So recently I found myself in Enniscorthy with my sister Belinda. As part of what she likes to call a “Culture Day” we decided to visit the castle. Now being a little bit of a history nerd I couldn’t wait to wander around the old stone building and see what I could discover, Belinda couldn’t wait to set eyes on an exhibition of Eileen Grey’s furniture that is held here.
For a paltry entry fee of €4 each, we were allowed to discover Enniscorthy Castle at our own pace, the staff were lovely offering up their services to answer any questions that we may have. We were too early for the tour which started at 3p.m. but a woman on staff offered to take us up to the roof if we wanted once we had seen the rest of the castle. She also accompanied us to the dungeon later on (not as sinister as it sounds I promise).
The history of the castle begins on the ground floor. In 1170 Strongbow, won back the kingdom of Leinster for Diarmuid MacMurrough. As promised Strongbow then married Diarmuid’s daughter Aoife ensuring he would be king when MacMurrough died the very next year. Strongbow then divided up his kingdom between his most trusted knights including Robert de Quency who received lands surrounding Enniscorthy. De Quency was killed in battle shortly after, and the lands passed to his infant daughter Maud who would regain them when she came of age. Her guardian, Raymond le Gros, constructed an earthen and wooden castle, known as a Motte and Bailey, on the site of the present castle.
In the late 1190s Maud married Philip de Prendergast who began constructions of the original stone castle. It stayed in the hands of the Anglo-Normans until the late Kavanagh clan led by Art MacMurrough-Kavanagh retook the castle by force, holding it until the 1530s. It was then that the castle was recorded as being in a ruined condition and remained so until the arrival of Sir Henry Wallop in the 1580s. Wallop rebuilt the castle and defeated the remaining local Irish clans which allowed Enniscorthy and the nearby town of Gorey to become plantation towns in the 1620s when Enniscorthy expanded rapidly.
Climbing the stone stairs to the first floor, where I got a glimpse into the life of the Roche family who were the last residents of Enniscorthy Castle, from 1903 to 1951. P.J. Roche leased the castle from the descendant of Henry Wallop, the Earl of Portsmouth. He then gave the castle to his son Henry as a wedding present in 1900. Henry married Josephine Shriver who was related to Sergeant Shriver who provides the connection to the famous Kennedy family. They had six children, Henry, Shriver, Gerard, Tom, Dodo (real name Josephine) and Elizabeth (Betty). All the children grew up in the castle and eventually moved out with Betty returning with her husband and child as World War II was looming. This floor full of family heirlooms, children’s toys and everyday items gives a real sense of the day to day life of this family.
The second floor proved quite interesting to a history nerd like me. Here was a floor dedicated to Wexford’s role in the 1916 Rising. Like elsewhere in the country nationalists in Enniscorthy were divided. When war broke out a split occurred, the National Volunteers supported John Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Irish Volunteers lead by Seamus Rafter in Enniscorthy. When Redmond advised his followers to support the British in the War the Irish Volunteers refused to go. Padraig Pearse of the Irish Volunteers came to Enniscorthy in 1915 and spoke from Vinegar Hill. A small weapons factory was established and pikes were made by a local blacksmith.
Just off the 1916 room is the Eileen Grey room. This is a room dedicated to Wexford local and famous architect and designer Eileen Grey. She was born in Brownswood House in 1878 but spent most of her adult life in France. Her work really is amazing, many of my favourite designs were from the 1930s and 40s but would easily be mistaken for a modern piece. Over time her work evolved from lacquer work to include interior decoration, architecture and furniture design. Her most famous design is her Bibendum chair which was inspired by the Michelin man who’s actual name is Bibendum. She was not just a designer, she was also one of the first women to get her driving licence in Paris and drove ambulances during the war as well as getting her pilot licence to fly mail planes. She died in Paris in 1976 and her Fauteil aux Dragons, a chair designed in circa 1919 holds the world record as the most expensive piece of twentieth century decorative art selling for €21.9 million.
We declined to go to the roof as we were running out of time (and it was a bit windy) so instead we opted for the dungeon, always my favourite room in any castle. It never ceases to amaze me how cruel human beings can be to each other. Now this one is pretty tame at first glance, just a small stone room, no torture equipment not even shackles on the wall. But when a member of staff began to tell us how it was used it really began to take on an eery feel. Basically it is as I’ve said a small stone room however when it was in use (before the Roche family moved in and converted it into a coal hole) it had no roof. Prisoners were thrown in from street level onto the granite-like floor most probably breaking some bones on impact if not their neck. The medieval graffito which is carved in the dungeon wall is believed to represent an Elizabethan-era halberdier who may have been imprisoned here in the 1580s. Often prisoners were left in the dungeon for weeks or months and forgotten about and during the 1798 Rebellion the castle was used as a prison.
If you find yourself in Enniscorthy with an hour or two to spare, I would definitely recommend heading to the castle. It is full of interesting facts and stories and has something for everyone, not just history buffs.