Clonmel, translated as ‘the meadow of honey’, is one of the largest towns in south-east Ireland. It lies in the River Suir valleyand is shadowed by the Comeragh Mountains and Slievenamon. Built up significantly in medieval times, Clonmel’s walled defences date to the 14th century. Many remnants of this past can still be viewed and an impressive medieval precinct can be easily seen at Old St. Mary’s Church in Mary Street.
Clonmel was a hugely important administrative area, or Palatinate, under the Duke of Ormondes’ medieval local reign. The town is noted in Irish history for its resistance to the infamous siege by Oliver Cromwell in 1650. The walls were eventually breached, but not without heavy losses on Cromwell’s side. As part of the subsequent recovery, the Main Guard building was funded by James Butler, Duke of Ormond, in 1675 as the main county courthouse. Clonmel’s importance as a trading town in the 18th century required that the River Suir be made navigable and quay walls constructed. More recently, Clonmel has become famous for its cider. In the town there is Magners, while just down the road there is a cider house at The Apple Farm.
A brief history of Clonmel
Clonmel is a typical Anglo-Norman town. William de Burgh, one of Henry II’s barons received substantial grants of land in the Suir Valley around 1185, and there is evidence that the Anglo-Norman occupation was well under way at the end of the twelfth century. The best evidence we have regarding early Clonmel is from written sources. A ten year murage charter was granted in 1298, and a number of other grants followed through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some stipulating stone walls. In 1493, a grant was made to the Earl of Ormond stating the kind of work required on the bridge and walls. The construction of town walls was a necessity to protect Clonmel from frequent attacks from a resurgent Irish population. When completed, the wall stood 425m long east to west and 250 to 300m wide north to south, enclosing an area of fourteen hectares.
Only a few sections remain standing today. Nonetheless, their existence is not only central to understanding how the town developed but to the identity of Clonmel as the place where Oliver Cromwell suffered the highest casualties of any of his campaigns. In 1650 Cromwell’s army of 8,000 men arrived to recapture the town from rebel Catholic forces led by Hugh Dubh O’Neill. Unlike in the other towns he had taken, Cromwell faced a commander well trained in siege warfare. The result was that his assault of Clonmel resulted in between 1,500 and 2,500 Parliamentary casualties in a single day. He did eventually take the town but only after offering favourable surrender terms to the inhabitants and without capturing O’Neill’s forces. As a mark of respect to the courage of Clonmel’s residents, Cromwell donated his sword to them. Four decades later, during the revolution of 1688–90, Clonmel was held for James II. Six weeks after the Battle of the Boyne, the town surrendered to the victorious forces of William III without a fight.
St. Mary’s Church is Clonmel’s most significant building. Although it has been reconstructed and renovated over the centuries its oldest sections date to the start of the 13th century. It is enclosed by two of the best preserved sections of the town wall. Clonmel’s Franciscan friary was founded in 1269. It has been modified extensively several times, the last reconstruction occurring at the end of the nineteenth century. The tower which is the oldest surviving part of the building dates from the fourteenth century. Right in the middle of the town is the Main Guard. Built by the Duke of Ormande in 1675 for use as a courthouse, it has recently been restored and is now open to the public.
The River Suir has played an important part in Clonmel’s history, as a means of access, defence, commerce, recreation and power for the mills. Between 1775 and 1840, economic development, an agricultural boom, and use of the river for cheap transport helped to make Clonmel one of the most important commercial and industrial inland towns in Ireland. Initially agriculture gave the boost, with most of the grain in Tipperary and a large amount from Munster passing through the town. The barges were a cheap way of transporting heavy bulk grain efficiently and relatively quickly. The formation of the River Suir Navigation Company between 1836 and 1841, and the deepening of the river between Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir meant that vessels of up to 20 tons could dock at Clonmel. In 1920, after a long struggle with rail transport, the barges ceased to sail, and the towpaths became walkways for the public. The huge buildings by the quays show how important an industrial town Clonmel was in former times. In 1832 there were 23 mills in the local area, mostly owned by the Quakers. Other industries included tobacco, tanning, wool and brewing.
For further information on the town’s history contact:
South Tipperary County Museum
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