On the 24th of February, 1649, a fifty year old religious zealot - who was banging around Ireland with the full strength of the English cavalry - conquered Cahir castle with a letter. It was one of the low points in the island's history, and one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of a proud fortress.
Built in several stages beginning in the 12th century, Cahir occupies a rocky position on a small island in the River Suir. With water on two sides and a strong foundation, it was an obvious place for a fortress; hill-forts built of both wood and stone had occupied the spot for at least a millennia before the current keep was erected.
With several overlapping curtain walls and a convoluted gate system, the central part of Cahir was designed to be very difficult to attack. Despite rough masonry (some of the inner chambers look like they've been pieced together with field stones) and a highly desirable location, the castle was never taken by an invading army before the advent of gunpowder.
A great deal changed between 1600 and 1650, though, and the architectural disadvantages of the fortress became more and more apparent. When Cromwell invaded Ireland, he came with lighter and more maneuverable guns that could be brought into range quickly and more easily than the mammoth siege weapons of the past. Also, the new guns were actually being aimed, which sounds simple but was actually a departure from tradition. A great deal of thought had been put into cannon warfare by the British, especially by the Englishman Nathaniel Nye. A science had arisen around the triangulation and mathematics of gunfire. Instead of just lining up guns and hoping to hit something, Cromwell was battering fortresses with a smidge of accuracy.
The motley group of conscripts who were defending Cahir had never seen cannon, and were terrified of what might happen to them if Cromwell did attack. They gave up quickly and the Governor of Cahir turned over the fort to the English without a fight. It's lucky for us castle enthusiasts. Other Irish forts didn't fare nearly as well.
Cahir is now - as it has been since it surrendered - a very peaceable place. It's hard to call it peaceful, because of the traffic that booms through town and over the castle bridges, but the setting is pleasant and the walls are sunny. Ducks and swans paddle in the river-bend, a small farmers market was happening when we visited. Cahir town is a pretty, colorful collection of old houses and pubs. One can't help but think that the town is better off for having given up - they still have a castle, at least.