4 Amazing Facts About the Walls & Castles of Kells

  1. The Walls of Columcille

    Columcille, one of Ireland’s three patron saints, marked out a circular boundary wall in the mid 6th century A.D. after being granted the dun of Cenannus (hill of Kells) in recompense for some unfair action that his cousin, the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill, had wrought upon him.

    Medieval and Modern Kells
    Medieval and Modern Kells

    Generally, monastic settlements were surrounded by a circular boundary wall called a vallum, which acted as a frontier between the holy world within and the secular world outside. The roads of the town follow more or less this original boundary.

  2. The Walled City of Kells

Kells became a completely walled city in the 14th century, following the building of the stone and lime walled de Lacy castle in the centre of the town in the late 12th century.

The earliest references to such a wall are in a murage grant of 1326.

This castle was still a prominent landmark about the middle of the 18th century when it is mentioned in the itinerary of Isaac Butler, a Dublin physician who visited Kells about 1743.

“ ..the castle built by the English in 1178 is in the market place, on the right entering the main street which had some fashionable houses in it.  Opposite to the castle is a large cross ..adorned with several figures in bass relief with Irish (sic) inscriptions altogether unintelligible, of great antiquity.”

In 1694 the council asked Thomas Taylor, lord of Kells, to make money available for the conversion of the castle into a market house and courthouse.

Watercolour of Kells Castle & Castle & side of John St. (early 19th c.)
Watercolour of Kells Castle & Castle & side of John St. (early 19th c.)

When John O’Donovan visited Kells in 1836, no traces of the castle were to be seen.  It would appear that when Castle Street was widened at the beginning of the 1800s, the castle was cleared away.

From the time of Walter de Lacy, Kells became a frontier stronghold of the Anglo-Norman territorial rule, frequently attacked from the North and East by the people of Breifne (Cavan).

An interesting statement is found in the Statute Rolls of the reign of Edward IV referring to a request for funds to repair the dilapidated state of the town’s fortifications in 1468 (in Norman French):

“Considering that the town of Kenles is seated on the frontier of the march in resistance of our enemies and needs very great repair of the town … we have granted to the sovereign, provosts, burgesses and commons of the town of Kenles that they in and of the enclosure and fortification of the said town, may take, have and levy the customs underwritten, of things saleable coming to said town, or to any townships within the barony of the said town.”

These levies were imposed on grain, salt, horses, cows, eels, hides, flour, timber, eggs etc.

Thomas Taylour - First Marquess of Headfort
Thomas Taylour – First Marquess of Headfort

Interestingly the title of “Marquess” originates from the French word marchis (“ruler of a border area-  marche (“frontier”), itself descended from the Middle Latin marca (“frontier”), hence the Taylour family acquired the title of Marquesses of Headfort, serving the Crown on a “marche” or border land where they were trusted to defend and fortify against potentially hostile neighbours.

In 1655 the records of the Down survey give us fuller details of the walls and buildings.  The survey carried out by Ridgeway, Loftus, O’Neale and Taylor is as follows:

The townland of Kells contains a walled garden where a market is held every Thursday.  (There are) five gates, a castle, a church, high watch tower, the house called St. Colmcille’s Cell, with several houses and cabins in repair and two abbeys – one without the Cannon Gate called Lady’s Abbey and the other without Dublin Gate called St. John’s Abbey.”

Medieval Kells, Largely based on Kells val., HEM, Swan
Medieval Kells, Largely based on Kells val., HEM, Swan

O’Neale goes on to detail:

The said town has a stone wall round about with five gates.  In this town is a high watch tower being 84 feet high. It never had any stairs, but lofts one over another to which they used to go with a ladder, pulling it up after them from one loft to another until they came to the top where they might see 30 or 40 miles around every way.  It is reported, and by the papist inhabitants generally believed, that for the space of two hundred years past a raven has had her nest in the top of this tower and yet remains there alive.”

Kells Down Survey Map 1655
Kells Down Survey Map 1655

“Here is also a large church but ruinous; one end is covered, wherein the horse quarter that are in garrison there. In the churchyard of the town are two great crosses, the one of 15 feet long and five broad which was set up in remembrance of a queen of the O’Neales that was buried there;”

Only a fragment of the town wall now survives – in a garden on the south side of Canon Street.  Two of the town gates, the Cannon Gate and the Dublin Gate are mentioned in the Down Survey.  Maudlin Gate survived till 1817 at least, when it was described as a “covered archway”.

Back and Front of Kells Fort & Remaining Town Wall, Co. Meath
Back and Front of Kells Fort & Remaining Town Wall, Co. Meath

3. The Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem

The Priory or Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem belongs to the close of the twelfth century.  Commonly ascribed to Walter de Lacy, it may actually have been introduced by his father Hugh.

Their principle Irish foundation was established in around 1174 in Kilmainham, Dublin.

In Kells there appear to have been two houses of the order , the Priory of Kells and the Priory of Kilmainhambeg (Kilmainhamwood) near Nobber.

The Knights Hospitallers of St. John were founded in Italy in 1113 as a semi-military order assisting and protecting pilgrims on their way to visit the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.

The Down Survey of 1655 states that the Priory was “outside Dublin Gate”, on the east side of the town, and though the church and buildings have long disappeared, the church site is now marked by a disused cemetery.

The last Prior was Cornelius Duff who was forced to surrender the Priory with all its property to the commissioners of Henry VIII  during the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the 24th July, 1539.

The demesne lands of the parish of Kells belonging to the Priory of St. John consisted of 74 acres and 19 messauges (dwelling-houses with farm buildings attached), a watermill, 2 acres of meadow and 3 small closes (enclosures).  The demesne lands are represented by the townland of Kilmainham.  There were 17 acres in Mollaghe (Lloyd) and 40 acres in St. John’s Rath.  There were also certain rents arising from the lands of Edward Plunkett of Drumbaragh, William Balfe of Cortown, the church of Disertkeran (Castle Kieran) and a few other townlands.

Remains of Kilmainham Castle, Kells
Remains of Kilmainham Castle, Kells

In 1588 a survey showed the Kilmainhambeg Manor buildings as a Castle with a roof, battlements and windows,  and that the church and several buildings were in a ruinous condition, which included the kitchen, the legate house, the bawn and stone wall, the granary, a water mill and the great farm-house in Kilmainham.  The property included the townlands of Sedenrath, Gardenrath, Mitchelston, Begston, Boolis, four houses in Donaghpatrick, and a house in Kells.

This property was taken over by Sir. Jerome Alexander from Norfolk in 1634, who, as a judge was so ruthless in securing guilty verdicts, and in imposing the death penalty, that for many years after his death “to be alexandered” was an Irish synonym for being hanged.

Some traces of the castle and the bawn are still to be seen in the townland of Kilmainham.

4.Beyond the Pale

By 1488 so strained were the economic conditions (merchants resorted to various subterfuges to avoid the tax impositions such as by carrying on trade with the “King’s enemies” in markets in Cavan and Longford) that an act of Parliament convened at Drogheda defined the boundary of the new wall called the “English Pale”.

The word pale derives ultimately from the Latin word pālus, meaning stake, specifically a stake used to support a fence.

The English Pale 1488
The English Pale 1488

The boundary eventually consisted of a ten-foot deep double ditch surrounded by eight-foot banks on each side and ringed by a thorny hedge. These ramparts were never meant to be an impregnable wall, but they did provide a daunting obstacle to raiders stealing across the borders for English cattle.

The Pale boundary essentially consisted of a fortified rampart built around parts of the medieval counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin and Kildare (“the four obedient counties”). The boundary of the Pale started south of Dundalk, near Blackrock, Co Louth and using the River Fane, moved inland to encompass Ardee, then out to the sea near Bray, Co Wicklow.

This wall passed about a mile north of Kells, to the north west of the Commons of Lloyd, near the Blackwater Bridge.  Here a section of the ditch survives. One segment near the village of Syddan, Co. Meath is intact for over a mile.

The area between the Irish held areas and the English colony was called the marches and adhered to laws called ‘March Law’. These laws were a mixture of Common Law (English Law) and Brehon Law.

Within the confines of the Pale, the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish.

Outside the Pale the native Irish lived in rural settlements which were presumably a combination of dispersed farmsteads and they constantly showed hostility to these English settlers, who built castles and tower houses to defend their conquered territory. Some tower houses in Meath were used for this purpose – in 1430 a grant of £10 was offered by King Henry VI to anyone who would build ‘a castle or tower sufficiently embattled and fortified’ – according to certain dimensions, in the Pale, within the next ten years. The dimensions were given as a minimum of 29 feet in length, 16 feet in breadth and 40ft in height.

This Cartoon May Be Beyond the Pale
This Cartoon May Be Beyond the Pale

The term Pale was used normally up to Henry VIII’s reign, who succeeded to the throne of England in 1509 and became king of Ireland in 1541. The term was then dropped as the English gradually extended to cover all Ireland.

‘Beyond the Pale’ or ‘Outside the Pale’ – which is still used in the spoken word today – was ‘outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour or judgment’.


O’Connell , Philip. (1960) Kells Early & Medieval II. Ríocht na Midhe (MAHS) pp 8-22.
Cogan, Rev. A. (1862) The Diocese of Meath: Ancient and Modern. Volume 1.  Dublin: John F. Fowler. pp 38- 44, pp 199 – 219.
Nelson, John (2014) Alexandered. Kells: Self published.
Battersby, William (1996) The Hospitallers of Kilmainham. Navan: Costello Print Ltd.
Battersby, William (1995) The Book of Kells. Navan. Costello Print Ltd.
McCabe, Brian (2007) Survey of St. John’s Graveyard, Kells. Ríocht na Midhe (MAHS). pp 136 – 138.
Simms,  Anngret Simms & Simms, Katharine  (2001) Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA), no. 4, Kells, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. pp 1 – 13.

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