Walled towns are relatively rare in Ireland and it’s even rarer to find substantial sections of wall still standing. But Youghal (pronounced YAWL), in County Cork, miraculously has a significant extent of its medieval wall still in place.
Drew’s Tower, one of the mural towers that punctuated the wall. Some of the others were called Montmorenci, Half-Moon and Banshee Towers
A walking tour of Youghal is a great way to spend a day. Robert is writing about the wondrous Collegiate Church, one of the highlights of the tour but by no means the only stop of interest.
Almshouses built by Richard Boyle and still in use today
The history of Youghal is inextricably mixed up with Walter Raleigh, an early resident, and Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. They lived here in Tudor times, but the town started out as a Viking stronghold. The Norsemen may have built earthen defences, precursors to the later stone walls.
Map of Youghal from the 17th century Pacata Hibernia. The smaller walled section to the left was known as Base Town or Irish Town. It was for the native Irish and the entrance to the main town was through a guarded gate. Note the heavily fortified quay walls
It’s not hard to understand the importance of Youghal if you consider its strategic setting. Situated in an excellent natural harbour, it guarded access to one of the south coast’s longest and most navigable rivers – the Blackwater. The Irish and Norse banded together to defend Youghal against a Norman raiding party that had sacked Lismore in 1173. They were unsuccessful, and from then on Youghal became a Norman town. It was these Normans who built the first sections of the wall, in the 13th century.
The great family of Fitzgerald, Earls of Desmond, dominated the town for the next three hundred years. The Desmonds ignored the dictates of Dublin Castle and lived like independent princes – a factor that was to lead to their eventual downfall and along with it the decline of the old Gaelic order and the arrival of a planter class from England that would include Raleigh and Boyle.
Youghal occupied an important position at the mouth of the Blackwater, with a sheltered harbour
But in the early medieval period, before those troubles, Youghal prospered and became the 6th largest port in Ireland and a booming centre of trade.
Portugal sent wine, oil and olives; Spain, iron, lemons, oranges, shumack; France, silk, salt, spirits, vinegar; Amsterdam, paper; Flanders, bark, tapestry and silk; Rotterdam, cider, coffee-mills, corn powder, earthenware; Bremen, iron, oak-boards, and Rjenish window glass; Norway, balks and deals; Drontheim, oars, spars masts etc. Articles of luxury were imported in abundance; amongst other articles of fashion, we have ivory combs, fans, head-rolls, masks and papers of patches.**
Tynte’s Castle which once overlooked the quay walls and helped to defend the town
To the sea side the main defence consisted on the quay wall, which was strengthened with crenellations and fortified by towers. One of those towers, Tynte’s Castle, is still in use on the main street. It was once the home of Elizabeth Spenser, widow of the poet Edmund Spenser, to whom he wrote the love poem Epithalamion. Spenser was not popular in Ireland – read more about that here.
The quays and the walls behind the town were the subject of petitions for ‘murage grants’ over the centuries as they were difficult to maintain and the town itself was subject to attack from the sea by pirates and by the ‘Wild Irish’ from the high land behind the town.
Access to the walled town was provided by means of guarded gates. While no original gates have survived, the Clock Gate, built in 1777, is located where the original gate was. The current tower functioned as a gaol for many years. It is believed the original gate may have looked like St Laurence’s gate in Drogheda, one of the few town gates surviving in Ireland.
The surviving town gate in Drogheda – St Laurence’s Gate – shows us what Youghal’s gates would have looked like
The town was attacked and devastated by the Desmonds in 1579. Eventually driven out and defeated, the Earl’s lands were forfeited to the crown and granted to Sir Walter Raleigh who came to live in the house called Myrtle Grove. He later sold his lands to Richard Boyle, under whose energetic patronage the town once again prospered and the walls were repaired. Much of what we see now dates to this period.
A model of the town – this section shows the walls in the north-east section, St Mary’s Collegiate Church and Myrtle Grove
Walls were rendered obsolete by the advent of heavy canon and they gradually fell once again into decay by the late 1700s. Meanwhile the prosperous town needed wider streets and gates were removed, although the portion inside the walls kept its medieval layout for the most part.
The old graveyard behind the Collegiate Church and within the walls is waiting to be explored
Enough of the town wall survived, however, and the citizens of Youghal are rightly proud of it. They have undertaken an ongoing program of stabilisation and repair. For one thing, they have removed the ivy that threatens to destroy so much of our medieval heritage.
Today, you can wander freely around the walls. There are magnificent views from the top, where you can appreciate the strategic importance of the port and admire the formal collegiate gardens preserved as a town park. Take one of the walking tours offered by the Youghal Heritage Centre – in a land steeped in history, this experience ranks as unique!
**This quote and much of the information in this post came from the excellent publication: Youghal Town Wall: Conservation and Management Plan, by Cork County Council. Thanks also to the Youghal Visitor Centre for the walking tour map and the friendly greeting.