Kilkea Castle, built in 1181, remains the oldest continuously inhabited castle on this island. It was built for Sir Walter de Riddlesford, a Norman knight who arrived in Ireland as part of the Anglo Norman invasion of 1169. In those early medieval days a castle such as Kilkea was primarily a fortress. Located in the middle of occupied territory it housed a garrison and as such was the focal point for military rule of the south Kildare area. The first building at Kilkea was probably of the motte and bailey type. The motte was an earthen mound, conical in shape and the bailey was a level area around the motte, both of which would have had a wooden stockade surrounding. The original occupiers of Kilkea Castle, the Riddlesford family, died out in the third generation and when a grand-daughter of Sir Walter married Maurice FitzMaurice Fitzgerald, third Baron of Offaly, Kilkea passed to the Fitzgerald family. The castle was leased during the final years of the 17th century and for the entirety of the following century but was otherwise occupied by the Fitzgerald family until it was sold at auction in 1958.
The castle consists of a group of buildings which over time were added to. Two drawings from the early nineteenth century suggest the jumble of buildings that existed at the site. The three central buildings are the large central block stretching from the south-east tower to the north-west tower, the paired barrel vaults at the south-west, and the main gatehouse to the north. These individual buildings are more apparent in the drawing of the castle before its restoration in 1849. The chronology of construction at the site is difficult to gauge. The ‘keep’ like structure at the south-west appears to have been a distinct structure before it was linked to the central block by a chamber placed at its northern end. The general wall thickness of the north wall would suggest that it was a free standing structure. The gatehouse may have been an independent structure such as the ‘keep’ and it is likely that it was only in the fifteenth century when the site underwent large scale alteration that the three buildings were integrated.
The earliest reference to the site was when the King was in possession of the manor and castle of Kilkea in 1373. The first detailed record of buildings at the site appears in the dower of Anastacia Wogan in 1417 which refers to a variety of structures at the site including the ‘white tower’ a kitchen, bakehouse, prison, chapel and the gates of Kilkea. Despite the fourteenth century reference there are no features visible at the present day Kilkea Castle which can be dated before the fifteenth century.
The paired vaults in the south-western side of the site probably date to the fifteenth century. Similar paired vaults are found at Rheban Castle. The cross bow loops in the south wall are similar to an example in the west wall of Whites Castle and may be dated to the fifteenth century. The gunports in the south and east walls of the structure adjoining the later gatehouse suggest a late fifteen century date. The inverted key hole form of gunport first appeared in England in the mid 1370’s at Southampton. The Kilkea examples have the inverted key hole with a cross shape on the vertical slit for the use of a crossbow. There is no secure dating scheme for gun ports due to the stagnation of ideas in the fifteenth century in England which meant that these forms of gunports persisted from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth century.
The late Hayes-McCoy indicates that the Earl of Kildare received a present of six hand guns from Germany in 1487. The refurbishment of the Castle which is supposed to have taken place in 1426 may have included the insertion of the gunports but only a general date in the fifteenth century can be suggested for them.
The carving on the south wall of the gatehouse is a representation of a human figure being assailed by three different animal type figures. A twelfth century date has been suggested for the carving, but it is more likely to date to the fifteenth century.
The buildings at Kilkea while they might be of an earlier date can only be confidently assigned to the fifteenth century by virtue of the features that are visible. Kilkea Castle was a sizable building to be built in the fifteenth century when the tower house was becoming the accepted form in the Irish countryside. Like Cahir Castle it may be an unusual example of large scale construction in the fifteenth century or alternatively it could be the result of a large scale alteration and renovation of earlier buildings.
Some of the more interesting occupants of Kilkea Castle included the 11th Earl of Kildare, commonly known as the Wizard Earl. He was the son of Silken Thomas and as a result of being educated in Italy he came to be reognised as a dabbler in the occult arts. Stories and legends developed around the Earl who lived at Kilkea Castle. The most commonly heard legend relates to how the Wizard Earl lies in a deep sleep in Mullaghmast from where every seven years he makes a midnight horseride to Kilkea Castle. If ever you meet him it is said that the Earl will be recognised by the silver shoes his horse will be wearing!
The other interesting tenant of Kilkea Castle was Thomas Reynolds who was reputedly a cousin of the famous English painter Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds was a Dublin-based silk merchant who took a lease of Kilkea Castle in 1797. His wife was Anne Witherington, the daughter of a wool merchant, another of whose daughters was married to Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen. Reynolds joined the movement and no doubt on account of his family connections with Tone, was appointed Colonel of the Kildare men. He attended a number of meetings of the United Irishmen in South Kildare and in the town of Athy and indeed was a familiar figure in the town, even at the events of 1798 were unfolding. What the local United Irishmen did not know was that Thomas Reynolds was a Government informer who was passing information on to Dublin Castle. Inevitably the information proved fatal insofar as the plans for an insurrection in South Kildare was concerned. Reynolds was later the subject of a two volume biography written by his son who sought to show, successfully it must be said, that his father was not an informer.
An ongoing controversy is that relating to the large cut stone table referred to as the ‘rent table’ which up to fifteen or so years ago stood in the grounds of Kilkea Castle. The then owner prior to the sale of the Castle sought to remove the ‘rent table’ which would seem to have originally come from the grounds of Maynooth Castle where it was used when collecting rents from the tenants of the Fitzgerald estates. The table bears the date 1533 but its authenticity is however still subject to verification. In any event the attempt to remove the table from the grounds of Kilkea Castle resulted in Court action and the partly dismantled stone table was seized by the Gardai. Strange to relate it remains to this day in the basement of the Garda Station in Carlow, no doubt waiting for the Wizard Earl to reclaim it on behalf of the Fitzgerald family!