“Exploring Ireland” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, running only for the second time in 2019. Once again, we are offering a kind of diary of the tour, as we did for Crete and the Dodecanese in 2017 and for the Peloponnese and the Cyclades in 2018. We followed those precedents, not describing every day in detail (just check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com), but picking one image we took on each day, accompanying it with some thoughts or insights.
It was a longish day, on which we traversed the centre of Ireland again, moving from the ancient province of Connacht in the West to that of Mide, now County Meath, in the East. We had two major stops: One was the astonishingly complicated and superbly presented prehistoric site of Rathcroghan near the village of Tulsk in County Roscommon, ostensibly a Celtic Royal site, but really much more than that - it deserves a bigger post to explain its complexity. The other was Trim Castle in County Meath.
Our picture shows the keep, or donjon, of Trim Castle, i.e. the innermost and free-standing fortification, the last point of refuge in times of attack. It is surrounded by a more extensive but much less solid curtain wall, not shown in our image. It is very emblematic, as it is one of the earliest such structures in Ireland, and the best preserved by far. It dates to the 1190s, but was extended and improved several times in the succeeding generations.
The historic background is the initial phase of British involvement in Ireland, namely the Norman (in Ireland, it is called Anglo-Norman) invasion of 1169. What happened is that an English king, Henry II, sent some of his nobles to invade Ireland, ostensibly to settle a local struggle involving one of his allies, Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough), who claimed to be the legitimate High King among the many Irish kings, but was not accepted as such by his peers (that acceptance was what defined a High King). Henry's favourite, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, was sent to lead the invasion and established himself as the new big man in Ireland as a result, gaining control over much of Leinster, Ireland’s eastern province. Perhaps too much: after Henry II himself had briefly campaigned in Ireland, he declared his younger son, John, Lord of Ireland. Not long after Henry's visit, another Norman noble, Hugh de Lacy, entered the country and fought to conquer parts of the East, with John's support. It was De Lacy who chose Trim as his stronghold, and who built Trim Castle in stone after an earlier and flimsier version had been destroyed by the native Irish in 1194.
The keep would have been the first part of Trim Castle to be built. It may have briefly functioned as a castle in itself, but was really designed to be the stronghold within a castle. The keep at Trim is often mentioned as the most typical Norman keep in the country, and it is so to some extent. Conventionally, it is an enormous square tower, with higher towers marking each corner. Much less conventionally, it has a large square tower added at the centre of each side wall, making it a 20-sided structure in the shape of a cross. In that regard, it is unique, but we neither know why this unusual plan was introduced here, nor whether this apparent experiment in defensive architecture was deemed successful. It was not copied elsewhere. Trim castle and its keep where so modern and innovative in their day that the warfare of its potential enemies, the Gaelic Irish kings and chieftains, had no means to attack it, so it was never put to the test.
Today, the keep at Trim is a ruin, not from aggression, but from centuries of neglect. On our tour, we enter it and walk through its three floors as well as on its rood level, so as to understand the internal structure of an Anglo-Norman castle, with its residential spaces, chapel and great hall, and also to survey the surrounding scenery from its parapets.
Tomorrow takes us back to prehistory and the Neolithic, still in County Meath.