Keeping Time in Youghal

I had time to pass in East Cork on Saturday, so I went off to Youghal (pronounce it ‘yawl’), a substantial town with a great deal of history. I had a purpose in mind: to check out a recently opened museum, dedicated to the way that the time of day was chronicled here over a number of centuries.

The museum is housed in an iconic building that has spanned the main street of the town for 250 years: the Clock Gate Tower. That’s it bottom centre in the aerial view below, and underneath that is the more usual view of it, from the road. It’s the most visible building in Youghal town, and you can see one of its three clock faces (which all show exactly the same time) in this photograph.

In medieval times Youghal was a walled town, and the site of the Clock Gate Tower was one of the defended entrance points at the south end of the enclosed settlement; Finola has written about the walls here. Masonry walls were fine in the days of bows and arrows but became obsolete when heavy artillery took over: by the late 1700s the town had expanded beyond the walls and the southern gate was redundant: before the Clock Gate Tower was completed in 1777 a medieval gateway known as the Iron Gate stood on the site.

Upper – a map from the Pacata Hibernia showing Youghal – first published in 1633: we are looking at the town from the east. The Iron gate is highlighted: even then the town had expanded beyond the original walls. Lower – the Iron Gate in 1681: by that time the original defensive towers had been embellished with a clock and bell tower

It was perhaps whimsical – in the 18th century – to replace the earlier gate with a building which could be seen as a pastiche of what was there before, but it has certainly succeeded in creating a distinctive landmark which has lasted to the present day, and continues to fulfil the function of a clock and bell tower central to the town.

This early photograph of Youghal’s main street with the Clock Tower probably dates from around 1900

I took the Clock Gate Tower Tour and can assure you that a great time was had by all who were on it. Before you go, however, make sure you are able for climbing the six flights of steps from street level to the very top: there were no lifts in the 1770s, and no way that any mechanical assistance could now be fitted into the restricted spaces in the building. However, the staircases are safe and easy, and there is plenty of time to pause on each floor to see the fascinating displays that have been installed. I’m not going to reveal everything that the tour includes, or you might think you don’t need to take part! Just a few tasters will suffice.

I will disclose that you will get a feeling for what prison life was like two or three hundred years ago, as this was then one of the main functions of the tower, and one of the floors has been set out as a cell. Our enthusiastic ‘storyteller’ guide, Katy (above) pointed out that the restricted space could have held a large number of inmates, unsegregated and crowded together with no sanitation (other than a window). Prisoners had to pay for their own food, which was hauled up through the same window from friends outside. Even in 1841 the conditions that prevailed here were considered appalling – and Youghal was specifically mentioned in the Report of Inspectors General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland of that year:

My favourite room was one dedicated to the workings of the clock (header picture and above). From the earliest days the Clock Keeper was also responsible for ringing the town bell:

. . . In 1622 Balltazar Portingale was appointed as clock-keeper and was given free quarters in return for ringing the clock at four in the morning from Easter to Michaelmas, and at five in the morning from Michaelmas to Easter, and at nine at night all the year. . .

In more modern times the bell was also employed to summon the fire brigade. Following complaints from some outlying residents of the town that it could not be heard, the original bell was replaced with a larger version, still in use today and connected to the clock mechanism for striking the hours.

From 1915 to 1955 three generations of the McGrath family lived as tenants in the tower: they had responsibility for winding its clock and announcing a death by ringing the town bell. John McGrath, now 80, was born in the Clock Gate and has great memories of his childhood there: he provided a lot of the information to help fit out the fourth floor of the museum as a 1950s interior, and he can be heard talking about his youthful experiences on one of the audio-visual screens:

As someone who also grew up in the 1950s (but not in a clock tower!) I can confirm the authenticity of some of the exhibits in the highest room of the museum

Probably the most exciting part of Youghal’s Clock Gate Tower Tour is the culmination: being allowed to ascend to the viewing platform at the very top. It’s a small area, but safely enclosed with unobtrusive glass balustrades. From it you get a panoramic vista in all directions over the whole town and the sea beyond. And, knowing how much history you are standing above, it’s well worth the modest tour fee. It will be time well spent!

This museum experience is proving justly popular: if you plan a visit check in advance with the Clock Gate website. In the summer tours are run seven days a week – I believe winter opening hours are being assessed; there is a phone number on the website. Have a great time . . .

Youghal’s Walls

Outside the walls 2

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. 

Mural Tower

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.

Boyle's Almshouses

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.

PacataHiberniaYoughalc 1600_800x537

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.

Walls above graveyard

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.

View from Walls

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 streetscape

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

Tynte's Castle

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.

Clock Gate

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.

laurencesgate-01

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.

Model of walls

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.

Through the graveyard

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.

Wall repairs

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!

Wall walk

**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.

When in Youghal…

boyle header

We spent St Patrick’s Day in Youghal – within County Cork but a long way from our own part of that territory. The place is falling down with history, and warrants an extended visit. Finola has written about the walled town and some of its architecture: I will be concentrating on the Collegiate Church of St Mary, a building that goes back a long way and is said to be on the site of the monastic foundation of Saint Declan, a fifth century contemporary – or even a predecessor of – St Patrick.

Saints by Harry Clarke: St Patrick, Ballinasloe (left) and St Declan, Honan Chapel (right)

The Vikings came to Youghal, and one stone slab in the church depicts a vessel from those days. There are so many other memorial stones, carvings and inscriptions that we spent hours in the building just trying to take them all in. I can only show you a taster and recommend you to go and see for yourselves.

longboat

Carving of a Viking longboat – can you see it?

The structure of the present church deserves close study. It claims to be the oldest church in Ireland that has had continuous worship taking place – since the 13th century. Look firstly at the roof over the Great Nave: the timbers have been carbon dated to around 1170, although an intriguing hand-printed notice about this feature states …The roof of this church was put up there in 1220 by French labour, there are two german cathedrals roofed with Irish Oak and their walls bear the same masons marks as this church. They were all built by the same hands. Ireland was covered with oak woods in 1220, but saw mills were not invented until 1328. They had to pick each oak tree the same size, and with an axe skin and square it up. So each piece is a small oak tree – or Saplyn…

oak roof

In 1464 St Mary’s was made a Collegiate Church, with the foundation of Our Lady’s College of Yoghill by the Earl of Desmond. It was served by a ‘ Warden’ of eight ‘fellowes’ and eight ‘singing clerks’. In the precincts of the church is the Warden’s House, known as Myrtle Grove. This also has a long and complex history: this article about Henry and Edith Blake – two of its colourful inhabitants (who are buried in its garden) is worth a read. Another former inhabitant of the house – and one of Youghal’s celebrities – is (or was) Sir Walter Raleigh.

myrtle grove 2016

Sir Walter Raleigh, once the owner of many thousand acres in Cork, including the whole settlement of Youghal – and his home, Myrtle Grove, in 1833 (top right) and seen today (above)

Myrtle Grove is said to be one of the oldest houses in Ireland: it remains in private ownership. St Mary’s Church itself is unusual in that it is in the guardianship of the state while also continuing as a place of worship.

st mary's church

Another Youghal celebrity was Richard Boyle – the Great Earl of Cork (1566 – 1643). While Raleigh had acquired his estates during the English ‘plantations’ following the Desmond rebellion, Boyle, also an English incomer, was an entrepreneur and an opportunist. He invested in many ventures – mining, fishing, iron smelting and linen weaving – as well as studying law and pursuing his political career. He was appointed Clerk of the Council of Munster in 1600, became a privy councillor for the whole of Ireland in 1612, and, having found favour with Queen Elizabeth, was knighted and made Earl of Cork and Viscount Dungarvan in 1620. Eventually he was created Lord Treasurer of Ireland. He owned Bandon and designed and built Clonakilty, while also relieving Raleigh of all his estates – 42,000 acres – for the rather small sum of £1500. Boyle died in 1643 and is interred in a tomb he built for himself and his family in St Mary’s Church, Youghal. He is said to have been the richest man in the known world at the time of his death. Go and see his tomb – it is spectacular! Boyle had two wives and fifteen children by one of them: all – and Boyle’s mother – are included in the monument.

The Collegiate Church is one of the places where – in the middle ages – ‘acoustic jars’ were used to enhance acoustics. These ceramic vessels were placed in niches above the choir area: the niches are still there but, unfortunately, the vases are not.

acoustic jars

There’s a lot more to the fascinating story of this church. I’ll leave you with a visual round-up of some of the details that we found, all of which add to the interest and the richness of the place. You could call it a ‘medieval miscellany’ – I call it my Youghal Menagerie.

miscellany 17