History of Kildare Town

History of Kildare Town

The Market Square, Kildare Town, in the early 20th Century

Origins and History

Kildare is one of the oldest towns in Ireland. It originated in pre-Christian times when it was the site of a shrine to the Celtic Goddess Brigid. It later became the site of the great Christian foundation of St. Brigid. Today it contains many historic buildings and ruins; the legacy of 1500 years of history.

It is generally accepted that towns, as such, did not exist in Ireland before the Vikings began to establish the coastal towns such as Dublin, Wexford etc. However in the 7th. century a monk of the Kildare community – Cogitosus, described Kildare as “a vast metropolitan city”. There is mention of a “street of the stone steps” in Kildare at the beginning of the 10th. century. It would appear that Kildare had developed urban characteristics long before the Vikings came to Ireland.

It can therefore claim to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, town in Ireland. Kildare owes its ancient importance to St. Brigid who founded her monastery here in the late 5th. century. However Kildare would appear to have even older pagan origins as a shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, served by a group of young women who tended a perpetual fire. Brigid was goddess of arts and poetry, healing, and especially of livestock and the yield of the earth. Nothing is known of the original shrine though it was probably at the site of the present St. Brigid’s Cathedral and it might have been associated with a particular sacred oak tree which grew on the site.

Some say that the Christian St. Brigid was a convert from the community of women who tended the pagan shrine. However it happened, it is certain that towards the end of the 5th. century a unique Christian foundation was established by St. Brigid. The site chosen was under a large oak tree on the ridge of Drum Criadh (ridge of clay) and here St. Brigid built her church. The foundation was renamed Cill Dara (the Church of the Oak) from which we get the modern name of Kildare.

The foundation flourished from the early 7th. century onwards. It became a centre of learning and a school was established which attracted pupils from abroad as well as from the sons of the Gaelic nobility. Naturally as the foundation grew, the requirement for artisans, traders, and tillers of the soil also grew until Kildare became at least a proto-town. As it grew in importance it also grew in political and secular importance. The local kings of Leinster, who at the time had their base in Naas, made sure to keep tight political control over the foundation.

The Annals of Ireland have many references to Kildare and its church during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, principally relating to raids and plunderings by Vikings and native Irish alike. For instance the Annals of the Four Masters record that in 835 A.D. a Danish fleet of thirty ships arrived in the Liffey and another in the Boyne:

They plundered every church and abbey within the territories of Magh Liffe and Magh Breagh. They destroyed the town [Kildare] with fire and sword and carried off the shrines of St Brigid and St Conleth.

Fortunately the remains of St. Brigid were removed to Downpatrick for safety before her shrine was destroyed.

Many other instances of Viking raids on Kildare are recorded.

Very shortly after the Normans landed in Ireland in 1169, they occupied Kildare and Strongbow made it the centre of his campaign to conquer Leinster. The Welsh chronicler of the Norman Invasion, Giraldus Cambrensis, recorded his impressions of Kildare with its round tower and marvellous manuscript as well as legends of St. Brigid. It is also in this early period that there is a first mention of a castle in Kildare; this was probably a motte and bailey castle. The first stone castle was built by the Earl Marshal on the site of the present castle in the early 13th. century. At this time also the cathedral was built as were other religious “abbeys”. Being a frontier town of the Pale, Kildare was subject to raids by the dispossessed native Irish and the castle also withstood a siege by Edward Bruce in the winter of 1315/16. The town passed into the possession of the Fitzgerald family who established their seat of power in Maynooth. The town was garrisoned during the Confederate Wars in the 1640s and the cathedral was totally ruined at about this time; legend has it that it was bombarded by Lord Castlehaven. Following these troubles the town was described as being nearly dis-inhabited.

In 1798 Kildare was deeply involved in the Rebellion. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the leader of the rebellion, had his home in the town and some 350 local men were massacred in Gibbet Rath in the early days of the rebellion when they were trying to surrender.

With the founding of the Jockey Club in the town in the 1700s and the establishment of training stables at the nearby Curragh the town became inextricably linked with the horse racing industry. In the 1800s the establishment of a British Army artillery barracks in the town established a link with the military that carried on with the taking over of the barracks by the army following the establishment of the State. This link continued until the closing of the barracks and the transfer of units to the Curragh Camp nearby.

Today with its easy access to Dublin by road and rail, Kildare is quickly becoming a dormitory town of Dublin. In its streetscape and layout, as well as in its ancient buildings and historic ruins, it retains remnants of its ancient past. Kildare was recently declared a Heritage Town. This heritage will come under increasing threat as the town develops. It is up to all of us to see that this does not happen and that the heritage of this ancient town is protected and made available to this and future generations.