Castletown, Dundalk - "Cúchulainn's Castle"

This formidable earthwork sits on a prominent ridge on the western outskirts of the modern town of Dundalk. It consists of a huge flat-topped mound (maximum height 10m) encircled by a wide deep fosse (overall diamater c.97m). In its present form, it is clearly of 12-13th century date. However, as the range of names that are applied to this place suggest, its importance extends forwards and backwards from this medieval personification. Amongst these names, the label "Cúchulainn's Castle", by which we shall describe it here, is perhaps the most popular. The other labels range from the official- sounding 'Castletown Mount' to the romantic "Pirate Byrnes Castle" to the ancient 'Dún Delga'. In many ways these names mark actual phases in its history as well as reflecting our changing perceptions of the place (for further details, see Gosling 1991).

As the popular name Cúchulainn's Castle might suggest, the site enters historical time as an important regional royal site in the stories of the Ulster Cycle. Though these tales were not written down until the 7th century AD, it is believed that certain aspects of them may date back as far as the time of Christ. In the epic tale, Táin Bó Cuailgne, the place is intimately associated with the boy warrior Cúchulainn who uses it as his base when harrying the forces of Queen Meave as they drive north into Cooley.

In the Táin the site is always described plainly as Delga, a name which has been variously explained as a thorn, a brooch or a person's name. In fact, it is not until the early years of the 11th century that the documentary sources begin using the term Dún Delga. This suggests that by that time a dún or earthwork - probably a ringfort-like structure - had been erected on the ridge summit. From investigations conducted in 1910, we also know that the site contains a souterrain, a type of stone-built cave often associated with ringforts (see Balriggan - Souterrain for general details on souterrains). This lies on the S side of the mound but its entrance has sadly now been blocked-up.

It is not until the 1180s that Cúchulainn's Castle took on its present motte-castle form. Mottes were hastily built military outposts erected wherever the Normans seized land for the purposes of colonization (see Mount Ash - Knockbridge for general details on mottes). The steep-sided, flat-topped profile of the mound is a very fine example of this type of military architecture. The summit of mottes was generally delimited by a wooden pallisade and surmounted by a tower: the latter labeled in Anglo-Norman times as a bretasche. Some mottes also had an additional defended space attached to one side of the main mound. This was called a 'bailey'. Wright's drawing of 1748 clearly shows a rectangular bailey to the S of the mound in the area now occupied by Dundalk Urban District Council waterworks. However, this bailey was already leveled by the early 20th century as the plan of the site published in 1905 clearly shows.

The most recent phase of activity at that Cúchulainn's Castle occurred in the late 18th century when a curving driveway was cut into the southern side of the mound. This gave access to the summit and facilitated the construction of the tower and ancillary buildings that now dominate the summit. Built in 1780 by a local merchant, Patrick Byrne, of Castletown, the tower is the finest example in north Louth of Gothic revivalism. When coupled with the landscaping of the mound and surrounding banks with beech and sycamore, it created the evocative setting that still endures today.

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