Castles and fortifications in Ireland 1485-1945, Paul M. Kerrigan (Collins Press, £24.95)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Reviews, Volume 3, Volume 4

‘Power’, as Mao Zse-tung observed, ‘comes from the barrel of a gun’. His aphorism is true in the most literal sense of early modern Europe where the introduction of gunpowder and artillery precipitated a military revolution, which so overthrew traditional medieval security arrangements as to beget an entirely new military system, whose organisational needs triggered the emergence of the modern nation state.
Central to this development was the role of fortress warfare: the construction of fortifications, skilfully designed to withstand bombardment from ‘mobile’ siege artillery, and the mounting of batteries of cannon on their ramparts to discomfit their assailants. The new fortresses were characterised by low, thick walls, interspersed with bastions—four-sided projections and other outworks. Such structures could control whole regions. The most sophisticated engineers were employed on their design and the ablest fiscal administrators on meeting the enormous cost of their construction and maintenance. The new fortress science originated with the Sangallo brothers and Michele di Sanmicheli in early sixteenth-century Italy. From there, the trace italienne, as it came to be known, spread across Europe, and dominated fortress building until it was overtaken by the implications of technological advances in ordnance in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Everywhere, the introduction of the trace italienne is a litmus test for dating the arrival of the military revolution and with it, the modern state.
The outstanding modern work on European fortress warfare is Christopher Duffy’s two-volume survey The fortress in the early modern world 1494-1660 and The fortress in the age of Vauban and Frederick the Great 1660-1789. While Duffy does not ignore Ireland, Paul Kerrigan’s pioneering Castles and fortifications in Ireland 1485-1945 now provides what will surely remain the standard treatment of the Irish dimension to this important topic.
The effective use of ordnance in Ireland was to some extent retarded by the rural and water-logged nature of the landscape. Medieval tower houses continued to be built for 150 years after artillery was first used here in 1488 (to reduce Balrath Castle in County Westmeath), although with the addition of gun-loops and embrasures for cannon. The splendid ‘transitional’ fortified houses and planters’ castles of the early seventeenth century, such as Portumna, Kanturk, Monea and Crom, were at least partially defensive in purpose, but their thin walls and large profile made them even more useless than tower houses against artillery.
The trace italienne was introduced to Ireland by the Tudor state. Its first use was in 1551 at Corkbeg near the entrance to Cork Harbour, on the site of the nineteenth-century Fort Carlisle. Other coastal forts followed, such as Duncannon, Haulbowline and Castle Park, Kinsale. These works were a response to the new threat from the marriage of sail and cannon in fleets of men-of-war which represented the maritime component of the military revolution. Towns such as Waterford, Limerick and Galway had their fortifications improved, and in Ulster a string of forts was erected to contain the rebellious Gaelic septs. In most cases the Italianiate bastion was employed, sometimes rather crudely. These early works were usually earthen in composition, but in the early seventeenth century a number of stone works were erected, such as New Fort at Cork, Fort Falkland at Banagher and the London Companies’ fortifications at Derry, which comprised a perimeter wall 5,000 feet in length with eight bastions.
There are useful chapters assessing the role of fortifications in wartime: during the Confederate and Commonwealth era, and in the later Williamite wars. The great fortress of the restoration period was Charles Fort, Kinsale. It was badly sited at a location overlooked by higher ground, which left it vulnerable to landward attack as Marlborough proved in 1690. Other works, planned in the 1680s by the engineer Thomas Phillips for the Duke of Ormonde, were never erected due to the enormous cost—the estimate for a new fort at Athlone alone was £56,000! The beautifully drawn plans and elevations which Phillips prepared remain the best visual image we have of the topography of late seventeenth-century Ireland.
Apart from an extensive programme of barrack and redoubt building, Kerrigan characterises the eighteenth century as one of neglect where fortifications were concerned. The war with revolutionary France, 1793-1815, led to a renewed programme of coastal defence works in the form of martello towers, forts and signal towers. Inland, the Shannon crossings were also fortified as a barrier to any advance on Dublin by an invading force which might land in the west. The final phase of coastal fortress building, dating from the end of the nineteenth century, is dealt with only in outline. There is a short chapter on conservation and preservation, and the book concludes with a list of signal towers, some data on contemporary artillery and a useful glossary of technical terms.
Kerrigan is skilful and erudite in weaving the detailed story of fortress building into the general course of Irish history. Every page demonstrates the range of his fieldwork, the sureness of his eye for detail and a conscientious investigation of relevant archival material. He is knowledgeable about artillery, and his overview of each period is assured and convincing. There can be scarcely any fortification of significance that he overlooks, and there is a great deal of useful detail about individual works. The author’s own architectural training and experience as a public servant have given him a valuable empathy with the men who designed and built fortifications, and an insight into the administrative parameters within which they functioned. Some were Irish, others English, and several, with exotic names such as Corneille, Lalloe and Wybault, were Continental professionals.
The book is generously illustrated with numerous plans and drawings. Many are by the original engineers and surveyors, and others—of high quality—by Kerrigan himself. There are useful maps depicting works at various periods and locations. Unfortunately the reproduction of some of the modern photographs is not to the highest standard and it is regrettable that the publishers have chosen to set the book in bold type. But these are minor misgivings. Paul Kerrigan has splendidly justified the many years of dedication he has devoted to his chosen field. Fortifications were built for strength and they remain amongst the most enduring monuments of the historic landscape. As Maurice Craig says in the foreword: ‘those who have enjoyed and profited by [Kerrigan’s] articles in An Cosantóir and The Irish Sword will welcome this book, and for a wider public it will be an introduction to a new world of pleasure in exploration, discovery and recognition’.

Harman Murtagh


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