In a remote valley, a mile east of the village of Annamoe in east Wicklow lies the long forgotten ruins of medieval Castlekevin. Camouflaged by undergrowth, this Norman castle and town was once the key Norman site in the region. The walls and earthworks of this ruin witnessed some of the most bloody events in the remarkable story of the fall of Norman society in the inhospitable mountains of eastern Wicklow.

Life at Castlekevin was not always shrouded in war and violence, indeed over seven centuries ago this fortified settlement was a thriving town dominating the neighbouring valleys of Glendalough and Glenmalure. However following a century of relentless war, famine, plague and massacres reminiscent of ‘A Game of Thrones‘ the site declined into the picturesque ruin we see today. This article is the story of eastern Wicklow in the later medieval period when it was torn apart by one of the worst crises recorded in human history. Although the region is famous for its associations with the early christian monastery at Glendalough its later medieval history is often neglected. Far from its pious origins of Glendalough the area became the centre of a bitter violent struggle for control of eastern Wicklow in a period of frequent famine.


Castlekevin lies in the eastern foothills of the eastern Wicklow mountains and is situated twenty miles south of Dublin and four miles north east of the famous early Christian monastery of Glendalough. Long before Castlekevin was erected, Glendalough was the centre of life in the region. Founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin, Glendalough was once a site of remote solitude, however the monastic settlement grew into a large town encompassing several sites stretching 5km along the stunning valley floor.

The Gatehouse at Glendalough

In 1111 its pre-eminent position was recognised at the synod of Ráth Breasail when Glendalough became the centre of a large diocese that stretched across North Leinster as far west as Athy in South Co. Kildare. In 1169 when Gaelic Ireland was convulsed by the Norman Invasion, large swathes of territory surrounding the Wicklow Mountains fall to the Normans over the following years. However they failed to take the inhospitable uplands surrounding Glendalough. This was partially due to the fact the church at Glendalough owned large tracts of land in the region but also the Normans had little interest in terrain that was poor and rocky; generally Normans in Ireland settled lands below two hundred metres. Nonetheless Glendalough and the neighbouring valleys would not escape the wider upheaval caused by the conquest.

In south Co. Kildare the once powerful O Toole family were driven off their lands by the Norman Walter de Ridelesford 1. They took refuge in the Glendalough area where several members of the family had been abbots most notably St. Laurence O Toole. In time they were granted the entire neighbouring valley of Glenmalure where they settled2. The arrival of the O Tooles in the area would shape the history of the region in the following decades and centuries.

In the short-term the influx of the O Tooles into the area created upheavel presumably as they displaced the existing population. Over the following four decade Glendalough appears to have gone into decline. Indeed by 1215 Archbishop Felix O Ruadhain of Tuam noted that the

‘more murders were committed in that valley than in any place in Ireland because of the deserted and vast solitude‘.3

By the 1190’s machinations were afoot to bring Wicklow and Glendalough under the control of the Normans. As the Norman conquest progressed ethnic tensions in the church were rife as the Normans sought to take over the church to the exclusion of Gaelic clerics. The thinking behind this was voiced a Cistercian from England Stephen of Lexington who said in the early 13th century

How can you love the cloister and learning if you only know Irish4

By the early 13th century the Normans controlled most of the bishoprics on the East and South Coast where they had had taken large tracts of land. Taking control of the church in regions like Glendalough where there was limited Norman influence was not as easy. Invasion of church lands was out of the question but if Glendalough could not controlled by sword it could be by the pen or in this case the quill.

It was no great surprise then that in 1216 vast swathes of territory of the bishopric of Glendalough was annexed to the archbishopric of Dublin by the papacy a move that had been in motion since at least the 1190’s .

The merging of the two diocese not only changed the spiritual centre of the church in the region to Dublin but it also brought large sections of land in the region under Norman control. The archbishops of Dublin were all Anglo-Norman after 1181. These bishops of the enlarged archbishopric of Dublin were among the greatest feudal lords in the Ireland possessing tens of thousands of acres5 and administering their lands like any other secular feudal lord. In the aftermath Glendalough was demoted in status to an arch-deaconry and the various ecclesiastical settlements were now ruled by priors appointed in Christchurch rather than the more independent and powerful Abbots. However the area was not completely abandoned by the archbishops – there is evidence of continued building at the site after the transfer of the area under the control of the see of Dublin.

Glendalough Cathedral may have been built after the annexation of the region to Dublin.

To administer his possesions the archbishop divided his lands into farms or manors* like other Norman lords.  At his remote isolated possessions at Glendalough the first archbishop of the enlarged diocese, Henry of London, built a fortified settlement at Castlekevin, four miles north-west of Glendalough. It was here Norman economic and political life in the region would be located.

The rise of Norman Wicklow and Castlekevin.

The earliest construction at Castlekevin most likely took the form of a motte and bailey castle. A motte was a large conical man-made earthen mound (like the example above from St Mullins). It was topped with a fortification and defended by a wooden palisade. The structure was almost certainly made entirely of wood, as the Archbishop wouldn’t have needed to invest the significant sums that a stone fortification would cost as the east Wicklow region was relatively peaceful during the first half of the 13th century.

In this field to the east of the motte, a large bailey or defended settlement was built. Although a quiet field today, seven hundred years ago this would have been filled with streets, houses, presumably a church and a mill in what would have been a bustling settlement. This would also have been defended by wooden palisade. It was from this settlement at Castlekevin that the archbishop’s officials administered his lands in the region which stretched south into the valleys of Glenmalure, west into Glendalough and east towards the coast.

Visit this amazing landscape on the upcoming tour

In the years after its construction Castlekevin became the key focus of life in the locality – in 1225 the archbishop secured rights to hold a weekly fair Castlekevin each Thursday6  shifting economic and administrative life the region away from Glendalough to Castlekevin.

As the Norman presence in the region increased, evidenced by the presence of settlers like ‘David the Clerk’ who rented lands in the neighbouring town land of Lickeen, they began to transform the landscape. In the 1220’s the substantial forests that covered neighbouring districts of Saufkevin, Fertir, and Coillac were cut down and the timber was sold. The newly created farmland which was granted to the church in 1229 further increasing the episcopal possessions in the vicinity.

Nevertheless the arrival of Anglo-Normans in the area did not mean an end to the Gaelic Irish presence. The Archbishop’s manors like many Norman manors across medieval Ireland were multi-ethnic communities with Gaelic Irish tenants living alongside Norman settlers. After the conquest large numbers of Gaelic Irish peasants remained on the newly conquered lands often as betaghs – unfree serfs while some were free tenants. Indeed at the relatively isolated Castlekevin there appears to have been large numbers of Gaelic Irish tenants – it may have hard to attract Normans into what was a comparatively inhospitable environment. In the mid-thirteenth century nine of twenty seven jurors listed at Castlekevin were Gaelic Irish while a certain Elias O Toole was named as a sergeant7 Indeed in some areas entire Gaelic families held vast tracts of territory. Under the reign of Archbishop Fulk de Sanford (1256-71) the grant of Glenmalure to the O Tooles as tenants was reaffirmed8.

Early life at Castlekevin and the surrounding mountain valleys seems to have been relatively peaceful. While there had been tensions in the early 13th century; on Easter Monday 1209 the O Tooles massacred a large number of  Dubliners at Cullenswood south of the city, this appears to have been an isolated incident. Indeed what little upheaval there was in the first half of the 13th century was mainly caused by Norman infighting9. The Gaelic Irish by and large appear not to have resisted the changes taking place around them and as the evidence from Castlekevin suggests a certain amount embraced Norman society and its institutions.


However this relative peace was deceptive and in 1270 the peace Castlekevin had enjoyed was shattered unleashing what would be decades of violent struggle between the Gaelic Irish and the Normans, fuelled by famine and underlying resentments among the Gaelic Irish. This would transform the once peaceful settlement into the war torn outpost under constant threat of attack.

The revolt of the 1270s.

It appears the spark that pushed the Gaelic Irish into revolt was a heavy snow fall in January of 127010. This seems to have been followed by a poor harvest resulting in‘Great famine and scarcity in all Erinn’ later in the year11.

Even in the best of times, medieval Ireland lived on the precipice of starvation surviving from one harvest to the next. It was not an unusual occurrence for medieval villages to experience hunger in Spring as the previous harvest began to run out.

In this context years of bad weather and poor harvest could easily result in a devastating famine . For the Gaelic Irish living in the mountains and the valleys of Glendalough and Glenmalure the heavy snows and food shortage of 1270 would undoubtedly have pushed them into a crisis relatively quickly. Fertile land was sparse and even the valley floors were 140 metres above sea level. Situated to their east were the richer manors on the coastal plain and it was only a matter of time before raids on these lands began and Castlekevin was in the direct line of attack.

As early as 1270 the archbishop of Dublin Fulk de Sanford faced what was called ‘malicious rebellion12 on his lands in east Wicklow and needed the help of the Justiciar (the kings representative) James D’Audleyto keep control13. Castlekevin was for the first time referred to as being on ‘the frontier of the whole march14‘, the march being the medieval term that described a frontier between Gaelic Irish and Norman areas.15

With tensions already beginning to boil over in 1270, further bad weather aggravated the situation. The Annals reported a dramatically worsening situation in 1271 with ‘very bad weather in that year.’16 As the harvest faltered the outcome was all too predictable and ‘a great famine so that multitudes of poor people died of cold and hunger and the rich suffered hardship.’17. That the rich suffered was indicative of an acute shortage – normally they would be take what little food was available.

As the area grappled with severe food shortages the Archbishop of Dublin Fulk de Sandford died at this crucial moment. He was not replaced until 1279 and in this vacuum the archbishops lands were administered by the crown. The arrival of royal officials in the region appear to have exacerbated tensions in an already fraught region. By 1271 attacks on Norman settlements in the region seem to have been well under way as Castlekevin was garrisoned and provisioned. The garrison attempted to ensure their safety by taking hostages from the O Tooles, O Byrnes and the Harolds and holding them at Castlekevin. Situated close to the Gaelic Irish in the Glendalough and Glenmalure valleys they hoped this might offset the dangers posed by their isolated position.

This failed and among the vast amounts of money the Normans spent on military campaigns across Ireland that year we find the Justiciar James D’Audley being compensated 25 marks for the loss of a horse in Glendalough in 127218.

In 1273 more hostages were taken but the situation appears to have been getting seriously out of hand in Ireland and particularly east Wicklow. Income from Castlekevin was almost non existent indicating that farmlands had been ravaged and destroyed. In desperation king Edward I sent Geoffrey de Geneville, Lord Of Trim, who had fought in the ninth crusade directly back from the Middle East to Ireland. Arriving in Ireland in 1273 he faced the difficult problem in that he would have to penetrate deep into the Wicklow Mountains away from the security of Dublin and supplies to find the O Toole rebels. This warfare could not be further away from the battles he had fought in the eastern Mediterranean.

The crest of the Knights Hospitiller (wikipedia)

In 1274 de Geneville made his first decisive attempt to resolve the escalating situation and alleviate settlements like Castlekevin. The military order of the Knights Hospitaller19 (who had extensive territory in Kilmainham) lead by their grand master William Fitzroger joined an army raised from across Norman Ireland. Their strategy was to attack the secluded valley of Glenmalure south-west of Castlekevin where the O Tooles had settled on the lands the Archbishop. Deep in the mountains Glenmalure was eight kilometre long valley but only around a kilometre wide with steep sides. Fighting in unfamiliar terrain where heavily cavalry had a limited impact the colonists suffered heavy casualties and the Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitaller and the Sheriff of Limerick20 were taken prisoner only to be released later in a prisoner exchange.

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This defeat was disastrous for Castlekevin ensuring the raids would continue unhindered. The area was devastated; crops were stolen or burnt while villages were ransacked. Between 1271 and 1277 the lands around Castlekevin yielded only £8, 14s. 10½d. This was down from the £56 recorded for the year 1229 alone. Although there are no surviving accounts of specific attacks on Castlekevin records survive from the Norman settlement of Saggart thirty-five kilometres to the north-west where the Gaelic Irish swept down on unsuspecting peasants of Saggart in broad daylight killing forty people as they worked in the fields21. Unsurprisingly the tenants at Saggart fled their homes after attacks which had killed relatives and did not for years. The raiders took everything they had – 3,000 sheep, 200 cattle, 100 heifers, 200 pigs, silver and even clothes were listed by the people of Saggart in an inventory of goods stolen. The experience of Castlekevin must have been similar.

The landscape to the west of Castlekevin was burned and raided an possibly adandoned during the revolt of the 1270s.

Although the famine subsided as the decade progressed Castlekevin, Glendalough and Glenmalure were still years away from peace. The continued revolt after the famine had abated indicated these raids were an expression of deeper resentments and alienation suffered by the Gaelic Irish since the Anglo-Norman invasion.

Indeed in 1274 the situation worsened when the Mc Murroughs the traditional leaders of the Gaelic Irish in the Wicklow region joined the rebellion due to concern that their dominant position over the other gaelic families in the region would be usurped by the O Byrnes.22

The siege of Glenmalure.

As the situation deteriorated the people at Castlekevin had little respite when another campaign in 1275 ended in failure. By 1276 the justiciar Geoffrey de Geneville was now under severe pressure from the King Edward I in England to resolve the situation. He had been sent to Ireland to crush the rebellion but it had only gotten worse. Not only was the Castlekevin area under attack but a vast swathe of the colony from Carlow to Dublin was vulnerable.

In 1276 De Geneville organised another major mission. Bringing 2,000 vassals23 from his own lands alone, he was joined by the other magnates from across Norman Ireland including Thomas de Clare from Thomond. The fact they choose Newcastle as a base may indicate that Castlekevin was under heavy attack and not secure. Newcastle however was unsuitable as it was twelve miles east of Castlekevin and at least a days march from their target – the mountain pass at Glenmalure.

When de Geneville lead through the hills surrounding Castlekevin and toward Glenmalure disaster awaited them again. They were not only defeated but this time the army was trapped in the pass by the Gaelic Irish. They were reduced to dire straights and forced to eat their horses24 while being picked off by an enemy in hostile territory. Some would escape including de Geneville although he was heavily wounded25.

Glenmalure (Damian Shields)

Castlekevin Transformed.

Unsurprisingly de Geneville was replaced as justiciar by Ralph D’Ufford who launched yet another major campaign in 1277. This time Castlekevin was used as the base of operations. Situated far closer to Glenmalure D’Ufford was finally successful in driving the main O Toole force from the valley but he admitted that the problem was not completely resolved

The affairs of the latter in Ireland are much improved. The thieves who were in Glendelory26 have departed, many of them have gone to another strong place27

During this successful campaign of 1277 the settlement of Castlekevin was transformed into a military fortress. Having been attacked and laid to waste it was clear that in the lands south of the settlement Anglo-Norman authority was crumbling. To shore up Norman control in the area the Motte and Bailey was converted into a major fortification. The enormous sum £500 pounds was spent on wages, provisions and supplies of workmen and Castlekevin was ‘constructed anew‘.

During these works it appears that the pre-existing conical motte that supported a fortifaction was converted into a square platform eight metres in height and thirty metres square. The sides of the platform were almost vertical and lined with stone.

After the works of 1277 all sides of the castle would have been revetted like this small surviving section in the northwest corner

This raised platform appears to have been defended by four corner towers and a gatehouse on the eastern side leading to the bailey settlement.

In the aftermath of D’Ufford’s successful campaign of 1277 the region was pacified and revenues from Castlekevin between January 1278 and January 1279 soared to £118 3s 2d over ten times the amount that had been collected over the previous six years. However by April 1279 war had broken out again and the Castlekevin area bore the brunt of the renewed attacks. No money was received for the first 3 months and the tenants had again fled their lands. A royal official reported the lands as ‘waste‘ and the tenants had left ‘on account of war with the Irish‘.28 In 1281 no taxes were returned from Castlekevin again along with the manors of Kilmacberne and Kilmastan further north due ‘war with the Irish’29. For people trying to survive in Castlekevin life during this period life can only have been unbearable. Many must have simply given up their lands and moved to safer areas further north.

This embankment protects the castle on its Northern side.

For those who had managed to survive and stay in the area eventually peace would return. By1282 what been over a decade of war, raids, death and destruction eventually subsided and the area returned to relative peace. This was partially due to the fact that the royal authorities had assassinated two brothers Muirchertach and Art Mc Murrough leaders of the revolt since 1274 on July 21st, 1282. Five years later in 1287 a report from Ireland stated the country

‘was so pacified these days that in no part of the land is there anyone at war or wishing to go to war, as is known for sure30‘.

While this was undoubtedly an exaggeration, life at Castlekevin improved. There was no famine, raids or burned farms and life returned to some semblance of normality.

However the future was far from certain, none of the underlying resentments or tensions had been resolved and in 1295 the area exploded in violence again as Norman Ireland witnessed the worst crises of the 13th century, a period known as the ‘Time of Disturbance’. Similarly to the 1270’s life at Castlekevin was torn apart in 1295.

The Crisis of 1295 War, Famine and Cannibalism.

Tensions had surfaced as early as the summer of 1294 when as reported by the Fransican John Clyn

there was lightning and the flashing destroyed the grain and, as a result, there was a great scarcity and many died from hunger.’ The famine that followed was so severe according that by 1295 reports at Dublin said the poor were reduced to eating the executed bodies hanging in gibbets31.

The situation deteriorated in December 1294 when an intense rivalry that had existed between two of the most powerful norman families in Ireland the de Burgh and the Fitzgeralds broke out into open warfare. These factors spurred on the Gaelic Irish to attack what was a weakened colony and soon Castlekevin was engulfed by warfare. In 1295 the fortification of Newcastle McKinegan twelve miles to the east of Castlekevin was burned. The Norman responded with another campaign and again Castlekevin was used as the base of operations as the Normans raided the neighbouring valley of Glenmalure. After a successful campaign the Normans were victorious bringing the Gaelic Irish leaders to Castlekevin to submit.

This is the platform at Castlekevin once the site of a fortifcation. In 1295 Muiris Mc Murrough came to this very spot and submitted to the Justiciar Thomas Fitzgerald.

On July 19th, 1295 the people of Castlekevin witnessed a treaty of sorts that saw the most powerful gaelic leader in the region Muiris McMurrough arrive at Castlekevin and submit to Thomas Fitzgerald the Justiciar of Normans Ireland32 . No doubt to their relief Muiris not only paid a fine of six hundred cows paid but McMurrough pledged to force the O Tooles and O Byrnes back to peace if they broke the agreement. Hostages were also handed over.33

However the area would never truly return to peace after the upheaval of 1295. Within six years all three major Gaelic Irish families in Wicklow – the O Byrnes, O Tooles and Mc Murrough’s were in revolt and Castlekevin was yet again on high alert. In 1301 Wicklow and Rathdrum were sacked and although there is no mention of Castlekevin it seems unlikely it could have escaped.

In the following years east Wicklow slipped in to a state of almost perpetual war and Norman control over the region began to ebb away. Castlekevin was in a most precarious position due to its isolation and proximity to Glenmalure and Glendalough. Life was dominated by assassinations and raids in an ever increasingly brutal struggle. In late 1305 four leading McMurroughs were assassinated at Ferns in North Wexford by John Hay and Henry de la Roche; a few months later the seneschal of Wexford was assassinated in retaliation. On St Patrick’s day 1306 three O Tooles were executed in Newcastle Mc Kineagan which can only have served to seriously heighten tensions at nearby Castlekevin. The following winter famine broke out yet again and predictably widespread violence across South Leinster followed in its wake.

Norman control was clearly diminishing, so much so that Carlow once a safe town west of the mountains, was besieged by the Gaelic Irish. It was only a matter of time before Castlekevin was decimated. Inevitably on May 12th, 1308 the settlement was burned. The Normans lashed out with a punitive raid on Glenmalure lead by the Justiciar John de Wogan but they suffered yet another defeat in the valley in July. Late in the summer the leader of the attack on Castlekevin William Mac Kinaghan was captured and hung, drawn and quartered34.

This was followed up by yet another raid into the mountains – this time lead by William ‘Liath’ de Burgh, cousin of the Earl of Ulster. This achieved little and a few weeks later in the closing weeks of the 1308 Castlekevin was burned for the second time in the six months. There can only have been a sense that at some stage Castlekevin would be completely overrun; Glenmalure had already fallen from control of the Normans. For anyone living in the region by this stage its scarcely feasible that they could not have lost direct relatives from war or famine.

While the Gaelic Irish in Wicklow frequently acted in concert during these raids they were by no means internally unified. The O Tooles and O Byrnes resented the overlord ship of the Mc Murroughs. Their opposition to Norman overlord-ship was not a proto-nationalist uprising of a unified people with a common goal but rather attempts by these individual families to extend their power and influence. This sometimes found them in alliance with Norman families when it suited their interest and this made life in the region incredibly complex. The complexity of these shifting alliances was clearly illustrated in 1309 when the O Byrnes would join Maurice de Caunteton a former seneschal of Wexford in rebellion against the king. During this rebellion they raided the Mc Murrough’s lands. De Caunteton was captured and executed in 1309 by the deputy Justiciar William ‘Liath’ de Burgh aided by the Gaelic Irish O Nolan’s amongst others.

1309 saw yet another army arrive at Castlekevin to quell the raids that had seen Castlekevin burned twice in  1308. During this campaign, lead by Piers de Gaveston, saw Castlekevin refortified however the fact that de Gaveston had to cut a path to access Glendalough illustrated that Norman society was breaking down in the area35. If communications between Castlekevin and Glendalough scarcely 4 miles apart could not be maintained it would only be a matter of time before Norman society in the area collapsed.

(Thomas Barber after George Petrie sketch) After the dramatic reworking in 1277, Castlekevin dominated the landscape. Even in the early 19th century when the original sketch it was still the key feature in the landscape

For the Gaelic Irish living in colonial settlements their loyalties during these revolts were often conflicted. Many belonged to the extended O Toole or O Byrne families carrying out the raids. However they nonetheless also suffered in raids. In 1295 Muiris O Toole had to compensate the Gaelic Irish betaghs who had suffered in his raids. This did not stop some aiding the rebels. In the early 14th century a Gratagh le Devenys (nee O Toole) was hung for spying in Kildare.

In the following years after de Gaveston’s campaign in 1309, raids and counter-raids continued in the Castlekevin area. The Normans were defeated yet again at Glenmalure in 1311 but the following year the Justiciar Edmund Butler enjoyed what was a rare victory in the valley. None of these activities could stem the tide of the expansion of Gaelic power and influence in Wicklow and from 1315 the power of the Anglo-Normans in east Wicklow went into rapid decline.

That year the entire island of Ireland was convulsed when Edward Bruce extended his brother Robert’s war against Edward II by invading Ireland. Bruce aimed to attack and undermine the norman colony in Ireland which had been supporting and funding Edwards Wars in Scotland. Unsurprisingly he was able to find support among some of the Gaelic Irish kings in Ulster most notably Domnall O Neill.

The Final Fall of Castlekevin.

To make matters worse, 1315 also witnessed the start of the worst famine in medieval European history which would last until 1318. Food shortages and general chaos caused by the Bruce invasion soon saw raids break out in Wicklow and several settlements surrounding Castlekevin were burned. While there is no mention of the site itself its very difficult to imagine it could have emerged unscathed. Norman control eastern Wicklow was now hanging by a thread. In 1316 one of the major Normans Landowners in the area Hugh Lawless described life in Eastern Wicklow as being

in a confined and narrow part of the country, namely between Newcastle Mc Kynegan and Wicklow, where they have the sea between Wales and Ireland for a wall on one side, and the mountains of Leinster and divers other wooded and desert places on the other where the said Irish felons live36

While the immediate danger would subside when Robert and Edward Bruce failed in an attempt to take Dublin in early 1317 and Edward was killed the following year at the battle of Faughart, Norman Wicklow was in an irreversible decline.

In 1322 Glendalough paid its taxes to Dublin for the last time – after this it was beyond the reach of the Normans. Four years later its fall from Norman control was confirmed when it was not mentioned at all in a list of the lands of the archbishop of Dublin. Habitation at Glendalough would continue for several centuries but it was no longer under the ambit of Norman Dublin. While Castlekevin did not fall immediately it was an increasingly isolated outpost in the face of expanding Gaelic territory and control.

In 1328 Donal Art Mc Murrough was recognised as overlord by the O Tooles and O Byrnes and as king of Leinster. On assuming the kingship he had his banner placed scarcely two leagues (seven miles) from Dublin illustrating how vulnerable the colony had become. In 1329 the land route to Dublin from eastern Wicklow and Castlekevin may have been cut off, as the Justiciar was supplied by sea during a campaign against the O Tooles37. Maintaining Norman control over life at Castlekevin under these conditions was impossible.

By 1337 Castlekevin was in a state of disrepair and the Archbishop of Dublin was ordered to rebuild the site. In 1343, Castlekevin was attacked and destroyed and although it was repaired the following year this was the last mention of the site under Norman control. It appears over the following years perhaps after another attack, maintenance of the site was impossible, as the surrounding territory fell under Gaelic control. In 1349 Normans Ireland were severely weakened by the Black Death which killed 30-50% of the population of Norman towns. Any idea of reconquest was out of the question, indeed the very survival of the entire Norman colony was in the balance.

The remaining interior of the Gatehouse at Castlekevin

The collapse of Norman control over the area did not mean life in Castlekevin came to an end, far from it. The Gaelic Irish betaghs or serfs remained behind just like they had during when the Normans took control of the region in the early thirteenth century. The power politics between the O Tooles and the Normans had little material impact on their lives regardless of who emerged victorious. Some Normans may well have remained behind as well. Through the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century they had started to adopt Gaelic custom so a transition to a world ruled by Gaelic chieftains may not have been as stark as we might imagine. In 1395 Henry le Taloun is recorded of having acknowledged the overlord ship Art Mór Mc Murrough. Life at Castlekevin after the 1340’s is relatively obscure. There are almost no gaelic documentation surviving form the period.

Gaelic expansion over eastern Wicklow continued and by 1405 the O Byrnes captured and held Newcastle Mc Kineagan38 while in the early 15th century Art Mc Murrough was extracting black rents from Norman towns in east Wicklow39

In 1419 Castlekevin was destroyed yet again but this time it was the citizens of Dublin who lead the raid on the castle as a response to the Gaelic raid that taken 400 cattle. Whether the site was reoccupied by the O Tooles after this is uncertain. A branch of the family did inhabit the area but all records specific to the Castle record it in a state of disrepair.

The expansion of the gaelic families control over Wicklow was halted in the later 1500’s when the rise in power of the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare saw a reassertion of English power in the region. Having solidified control over Western Wicklow and the Midlands by the early 16th century they began to turn their attention to eastern Wicklow.

Through the 16th century the area around Castlekevin became a war zone yet again as the English authorities based in Dublin began to reconquer the vast territories they had lost through the later medieval period. However Castlekevin was not the key site it had been the in 13th and 14th centuries. In 1540 when the Lord Deputy invaded the region to force submission from the O Tooles he found

‘an olde broken castell ther, apperteyning to the Archebishop of Dublin,being clerely desolate, and the countrey clere waste’ [sic]

In 1543 the O Tooles were still living in the vicinity of the castle as they received the lands in a surrender and regrant policy which saw royal authorities acknowledge Gaelic ownership of land in return for accepting English authority. The following decades saw a bitter and complex series of wars not only between new English settlers and the Gaelic Irish but also internal Gaelic struggles.

The complexity of this period was seen in 1591 Aedh O Donnell a Gaelic Irish noble escaped from captivity in Dublin castle and fled south to Wicklow attempting to make his way to the lands of Fiach McHugh O Byrne. Having reached Castlekevin he was deceived by the O Tooles and handed back to the English.

Although O Tooles would live in the region for centuries the site of Castlekevin had lost its importance centuries earlier and its doubtful if it was ever occupied after the 15th century. By the mid seventeenth century Gaelic Ireland had been destroyed by a series of war lasting from 1540 to the Cromwellian invasion of 1649.

Over the following centuries Castlekevin was stripped of its stone presumably used in neighbouring areas as a construction material. Across the road from the castle the gate post above is one such reuse of the carved stone.

It appears that in last few decades the site has declined rapidly. The photo above was taken in the early years of the 20th century by the historian Goddard Orpen. A similar shot  today (below) reveals how much the site has been overgrown. This shot is taken from the bank on the left of the 1908 picture above. Whilst Castlekevin is now a ruin and indeed at its current rate of decline it will soon be completely inaccessible it nonetheless a very important site in terms of the story it tells of late medieval Irish history.

This is last standing section of masonry on the site, Although delapidated today, this structure was once the gatehouse supporting a drawbridge which connected the Motte and the Bailey


The 14th century is the subject of an upcoming book I am writing on the societal crisis Ireland faced in the 14th century when famine war and plague brought Ireland to the brink. You can read more about this here.  The book will be released in 2013.

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1Wicklow history and society Pge 155.

2The Dublin region in the middle ages Pge 91

3Wicklow history and society pge 155.

4Cited in New History of Ireland Vol II (N.H.I.) Pge 155

5The Dublin region in the Middle Ages Pge 77

*Manors were similar to farms often stretching over thousands of acres. They differed from farms in that they were not just units of land but also had a political function as well. They were generally ruled from an administrative centre called a caput often a Motte and Bailey like at Castlekevin. They were ruled over by a manor court presided over by the lord of the manor. At Castlekevin the lord was the Archbishop of Dublin or his representative.

6 Cal. Doc. Ire. Vol I Pge 201 no. 1354

7 War politics and the Irish of Leinster 1156-1606, Pge 27

8 Wicklow history and society Pge 158

9 O Byrne War politics and the Irish of Leinster 1156-1606 Pges 31-35

10Recorded as Annals of Inisfallen (AIF)1271

11Annals of Loch Cé (ALC)1270

12 Wicklow History and Society.

13 On the Frontier: Carrickmines Castle and Gaelic Leinster

14The Dublin region in the middle ages Pge 94

15The term march is a difficult term to pin down. It had a different meaning in Wales, Ireland and Scotland but in general described a contested landscape or in this case a frontier between contested landscapes

161271 recorded as 1272 ALC

171271 recorded as 1272 ALC

18Cal. Doc. Ire. Vol I pge 148

19Irishmen at war from the cruasdes to 1798 essays from the irish sword vol 1 Pge 10

20NHI pge 257


22O Byrne, War, politics and the Irish of Leinster 1156-1606 pge 61

23Cal. Doc Ire pge Vol I 256

24NHI pge 259

25O Byrne, E.  The MacMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340 pge 178

26The Normans referred to Glenmalure as Glendalory

27 CDI Vol II  no 1400 263

28Wicklow History and Society Pge 162

29The Dublin region in the middle ages Pge 95

30NHI Pge 260

31Some unpublished texts from the black book of Christchurch Pge 296

32 The MacMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340 Pge 180


34 The MacMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340, Pge 182

35The MacMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340  Pge 183

36Cited in The MacMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340 Pge 68

37 War politics and the Irish of Leinster 1156-1606 Pge 91

38 The Dublin region in the Middle Ages Pge 103

39  War politics and the Irish of Leinster 1156-1606  Pge 114


Watt, J.A. (1970)  The Church and the two nation in medieval Ireland Cambridge

Orpen, G.H. (1908) Castrum Keyvini: Castlekevin  The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 38, No.1, pp. 17-27

O Byrne, E. (2003) War, Politics and the Irish of Leinster, 1156–1606 Dublin

Murphy, M. & Potterton, M. (2010) The Dublin region in the middle ages: settlement, land-use and economy Dublin

O Byrne, E. (2007) “The McMurroughs and the marches of Leinster 1170-1340” in Lordship in Medieval Ireland; Image and Reality. Dublin

Lydon, James, (1987)  Medieval Wicklow – ‘A land of war’ in Wicklow History and Society Dublin

Martin, F.X. (1987) John Lord of Ireland in New History of Ireland Vol II Dublin

Sweeetman D (1875) Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland Vols I-V London

O Byrne, E. (2002) On the Frontier: Carrickmines Castle and Gaelic Leinster Archaeology Ireland Vol VI No. III

Harman, M (2006) Irishmen at war from the Crusades to 1798; Essays from the Irish sword vol I Dublin

Lydon, J (1987) A land of war in Cosgrave New History of Ireland Vol II Dublin

Williams, B. (2006) The Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn Dublin

Annals of Loch Ce

Annals of Inisfallen

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