Ashtown Castle: Phoenix Park, Dublin
In the late 12th century the lands of Ashtown were granted to the Hospital of St. John the Baptist, Dublin by Hugh Tyrrell, first Baron of Castleknock. The hospital belonging to the order known as the “Crutched” Friars (Brothers of the Cross), was one of the earliest city charities. Walter Foster was leasing the lands for ?4 a year when the monastery was dissolved in 1540.
The early 17th century saw plans to develop a deer park on lands attached to Phoenix House, “the abode of the King’s representative in Ireland”. Initially the deer park was to extend to about 400 hectares comprising existing Crown lands and 178 hectares whose purchase King Charles II had sanctioned. However, this was considered insufficient and further acquisitions were made by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 12th Earl of Ormonde, including Ashtown Castle and its lands.
In 1668 Marcus Trevor, Viscount Dungannon, was appointed Ranger. Along with two Keepers, he was responsible for overseeing the Fallow deer imported from England. Ashtown Castle became the residence of one of the Keepers whose duties included preventing the “spoil and embezzlement of the vert and venison”.
The date of its construction is unclear. It is known to be in existence in the early 1600s although it is possible that it is of an earlier period. Under a statute of King Henry VI in 1429, a grant of ?10 was made available to every man in the Pale who, within ten years, built a castle of certain minimum dimensions. It has been suggested that Ashtown Castle could have been built around that time. Evidence from the roof timbers supports the view that it was roofed and partly rebuilt in the early 17th century.
Throughout the 16th century the scale and design of tower houses varied greatly. They became such a common feature of the landscape as to cause a French visitor to comment that the houses of the Irish nobility “consist of four walls extremely high”. The larger towers of those of higher rank included stone vaulted and divided chambers with elaborate defensive features. Some towers of great prestige incorporated a hall and a brightly lit chamber at the uppermost floor.
Situated within the Phoenix Park, Ashtown Castle is a fine example of a small tower house. It has undergone extensive rebuilding at least once in each century since its original construction. There are few identifiable features of the 15th century tower but the modest dimensions of Ashtown are similar to those specified for the “?10 castles”.
John Connell, known as John of Ashtown, a distant ancestor of the Liberator, Daniel 0’Connell, owned the castle in 1641. At that date the estate consisted of 200 acres, valued at ?100. Of this, 160 acres was designated as arable land suitable for tillage, 23 acres was pasture, 10 acres of meadow and 7 acres were wood or scrub. Records show that there were also two thatched cottages and a small orchard on the estate.
Around 1774 Ashtown Castle was modernised and incorporated into a new building called Ashtown Lodge. In 1782 this became the official residence of the Under Secretary for Ireland. It is said that tunnels ran from Ashtown Lodge to the Viceregal Lodge and Deerfield, to allow unseen and secure movement between the buildings. In later years Ashtown Lodge became the residence of the Papal Nuncio who in 1978 moved to a new residence in Dublin.
Restoration works on Ashtown Castle started in the autumn of 1989 when a survey of the structure and the removal of the modern plaster began to reveal clues to the original form of the castle. The alterations of the 18th and 19th centuries had included the insertion of Georgian windows, new floors and the replacement of part of the roof.
The discovery of the remains of a roof truss in the east gable provided a historical date for the roofing of the castle using the process known as dendrochronology and tree-ring analysis. This showed that the oak used in the construction of the roof truss was felled in the early years of the 17th century.
Restoration works including all the new stonework and the Irish oak floors and roof were carried out by craftsmen attached to the National Monuments depot in Phoenix Park. The plan of Ashtown Lodge is outlined in box hedging. Ashtown Castle is open to the public for guided visits.
Ita Marguet, September 2009
Note: Acknowledgement is given to The Office of Public Works brochure on Ashtown Castle. This text follows an article entitled Dublin’s Phoenix Park: Ireland’s historical heritage by Ita Marguet, September 2009.