Tullow sits on the gentle River Slaney in some of the richest arable farmland in Ireland. In our more ancient history, Tullow was capital of the North Leinster kingdom of 'Uí Felmeda Tuaid'. We see in the broken annals of early history, that Tullow also sat on a main national route, 'An Slige Chualainn', one of the five ancient national roads emanating from the Hill of Tara. Tara was the place of the High seat, of gathering, Brehon Law, poetry, prophesy and celebration. One of the last men to sit in Tara was Diarmaid as High King of 'most of' Ireland. After him the land gave way to many small kingdoms, some say as many as 100, where Brehon laws were adopted as local laws, and local Rí's (or tioseach) either fought or negotiated with their neighbours to secure name, land and heritage. That was before the Normans came.
However long before the Normans arrived, Tullow was also an important place of spiritual and secular learning. St Forthchern founded a community house here in the late fifth century. A scholar and skilled craftsman and a disciple of Patrick, Forthchern had already headed up a large community in Killoughternane in the south of County Carlow. This early site, though now non-existent, was probably where the 18th century church of St Columba stands, as it, in turn, replaced an earlier 11th-century church bearing the same name just off the town centre. To this day Tullow still nurtures such learning and cohesion within its communities. It's as if an ancient path still sits under the ordinary comings and goings in the market square.
It seems that at one point in antiquity, Carlow had something like 148 castles and 'piles', however by about 1435 only two remained, one in Carlow and one in Tullow, although it's rumoured that Tullow had two castles at two different points in its early history. One was possibly sited at Mount Aaron in the townland of what we know today as Crosslow. The other around the 11th century was sited near Castle Lane, very near what now is St Columbas Church just up the street from Market Square.
With the arrival of the Normans came upheaval, unrest, battles and indeed new taxes. Ireland's bigger story was acted out both in Tullow and its surrounding hinterland. West Wicklow rebels in the Clans of O Byrne and O Toole, to name a few, fought to push the Norman presence out, and initially failed to do so with 400 of their own heads put on display in Dublin. However, they persisted and in around 1430 the Castle at Tullow was overrun and ruined. A victory of sorts.
As with the larger picture in Ireland then, names with power and wealth emerged, such as Henry, William Marshall, John Earl (son of King Henry), Hugh De Lacy, Theobold Walter 1st, Eleanor Countess of Ormond. They retained power, wealth, law and say-so as they brought rule of law, taxes, rent of lands and property along with their family names. However some also rebuilt bridges and mills at weirs to allow milling, food production and craftsmen to ply their trade, even in such times of occupation. And of course, their position allowed their family name to retain land wealth and gentry. Yet never quite gaining an all-powerful presence everywhere, because rebellion could always appear over the next hill, or crossroads. Of course, the late Medival period in Ireland brought a shadow over Irelands Culture, Law, and Race identity that would slowly go quiet. Much worse to come later in our history with Cromwell, Famine and Penal laws.
For now though through the turmoil of Medieval times and on through the 13th and 14th centuries Tullows Settlement as a small market town somehow had a mixed population who farmed, weaved, carved, and crafted into a resilient community who built up some tolerance of their differences in name and origins, some local, others not so much. This was partly due to the fact that by 1285 or thereabouts Tullow had been granted the status of a borough, and its inhabitants had the rights and privileges of burgesses. In general, burgesses owned plots ina town or village and also had a set amount of land in surrounding fields, along with some trading privileges for all of which they paid an annual rent. Like many rural settlements in Ireland at the time 'Borough' status was granted by their lords as a means of attracting settlers from England Wales.
By the early 14th century, Tullow was a thriving market town, church, castle, houses of the burgesses, tofts and small cottages with their holdings of small gardens and crofts. Historical documents testify to a list of surnames that reveal a significant degree of occupational specialisation and include carpenters, masons, tailors, dyers, and possibly a goldsmith. At this time in Tullow's history (about 1314) an Augustinian friary was founded across the river Slaney in the townland known as St John's or Templeowen. The founders of the friary at Tullow were Simon Lumbard and Hugh Talin who gave a house and three acres of land to the new house. Nothing remains of the fiary's presence now save a cross headstone embedded in a graveyard wall on the original site. Some photos here to indicate.
In the post-Medieval period, the castle at Tullow persisted. Suffering rebel attacks of Silken Thomas, and even disputes within the Ormond family. However, the town survived and remained a center of local trade. Such a rhythm still persists in Tullow local trade is quietly still in place, indeed the fields that oxen ploughed in the 13/14th centuries are still being ploughed in the townland of Tulloephelim (Tullow). At some point the castle was taken by Confederate Irish forces in the 1640s, only to be taken again by Cromwellian forces later. Later in the 1670s, it is said the castle was occupied by a William Cruchley a justice of the peace who is said to have greatly beautified the building.
In a detailed census of the Catholic parish of Tullow around 1795 suggest Tullow was a market town of importance. It also reveals the range of non-agricultural occupations among both Catholic and Protestant inhabitants as very striking, showing workers in cloth, leather, iron, as well as food processing, and retail. A quiet persistent history of local resilience and community still rings a bell here in Tullow County Carlow.
While Tullow has a long history reaching back to Medieval times and even to the early settlement in the 6th century, its town origin lies squarely in the Anglo-Norman period. Documents reveal too that Tullow and its region over time has been characterized by ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. it seems the people who came to settle here in the 13th century and the indigenous population somehow were incorporated into the manor and borough and shared many traits, not least of which was their resilence. It seems that it was this resilience that saw Tullow survive through the centuries and enabled its transition from medieval manor to market town.
Keith Dowling, Teach Bhride Ancient Spaces March 2019.