Venturing into Wicklow Town was a trip back to my childhood; we had lived in the area for about a year and were lucky enough to be brought to visit some of the areas most wonderful places. The town is stunning with colorful shops and a historic feel, everything about Wicklow Town is enchanting, for me I was filled with forgotten memories and fleeting flashes of recognition and wonderful experiences.
It has been over 20 years since I was in Wicklow and I loved every second of it. I was on my way to an appointment and was desperate for a coffee to bring me into the world of the living! I was fortunate enough to stumble across the most wonderful café in the centre of Wicklow Town, “Jackie B’s Café”, Church Street, Wicklow Town, 0872232788. I would definitely recommend anyone visiting Wicklow Town to visit this café, the staff are wonderful, friendly and so helpful. The coffee was the best I have had in years and the food was superb. It was the perfect start to my day and I will definitely be back. I was also told about a wonderful ruin at the edge of town, I was intrigued and went straight to see the epic and haunting ruins of Black Castle.
There is very little left of Black Castle after its long and extremely turbulent past, but what remains is something that seems to creep into your soul, standing as a monument to our past, its remains occupying its promontory cliff, jagged edges surrounded by sea and sky. I was in shock and awe at this location, taking in panoramic views of the sea, at a location where sea and sky seem to intertwine, the wind was blowing as a walked to the edge of this ruin, with small steep steps being the only way to get to it, looking down at rock and water.
In my mind I keep wondering how did anyone build at this location. The sparse remains allowing my imagination to run wild, envisioning what this castle would have looked like and what had brought it to it present state of decay. I found myself wanting to know more about a ruin that seemed to be whispering the epic story of it’s life, willing me to hear it’s voice. It is safe to say I started researching almost imminently. I just could not get the views and its precarious location off my mind.
As I began to research Black Castle a very familiar clan name started to appear and sparked my interest, this name was O’Toole. Its one of our family names and it brought back all the amazing conversations I had had with my wonderful Grandfather; they all came flooding back in an instant. I found myself wishing I had been less of a petulant teenager and paid closer attention. All I know is that our people hailed from the Wicklow area had been forced off their lands into the Wicklow Mountains. I discovered a new desire to learn more about where I came from. What I discovered in my research was astounding. I was transported back to the day I gazed upon Black Castle with my own eyes and its magnificent history and its importance and influence over the Wicklow area started to become apparent.
My fear initially on visiting Black Castle was how I would write about a castle without walls, how would I be able to explain its significance and place in Irish History. However I discovered that it did not only have a significance and role in the history of Wicklow but also for me personally, How this rocky and exposed outcrop surround by wind and sea was to start a journey into the world of my ancestors and the role they played in Irish History.
The story of Black Castle starts with a major event that was to forever influence, Irish History and the landscape of Ireland forever, The Norman Invasion! At a time when Ireland consisted of several kingdoms with a High King ruling over all. The disgruntled King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurragh, who had been deposed, wanted his kingdom back. In 1165 he sought the help of the Normans, visiting the then King, Henry II in France, asking for help to regain his position as King of Leinster, Henry II did not agree to help MacMurragh at this time but the help he required was to come in the form of Norman mercenaries lead by Richard de Clare and Raymond Le Gros.
The Normans & Black Castle
In 1169 the Norman forces invaded Ireland and a second wave invaded in 1170, lead by Strongbow, Rickard De Clare, Earl of Pembroke. The Irish seemed powerless to the Norman Invasion, highly trained warriors, with their chainmail armor, new weapons and advanced building technologies. Strongbow married Aoife the daughter of Dermot MacMurragh, in Waterford. This marriage cemented Strongbow’s power in Ireland, as he would inherit MacMurragh’s lands in Leinster. The Normans built a series of Castles throughout their lands in Ireland, resulting in a mass of defensive features that still dot the Landscape today.
Strongbow was granted these lands around Wicklow and in turn granted the lands around this area to Maurice Fitzgerald, Baron of Naas, who was married to one of Strongbow’s illegitimate daughters, on the condition that he constructed defensive features to defend Norman interests from the local tribes, mainly the O’Toole’s and the O’Byrne’s, the resulting defensive feature was Black Castle with its views of the surrounding landscape and seas leading to the safe harbour. Black Castle was an essential tool in establishing a Norman stronghold in Wicklow and was an influencing factor in the foundation of the Wicklow Town we see today. Wicklow’s history and development it intricately intertwined with the evolution of Black Castle from its inception to its destruction. Black Castle did not see a moment’s peace in its life as it was under constant attack.
The O’Toole’s and O’Byrne’s, who succeeded in taking Black Castle in 1301. As Norman power declined in Ireland, Black Castle fell into a state of disrepair, possibly as a result of it being in the position of Irish Clans. Black Castle played a role again during the Confederate Wars of the 1640’s, when it was once again attacked by the O’Toole’s under the command of Luke O’Toole, the English force lead by Sir Charles Cooke, massacred a large number of the towns folk in an area of Wicklow Town, that is now know as Melancholy Lane. The Castle was burned to the ground in 1645, but was rebuilt, but it never took back its place of importance in the defence of Wicklow Town. By the 18th Century it had fallen into a state of decay and the results of this decay is what we see today, its jagged edges telling us of its former glory.
For me the role of the O’Tooles was beyond intriguing as I learned of the role my ancestors played in Medieval Ireland’s History. The O’Tooles of Leinster were one of the most powerful clans in the area, born from ancient Irish dynasties, driven into the mountains of Wicklow and settled in the areas around Glendalough, they resisted English rule for over 4 centuries, and were an influencing power in the establishment of the Confederation of Kilkenny. The O’Toole’s of the 16th century were one of the most powerful families in Ireland with 5 powerful factions of the family declaring their loyalty to the O’Toole’s of Powerscourt.
A member of the O’Toole’s that intrigued me was, Mor O’Toole she was married to Dermot MacMurragh and was the mother of Aoife, who later married the most powerful Norman of the era and was Queen of Leinster. Upon the death of Strongbow he was interred in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and his funeral was presided over by Laurence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin, who would later become St Laurence O’Toole. Black Castle and its surrounding area have some of the most beautiful and breathtaking scenery in Ireland. It is where sea, sky and mountains seem to meet.
Black Castle may be a ruin but its story and life are deeply intertwined in the history of Wicklow and Ireland, these ruins whispers of Irish legends and was where some of the most famous and influential figures in Irish History once walked, it whispers of its ancient and turbulent past, insuring that its story will live on. If you are visiting the area please see this Gem of Ireland, it is something that should not be missed.