The Norman castle of Kildare town was, in the thirteenth century, one of the most important castles in Leinster, ranking with the castles at Kilkenny, Carlow and Ferns.
Little remains of it today except for a single tower and an enclosure which is thought to be all that remains of the former castle bawn or walled enclosure.
The Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169. The initial landing in Bannow Bay, Co Wexford was followed in a very short time by a lightning campaign led by Dermot Mac Murrough with the aid of his Norman allies into the Ui Faelain territories as far as Kildare. In 1170 another larger force under Richard FitzStephen de Clare, earl of Pembroke, or Strongbow, arrived in Waterford. He married Aoife, daughter of Dermot McMurrough, king of Leinster. When Dermot died in 1171, Strongbow became lord of Leinster in right of his wife Aoife. The lordship was held under the English crown, to which certain rents and services were rendered. The Normans for both strategic and commercial reasons took over the existing centres of monastic or regional importance. Kildare qualified on both counts, and Strongbow made it his headquarters and abode, generally returning to it after his various expeditions.
The first step required in the settling of an area was to secure it in a military sense; to establish a firm base from which expeditions could be mounted and into which defenders could retreat when attacked by a superior force and Strongbow’s attempt to enforce his rule in Leinster was not without opposition.
The first military fortifications set up by the Normans may have been little more than entrenched camps of a purely temporary nature. An example of this type of work is the earthworks dug at Baginbun in 1169. However, the Normans generally built a network of motte and bailey castles at an early stage in the consolidation of their newly acquired territory. These castles were not alone military strongholds; they were centres from which authority radiated outwards, a visible sign of the power of those who sought to rule the land.
It is most likely that Strongbow built a motte and bailey castle in Kildare when it was his headquarters. The first mention of a castle in Kildare occurs c. 1185. It is unlikely that a stone castle would have been erected by 1185: if it were, it would have been among the earliest in Ireland.
Rocque’s map of Kildare Town of 1757 shows what appears to be a small mound located 30 metres to the south-west of the present tower of Kildare castle. Andrews suggests that this might be a Norman motte. It is possible that the early Norman motte was incorporated in the later stone castle defences.
The most direct evidence we have for the date of the building of a castle in Kildare comes from the record of an Inquisition held in 1302. The Inquisition held that:
William formerly Earl Marshal, senior, built originally the castle of Kildare on the soil of the church of Kildare, without the consent of the Bishop and Chapter thereof.
It would appear therefore, that the castle was built, or at least commenced, before 1219 when William, the earl Marshal senior, died.
The castle passed in time to the deVescy family in 1290. Up to this period it appears that the town of Kildare had been left in relative peace and indeed had prospered. Evidence of this prosperity is provided by the records of church building. A new cathedral, attributed to Ralph of Bristol ( bishop of Kildare 1223-32) was built, the Franciscan friary was founded c. 1254-60, the Carmelite friary was established c. 1290, and the Church of St. Mary Magdalene with its associated hospital was in existence by 1307. Although no charter to the town survives from the thirteenth century the existence of such a charter is implied by the claim made in 1297 by the burgesses of the right to try offences “by charter of the lords of the liberty”. At the close of the thirteenth century, we appear to enter a period of much more turmoil for Kildare and its castle.
During the Norman conquest the native Gaelic aristocracy of the region, accompanied it would appear by some of their vassals, were evicted from their land to the more remote areas of the midland bogs and the Wicklow mountains, where they largely retained their Gaelic identity and culture and from where they launched successive attacks on the Norman settlers. Despite sporadic expeditions into these territories, the Normans never succeeded in subjugating them. The Ui Failge (O’Connors of Offaly), who originally had their old royal centre at Rathangan were pushed west and survived in the boglands to the west of the present county of Kildare. The O’Dempseys of Clanmalire who were an ancient tributary sept of the Ui Failge now inhabited the foothills of the Slieve Blooms. Both were to be the scourge of the Normans of Kildare town, from the 1280s onwards in particular. In 1294, O’Connor Faly took the castle of Kildare and destroyed the records of the lordship. It is also recorded that the followers of William Donyn broke into and robbed the Kildare castle and town of money, cloth, wheat, oats, malt, oxen, cows, sheep and pigs worth £1,000.
Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert Bruce of Scotland, besieged the castle in the winter of 1315/16 for three days before being driven off. In 1316 the king elevated John Fitzthomas [Fitzgerald] to the newly created title of earl of Kildare in recognition of his services during the Bruce invasion and granted him the castle of Kildare. So began the Fitzgerald association with Kildare castle and town. Though the castle again saw war during the Nine Years War and the Confederate Wars, it was rendered largely peripheral to the machinations of Geraldine and national politics by virtue of the fact that the centre of Geraldine power moved to Maynooth. During the ensuing centuries the castle slips into relative obscurity until today it, and its history, is practically unknown to locals and historians alike.
Today one tower (4 towers were mentioned in 1331) and parts of the castle bailey wall remain. The tower was originally a 13th. century gatehouse and it was converted to a residential tower, possibly in the late 15th. century. The tower retains openings related to both periods. It was occupied as a dwelling house until lately. The bailey wall bounds the park on the E. N. and W. sides. There are 2 bastions incorporated in the wall. The walls are probably 16th. or 17th. century on 13th. century foundations. The bailey was also the site of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s home in 1798. This building has completely disappeared, probably being demolished as a reprisal after the 1798 Rebellion.
The tower is best seen from the carpark of the Silken Thomas Restaurant while the castle bailey is now largely occupied by a Co. Council yard, which may be approached from the lane on the left side of the Silken Thomas Restaurant.