An Overview of Kildare as a Medieval Irish Town
An Overview of Kildare as a Medieval Irish Town:

The town of Kildare is situated at the peak of a low ridge, and it escalates about fifteen metres above the adjoining flat countryside known as the Curragh. The name Kildare is derived from the Irish word ‘Cell Dara’, which means church of the oak tree.

There has always been a settlement at Kildare, even since pre – Christian times, and right up to the modern day. In the following essay, I endeavour to explore Kildare as a medieval Irish town. This will include the ecclesiastical settlement in Kildare (which is mainly attributed to Saint Brigit), Kildare in the time of the Anglo- Normans, and finally the generations of the Fitzgerald’s of Kildare. This will bring me up to the late medieval period. At times, Kildare was prosperous, and other times the settlement was in decline due to various reasons. I aim to evaluate this where possible. Throughout my essay, I hope to discuss some of the important medieval structures which were erected in Kildare.

Ecclesiastical settlement at Kildare:

The only evidence of Kildare as a pre- Christian area is the discovery of a socketed bronze axe head of later Bronze Age, as well as two bronze spearheads and a pal stave in the vicinity, also suggesting middle or later Bronze Age activity. It is not known what date the Christian settlement was instituted at Kildare, although mainstream historic thought is that it occurred around the fifth or sixth century. The earliest securely documented Bishop for Kildare is Aed Dub Mac Colmain, although the author of ‘Bethu Brigte’ claimed that Brigit herself was made a bishop as she had the Episcopal orders conferred on her by accident!

Another author Cogitosus who wrote a book called ‘life of Brigit’ around 650 AD, claimed that Brigit appointed Bishop Conlaed to ordain clergy, consecrate churches, and jointly rule with her. Cogitosus characterises Kildare as an Episcopal and conventual see. He also identifies the Bishop and the abbess as the two strands of authority in Kildare. The Obituary notices of Bishop Conlaed and Brigit are entered in the annals for 518 / 20. The entries of such an early date were obviously entered into the annals at a much later date. The record of Kildare personnel (including Bishops) before the seventh century is minimal.

St. Brigit has been associated with the town of Kildare, although it seems accurate that she is a Christianised version of a Celtic goddess. Pre- Christian cults such as, the cult of the well, cult of the fire and cult of the oak, all evolved with Brigit. She preserved the cult of the fire which her nuns allegedly maintained at the fire temple at Kildare, until the sixteenth century when it was demolished by Henry VIII. Giraldus Cambrensis described the Curragh as ‘Brigit’s pastures’. Saint Brigit’s feast day is still celebrated to this time, on the first day of February.

According to the twelfth century writer, Giraldus Cambrensis, a Book of Kildare was written in the seventh century. He believed that it contained as many drawings as pages. Historians believe that this alleged book was probably lost in the twelfth century. The annals from the late seventh century show another male office, i.e. the abbot. An abbot in early Irish ecclesiastical terminology could mean the leader of a community of monks, although the word abbot could also be used loosely with other titles like governor, or executive director of a church settlement. We do not know therefore, what role the abbot of Kildare fulfilled.

Aed Dubh mac Colmain (the first firmly documented Bishop) died in 639, and by this time, a Cathedral existed. This same construction was described in Cogitosus’ ‘life of Brigit’ which was written c. 650. Cogitosus gave a vivid description of the Cathedral at that time. He declared that there were shrines of Brigit and Conlaed inside the Cathedral, and around them were silver, gold, gems, and precious stones. “Cogitosus described the church as a spacious, high, many – windowed building, adorned with painted panels, and divided into three sections called oratoria” . Kildare is also the only Irish Church to have had Voture crowns. By the seventh century this practice was only connected with majestic churches in assorted areas. It was thought that perhaps the Kildare crowns were also royal gifts, although they could have been an illusion referring to the crown of virginity associated with Saint Brigit.

Further on in his description, Cogitosus describes how the cathedral was sectioned off by a screen which was used to separate the men from the women. Separate entrances in the long walls ensured that the sexes would never mix at the Cathedral. The high alter was cut off from the nave by a decorated screen. One could only gain access to the high alter from outside, so as the Bishop and the abbes could enter independently on either side of the alter. Cogitosus suggested that divisions were used to make a distinction between people according to status, origin, rank, and sex.

In 762, the church is referred to as ‘dairthech’ (oak church). Although it might have been an entirely different structure than Cogitosus’ basilica. The ‘dairthech’ was mentioned in the annals again in 836 when the abbot of Armagh was refused entry into the Church. The Cathedral was re- built in 868 under the investment of Flanna, almost certainly because of its use by nuns. The ‘dairthech’ is again mentioned in the annals in 964, and its large dimensions are accentuated. The earliest mention of the destruction of the cathedral is in 1020, where it is recorded to have been destroyed by fire. In the mid eleventh century, Kildare adopted an arrangement of a host of churches. This was similar to Glendalough. Perhaps this structure was to differentiate people by rank, sex etc.

The annihilation of the two churches in 1050 was presumably followed by reconstruction, and a ‘teampall’ (perhaps a large stone church) which was referred to in 1067 was built simultaneously. From 1067 up to the thirteenth century, there are no references to church buildings in Kildare.

I would now like to discuss the round tower which is situated North West of the cathedral. It is the second highest round tower in Ireland. The original tower was probably built in about the ninth or tenth century. There were two different types of stone used in the construction of the tower. The base of the tower is made from granite, and is part of the original round tower. Above this, the rock is roughly coursed limestone. This is illustrated in the image below.

The tower stands 32.6 metres high, and 5.35 metres wide above the base. One could say that the sheer size of a tower in any settlement was a declaration of power to those outside the town. The entrance to the tower faces south – east, and it is made of red sandstone. The entrance is fourteen feet above the ground. The tower is divided into a basement, six floors, and a roof. The castellated battlements at the top of the tower were constructed in 1730, and may have replaced an earlier conical top. A conical top on the tower of Kildare would have made it the highest round tower in Ireland. Round towers were generally used as watch towers, bell towers or places to store valuables. Many people have been led to believe that round towers were used as places of refuge in attack but this is untrue. People were afraid to take refuge in a round tower as there was always a natural danger of being starved or burned out.

It is probable that the initial tower was destroyed during one of the many attacks on the monastery at Kildare. An excavation of the tower in 1843, led to the discovery of twelfth century coins in the basement. This indicated a construction date for about the twelfth century.

Pre Anglo – Norman settlement at Kildare:

Kildare was a prosperous settlement even in the pre – Anglo- Norman period. As I have previously mentioned, Cogitosus characterised Kildare as an Episcopal and conventual see. Kildare faced rivalry from Killeshin for the archiepiscopal see of Leinster in the early tenth century. The annals kept a record of the death of Cerball mac Muirecain, King of Leinster. It is recorded that an accident occurred outside the house of a comb maker as he was riding eastwards into Kildare ‘along the street of the stone step’. This informs the reader that there were stone streets in Kildare at this particular time. Similar streets edged with stone kerbs by houses, and work shops have been found in other excavations at Clonmacnoise, and County Offaly.

Two coin hoards were also found in Kildare. One was found with thirty – four Anglo- Saxon coins which were deposited in C. 991. The other six Hiberno – Norse bracteates were buried in the year 1135. All of the above suggests that there was a secular settlement associated with the church in the pre Anglo – Norman period. We know that Kildare was a key settlement because of the regularity of attacks. Between 710 and 1155, the annals record no less than thirty eight occasions on which the ecclesiastical site was burned or plundered. There were two boundary walls within the settlement, an inner, and an outer boundary wall. The inner wall surrounded the Cathedral and the round tower, and the outer wall extended further. “In many old Irish towns coeval with Kildare the outer ditches, though no longer physically extant, are thought to have influenced the present courses of streets, lanes, walls, field banks, and property boundaries. Scholars have found several such curvilinear elements in modern maps of Kildare” i.e. at Priests lane and Station Road. Another suggested arc of boundary is the South side of Claregate Street.

“Overall the historical and topographical evidence indicates the presence of a large and wealthy ecclesiastical foundation at Kildare in the pre Anglo – Norman period” . Kildare was ecclesiastically important because of its nomination as one of the five Episcopal sees of Leinster at the Synod of Raith Bressail in 1111, and its approval at the Synod of Kells in 1152. Another aspect of pre – Norman Kildare which is an indication of wealth are three cross slabs. The most highly decorated of these is in four pieces, and it sits against the wall of the nave, at the cathedral. It is made from fine grey sandstone. This would be totally divergent from the customary early Irish grave slabs. It would have been considered too elaborate to be made as a grave monument. We know that the stone belongs to the eight or ninth century, because of its style. This is also a very good indication that the settlement in Kildare was wealthy even before the time of the Normans in Ireland. Kildare was the largest settlement in the area when the Anglo- Normans arrived in 1169.

Abbeys of Kildare:

There were three abbeys in Kildare in Medieval times. The Black Abbey at Kildare was founded by the knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, who wore grey and black habits. The black Abbey was founded in the year 1212 at Tully, and the knights Hospitaller used the Abbey as a guest house. It was suggested that they may have bred horses there at this time. The preceptory at Tully was overpowered by King Henry VIII, and was bestowed upon David Sutton of the Irish Privy Council in 1539 and it ultimately passed to the Sarsfield family.

The Grey abbey was established by William de Vesci in 1260. It was built outside the walls of the town, and it received a royal grant c. 1276. It was recorded that eight earls of Kildare were buried at Grey Abbey; however there are no remains of the graves there. The Grey Abbey was additionally granted by Henry VIII to David Sutton. The Abbey was more than likely destroyed around 1547, and the Franciscans were dispersed. They returned to Kildare in 1621, but the Grey Abbey was abandoned in 1731.

The White Abbey was founded in 1292 by William de Vesci, Lord of Kildare. It was suppressed in 1539 like the other Catholic dissenter organisations at that time. The Carmelites returned to Kildare in 1710, and they built a new priory in 1832. The modern gothic church which stands in Kildare was opened in 1889.

Anglo - Norman settlement at Kildare:

With the successful Anglo – Norman invasion of 1169, Richard de Clare (Strongbow) made Kildare his base for operations in Leinster from 1172. Dermot mac Murrough had brought the Anglo – Normans to Ireland in an attempt to regain the power which he had forfeited. In 1135, Mac Murrough struck against the settlement at Kildare killing one hundered and seventy residents. He managed to kidnap the abbess of the monastery, and gave her to one of his faction as a wife. When Strongbow first arrived in Ireland, he used Kildare as a base on many occasions in the 1170’s. He finally settled in Kildare in 1176, and used it as the centre of operations for Leinster Lordship.

The castle was most likely established at this time, although there was no evidence to support its existence until c. 1185. The castle acted as a protection for the inhabitants of the town, which had a population of around nine hundred people in the early fourteenth century. “The castle in 1331 (is recorded to have) consisted of four towers with various out-offices. Its later history is almost completely unrecorded” .

The first Anglo – Norman Bishop was not appointed to Kildare Cathedral until 1223. Bishop Ralph of Bristol (when appointed), initiated the erection of the present Cathedral. In 1395, an indulgence was granted to aid the restoration of the building.

The town of Kildare also operated as a market place. The produce of Kildare and Laois were taken to Kildare before their transportation to Dublin. It is debatable where the actual market place was situated. Some historians believe that the triangular market place was a pre Anglo – Norman characteristic, as the Market places of Kells, Tuam, Armagh and Downpatrick, are done in the same way. Although other historians argue that a triangular shaped market square is comparable with seventeenth and eighteenth century urban development. “The thosel of Kildare appears to have been located in Bride street rather than in market square where its eighteenth century successor stands.

Rocque’s plan of 1757 shows that the lower part of Bride Street was wider in the eighteenth century than it is at present, and it is possible that it was the site of the medieval market place” . There is also evidence of a milling industry in Kildare town.

In the later medieval period, the main industries appear to have been black smith’s works, malting, and the making of felt hats. Like all towns at this time, Kildare also had a hospital. Like all hospitals in medieval times, it was located on the suburbs outside the town (in order to help prevent the rapid spread of diseases through the town). The church of Saint Mary Magdalen had its hospital in existence by 1307. Unfortunately I was unable to retrieve much information about the location of the hospital.

“Medieval Kildare was twice chosen as a meeting place for the Irish Parliament. In 1331 its burgage rents amounted to £9 9s 8d, which some scholars, reckoning one shilling per burgage, believe to imply a burgess household population of 945 persons, capable of occupying as large a built - up area as the eighteenth century town” .

Kildare became a town of immense strategic importance in the network of medieval towns, as it was situated close to the untamed midland bogs and forests of Ireland.

Unfortunately, Kildare’s position on the frontier was nevertheless not all rewarding. The Anglo – Norman colony at Kildare suffered many attacks from the Gaelic Irish. The Ui Failge (The O’ Connors of Offaly) continuously attacked Kildare as they had been pushed out of their land by the Anglo – Normans. In 1288, the Justiciar of Ireland (John De Sandford) transported one hundred knights to Kildare in an attempt to prevent such incidents. Regrettably in 1294, the O’ Connors attacked Kildare castle and destroyed the castles records. In 1297, the O’ Diomusaigh family invaded the area and threatened the settlement. Simultaneously the supporters of John Fitz Thomas Fitzgearld raided the castle and took money, oxen, cows, sheep, and pigs. All were valued at around £1,000 which was a considerable amount of money at that time. There were disputes going on between de Vescy, John Fitz Thomas Fitzgearld, and Richard de Burgh. This had left the town open to attack from the Gaelic Irish. By 1297, William de Vescy had to surrender the lands and the castle to the King. In 1316, the Kildare lands and castle were re granted to John Fitz Thomas Fitzgearld. This led to the establishment of the famous Geraldine family of Kildare.

The Fitzgearlds of Kildare:

The Fitzgearlds of Kildare took advantage of Kildare’s location as a frontier town between the English pale and the Gaelic Irish territory, to amplify their control and Influence. They made treaties with the Gaelic Irish while also maintaining approval with the kings in England. The town charter for Kildare dates back to 1515, when the town of Kildare was declared to have been on the frontier of the crowns Irish enemies. The earl of Kildare was given the permission to build around the town a ditch, and a wall of stone and lime. “This in itself is no proof that the authority in question was actually exercised in 1515 or at any other time, but in 1642, the town walls were twice mentioned in an account of the recently - fought battle and three town gates were named in 1674” . These were named Claregate, Ellis gate, and white gate. Modern street names give an indication of the late medieval town. Claemore (Clae Mor) road on the west side of the town suggests the site of a defensive ditch. Claregate street implies that there was a medieval gate in the town on what is now the main street of Kildare (as I have just mentioned). Kildare suffered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because of its dangerous location on the edge of the English pale. The lack of running water and the availability of more secure properties for the earls of Kildare in Maynooth and Kilkea meant that Kildare experienced some neglect.

The Fitzgearlds reached the peak of their power in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century predominantly under Gareth Mor, the eight earl of Kildare. In 1534, Silken Thomas, son of Gareth Og, led an ineffective rebellion against Henry VIII. Gareth Og died in the tower of London, and Silken Thomas, as well as five of his uncles was executed. The Fitzgearlds never redeemed the power which they had one exerted over Irish affairs.

Kildare suffered devastation for the period of the late sixteenth century, because of its situation on the edge of the pale, and in the path of its opposing armies. In 1600, Kildare was described as ‘forsaken’.

In conclusion, I have shown Kildare as a medieval Irish town throughout my essay. The location of the Kildare settlement worked both for, and against the town. Both the Anglo – Normans and the Fitzgearlds took advantage of Kildare because of its strategic location. Although as I have said, Kildare by the end of the medieval period suffered dramatically, and did not pick up again until the introduction of the mail system into the town c. 1800’s.

Kildare as a medieval Irish town has left many remnants of its time in the form of buildings such as the Cathedral, and the castle, and in the form of street names, such as Claregate Street. Evidence of Kildare town in the medieval period, allows us to understand and appreciate the history of that time, today.

Copy Right Mary Boyle 2007