The Mediaeval Walls of Carlow
By J.M.Feeley & J.Sheehan
The town of Carlow situated at the confluence of the rivers
Barrow and Burren, was an important town on the edge of the Pale
in mediaeval times and consequently changed hand several times
in the struggle between Gael and Gall.
The Normans initially had
a motte & bailey at Killeshin, but this outpost proved too
difficult to defend. They then moved to Carlow where a castle
was built in the early 13th century thus forming the nucleus of
a new settlement.
The earliest reference to a walled town occurs for the year
1361 when £500 was paid for walling Carlow when the Exchequer
moved there from Dublin, until 1394. Later in 1373-4; Irish
enemies destroyed the countryside right up to the city walls. In
the year 1392 aid was given to set-tiers within the walls of
Carlow - a master smith was to dwell there in the King’s service
for the purpose of making guns, harness and other articles for
the defence of the place against the Irish. The next reference
is in 1537; Carlow… being walled already and again 1577;
Carlow.... being large and great, and the walls ruined and down
at many places. (After an attack by the O’Moores)1.
Bradley. J2 wrote of the walled town of Drogheda
but much of what he described could have equal application to
Carlow and other settlement towns of the medieval period. Such
an Anglo-Norman town would be a settlement occupying a central
position in a communications network, representing a street
pattern with houses and their associated land plots whose
identity is significantly greater than that of settlements
around it, as seen in the burgage plot pattern; it incorporates
a market place and a church and its principal functions are
reflected by the presence of at least three of the following;
town walls, a castle, a bridge, cathedral, a house belonging to
one of the religious orders, a hospital or leper-house close to
the town, an area of specialised technological activity, quays,
a large school or administrative building and or suburbs.
Returning to the quotation above, the following would have
existed in the 14th century; the castle, town walls, market
house and possibly a small wooden bridge over the Burrin. The
cathedral for the diocese of Leighlin was at Old Leighlin at
that time. We have no information regarding the other items
mentioned i.e. hospital, quays etc.
All traces of walls and gates had disappeared by early 18th
century at the latest and are not shown on the contempory maps.
The walled area occupied 13 hectares with a perimeter of 1350
meters. The town had three main gates i.e. Dublin, Castle and
Tullow Gates. The possibility of a fourth gate at an unknown
location is mentioned. Although no trace now remains of the
medieval walls their approximate outline can be traced from
property deeds for this early period.
According to a map of 1703 the town was still substantially
within the earlier walled area (except for some expansion
towards the castle site). Later map of 1735 shows marked
expansion outside the original walled area. The wider section of
Tullow St dates from this period and later still College St.
O‘Keeffe3 considers the town wal1 to be the single
most important defining feature. Town walls had more to do with
commerce and taxation than with defence from attack and were
built primarily to control the movement of goods into the town
so that tolls and taxes payable to the king could be levied.
Townspeople could apply to the king for a murage grant i.e.
permission to levy tolls for a defined period to raise funds to
build a wall or bridge.
For several hundred years ferries were used to cross both the
Burren and Barrow Rivers. 4It is recorded that in
1569 the foundations for a bridge over the Barrow were laid by
Sir Henry Sydney. A map of Co Laois dated 1563, shows Carlow
Castle and the White Castle on the opposite bank, but no bridge
between them. The map drawn by the Dutch cartographer, Petrus
Bertius does however show bridges spanning the Barrow at both
Carlow and Leighlinbridge in 1598. The Graigue’ Bridge, as it
was known, is also mentioned for Cromwell's campaign in 1650.
6There was a timber bridge
spanning the Burrin by mid 16th century. However the earliest
reference to a stone bridge is for the year 1670.
The Barrow6 was navigable to Athy and New Ross
(also walled towns). Dineley writing in 1680 mentions, that this
trade was conducted with flat-bottomed boats. The quays were
located along the Burrin where the town was un-walled.
Within the walls was the Market House at the junction of
Tullow Street and Dublin Street. Traders of country produce and
hand-crafted articles set up their stalls along the adjacent
Castle and Tullow streets.
The mediaeval parish church according to Thomas was to the
east of the castle in the south - west corner of the town near
the main street. This location would correspond to the present
site of St Mary’s Church and churchyard. However other local
opinion places the medieval church somewhere near the present
Town Hall. 5On the site of St Mary’s (Church of
Ireland) two previous buildings are known to have existed both
are post medieval. The first church was built about 1635, the
second completed in 1732 and the present church (designed by
Cobden) was completed in 1835.
During the medieval period and right up to the late 18th
century much of the area between the town and the Barrow was a
marsh known as the Moneen. Beranger’s print shows the castle to
be on a hillock within this marsh. Bridges would have been
needed to span the fossc around the castle from the Castle Gate
and again to the west. This marshy area was gradually filled up
between the 17th and 19th centuries.
In common with cities and towns elsewhere the construction of
a secure bridge would promote the development of suburbs across
Three mills6 existed along the Burrin in 1370.
These were sited downstream of the present bridge.
Population. Likely to have been in the hundreds in early
centuries of the town existence. 6In the year 1659
the combined population of Carlow & Graigue was recorded at 666
The survey began at the suggestion of Seán O’Shea to whom we
are indebted for much of the historical information given in
this article. The survey was conducted by the authors between
November 2003 and March 2004. The material which follows was
derived by direct observation, by consulting old maps and
divining on site where possible. Our results generally agree
with Thomas and Homer with the exception of: a). the wall did
not follow College St to its end and then turn left, and b). the
wall did not make a right angled intersection with the Burrin
(from the Castle Gate). We found also that the level of the
Barrow and Burren rivers was substantially higher in our
reference year of 1400 AD, a likely explanation for the many
lakes from which the town gets its name. This would also explain
why a wall was not needed along the Burren. The small island
shown on Homer’s Map was found to have existed under the south
pier of the Burrin Bridge,
- A map of Carlow Town Centre c.1844.
A detail map showing my approximation of
where the Mediaeval Wall stood based on a
survey carried out by J. M. Feeley & J.
Sheehan and according to the Deeds of the
18th cent and a map they produced.
According to our readings; the mediaeval town wall ran the
Section 1: From bank of River Burren through former
gaol site, along by AIB Bank (at east side) to meet the Tullow
Gate at junction of Tullow and College Streets.
Section 2: From Tullow Gate to a point opposite
entrance to St Patrick’s College (location of postern / night
gate, curved to other side of street at junction with Brown St,
straight section through Irishman’s Car park before taking a
sharp left turn (before end of College St) to meet Dublin Gate.
Section 3: From Dublin Gate (at top of Dublin St) due
west through Blue Sisters Nursing Home grounds before taking
sharp turn to s/s/west. Onwards to intersect with Cox’s Lane
before emerging again in the car park behind Ewing’s Bar.
Continue into Hay Market before turning due west. Turn south
when opposite back wall of St Mary’s churchyard. Short straight
section to meet the Castle Gate.
Section 4: From Castle Gate (at bottom of Castle St,
where it meets Kennedy St) traveling south east, across Kennedy
St / Burrin St Junction to a point just east of the Burrin
Bridge where the well intersected with the river.
The Market House existed from mid 14th c and was located at
the recess at top of Tullow St, next to gable of Paul’s Bookshop
(space presently occupied by a transformer). This important
commercial building was close to the quays along the Burren
- 1 Thomas. AVTiI - Walled Towns of Ireland.
- 2 Bradley. J. 1978. The Topography and
layout of medieval Drogheda, County Louth Archaeological &
Historical Journal 19 (2) 98-127.
- 3 O’Keeffe.T. 2000. Medieval Ireland; an
archaeology. Stroud. Tempus.
- 4 Carloviana. 1977-78. Graigue Bridge.
- 5 St Mary;s Church, Carlow. Leaflet
- 6 Bradley.J. & King. H.J. - OPW 1990. Urban
Archaeological Survey. Co Carlow
Editors note; The technique known as divining (dowsing) used
by the authors is not a scientific procedure and our readers may
wish to decide themselves on the veracity of the results thus
Source: Feeley, J.; Sheehan, J. 'Carlow and its medieval
walls'. Carloviana: [Journal of the Old Carlow Society], 53
(2004), p. 16-18.
- The information contained in these
pages is provided solely for the purpose of sharing with others
researching their ancestors in Ireland.
- © 2001 Ireland Genealogy Projects,
Back to the top