Kildare Town (Co. Kildare / West)
Kildare Town (Cill / Cell Dara – “Church of the Oak”) (pop. 7,500), nowadays primarily a commuter satellite of DUBLIN, may well be the oldest town in Ireland, and was in the past of great religious and strategic importance. Contrary to popular belief, it has never been the County Town.
Kildare Town`s Heritage Centre & Tourist Information Office occupies the C19th Market House. (Photo – informatique). Nearby there is a Memorial Cross to local men executed during the Civil War.
Kildare Town History
Kildare grew around a site of pre-Christian druidic worship, centred on a sacred oak tree where virgin priestesses kept a perpetual flame alight to the powerful Celtic deity Brigid, goddess of arts and poetry, healing, livestock and crops.
The legendary Saint Brigid, possibly a convert priestess, chose this place in the late C5th as the location for a new Christian foundation. According to legend, the king of Leinster offered her as much land as her cloak would cover. When she spread her garment it miraculously stretched out to embrace the entire Curragh plain. The king kept his promise, and the fertile expanse became the grazing ground for the livestock of a unique new mixed-sex monastic community, apparently run efficiently by the founder saint in life and later devoted to a cult promoting her as the Patroness of Ireland.
Saint Brigid’s establishment flourished from the early C7th as one of the most important centres of learning in Ireland, attracting the sons of the Gaelic nobility and pupils from abroad. As it grew, the need for craftsmen, traders, and tillers of the soil also increased. No doubt the description of Kildare by a contemporary monk as “a vast metropolitan city” was a tad exaggerated, but it would seem that it had become at least a proto-town. The kings of Leinster, based at Naas, kept tight political control over the foundation.
According to the Annals of Ireland, Kildare was frequently raided and plundered during the C9th, C10th and C11th by Vikings and native Irish alike. In 835 AD Danes destroyed the town with fire and sword and carried off the shrines of Saint Conleth and Saint Brigid (whose remains had been removed to Downpatrick for safety).
Shortly after the 1169 Norman landing at Wexford, Strongbow made Kildare the centre of his Leinster campaign, and the Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis recorded his impressions of the town as well as legends of Saint Brigid.
William Marshal built the first stone castle before his death in 1219; the Cathedral and other medieval religious institutions were constructed during the next half century of (relative) peace and prosperity.
The castle and town withstood numerous native raids from the late C13th onwards, and a siege by Edward Bruce in the winter of 1315/16, only to lose political importance when the increasingly powerful Fitzgeralds of Kildare chose Maynooth as their seat.
Kildare Town was garrisoned by Crown troops during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, when according to legend it was bombarded by Kilkenny Confederacy troops under Lord Castlehaven. It is known that the cathedral was totally ruined at this time, and shortly afterwards the town was described as nearly uninhabited.
United Irishmen leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald lived in Kildare Town, which was heavily affected in the early days of his 1798 Rebellion when 350 locals were massacred by government forces at Gibbet Rath as they were trying to surrender.
The C18th saw the founding of the Jockey Club in the town and the establishment of training stables at the nearby Curragh, linking Kildare inextricably with the horse racing industry.
The C19th construction of an artillery barracks in the town established a military connection that was maintained after 1922 by the Irish Free State army until the transfer of units to the nearby Curragh Camp.
The Norman Castle of Kildare Town was one of the most important in Leinster in the C13th, ranking with the castles at Kilkenny, Carlow and Ferns. Sadly, all that remains is a single tower, originally a gatehouse, until recently used as a dwelling, and an enclosure, thought to be the former castle bawn, which was the site of Lord Edward Fitzgerald‘s home in the late C18th, probably demolished as a reprisal after the 1798 Rebellion, and now largely used as a Co. Council yard.
St Brigid’s Cathedral and Round Tower
St Brigid’s Cathedral (CoI) was erected on the site of Saint Brigid’s C5th foundation in 1223 by Bishop Ralph of Bristol; the Norman early gothic style structure was clearly built for defence as well as worship, with distinctive Irish merlons (parapets) and walkways a noticeable feature of the roof. Reportedly semi-derelict in 1500 and in a ruinous state by the mid-C17th, the edifice was partially rebuilt in 1686, fully renovated in the late C19th, and has recently undergone further restoration. (Photo by John Armagh)
The interior features a medieval water font, later used for christenings, a C16th vault, religious seals and a very interesting collection of stone carvings, ranging from early Christian up to the C17th; the finest piece is the impressive carved tomb of Bishop Walter Wellesley, who died in 1539.
The C12th Round Tower in the Cathedral grounds is one of the finest surviving examples of this uniquely Irish edifice and, at 33m / 108ft, the second highest in Ireland. The four-ordered Romanesque decorated doorway, some 4 meters off the ground, is badly damaged. Unusually, the bell floor has five windows. Built atop Kildare Hill, the highest point in town, the tower has a flat roof with a high parapet (replacing the original conical top), an ideal spot for viewing the Curragh races!
St Brigid’s Kitchen / Fire House, the restored underground vault of a C14thoratory in the cathedral grounds , is said to be the starting point of a secret tunnel. According to folklore this was originally a pre-Christian Fire Temple that only women could enter. (Saint Brigid’s Fire was reportedly kept alight until the C16th Reformation; symbolically rekindled in 1993 by the Brigidine Sisters, it is now kept in Solas Bhride House, and since 2006 has been represented by a hideous monument in Market Square).
The granite High Cross is difficult to date due to its lack of decoration. The base is massive for such a slender shaft and head and may not be the original.
The Cathedral and Round Tower are splendidly floodlit at night.
St Brigid’s parish church (RC), erected in 1833, has a handsome belltower.
Kildare Town Railway Station dates from 1847.
The Grey Abbey, 1km south of the town centre, was founded c.1260 by William de Vescey / Vesci for monks of the Franciscan Order, and derived it popular name from their grey medieval habits. it was subequently sponsored by the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty; several heads of the family are buried on the site, including four Earls of Kildare . The formerly atmospheric ruins and graveyard are now penned like a zoo exhibit beside the Kildare Village Shopping Outlet boardwalk.
The White Abbey, ½km west of the town centre, was so named for the white habits of the Carmelite Order. Founded in 1292 by William de Vescey / Vesci, it became famous as the teaching centre of David O’Buge, an Oxford graduate who also taught in Germany. Nothing remains of the original foundation, suppressed by King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries; the Order returned clandestinely in the C18th, and the present Carmelite church was completed in 1887.
The Black Abbey, officially the church of Mary Magdalene and an attached hospital, was founded in the late C13th / early C14th as a preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, who wore black habits. It was important enough for a number of Chapters of the Order to be held here. The ruins are set in an ancient graveyard in the grounds of the National Stud at Tully, about 2km from the town.
St Brigid’s Well, located close to the Black Abbey, has long been a site of religious devotion; an annual torchlight procession from the town takes place every 1st February. It is one of two popular local Holy Wells with waters reputed to cure headaches. (Photo – www.kildare.ie)
The Irish National Stud & Japanese Gardens
The Irish National Stud at Tully is a thoroughbred horse breeding facility owned by the Irish Government. Guided tours are available at the Visitor Centre.
The stud farm was originally established by a wealthy Scotsman of a famous brewery family, Col. William Hall-Walker (later Lord Wavertree), who presented the property to “The Nation” in 1915 . It served as the British National Stud until 1943.
The Japanese Gardens at Tully were created 1906-1910 by craftsman Tassa Eida, who lived with his wife and sons Minoru and Kaiji at Curragh House, now the Racing Apprentice Centre of Education. (Col. Hall-Walker chose Minoru as the name for his favourite Tully-bred colt, which carried the royal colours to victory in the 1909 Derby). The Japanese family moved to England in 1911 to create another garden; Eida died in 1912 on his intended return journey to Japan.
The Tea House. (Photo by Peter Clarke)
The Gardens, of international renown, are acclaimed as the finest of their kind in Europe, and a perfect example of Japanese gardening of the period, their touches of Anglicisation being fashionable at that time in Japan.
St. Fiachra’s Garden, opened in 1999 to celebrate the second Millennium, has four acres of woodland and lakeside walks. Saint Fiachra / Fiacre is the Patron of gardeners, taxi cabs and venereal diseases.
The Horse Museum, established in 1977, has lots of exhibits of interest to equine fans.
Today, Kildare Town is regarded as the capital of Ireland’s bloodstock industry. There are numerous riding schools in the area.
Kildare Town is linked by a scenic road to the Curragh Racecourse on ByRoute 9.