independent

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Site was scene of bitter fighting

WICKLOW HISTORY: THREE CASTLES

The ruins of Three Castles.
The ruins of Three Castles.

DR. EMMETT O'BYRNE

THREE Castles is located in the parish of Blessington within the barony of Talbotstown Lower. At the time of the coming of the English in the late 1160s, this district covered by Talbotstown Lower was clad in dense forest, as attested through it being known as Coillacht. Administratively, these vast forests of Coillacht formed part of the landed estates of the archbishops of Dublin. Indeed, Elias Harold, seneschal and chief administrative officer of the archbishopric, took up residence at the site of Three Castles during the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, holding ten carucates of land there. Subsequently and rather unsurprisingly, it then became known as Haroldstown or Villa Elye Harold in Coillacht (the town of Elias Harold in Coillacht).

With the decline of the English colony in Wicklow from the middle of 1260s, these lands of Coillacht gradually fell under the control of the O'Tooles expanding outwards from their heartland in Imaal - remaining under their control until the end of the 1400s. Then Lord Deputy Gerald Fitzgerald (d.1514), 8th earl of Kildare, subdued the O'Tooles in the western Wicklow mountains.

To consolidate his grip on the region and to contain the O'Tooles within Imaal, the lord deputy commenced building a chain of tower houses.

So it was probably at this time that the earl constructed Three Castles, entrusting it to his son Sir James Fitzgerald (ex. 1537) who lorded over much of western Wicklow. The location of the surviving tower house at Three Castles reveals the strategic eye of its builder, as it was placed on an east facing slope that overlooked a ford on the river Liffey. What survives today is a relatively well built and well preserved rectangular three storey tower house with a projecting stair turret on its north-eastern angle.

Its walls are four to five feet thick and are faced with cut blocks of granite, while on the first floor there is a large granite fireplace with decorative mouldings on the windows. Indeed, its roof survives covering the third floor with a barrel vault. Leaving the surviving structure aside, it seems that the other two castles did not survive. But the site of one of them was pointed out to the Ordnance Survey's surveyors during the nineteenth century. The site of the third castle is a matter of conjecture.

As Three Castles was located in a truly border area, it was often the focus of bitter conflict - particularly during the 1500s. The murder by the Fitzgeralds of Sir Robert Talbot, sheriff of Dublin, during Christmas 1523 was one such occasion. In revenge, Sir Piers Butler in early 1524 swept into western Wicklow and seized the Fitzgerald castles there, including Three Castles, placing his garrisons in them. While the Fitzgeralds regained their grip on western Wicklow, their authority crumbled with the defeat of the rebellion of Thoma s Fitzgerald alias Silken Thomas (ex.1537), 10th earl of Kildare, in 1535.

The subsequent vacuum placed Three Castles in the eye of the storm that was Turlough O 'Too le ( sl.1542), lord of the O'Tooles.

Turlough was to determinedly exploit the Fitzgerald implosion, unravelling their conquest of his ancestral patrimony. Throughout his career, he implacably sought confirmation of his gains either through his protracted negotiations with the now rebel Fitzgeralds or with the royal authority.

An example of Turlough's political independence came on Friday 30 May 1538 during a parley with John Kelway, the royal constable of Rathmore.

A letter dated 10 June from the Irish Council to Henry VIII's chief minister Thomas Cromwell tells that Kelway had earlier hanged two of Turlough's servants for provocatively '... eating meat' within the English border. Not unnaturally, Turlough wanted compensation. During the parley, Turlough and Kelway quarrelled viciously - leading the former to flee towards the mountains.

But he actually drew Kelway into a prepared ambush in a mountain pass - forcing the constable to take refuge in the nearby thatched castle at Three Castles.

The firing of the castle's roof made its defence futile.

Then according to a letter of Lord Deputy Leonard Grey to Henry VIII on 4 June, Turlough (in no mood for mercy) permitted his men to kill sixty prisoners before personally putting Kelway to the sword.

The surviving prisoners were carried off to Glendalough to await ransom.

Three Castles was again the centre of fighting in the late 1540s.

Then the O'Tooles of Imaal and Fitzgerald rebels went on the rampage in summer 1546, burning Rathvilly, Rathangan and Ballymore Eustace. The unrest continued into 1547.

But in May 1547 Sir Anthony St Leger led the forces of the Pale and Brian O'Toole of Powerscourt against a renegade O'Byrne force, driving them into the mountains glens.

It is clear also that Turlough McShane O'Toole of Imaal was also implicated in this unrest, as he was attainted as a traitor on 10 May.

It seems that he joined the Fitzgerald rebels who were routed by Brian O'Toole under the walls of Three Castles in the early summer. The victor conveyed Henry and Maurice Fitzgerald and fourteen supporters to Dublin for trial.

There they were convicted of treason, paying its horrific penalty of being drawn, hanged and quartered.

For his victory at Three Castles, Brian O'Toole received the lease of the rectory of Stagyonnll near Powerscourt but died on 23 March 1549 before he could enjoy his reward.

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