Ardglass, County Down – Battles, Tower Houses and Herrings
Which village has the most mediaeval tower-houses in Ireland?
The pretty little fishing village of Ardglass was once the busiest port in the north of Ireland and the centre of an Anglo-Norman network of fortifications.
Its position on the Lecale peninsula made it of strategic importance for defence, transport and communication, both with England and Scotland and the Norman controlled area around Dublin, known as the Pale. Throughout the village of Ardglass ruins of castles, forts and tower-houses abound.
Ardglass from the Gaelic Ard Ghlais meaning ‘green height’ has had a long history of occupation. There are at least 8 archaeological sites within the village. One of these dates from c.3,000 – 2,500BC. This is the grave of a warrior-leader built into an artificial hill. The fertile land, bountiful seas and the small but deep inlet made this an attractive place to settle for the early Irish tribes.
“Turn to the little town of Ardglass, in the barony of Lecale, eastern-most tip of County Down; It is as old as the hills that surround it; it is steeped in the very cauldron of antiquity, ancient home of wandering tribes and mediaeval clans”James McCabe Napier, The Story of Ardglass, 1966
It is likely these early people established trading links with their near neighbours across the Irish Sea. Certainly, by 117AD the Roman historian Tacitus, records Irish merchants from County Down trading with Europe.
When St Patrick returned to Ireland c432AD he sailed up Strangford Lough and landed in Down. As Christianity spread, churches were built throughout the region – Rossglass, Ardtole, Ballyhornan, Killard and Kilclief.
In 1170 the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland. John de Courcy, a Norman warlord, arrived 7 years later.
In search of land, he headed to the north of the island. De Courcy established a castle at Carrickfergus and then swept on capturing the town of Downpatrick in 1201. Here he constructed a castle as his stronghold in County Down.
However, there was the matter of providing his army and the Norman settlers with provisions. The Irish were still the enemy, so he looked for a near-by port. Ardglass was only 7 miles distant.
“Ardglass and Carrickfergus became the main official English ports in Ulster after this date until 1637”Gerry O’Shea, History of Ardglass
As the majority of Ireland was still in the hands of local chieftains and the dispossessed, the safest means of travel and communication was by sea. The route from Ardglass to Dublin was the main link between the north and south of the island.
To protect this important harbour a number of castles or fortified tower-houses were built circling the village and the inlet. It is thought there may also have been a connecting curtain wall, but no remains have been uncovered. The two Norman families most responsible for building these castles were the Savages and the Fitzsimons. Both surnames are common in the area to this day.
As time went on, however, the English monarch, King John, became suspicious of the growing power of John de Courcy and the other prospering Norman knights.
Castles and Tower-Houses
In 1210 he sailed to Waterford and marched via Dublin to Carlingford. From here, he and his retinue sailed to Ardglass. On 12th July the royal party stayed at Castrum Jordani de Sackville at Ardglass. The owner Jordan de Sackville and other local knights were expelled. This fortification is today known as King’s Castle and sits on a height above the harbour.
When first constructed there were two castles on this lofty site, King’s Castle and Queen’s Castle. However, in the 1820’s Queen’s Castle was undermined and collapsed.
King’s Castle was renovated and temporarily used as an army barracks and later a residence. (Today, King’s Castle is a nursing home).
“This edifice underwent a partial repair, the different apartments having been rendered comfortable, and fit for the reception of a respectable family”Rev Sam Burdy, 1802
Throughout the following turbulent centuries, Ardglass was often the scene of bitter fighting and prolonged sieges and changed hands many times.
The invasion of Edward the Bruce in the fourteenth century left the towns and villages of Lecale devasted. In 1433 Ardglass was sacked and its Anglo-Norman inhabitants killed or driven out.
In the fifteenth century an invasion from Scotland, aided by the local Magennis clan, led many Scots to settle in the peninsula. Jordan’s Castle and Margaret’s Castle were constructed around this time. From 1599-1601 Jordan’s Castle was besieged. The constable, Simon Jordan and his men were finally relieved on 17th June 1601 by Lord Deputy Mountjoy.
Jordan’s Castle is situated in the middle of Ardglass. A striking four storey building composed of blue stone rubble. The windows are narrow befitting the defensive nature of the castle. On the north face is a rectangular projection containing a spiral staircase. The ground level is unfloored and may have been used as a store room.
The archery turrets are linked by archways, the ‘murder-hole’ still survives as does an original dovecote (a small, decorative shelter for pigeons) on the north-west corner. A murder hole is a hole in the ceiling of a passageway in a fortification through which the defenders could fire, throw or pour harmful substances or objects such as rocks, arrows, scalding water, hot sand, quicklime, tar, or boiling oil, down on attackers.
“Jordan’s Castle which, though inferior in size to King’s Castle, is yet constructed with greater elegance than that, or any other buildings of the kind, and was a place of considerable strength. It is situated in the centre of the town, and appears to have been the citadel”Dublin Penny Journal, 30th March 1833
Francis Joseph Bigger at Jordan’s Castle
In 1911 Jordan’s Castle was purchased by Belfast historian and antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger.
“Ardglass has always been a happy hunting- ground for archaeologists on account of its ancient history and for none more so than the late F J Bigger, a Belfast solicitor, who was a keen student of mediaeval churches and sous-terrain; he bought Jordan’s castle, repaired the old fortress, furnished it with period pieces and proceeded to live in it in his leisure hours”James McCabe Napier, The Story of Ardglass, 1966
Bigger called the castle Castleshane in honour of Shane O’Neill. O’Neill had occupied the castle in 1565 during his revolt against the English Queen Elizabeth I.
As well as repairing the structure Bigger also used it to house part of his extensive collection of artefacts. Friends, artists, musicians, and writers were invited to the castle to partake in festivals, competitions and pageants in celebration of Irish culture and heritage. On his death in 1926, Francis Joseph Bigger bequeathed the castle to State Care on condition it be preserved as an Ancient Monument.
“Yes, Bigger’s name is remembered with affection for he had a great love for Ardglass. He used to sit in the little room at the top of a narrow, twisting stone stair-case, reading, reading – always reading and pouring over old manuscripts in front of a charcoal fire with the candles guttering in their sockets and a dim light filtering through the slitted window”James McCabe Napier, The Story of Ardglass, 1966
Growing Trade & the Construction of Ardglass Castle
In 1430 Ardglass was granted a royal charter. The importance of Ardglass as a fishing port and centre of trade and commerce is demonstrated by the building of Newark, subsequently known as Ardglass Castle.
This enterprise, the ‘new work’ was the work of a group of London merchants who wanted to consolidate their position in the main port of Anglo-Norman Ulster. Traditionally the Irish exported wool, linen, beef, hides and cereals while importing wine, iron and luxury goods. The road at Ardglass Castle is believed to be the oldest trading street in Ireland.
“The port of Ardglass appears to have been in a flourishing condition from a very early period; a trading company from London settled here in the reign of Henry IV, and in the reign of Henry VI it had an extensive foreign trade and was superior to any other port in the province of Ulster”Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
Description of Ardglass Castle
The building originally consisted of a range of fortified warehouses erected close to the harbour. It had two storeys with 3 watch-towers overlooking the sea. There were about 30 ground level arched doors on the land side. Each room measured about 10ft square and 7ft high. The upper level was accessed by a stone staircase.
The rooms did not have fireplaces, the merchants chose to cook and eat in the nearby Horn Castle. On the coastal exterior there were no windows only small openings to protect from “piratical assailants”
Conversion to a Residence
The construction was redesigned into a residence in 1790 by Charles Fitzgerald.
“….converted by Lord Lecale into the most elegant habitation, who has with great judgement and taste preserved the antique castellated appearance”John Dubourdieu, Statistical Survey of County Down, 1802
Purchase by Ardglass Golf Course
Ardglass Castle remained in Fitzgerald hands until 1896 when it was purchased by the Ardglass Golf Club. The Club is understandably, very proud of the history of their unique clubhouse.
Just in front of Ardglass Castle are the ruins of another defensive tower-house – Cowd Castle. It was a small square, two-storey building, recorded as one of the flanking towers of Newark.
Growth & Decline
At the turn of the fourteenth century Ardglass and Strangford were the possessions of Sir Janico D’Artas from Gascony. He had arrived in Ireland with Richard II in 1399.
In 1427 D’Artas’s daughter Alison, married Gerald Fitzgerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and Lord Deputy of Ireland. Her dowry was Ardglass. The main throughfare in the village is Kildare Street.
In 1637 the English government bought the trading privileges of Ardglass from Gerald Fitzgerald, the current Earl of Kildare. They transferred these rights to the up-and-coming towns of Belfast and Newry.
This had a devastating effect on the economy of Ardglass as the previously flourishing fishing industry went into decline.
Situated on Castle Place are the remains of Margaret’s Castle. This was another fortification built to safeguard the harbour. Only two floors remain and part of the spiral staircase.
The Eye of Ardglass
Another tower-house, set back from the coast on a slight height is known as ‘The Eye of Ardglass’.
The ground section is square and above it is a circular battlemented tower. The upper level has a brick floor and is reached by a cantilevered stone staircase. This was probably used as a lookout post for both sea and land.
The Sale of Ardglass
Purchase by William Ogilvie
In 1806 Lord Charles Fitzgerald, Baron Lecale, sold Ardglass to William Ogilvie (his stepfather) for £26,000.
Ogilvie was born around 1740 and had come from Scotland as a tutor for the Fitzgerald family. He married Emily Fitzgerald, the Dowager Duchess of Leinster, shortly after her husband’s death. The couple resided in Ardglass Castle and had three daughters Cecilia, Charlotte and Emily.
Ogilvie was a shrewd businessman and set about renewing the fabric and reputation of Ardglass.
With his friend and fellow Scot, Sir John Ritchie, Ogilvie had a new pier and lighthouse built which rejuvenated the fishing industry in the village. The project cost £25,000. The outer harbour wall, composed of stone imported from the Isle of Man, was constructed around 1834.
The original metal lighthouse was washed away by a gale in 1838.
Ardglass is particularly associated with herrings. Great shoals of the fish are abundant along the coast.
“During the season there are frequently in the harbour, at one time, 300 to 400 vessels from Donaghadee, Carlingford, Skerries, Dublin, Arklow, and the Isle of Man, but principally from Penzance, on the coast of Cornwall….masters of sloops and small craft, who wait in the harbour for the arrival of the fishing boats, and proceed directly to Dublin or Liverpool to dispose of the herrings fresh”Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
The inner harbour of Ardglass was named Kimmersport or ‘God’s Pocket’ and was advertised as a safe refuge for sailors.
Ardglass Village Improvements
William Ogilvie was also concerned with the village itself. Having built new streets, an excellent range of houses, a church and an elegant hotel, he proceeded to have constructed hot and cold vapour baths in an area in front of The Crescent.
“In 1810 there were not more than 3 or 4 houses of 2-storeys high in the whole village, the population living in low wretched cottages and not exceeding 150 souls at most. Since that time, streets of new and good houses which are from 3 to 4-storeys high have been built and fitted for the accommodation of people in a respectable rank of life……..
Elegant baths have been erected by the late William Ogilvie Esquire, in consequence of which and the comfortable lodgings to be had on easy terms, the village has become a place of fashionable resort for the valetudinarians and others during the summer months”Ordnance Survey Memoirs, January 1835
The Bathing Hut
A stone hexagonal bathing hut for changing clothes was erected close to the small beach. Hence by the 1830’s Ardglass was a popular tourist spot for the local gentry.
“….the town became the most fashionable watering-place in Ulster where fine ladies and their escorts came to take the waters from every part of Ireland”James McCabe Napier, The Story of Ardglass, 1966
William Ogilvie died in 1832 aged 92. He is buried in the little hillside graveyard overlooking the sea. A plaque in the Church in his memory reads
“He retained the vigour of his mind to the last, and dying regretted by a numerous family, left behind him an example worthy of imitation of every landlord in Ireland”Church plaque quotation
In 1851 Aubrey de Vere Beauclerc, grandson of William Ogilvie, built a stone tower on a local hill called The Ward. This was to help his daughter recuperate as she was suffering from tuberculosis. It is known as Isabella’s Tower.
The building has 2 floors and is 27ft tall and 18ft wide. The bottom level is octagonal and the upper circular with 4 windows.
While building the tower, workmen uncovered a colourful cinerary urn (an ancient burial urn) containing cremated human bones. These remains date from the Bronze Age.
Thomas Hunter – His Life and Legacy in New York
Another famous son of Ardglass is Thomas Hunter.
Thomas was born on Kildare Street on 18th October 1831. He was raised by his widowed father and educated in Dundalk and Santry Science School, qualifying as a teacher. However, Hunter’s political support for the Young Ireland Movement made him unemployable in his native land.
Hunter emigrated to America in 1850. Through hard work and a passion for education, Hunter became the principal of the largest public school in New York. Hunter abolished corporal punishment and implemented a policy of moral discipline encouraging mutual responsibility and respect.
In 1870 Thomas Hunter founded the Female Normal and High School on Park Avenue in the city, now known as Hunter College. It was originally a teacher training college.
The school quickly gained a reputation for academic brilliance, where pupils regardless of race, creed or financial status were treated equally.
Hunter College remains a thriving university in New York City and is one of the top-ranking public schools in the USA.
Ardglass remains today a peaceful little village with a population of 1,635 (Census 2011), 34 miles from Belfast. Its picturesque harbour is still a working port, with fishing remaining the main industry in the area.
Only the ancient castle ruins act as a reminder of Ardglass’s stormy past and lost prestige.
“Ardglass…is far famed for many reasons: its charms as a holiday resort; its surrounding scenic beauties by sea and land; its bracing ozone-laden air, more exhilarating and revivifying than the choicest sparkling wines of France; its historic castles and fortified stores; and not the least, its industrious and exceptionally good-natured inhabitants.
But above all the things for which Ardglass justly enjoys a reputation that is literally world-wide is its herring fishing industry. The ‘Ardglass herring’ is admittedly in a class by itself”Belfast Telegraph, 19th August 1925
Francis Joseph Bigger (1862-1926) was one of the foremost figures in the antiquarian, historical and literary life of Ulster
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