The county capital, Carlow was once an outpost that had to provide its own defence as it was isolated from the Pale around Dublin, which the Anglo-Normans ruled and defended. Carlow developed around a massive Norman keep, built in 1207-13 to guard a strategic crossing of the River Barrow. Today the keep is in ruins, home only to the pigeons that flutter over it.
As befits a frontier town, Carlow’s history is turbulent. Lionel, Duke of Clarence, built a wall around it in 1361, but town and castle fell to Art MacMurrough Kavanagh in 1405 and were put to the torch. It was taken again by Rory Og O’More in 1577. The castle was besieged by Cromwell’s forces in 1650, and when it fell the garrison was slaughtered.
But even Cromwell left the castle in better condition than it is now. The main harm was done by a local man, a Dr Middleton, who bought the castle and turned it into a lunatic asylum in 1814. Wanting to enlarge the windows, the intrepid doctor decided to use gunpowder. The explosion blew the castle apart, leaving only the shell of the keep and its corner towers.
Some 16 years earlier, Carlow had been a flashpoint of the 1798 Rebellion against the English. On the morning of May 25, about 4000 poorly armed rebels marched on the town. It seemed deserted as hey swarmed through its streets, but they had walked into an ambush. They emerged from Tullow Street into a hail of musket fire. Many ran in panic into nearby houses, but these were set alight. More than 500 were killed in the Battle of Carlow and another 200 were executed later. The remains of 417 rebels were buried across the River Barrow, at Graigue, a site known as Croppie Grave.
Today’s town surrounds the castle walls and has a number of Georgian houses and some nostalgic 19th century shop fronts. George Bernard Shaw’s aunt lived in Carlow and Shaw donated to the town, among other gifts, the 18th century building that is now the public library. A plaque to Shaw describes him as a ‘self-styled world-betterer’.
Carlow Museum, at the back of the Town Hall, contains some interesting relics of local life, including a Victorian kitchen complete with a ‘crane’ for swinging pots over the open fire, and a settle bed – a plain wooden bench by day that opened out to become a bed at night. Also on display is the trapdoor of the gallows that was used for public executions outside Carlow Jail. The last, in 1820, attracted a crowd of 20,000.
Carlow’s courthouse is one of the finest neoclassical buildings in Ireland. It was built in 1830 by Sir Richard Morrison in the Ionic style, with 12 columns supporting the roof.
Squatting like a watchdog next to the lofty Gothic Revival cathedral (1828-33), with its 155ft lantern tower, is the solid St Patrick’s College, one of the oldest seminaries in Ireland. It was opened in 1795 to educate priests, following a relaxation of the penal laws that banned Catholic teaching.
Across the roofs of Carlow is the tower of St Mary’s, the Church of Ireland parish church. The nave dates from the early 18th century and there is a fine east window. The tower was added in 1834. In the former Scotch Church on Athy Road there is a genealogical centre which advises visitors on ancestral research.
Off the Hacketstown road, in the demesne of Browne’s Hill House, stands the grave of a Stone Age chieftain. Browneshill Dolmen, almost 4000 years old, has a massive granite capstone, an estimated 100 tons, the largest in Ireland. Alongside the path leading from the dolmen to the Browne’s Hill Road are examples of so-called Carlow fencing – granite posts, V-shaped at the top, with granite slabs laid across them. This kind of fencing was commonly used in Carlow in the 19th century.
Carlow is a must see attraction and is worth a visit while on your Ireland tours.