Today the words ‘hidden surprise’ are used way too often when describing a quaint, out of the way place. And yet, for those who visit Carlingford those are the words that immediately come to mind. Taken by itself, this small town with its little streets and medieval ruins is attractive. However, placed on the shores of Carlingford Lough with the beautiful Cooley Mountains behind, the town is simply stunning. That specialness was recognised in 2008 when Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula were honoured with the award of Ireland’s European Destination of Excellence.
A brief history of Carlingford
The origins of Carlingford lie eight centuries ago in the construction of a castle on a rocky outcrop by the Norman knight, Hugh de Lacy. From this fortress there developed the town — a linear settlement with typical medieval patterns, burgage plots, defensive walls, narrow streets, friary and urban tower houses.
In addition to acting as the local market, Carlingford also had an important regional function as a port. It was its role as a staging point for fishermen hoping to exploit herring in Carlingford Lough that was its greatest economic attribute. The importance of the fishing grounds is shown by a letter from England’s King Henry IV to James King of Scotland enquiring about English fishermen who were attacked by a Spanish ship while in the Lough and taken to Scotland where they were imprisoned.
The 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries was the era of greatest prosperity. This is witnessed today by the surviving town houses of a rich merchant class such as Taaffes Castle and the Mint. The five charters, from the first in 1326 during the reign of Edward II to the last in 1619 granted by James I are another testament to its wealth and importance. Conversely, those same centuries were also the period to which Carlingford was subject to intermittent violence. Its location at the edge of the Pale, next to a resurgent Gaelic population, meant that the urban tower houses were not only built as status symbols but also for protection. In 1326 Carlingford was granted the right to levy a murage tax for six years to repair walls. However, it is very unlikely that this was the first occasion that the town was defended.
From the 17th century Carlingford declined as a centre of importance. Indeed, by 1744 the town was described as being in a state of ruin. During these years it had suffered heavily in the 1640 rebellion and Williamite Wars of the 1690s. Ownership of the burgage plots had also passed from the older Anglo-Norman families such as Dartas, Dowedale and Whyte to the New English with names such as Stannas, Hamilton and Moore. Finally, its major source of wealth, the herring shoals, had abandoned the Lough and moved to the open seas.
The paradox today is that the town’s current economic revival is directly connected to its lack of post medieval development. Unlike in neighbouring towns where all visible traces of the medieval defences were removed, this fabric still survives. The scholar, Rev. Laurence Murray, wrote of Carlingford at the beginning of the 20th century, that the town was ‘a gold mine to the antiquarian… it is narrow, hilly, angular and gloomy – there is a medieval suggestiveness about it which carries one back many centuries and fills the mind with vague dreamings’.
For further information on the town’s history contact:
Carlingford Lough Heritage Trust
If you want to read more about Carlingford, click on the PDF below: