People that know me, (that could be you, don’t be shy, make a comment) know I have a lot of esoteric interests. One of them is RPG’s. Another is giant, terrifying spiders. Yet another is warfare. I’ve rattled on about the first to some degree and doubt I’d get much interest about the second, (philistines.) so I figured I’d blather on about the third. In particular, siege warfare has a special place in my heart. Nothing excites the blood like massive curtain walls, intimidating gates and crenelations. I figured I’d share some of my enthusiasm with you by detailing just a few of the more interesting castles and sieges throughout history. Some of these will seem obvious, but hopefully some much less so. I hope to cover the castles construction, it’s intended purpose and also hopefully, any major shit-kicking sessions that occurred in it’s vicinity.

I’m covering Maynooth first for several reasons, the first is that nobody, aside from those of us that live under it’s baleful shadow, are really aware that Maynooth has a castle. This allows me to make several first-attempt-at-this-sort-of-thing cock ups and not have to worry about the internet finding and hacking into my… I dunno… twitter account? The second reason was probably given away within the first in that I live under the baleful shadow of castle Maynooth. That sounded really dramatic for something that is, in no way, dramatic. You can eat lunch in the grounds. They have a small iron railing that keeps precisely nobody out. It’s actually quite an idyllic spot. Finally, this should be brief given that in terms of history and development, Maynooth castle basically got built, hung around for a short while and then, in terms of resisting besieging forces, rolled over and died.

Maynooth castle shows up early in the thirteenth century when the area is granted to the Fitzgeralds. It remains a linchpin for their control over Ireland throughout their not-quite-a-reign. As castle construction goes however, it suffers. It’s as well built as any castle of the period and location could be, but it has one major flaw and that is: Location. Meath and parts of Kildare close to Meath like Maynooth are flat, featureless and defensible as the Catholic church’s sex abuse policy. It is awfully apparent when the castle is initially built that it has been been put there as more of a placeholder for the Fitzgeralds than anything else. It is neither put in any kind commanding high ground nor given any more investment than is strictly necessary. Admittedly, there isn’t a huge amount of high ground to speak of, but a more commanding position could certainly have been found. As it was, the castle is built where a river and stream join together, in order to give itself the somewhat dubious protection of half a moat. It occurred to me that I could get all holier than thou on this issue and start talking about better castles out there or something else equally stupid, instead, I’ll talk a bit about moats.

Firstly, who gives a flying toss about moats. I mean really, it’s a little river around your castle, whoop-dee-f*cking-doo, what good is that aside from giving anyone that falls off a bath? They certainly aren’t filled with crocodiles and probably stink the place up something rotten in summer. Well, actually they do provide an absolutely amazing defence and not just in terms of making life difficult for anyone assaulting the walls. Undermining is a significant part of the medieval siege arsenal, a certain amount of digging can go alot further towards creating a practical breach in the walls than, say, sending people up a flimsy ladder. A moat makes all of this more difficult by forcing anyone trying to dig under the walls do dig that much deeper, as well as raising the water table in the immediate area and making tunnels more likely collapse. So moats are good, in short.

 

Maynooth castle is built with undermining in mind, like many castles of a similar generation, it’s foundations flair out from underneath it. Some of the earth has worn away from around the keep and visitors can see parts of this addition to the foundations. These additions were likely added when the castle was rebuilt by the Fitzgeralds in the fifteenth century. You can scratch out a lot of the boundaries of the castle from the ruins that are left behind. There are the two impressive gatehouses and the keep, and the boundaries of the rivers further down. Within, aside from the keep, there are the ruins of some other buildings.

None of this was really any use for poor aul’ Maynooth castle though. It has the somewhat unfortunate honour of being the first castle in Ireland to be reduced by gunpowder weapons.

“Reduced?” I hear you cry. “But it’s still standing! There it is! The gatehouses aren’t even knocked down!” Which is certainly an optimistic appraisal of the situation and also an excellent way of assessing gunpowder weapons at the time. (The first firearm having only been used in combat at the start of the century.) When the Earl of Kildare (“Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald, on account of his excellent wardrobe,) decided he’d had enough of this patronising bullshit from the English monarchy, he went off to Dublin to see what their siege defences were like. He came back in short order, the answer to his question being “pretty f*cking good actually,” he now attempted to rally more troops to continue his campaign. While he was doing that, Sir William Skeffington showed up with an early modern siege train and blew the everliving hell out of the walls before storming them.

It’s important to realise, at this stage, that when Maynooth gets besieged it is the year 1535. It’s already well after Luther has kicked up his little stink. America has been discovered. All over Europe, architects are looking at their previously impervious fortress and quaking with fear. Gunpowder weapons have been very firmly established all over Europe as THE siege weapon. In response to this, at the start of the sixteenth century, a new style of fortress is developed known as the trace italienne, or the star-fort.

Ireland at this stage is in something of an intellectual backwater. The only power with access to gunpowder weapons previous to this are the Fitzgeralds themselves, so they more than likely weren’t all that bothered with tearing down and rebuilding a castle for the sake of weapons that none of their perceived enemies controlled.  Obviously, that changed when Skeffington showed up.

Maynooth held out against bombardment for a total of ten days. In siege terms, that’s not an awful lot. A decent amount of time would be several months, the idea being that winter sets in and drives the attackers off, or else they lose moral from disease, starvation and being forced to attack a heavily fortified position over and again. The record shows that the walls were taken by assault, so the troops put up a fight, but there’s only so much fight you can put up when someone is ripping your walls down around you. The survivors of this first attack, thirty seven men, fled into the keep. It was here they accepted what was later referred to as a “Maynooth pardon” upon being offered clemency by their attackers, they emerged from the keep, only to be executed and, by some accounts, hung from the rafters of the castle itself.

Maynooth castle is a great example of not keeping up with current trends of warfare. Perhaps Thomas Fitzgerald cannot be blamed for allowing his main fortress to fall behind continental Europe, seeing as Ireland is hardly making leaps and bounds in terms of military hardware. Like many fortresses in Ireland, Maynooth castle is not a greatly impressive structure when compared with others of the same period throughout the continent. So perhaps Maynooth was simply doomed always to be lagging behind. Her ruins now stand in the centre of Maynooth, next to the south campus of the university, a telling reminder of presumption on Thomas’ part.

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