20 Jan 2022

Hill Street Views: The hidden histories of Dundalk

Opinion, views and commentary from former Democrat editor David Lynch

Hill Street Views: The hidden histories of Dundalk

David Lynch

I’ve viewed it from a speeding car, hurtling past at about 120km/hr for the best part of 20 years or more.

Always there to the right-hand side when you drive down the motorway onramp and steer the car in the general direction of Dublin.

It sits obvious in the field – prominent, grey, ruined, proud. There’s a rather unsightly-looking crack running from top to bottom; almost cleaving the tower structure in two.

When your life is limited to a 5km radius you start to see familiar things a little differently; see them with fresh eyes again. It helps that the mind is more idle these days; looking for anything new within a limited vista.

Dunmahon Castle, off the west side of the M1 motorway, lies in an empty field – bar some munching cattle – about 7km south of the town centre.

There’s not much to it these days, in fairness. A four-storey tower building with ivy taking a firm hold of certain sections. It does offer excellent views over the surrounding landscape and was well-chosen from a defensive viewpoint six hundred years ago.

Despite knowing of it and spotting it regularly for the better part of two or more decades, I had never thought to find out about it. I didn’t even know the name of the castle until very recently.

A Google search brings up some quite fascinating historical conjecture as to what went on at Dunmahon Castle hundreds of years ago.

The grisly story (and demise) of the tower castle, and the poor souls that inhabited it, points the finger of blame to perhaps the evillest (and most obvious) villain this part of the world has ever known. Step forward Mr Oliver Cromwell.

When you see a ruined castle or other historically significant fixer-upper, you sometimes forget, in its sad, lifeless modern guise, that it once would have been a vibrant, busy building for, sometimes many hundreds of years.

Dunmahon Castle is just the same. Built in the 15th century, it remained inhabited and in use for well over 200 years – an astonishing lifespan for most buildings, when you think about it.

But the castle’s happier days are overshadowed by what happened in the 1640s, towards the end of its days of use. According to some rather divergent and not altogether cogent reports, up to 300 people were massacred by Cromwell’s army, having taken refuge within its walls.

The Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society from 1947 even attributes a poem to the terrible event, which was found within manuscripts collected by a Nicholas O’Kearney one hundred years beforehand. The manuscripts are titled, imaginatively: ‘On Dunmahon Castle’.

The differing accounts of the ‘Sack of Dunmahon Castle’ are said to have some “glaring inconsistencies”, according to a Mr Henry Morris of the Louth Archaeological Society, who, examined articles about the events behind the massacre that were published in the Dundalk Examiner newspaper in 1881.

While two accounts finger Cromwell as the bad guy, the dates are hazy to say the least. One says the slaying of the innocents took place in March 1641; however, Cromwell didn’t arrive in Ireland for another eight full years, in 1649.

There’s also a tale which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones. Allegedly, a Mr Charles Townley, who commanded the garrison of Dundalk at the time, managed to inveigle his way into Dunmahon Castle, which was under the protection of the Lord Baron of Louth, Mr Thomas Bawn Plunket, “through his pretended affection” for Plunket’s daughter.

He then went on to slaughter 309 people, including a poor priest who was in the middle of saying mass when the bloodletting began.

Having studied the conflicting evidence, Henry Morris was even less certain of the truth though. He questions the perpetrator, the date and the name of the castle’s occupier.

Which leaves a rather large question mark hanging over the whole sorry affair, in fairness.

Still, something of sad and tragic note happened there over 400 years ago and the place has a foreboding feel to it to this day, if you ever get a chance to see it up close. Bear in mind, it is on private property, so asking permission would be beneficial.

Another hidden piece of local history which surprised me when it revealed itself to me last week, is in a less obvious and more public spot closer to the town centre.

Along the bypass, beside the Finnabair Business Park, on the very edge of the road, surrounded by a three-foot-high square enclosure, lies the remains of a souterrain. It’s been hidden in plain sight since the business park was constructed several decades ago.

Now, there’s not much left when you peer over the low wall – a small, collapsed entrance to a mineshaft is the most you’ll see today, but back in the day - which was around 1000AD-ish – it would have been used as a place of underground refuge during attack or to store food.

While looking for further information on this souterrain, I happened upon a story published in the Irish Times in 2003; which will neatly bring this archaeological tangent right back to where we started out at the top of this piece.

The Times article would lead me to a report in the Democrat’s own archives from September 20th of that year which reported that a souterrain in the Haggardstown/Blackrock area (“between Sexton’s Pub and the Green Gates”) had been destroyed shortly after its discovery. Which prompted much understandable anger at the next local council meeting.

You see, a housing development was being built at the location and when the Democrat went to the site, the souterrain was already being “filled in” by heavy construction vehicles.

It was subsequently described as “disgraceful” and an act of “cultural vandalism”, by two vexed local councillors.

The Demo reported: “The entrance of the site was discovered in the middle of a potato field by Pat Rafferty and his son Pat Jnr.”

The Irish Times article adds that the duo were out walking a dog when they stumbled upon the historic passageway by chance.
The Democrat report concludes: “A similar site was found in the same area in 1973, according to local historian Rory Conlon, who believes it may be part of a tunnel system that linked Heynestown or Dunmahon Castles”.
The plot thickens.

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