work in Ireland.

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The formal gardens contrast with breathtaking views of the landscape. A walk lined with pollarded lime trees leads to a formal terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside. Another terrace overlooks one of the lakes dug by Trench in the 1700s, where it is possible to spot moorhens, kingfishers and other waterbirds.

In the sunken garden, circular terraces descend to an elliptical pool, where small statues of turtles gaze inquisitively at the grand fountain. On the top level, a loggia, roofed with red tiles, includes an inscription taken from the writings of Alexander Pope. In the wall that surrounds the garden, each circular window frames a spectacular view of the landscape so carefully constructed by Frederick Trench.

Heywood is a lovely place for a summer stroll. To find it simply head north up the Main Street of the village of Ballinakill and continue on the R432 for about 1.5km until you reach the gatehouse, at co-ordinates 52.888316, -7.308956. There is a large carpark. Heywood features on our latest free app, The Laois Heritage Trail.


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog where I have more suggestions for great places to visit. You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram

More from Heritage Ireland:

Ireland’s largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated > 

“A place of sacrifice”: Tour the stone circle that freaked out a 1930s psychic > 

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