The Castle is just outside the College entrance and was built in the latter part of the 12th and 13th centuries by the FitzGeralds. Maurice Fitzgerald, head of the family, was granted ‘The Barony of Naas’ by Strongbow in 1176. The barony roughly compares with County Kildare today, and the family chose Maynooth as their power base because it was a naturally defensive site. The Castle is situated in one of the few spots in this area that was easy to fortify, the meeting of two streams, the Lyreen and the Abhann Slad. The Castle was to become the principal residence of the FitzGeralds, and marked the westernmost limits of the Pale.
The FitzGeralds began building the great Keep of Maynooth soon after settling here, and it was completed by about 1200. Apart from the keep the outlines of the ruins now visible were laid in the expansion of the castle in the early fifteenth century by Lord John FitzGerald.
The Fitzgeralds became extremely powerful in the area, and were given the title Earl of Kildare in 1316 by the King of England. Their title was eventually elevated to Duke of Leinster. In the troubled years of early 16th century Ireland, Maynooth Castle was probably the most significant centre of political power in the country. Thomas FitzGerald, his son, Gearóid Mór, and his grandson, Gearóid Óg, were in turn appointed Lords Deputy of Ireland. The Lord Deputy ruled Ireland in the name of the King of England from this castle, and was the most powerful man in Ireland, making Maynooth one of the most important medieval sites in Ireland.
In 1535, Gearóid Óg had been summoned to London by Henry VIII to answer charges of disloyalty. Enemies of the FitzGeralds spread a false rumour that he had been executed by Henry. His son Silken Thomas rose in revolt, which had been the intention of those who spread the rumour. At the beginning of the insurrection his followers murdered the Archbishop of Dublin.
In March of 1535 Maynooth Castle fell to the English forces under Sir William Skeffington after a battering of five days, the breach being made on the north side of the walls, on the banks of the Lyreen. It was one of the first occasions on which artillery was used in Ireland. Twenty-five of the defenders were executed on the spot before the present gateway of the Castle. The attack on the Castle had been planned during the absence of Silken Thomas FitzGerald, but he was captured shortly afterwards and lodged in the Tower of London with his five uncles. They were executed for treason at Tyburn on 3 February 1537.
The Castle has been enlarged, strengthened and restored many times, the most significant restoration being done by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, in 1630-35, after his daughter had married George FitzGerald, his ward. In 1635 the united arms of the Boyles and FitzGeralds were placed over the main gate where they can still be seen. The accompanying inscription has disappeared, though the text has been preserved:
This ancient manor house of Maynooth
being totally ruined and ready to fall
was newly built and enlarged by
The Right Honourable Richard Boyle
The hand drawn map of 1630 on which Boyle's reconstruction was based has been restored by the College and is preserved in the MSS section of the College Library. Lady FitzGerald's brother, Sir Robert Boyle, was the formulator of the famous "Boyle's Law" in Chemistry.
On the left of the green as you approach the College stands a link with Maynooth's academic past, the Church of Ireland Parish Church. When Gearóid Mór FitzGerald died in 1513 he had made provision in his will for the building of a College, bequeathing 491 acres of land for that purpose. His son, Gearóid Óg, Ninth Earl of Kildare, established this College under licence from the Archbishop of Dublin, William Rokeby, dated 6 April 1518. The College of Saint Mary was established near the Castle and the Castle Chapel was rebuilt as the Collegiate Church. The present tower of the Church is said to have been the residence of the priest staff of the College of Saint Mary. Had circumstances been more favourable it would have grown to be Ireland's first university since the monastic schools.
Saint Mary’s was originally the chapel of the castle and historical sources show that it was built by at least 1248, when it was made a prebend of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It was probably the present church or another on this site that was the College Church of 1521. The Church was repaired by Richard Boyle at the same time as the Castle.
The tower base and Western walls appear to be much older than the remainder of the structure. Some of the stone windows of the Church are reputed to be from the Council House of the Earls of Kildare, which occupied the site where Stoyte House now stands.
After the FitzGeralds returned to Maynooth in the 18th Century the first Duke of Leinster rebuilt the Church in 1770, since when it has been in regular use. The main window of the eastern gable was taken from the old Church of Laraghbryan. The Duke of Leinster was premier peer of Ireland and the invitation of the Duke to locate Saint Patrick's College at Maynooth in 1795 was the prime factor in deciding on this site for the new institution.
In medieval times, defence was one of the most important considerations when building a castle. The most significant building of the castle is the keep, which stood in a court enclosed by the inner curtain wall. Outside this, there was an outer court, enclosed by the outer curtain wall, of which nothing is left except part of the wall incorporated in the Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Mary’s, which is now located at the entrance to Maynooth College.
The keep is rectangular in shape measuring 72ft x 62ft and the walls are 6½ ft thick in places. Traditionally the keep housed the Lord and his family. If the castle was attacked, the defenders retreated to the keep and fought to the death.
If you look to the top floor of the castle you will be able to identify the arrow loops. The straight slits were used for arrows while the other cross-shaped loops were for cross-bows.
As is common in medieval castles, the door to the keep is at 1st floor level to help in its defence. If the castle was under attack, the defenders could retreat inside via a wooden stairs or ladder, kick or burn away these stairs and bolt the door shut.
The ground floor or cellar.
The ground floor was used for storage, and now houses exhibition panels. It is divided into two vaulted rooms. In the first, there is a well, which was the main water supply of the Fitzgerald family. In times of attack, everyone would retreat into the keep. To withstand a siege, it was important that they had enough food and water to survive. If their well was outside in the courtyard (as is the case at Trim Castle), they could not get to it if they were under siege. Likewise, attackers often dumped dead animals or poisons into the water supply in the hope of spreading disease and thus drawing their enemy out. However, the inhabitants of this Keep had a well situated inside so that they never had to leave in times of siege. In this sense, Maynooth Castle was an excellent defensive site.
First floor of the keep.
The first floor was also originally divided into two rooms. The Great Hall was used for administrative purposes and also for public functions and banquets. This hall would have been quite lavish, especially during the Great Earl’s time. Imagine a long, raised banquet table with the Earl sitting in the middle, the people of next importance sitting on either side of him and his family at the end of the table. Dotted around the hall would have stood a number of soldiers whose job was to protect the Earl.
The wall separating the two sides of the keep would have contained a door to the private quarters of the Earl and his family. Built inside the walls of the private quarters are three small rooms used as bedrooms.
A second floor was added to the keep at a much later stage. (Notice the rows of square holes (putlog holes), which would have held the beams of this second floor). This floor is said to have held the library of the Great Earl, Gearóid Mór, which contained books written in English, French, Latin and Irish.
A second home was built on the site by the Fitzgeralds,probably in the fifteenth century. We think that a new great hall was constructed, as well as other fortifications to the castle. However, most of this building was destroyed in the Silken Thomas Rebellion in 1535 and very little has remained.
Most of the remains, outside of the keep are from the third home built on the site, in the 1600s. The remains of this building, which was destroyed in the 1640s, during the Catholic Confederate War, includes the gatehouse, which one walks through on entering the site -notice the family crest above the arch of the Gatehouse. The Fitzgerald familycrest is quite unique to an Irish / Norman crest, in that it features monkeys on each side of the coat of arms.
The monkeys are said to have been incorporated into the Fitzgerald crest in the time of John FitzThomas, the 1st Earl of Kildare. As an infant, he was sleeping in a bedchamber at Woodstock Castle, an outpost of Maynooth near Athy, when a fire broke out. In the confusion of the fire, the infant was thought to have perished in the fire. However, it was discovered that an ape, who was normally kept in chains as a pet, had broken free and had rescued the baby, keeping him safe in one of the towers. Out of gratitude to the animal, the Fitzgeralds incorporated monkeys into their family crest and adopted the family motto of ‘Non Immemor Beneficii’ (‘Not Forgetful of Favours’).
To the right of the Gatehouse is the Solar Tower, the residential/private part of this building, which houses an intact stone spiral staircase. After the attack on the site in the 1640s, the FitzGeralds left Maynooth Castle and were never to live there again. They lived at Kilkea Castle, an outpost of Maynooth, for some time before eventually settling at Carton Estate, their home until the 20th century. The FitzGeralds also built Leinster House, now the seat of the Dáil, as their town house in Dublin.
Houses were built into the castle walls in the 18th and 19th centuries though the Castle has not been lived in since the 1640’s. In 1990 the President of Maynooth College, in response to initiatives from interested parties in the town of Maynooth, invited representatives from the local community organisations to come together and form the Maynooth Castle Committee, with the aim of restoring the Castle to a central role in the life of the local community.
Following negotiations with the owners of the Castle, arrangements were made to have it floodlit, do an historical survey, an archaeological survey and transfer ownership of Maynooth Castle to the Office of Public Works.
Maynooth Castle has since been developed into a Heritage Site run by the Office of Public Works. It is open to the public from June to October, 10.00 a.m. - 5.45 p.m.