Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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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.