Arklow Castle CMF22-1-WI002


Arklow Castle is the only upstanding Medieval structure in Arklow. Other Medieval monuments such as the church of St. Mary on the main street and the Dominican Friary founded in 1264 at Abbeylands have not survived. Arklow itself is designated a historic town WI040-029 and this designation is inextricably linked to the castle.

The castle has had a long and chequered history that has seldom if ever recognized the importance of the building as a beacon of heritage in a rural town with very few extant remains dating to any earlier than the eighteenth century. Events that have occurred here are almost a microcosm of the events that have shaped Ireland over a period of eight centuries.

A conjectural reconstruction drawing of Arklow Castle by Sara Nylund.


Below is an extract from a report prepared by Ivor Kenny, Jim Rees and Yvonne Whitty which is attached below and summarizes the history of Arklow Castle. Click on the report at the end of this page to find out more. Arklow Castle is currently undergoing conservation works which are being carried out by Classic Conservation thanks to CMF Funding.

A history of Arklow Castle.

The earliest archaeology at Arklow is a reference to the discovery of a Bronze Age burial mound in the 19th century, north of a bridge spanning the river Avoca in the townland of Ferrybank. The exact location is unknown. Arklow is thought to have Viking origins as the name derives from the Norse Arnkell, ‘low-lying meadow near a river’. A 9th century burial (WI031-040—-) of potential Scandinavian origin was discovered in the 19th century between Arklow town and Three Mile Water but again the exact location of this site is unknown.

The recorded history and development of the town of Arklow began with the arrival of the Normans. The Ormonde Deeds contain a grant dated 1185 which shows that Theobald Walter (often referred to as Fitzwalter) was given the ‘castle of Arklow with the vill of Arklow’, confirming that a stronghold and village of some kind already existed during the Viking era.

The Fitzwalter’s /Butlers established a castle at Arklow in the 13th century. Burgages were established soon after their arrival and the present street pattern and domestic plots conform to the general characteristics of Anglo-Norman towns in Ireland. Three Anglo-Norman coins dating from 1207 (+ or – 2) were found on a sand bar at the mouth of the Avoca in 1834.

Theobald Fitzwalter’s great grandson, Theobald Fitzwalter IV, replaced the early stronghold in the 1280s with a stone fortress. This complex stood on the sites now occupied by the remains of a single castle tower, three modern houses facing on to Parade Ground, the defunct Ormonde cinema and Ormonde Hall. The Fitzwalter’s were to become one of the most powerful families in Ireland under the name Butler, as earls and later dukes of Ormonde with the main base transferred to Kilkenny Castle.

Shortly after his arrival in Arklow in the 1180s, Theobald Fitzwalter invited members of the Cistercians Order to establish a religious house on his lands on the ‘Island of Arklow’(WI040- 029008-). There is little documentary or archaeological evidence to show if the offer was availed of. However, sometime before 1927, human skeletons were found in lintelled cists on the site marked ‘Site of Graveyard’ on the 1838 OS 6-inch map (724790, 673731), where the Avenue to Shelton Abbey meets Ferrybank. More human remains, representing at least five adults and two children, dating from the thirteenth century were discovered near this spot in 1997. If the Cistercians did accept Fitzwalter’s offer, we must conclude that they did not remain in the area for long (Gwynn and Hadcock , p.126) state that the endowment was made c.1196 to Cistercian monks at Wyresdale, Lancashire who transferred to Ireland before 1204, but a more suitable site was found at Abington in County Limerick to which they moved in 1205.

Theobald Fitzwalter died the following year, and he was buried in the abbey at Abington. Following his death, uncertainty hung over who succeeded to the lordship. On 25 May 1206, the lands were granted to William Earl Marshall, giving rise to two decades of legal wrangle.

On attaining his majority in 1226, Theobald’s son, also Theobald, regained possession of his inheritance, but his often-fractious relationship with Geoffrey de Marisco, the Justiciar of Ireland, resulted in his hold on the properties being tenuous.

The situation had stabilised by 1261 when Theobald Fitzwalter IV, builder of the stone castle of which a part of a tower is extant, made an offer to the Dominicans like that made to the Cistercians almost a century earlier (WI040-029009-). The Dominicans accepted it at the General Chapter of the Order in London in 1263. They arrived in Arklow the following year.

The grant included what is now Abbeylands, one of the twelve townlands which make up the 4 modern town of Arklow. This foundation was called the Priory of the Holy Cross but has for centuries has been referred to simply (and incorrectly) as ‘The Abbey’. It was purported to possess a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified.

The Dominican Priory of the Holy Cross was not a parish church and the laity attended
services and sacraments in St Mary’s (WI040-029003-, WI040-029007-). The location of this pre-Reformation secular chapel is generally accepted as being between the small civic park (a disused graveyard closed in 1866 [OS 724.340, 673536] in Main Street) and the river. This was officially named St Mary’s Park by Arklow Municipal Council in 2016. This would put the footprint of St Mary’s church under the present car park. We do not know when this church was built, but Ronan suggests that its dedication to St Mary dates it as Anglo-Norman. In 1322 the ‘church at Arklow with chapel’ in the deanery of Arklow were assessed for ecclesiastical taxation at a value of £4, making the 10 per cent liability (the tithe) 8s.

From the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Arklow, with its castle and priory, was one of the Norman coastal strongholds continually under threat of attack from indigenous septs. In the 1270s, Art and Murchertach MacMurrough were deemed the principal agitators who levied tribute from Anglo-Norman settlers in the area. When many of these settlers decided to sell up and look for safer homesteads elsewhere, they found a ready buyer in Theobald Fitzwalter IV, who thereby expanded his properties. Several attempts were made to bring the MacMurrough’s to book, but none was successful. On 21 July 1282, the brothers accepted Edward I’s promise of safe conduct so he could parley with them in London. On the first leg of their journey, they were welcomed at Arklow castle but were murdered that night by a local landowner named de Pencoit. Some sources say he acted on the order of the justiciar, Stephen Fulbourne. In 1297, Walter Spinewile was recorded as being coroner of Arclo, so some legal structure was in place, but for the benefit of whom is difficult to tell. It certainly did nothing to ease political tensions and the town was attacked and burned several times in the following decades, as in 1315 and 1331.

In 1399, another Art MacMurrough was proving difficult, and Richard II arrived at Waterford to quell further rebellion. Richard’s bedraggled army reached Arklow in a state of near starvation, their food wagons having been the first targets in Art MacMurrough’s guerrilla tactics, where they were met by supply ships.

Despite these periodic disruptions, Arklow remained a Norman stronghold, although never within the geographical bounds of the fluctuating Pale. It is likely that the town boasted a recognized marketplace, the relatively open area adjacent to the castle, now called Parade Ground, being the logical location.

In 1571, the earl of Ormonde promised to seek royal permission for a ‘market day once a week as the town in old time had’ (Curtis, v, 211-6). Welsh merchants were established here from at least the mid-thirteenth century, and Welsh forenames could be found among people whose surnames were O’Byrne, an indication that political, commercial, and social alliances were, at least to some degree, taking place. Arklow-owned boats are recorded as trading into Dublin during those years. In 1377, Thomas Tanner, a burgess of Arklow, was paid for the loss of a ship which, at the order of the constable of Wicklow, was bringing victuals to the castle there;
and in 1402 Roger Grymston of Dublin was licensed to trade between Dublin and Arklow and to ‘sell to the English and the Irish there’.

Meanwhile, the friar preachers of the priory had difficulty in maintaining their buildings, which suggests they were not being supported by those benefitting from the growth of Arklow as a trading centre. They appealed to one of the three contending popes then claiming power and, at the Council of Constance in 1414, John XXIII granted indulgences to all those who visited the priory on certain festivals and who contributed to its upkeep. Whether by coincidence or design, this grant marked the 150th anniversary of the founding of the priory.

The Priory of the Holy Cross, the ‘Abbey’, fell victim to the general dissolution of religious houses in the late 1530s and a lease of the site was granted to Edmund Duffi, gentleman, on 15 February 1540. The complex included a ‘church and belfry, chapter-house, dormitory, hall, three chambers, a store, kitchen, cemetery and garden, containing two acres, two parks and three acres of land of the great measure and four messuages and six cottages in the town of Arklow, annual value besides reprises 29s 10d.’ Just four years later, a new lease for this holding was granted to John Travers, the only difference being ‘three flagons and a half out of every brewing of ale for sale in the Town of Arklow.’ The friars also had the tolboll – a tax on brewing – of all ale brewed in the town. Despite their real estate and financial losses, the friars managed to maintain a presence in Arklow over the following two hundred years, sometimes high profile, sometimes low key depending on the prevailing political climate.

Since first arriving in Ireland in the twelfth century, the Fitzwalter’s had acquired not only the barony of Arklow but also extensive holdings in Kilkenny, Tipperary and elsewhere in the midlands. By the fifteenth century they had decided to move their powerbase to Kilkenny but retained their lands and castle at Arklow through the appointments of a series of constables.

They had also assumed the surname Butler, in recognition of their hereditary position of Chief Butler of Ireland; this entailed being ‘honorary cupbearer at the monarch’s coronation … responsible for giving the king the first libation of wine at the ceremony.’ This privilege entitled the family to a tax of two tuns of wine out of every cargo of eighteen tuns or more entering Ireland.

Their relationship with indigenous septs had become both confused and confusing. At times the Ormonde-Butlers seemed to have reached a position of tolerant co-existence, particularly with the O’Byrne’s and the MacMurroughs, but it took little friction to ignite old enmities. There were also occasions of internal squabbles within the Butler family. These tensions caused the town and castle to be attacked on several occasions throughout the sixteenth century, by which time the extent of Butler control had been greatly reduced. The manor was restructured into three districts, called ‘shires’ or ‘twoghes’ (a corruption of the Gaelic tuatha) which were roughly bordered by the parish of Arklow to the east, Ballintemple, Killahurer and Kilcarra on the west and Kilbride on the north. This did little to strengthen the Butler grasp on the area and the attacks continued.

In 1531 the towns and castle’s defence were characterised as ‘great byldings and reparacions.’ Twelve years later, in 1543 John Travers was appointed to defend town, manor and castle for 21 years, suggesting that it still was not always easy to get on with the neighbours. On most of these occasions the castle proved sturdy enough to withstand the assaults. For example, in 1569 the attackers had to content themselves with burning the town as a consolation prize.

Two years later, in October 1571, Butler entered a covenant with the tenants of the three shires and the townspeople, whereby he promised to give greater attention and protection to Arklow if the townspeople agreed to build defences, erect or repair ‘gates, ditches and pales’ and carry out works on the harbour. They were also required to ‘watch and ward the town orderly by day and night and to answer to the ordinary court’.

The deed was signed by fifteen burgesses. The earl also agreed to try to secure a royal charter and to get permission to hold a regular and regulated fair here. The charter never did materialise, and it is doubtful that these improvements were carried out as the town was again sacked in 1589, and 1595. In 1599 the earl of Essex arrived to quell such occurrences once and for all, culminating in a battle on the site now occupied by Arklow Golf Club.

With the ending of the Nine Years’ War and the suppression of the O’Byrnes, in 1606 Wicklow became the last of the 32 counties of Ireland to be constituted, with Wicklow town being the administrative centre. Arklow never received a royal charter to make it a borough, as Wicklow had, so had no direct representation at parliament. Trade, however, was proving more important than politics.

As the century turned, Arklow ships could be found in continental ports such as Bordeaux, exporting herrings. Unfortunately, the port lost out to neighbouring Wicklow when it came to the lucrative export of timber in the 1630s when the oak woods at Shillelagh were being decimated by the earl of Strafford. Although Arklow would have been the nearer port, Strafford used Wicklow because he had acquired the county town and port while Arklow was still held by his enemy, the earl of Ormonde.

Politics in a more immediate and bloody form struck Arklow in 1641 when the Confederates took control and reputedly put Ormonde’s royalist garrison to the sword.

Cromwell’s arch-rival in Ireland was the earl of Ormonde and Arklow castle was the Butler family’s first seat in the country. According to the Parliamentary gazetteer (1844), it was an imposing structure ‘either originally or as … enlarged or edified … it possessed seven strong towers and was a fortress of considerable importance.’ That is the only description we have found and is open to question. Its royalist garrison, however, fled rather than engage Cromwell’s troops, and a company of parliamentarian foot was left in their place when the Roundheads continued their march south towards Wexford.

The castle, with its new Cromwellian garrison, was attacked by the O’Tooles and the O’Byrnes about three months later. Colonel Hewson set out from Dublin with 1,000 horse and foot to relieve the besieged town, prompting the attackers to retreat. It was attacked again in January 1650. Captain Barrington, in charge of the small garrison, made a sudden sally and killed many of the attackers, the rest fled. Perhaps as much out of political pique as military strategy, Cromwell ordered the castle’s destruction two months later, leaving only one badly damaged tower standing.

Ormonde fled to France in the wake of Cromwell’s progress and did not return until after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. His Arklow properties were of little interest to him, and he decided to lease the North Shire, the 4,000 acres stretching north of the river between the coast and about halfway to Woodenbridge. The lease was taken by Ralph Hassels who had arrived from England and established his estate around Shelton House, a substantial building boasting nine fire hearths in 1668. He took a further step in severing his family’s 500-year association with Arklow in 1705 when he disposed of 8,528 acres comprising his property south of the river.  This included ‘all the land and hereditaments of the town of Arklow, and the three shires of Arklow, being part of ye lordship at Arklow, lying on the south side of the river.’ The transfer took place in April 1714 to John Allen for £1,140.

This change of proprietorship heralded a new impetus in erecting public buildings in the town. A military barracks was constructed on the site of (and using the rubble of) the old castle. Arklow was finally emerging from the Medieval into the Early Modern age.

Below is a series of images taken during conservation works in November 2023 by Classic Conservation. It is hoped that these works will ensure that the remains of the castle stand for many more years to come and that we will protect and foster a greater public appreciation of Arklow’s Medieval Heritage.


Arklow Castle is one of the Wicklow projects to receive funding support from the Community Monuments Fund 2023(Ref: CMF22-1-WI002) . The CMF is coordinated by National Monuments Service of Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and administered at a local level by the Heritage Officer of Wicklow County Council. 

The Wicklow Community Archaeology Project is funded by The Heritage Council and Wicklow County Council through the County Heritage Plan fund 2022 &23.

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