>Dublin’s Secret Castle

>One of the joys of developing an appreciation of architecture is that it allows us to combine a number of disciplines together; not just the actual engineering and methods involved but also, in many cases, history, archaeology, etc. Such is the case with a structure which I wanted to highlight for you this St. Patrick’s Day, gentle reader, namely Ashtown Castle in Dublin. While dating from long after the time of the great apostle to the Irish people, this building is an intriguing and charming example of what can be found hiding in plain sight.

Ashtown Castle has an uncertain history, but it was certainly built sometime well before the year 1600; there is some evidence to indicate that it may originally have been built around 1430. Never a particularly important residence, it passed through many hands and underwent various renovations until 1774, when it was literally subsumed into the fabric of a new, Georgian building called Ashtown Lodge. In other words, the old structure was not torn down, but rather a new building was built around it. Ashtown Castle effectively vanished, to lay forgotten for over two hundred years.

The Neoclassical Ashtown Lodge was used as the official residence of the British Under Secretary for Ireland for many years, until it was leased to the Vatican in the 1920’s to serve as the residence of the Papal Nuncio. In 1978 structural engineers determined that the Lodge was suffering from an irreparable case of dry rot. This is a condition in which the timbers that support a building become infested with one or more varieties of fungus, which then eat the wood and thereby damage the structure. By the time the dry rot was identified in the Lodge, it was too late to save the building, and it had to be condemned; the Papal Nuncio moved elsewhere.

During demolition of the Lodge however, the medieval building that had been swallowed up within the 18th century structure came to light. It was structurally sound due to its solid stone walls and foundations, as well as the fact that it had been protected from the elements for over two centuries. Renamed Ashtown Castle, it was eventually restored, and now serves as a museum and exhibition space for the visitor’s center of Phoenix Park, Dublin’s largest public park. The outline of the old Georgian building that surrounded and protected it is represented in the form of a hedge laid out in its landscaped grounds.

Architecturally speaking, Ashtown Castle is what I would call an unremarkable building but a remarkable survival. It is not a large or particularly grand structure, as far as fortified homes from the Middle Ages go. However, the fact that there are few of these types of buildings left in large Irish cities makes it all the more historically significant, in that Ashtown Castle provides visitors with both a tactile experience and a visual understanding of what medieval Dublin must have looked like.

In this case of course the term “castle” is not an exact term for the original purpose of the building, though its romantic connotations lend it a greater popular appeal. Like in other ancient cities such as Barcelona, Florence and San Gimignano, the well-to-do in Dublin often built themselves fortified houses that could protect their inhabitants in times of distress. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, financial incentives were often provided by local rulers to those of the local gentry who were willing to take on the expense of building these structures. In the examples of the aforementioned towns, local history, geography, and custom led to a variety of methods for added security.

Thus in Barcelona, the medieval “palau” or “palace” – really more of a large townhouse – usually had a severe, nearly windowless facade facing the street, which led to a protected interior courtyard open to the elements and surrounded by an arched colonnade, as a modification of a standard Roman villa design. In Florence the “palazzo” – also meaning “palace”, but in this case often truly palatial – was built along similar lines but with more fenestration facing the street, with the ground floor level usually having very small windows and the facade being built of thick, rusticated stone block. In the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano, the populace constructed their famous tower-houses, much like the Barcelona examples but distinguished by unique, gigantic watchtowers to which the residents could retreat during a siege or civil unrest.

Dublin’s so-called Ashtown Castle is actually a tower-house and, in Dublin like in San Gimignano in its heyday (but without the outscale height of the latter), these distinctive structures were ubiquitous in the city for many centuries. As one French visitor noted in the 16th century, the well-to-do in Dublin usually lived in such towers, which “consist of four walls extremely high.” Today of course, Dublin is not recognizable as a medieval city, thanks to the efforts of the Wide Streets Commission which, beginning in 1757 and anticipating the work of Baron Haussman in Paris a century later, tore down much of the old city and laid broad avenues leading to large Georgian squares, which characterize much of present-day Dublin.

It is ironic that the demolition derby known as the Wide Streets Commission, the political desire of the British Crown to suppress Ireland’s Catholic heritage and supplant it with a Protestant present, and the 18th century fashion for neoclassical architecture as a rejection of what were perceived as the dark days before the Enlightenment, all worked together to preserve rather than destroy this unusual survival. Moreover, given the fashion for Neo-Gothic which arose a little less than a century after Ashtown Castle disappeared into the walls of Ashtown Lodge, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the Victorians managed to get their hands on it. Perhaps it would have been “Gothicked” to death, creating more of a pastiche than preserving the medieval core of the house.

In any case, we are fortunate that Ashtown Castle stands today as a wonderful example of Dublin’s architectural history.

Entrance facade of Ashtown Castle
Phoenix Park, Dublin

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