Boyne Valley, Ireland
Trim Castle is the largest fortification in Europe left behind by the Normans. When one considers the vast extent of the Norman Empire, and the huge number of castles that they constructed, it is impressive, if not strange, that their greatest one wound up in the middle of Ireland on the fringe of their territory. Now half in ruins, Trim Castle is one of Ireland’s most important cultural tourist destinations. In the 1990s, Trim Castle was extensively used in the filming of the movie Braveheart, considerably adding to its popularity.
Trim Castle began its existence in the 12th century as a wooden stockade. Close to the geographic center of Ireland, it guarded the main road from Dublin to other parts of the country. Within a decade after the Norman conquest of Ireland, Gaelic clans under the King of Connacht were endeavoring to drive the invaders out. The strategically located but inadequately built Trim Castle became one of their first targets, and in 1173 the Irish forces seized and burnt the place to the ground.
The Normans soon retook the town of Trim, and under Hugh de Lacy began construction on a much more substantial fortification. De Lacy and his son spent the better part of the next three decades building what was to become one of the largest Norman fortifications in history. It was completed in 1206. Virtually everything that survives of Trim Castle dates back to the 12th and 13th century construction.
Despite the fact that it was not located in Dublin, or perhaps because of this, Trim Castle became one of the chief administrative centers in Ireland under the Normans and later the English. While technically it was only supposed to oversee the functions of the District of Meath, its central location made it a vital communications center for all of Ireland. In the ensuing centuries of nearly constant warfare between the English and the Irish, Trim Castle remained in control of the English.
Towards the end of the Tudor period, the increasing importance of English sea power led to the declining importance of the landlocked trim castle. Under the Stuarts, the increasingly less vital Trim was reduced from an important military fortification to an artistocratic estate in possession of the Wellingtons. It subsequently came into the possession of other families, who let it fall into disrepair. The site was acquired by the state in the 1990s, which is now making an effort to preserve the remains.
Trim Castle bears the distinction of being the remains of the largest Norman fortress in Europe. It also bears several interesting architectural distinctions, notably the fact that the main keep is cross-shaped. About half of the castle is still standing, and much of this can be visited. The outer walls on the eastern side of the castle are largely intact, while those on the western side are in ruins. Several of the wall towers are still standing as well, including the main gate.
Much of the 12th century inner keep is still in place. This formidable twenty-sided building is shaped like a cross, a form unique in castle construction. It is uncertain if this was done to honor the church or was simply an effort at a new defensive design. If the latter, it was never replicated by the Normans again. The grounds around the strictly utilitarian Trim Castle are clear of gardens and other ornamentals. Only a grassy field surrounds the place at the top of its hill overlooking the Boyne River. Strangely, this splendid isolation was recently ended with the construction of a brand-new state-of-the-art hotel right next to the castle. This has sparked considerable controversy among Irish preservationists.
Trim Castle is located in the town of Trim, approximately 15 miles northwest of Dublin. It is open to the public year-round. From April to September the Castle is open from 10:00am-6:00pm; October from 10:00am-5:30pm; and November to March 10:00am-5:00pm. Admission is E3.50 for adults and E1.25 for children (discounts for students and senior citizens). Web: www.meath.ie (official website).
In north and central Ireland, the number and variety of castles is extensive. The most famous of these range from traditional Irish fortifications like Dunguaire Castle, to Jacobean manor-houses like Donegal Castle. Dublin Castle, one of Ireland’s largest, was converted into a full-scale palace years ago and served for centuries as the seat of English rule on the island.