Wednesday 20 March 2019

Ecclesiastical origins of Swords 6th century monastic settlement

Aidan O'CONNELL, Archer Heritage Planning

LIKE many of the ancient towns in Fingal, Swords would appear to have an ecclesiastical origin. A monastery was founded here in the 6th century, reputedly by St Colmcille, who appointed St Fionnan Lobhar as the first abbot. The early monastery was established on the prominent ridge of high ground overlooking Main Street from the west and Brian Boru is said to have rested here following his death at the battle of Clontarf in AD 1014 en route to his burial at Armagh.

Today, the most notable survival of the early monastic site is the round tower, dating to the 10th century (but subsequently 'restored' in the 17th century). The monastic settlement was recorded in contemporary annals throughout the 10th–12th centuries AD. Much of the raiding activity recorded in the annals appears to have been carried out by Irish assailants.

One particular attack in AD1035 was carried out in retaliation for a Norse attack at Ardbraccan, Co Meath.

This suggests that Swords was part of the Scandinavian kingdom of Dyfflinarskiri (Dublin) and therefore owes it heritage to Viking, as well as monastic settlement.

The second half of the 12th century saw the arrival of the AngloNormans and the transfer of control of the monastic lands to the archbishops of Dublin.

Swords Castle which was built c 1200, was a principal archiepiscopal residence in this period.

Before the end of the 12th century, a borough was established.

Borough status granted privileges such as the right of self-government and trade protection from outside merchants to the towns' inhabitants.

In 1193 the borough was granted the right to hold an eight-day fair centred on the feast of St Colmcille. The marketplace was located in Main Street and can still be seen where the street was widened to accommodate it. Later still, in 1395 a weekly market was established. The medieval town was mainly arranged along a single linear street, High Street (Main Street).

The focus of settlement was the gates of the archbishop's palace.

By the late 16th century, a town wall was in existence, although currently no town defences survive above ground. The continued wealth and importance of the town in the medieval period is demonstrated by Swords being regarded as 'the golden prebend' because its revenues for the archbishops were so handsome.

St Columba's parish church reflected this wealth through its size and its three side chapels.

The present church was built around 1818 using the materials of the original medieval building and currently the only surviving medieval buildings are the 15thcentury west tower and the round tower.

• Aidan O'Connell is an archaeologist and a director of Archer Heritage Planning Ltd, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. Contact him at 01-8020403.