Thursday, January 30, 1997

Woodstock Castle and its stone carvings

A recent article in the Irish Times dealt with the history of the bagpipes and their usage and popularity in Ireland from the early medieval period to the present time. In the course of this reference was made to a carving of a man garbed in medieval dress playing the bagpipes. The columnist mistakenly described it as being in wood and from “Woodstock Castle, Co. Kilkenny”. The sculpture is however in stone and once formed part of the elaborate chimney piece which adorned the fireplace of the great hall on the first floor of Woodstock Castle, in this town, in the sixteenth century. Today all that remains of the fireplace in the castle is one or two simple, undecorated fragmentary remains high up in the internal wall face of the now roofless castle. Although the fireplace has long since disappeared, we can get some idea of its splendour as it originally appeared. Lord Walter Fitzgerald the renowned antiquarian and founder member of the Kildare Archaeological Society recorded these stones. One fragment would have formed the centre of the mantel consisting of a pair of opposed lions figures holding the Fitzgerald coat of arms while a similar piece has a pair of opposing angel-like figures either side of the Fitzgerald arms. It is likely that the carvings date to the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century. Of particular interest is the absence of the monkey traditionally found on the crest of the Fitzgerald family which is evident on another carved stone from Woodstock Castle which now rests in the south wall of Whites Castle. These various carvings were first recorded by an anonymous writer at the turn of the nineteenth century who noted that angel-like figures and the lions formed compartments of the cornice of the chimney piece. After this authors visit the carvings were removed to the Earl of Kildare’s residence at Carton.

The castle, like many in the Irish countryside, is remarkably absent from the historical record for large parts of its history, but considerable information may be garnered from the architecture of the castle and most particularly from its carved and decorated fragments. The Fitzgeralds occupied many castles in Kildare with their principal seat at Maynooth but the delicacy of the carved ornamentation from Woodstock Castle with its bold display of the family coat of arms is sufficient proof of the importance of the castle in Athy.

Castles by their very nature were dark and gloomy places which afforded title light or warmth to their residents and while the thick walls might provide a cool refuge from the heat of the summer sun, they were in the depths of winter often oppressively cold and damp dwellings.

The inhabitants might seek to alleviate such cold and discomfort by a variety of methods, principally thick and voluminous layers of clothing which found suitable accompaniment in large open fires. The fireplace, particularly in the throws of winter, formed a natural focal point in the principal rooms for the castle dwellers. It was thus not unnatural that considerable care and effort would be expended in the design and execution of such a feature. Naturally the visitor to the castle on entering the ‘great hall’ would immediately be drawn to the fire by his host and thus the visitors eye might fall upon the intricacies and subtleties of a large and well-decorated chimney piece. The style and nature of the carvings would indicate that they were executed in the period of the castles history when it was undergoing substantial alterations to its structure and form. In a sense the insertion of the large well-decorated chimney pieces might well be said to mark the evolution of the castle from a simple castle structure to the prototype of the later country house of the gentry. The small and narrow windows which since the 13th century had served to ventilate and light the castle were replaced by large gracious mullioned windows with sleek hood mouldings lighting the great hall on the first floor to an extent never possible before. Within these windows would have been set large window seats adding to the comfort of this the principal room of the castle. Woodstock of the many Fitzgerald castles was not alone in experiencing such additions. Maynooth Castle underwent substantial alterations in the sixteenth century, similar to those at Woodstock. These served to increase the comfort afforded by these buildings while at the same time reducing their defensive abilities by creating much large openings in the external walls. At Woodstock one concession to security was made by the addition of a defensive tower on the south face with narrow windows and gunports.

The only reference to building or repairs at the castle dates to 1536 when remedial work to the structure was necessitated by damage caused to doors, windows and battlements. A lease of the castle in 1560 stipulated that new lofts be constructed which may not have been done as another lease of the castle was granted to William Sheregolde in 1569. It is likely that all the finely carved stones from Woodstock Castle relate to the earlier residence of the Fitzgerald family and it is appropriate that these very same carvings were rescued from the ruins of Woodstock Castle by a member of the family that originally commissioned some unknown mason to create them many centuries ago. The stones to this day remain at Kilkea Castle, another ancestral home of the Fitzgerald family although the carving of the piper is now lost.

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