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.

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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