12 November 2012

Castle Hunting: Cahir Castle

Having brought the Army and my cannon near this place...  I thought fit to offer you Terms, honourable for soldiers: That you may march away, with your baggage, arms and colours; free from injury or violence. But if I be necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremity usual in such cases. To avoid blood, this is offered to you by, Your servant,
Oliver Cromwell.
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.
We first saw Cahir castle in the rain, as we were waiting for a bus to Cashel.  From across the street, in the dry confines of a local cafe, it didn't look like much more than a small keep and scattered towers.  It's not until you go around to the back that the full size of it is apparent.  This isn't huge for a castle, but it's very expansive for Ireland, where fortresses tend to be small and simple.
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.
Oliver Cromwell was a curious man. Born into a middle-class family, he became one of the most powerful civil and military leaders in British history.  His bludgeoning style of warfare was at the center of the English civil war, and by the 1640's and '50's he was perhaps the key figure in the conflict.  His was the third signature on King Charles I's death warrant.  But perhaps the most well-known aspect of Cromwell's personality is his severe Protestant puritanism.  The man simply hated Catholics.  This meant that his invasion of Ireland bordered on genocide.  When he did "bend" his cannon, very little was left afterward.
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.
That all changed in 1599, when Elizabeth I sent troops and artillery onto Irish soil.  After a three day bombardment, the castle was captured for the first time in its existence.  Back in Irish hands soon after, Cahir was expanded and "improved" during the first part of the 17th century.  The outer walls were lengthened (I have no idea why) and rounded fortifications were added at the gatehouse and at the rear of the keep - rounded angles held up better against cannon fire than the older, square designs.
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.
Cahir remains one of Ireland's best preserved castles because - in short - they gave up at the right time.  Cromwell's forces were much stronger and more modern than anything the Irish had encountered up to that point, and the castles he was conquering weren't designed to hold up against gunpowder weapons.  High towers, square angles, a tall keep; what had been effective against previous generations of assailants were now a liability.  Large guns could attack from a greater distance, out of range of the castle's own weapons.  The high crenelations that had once provided a height advantage now made for especially large targets. Tall towers could be knocked down fairly easily, presenting the defenders with an additional danger of falling stone. Thin, walk-along ramparts offered no room to maneuver cannon, and so the garrison inside had to rely on antiquated crossbows and scattershot, underpowered muskets. Despite being somewhat "modernized," the Irish stewards hadn't really addressed any of these issues. Cahir was, in the 17th century, a dinosaur.
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.
In all, some one hundred fortresses were destroyed by Cromwell during his campaigns.  He blew them up for harboring Royalists or ordered them "dismantled" so that they couldn't be used by the opposition.  Some see Cromwell's reign as the true end-point for the medieval castle in Ireland and Britain - the older style fortresses were simply out of date.
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.

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