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Malahide Castle by Pat Liddy

We are told that there are more castles in Ireland than in all of England, Scotland and Wales put together. It must also be said, though, that most of the castles in Ireland are more of the tower house variety, that is to say, they are composed of a single defensive tower surrounded by small curtain wall enclosing a bawn or courtyard. There were, however, quite a few larger structures and even some extremely extensive examples by international standards like Trim Castle, believed to be the largest Norman fortress in Europe. In its day, Malahide Castle was probably a medium sized castle but today very little remains above ground of its medieval predecessor.

Richard Talbot arrived in Ireland with the conquering army of the English king, Henry ll in the early 1170s and by 1185 he was granted the lands and harbour of Malahide, formerly the territory of the defeated Viking King of Dublin. The Talbots in England held the title Earls of Shrewsbury and had first arrived during the Norman invasion with William the Conqueror. There is a scarcity of early records but it is believed Talbot first built, around 1185, a motte and bailey castle (a wooden structure on top of an artificial hill with a palisade surrounding the ground-level courtyard) before a stone keep of 3 stories surrounded by a protective wall and towers was built in the early 13th century.

Withstanding several attacks and with just a break from 1649 to 1660, when the castle was taken over by Cromwellian forces, the family remained in control of the castle until 1973 when the last of the male heirs, Lord Milo Talbot, the 7th Baron, died. This means that Malahide Castle had been lived in for nearly 800 years by the same family, the longest period for any castle (or home) in Ireland. The property passed to Milo’s sister Rose who was sadly forced in 1976 to sell the castle, its contents and the land to pay off the death taxes. Fortunately, Fingal County Council purchased the castle, the remaining contents and its surrounding parkland. To fill the now relatively empty rooms, appropriate period furniture was acquired and many of the portraits on the walls are on loan from the National Portrait Collection

The castle today looks magnificent as you approach it across the vast parklands. Gone are the medieval curtain walls and the moat but the central pile looks massive and shows the signs of change, extension and adaptation over the centuries of occupation. The towers may have late medieval origins but two of them are 18th century, rebuilt after a fire damaged the West Wing. At that time the drawing rooms were also laid out. The timber-roofed Great Hall, equipped with a minstrel gallery, dates from around 1487. The room contains family portraits and an expansive picture of the famous Battle of the Boyne fought on the 12th July, 1690. Legend has it that on that fateful morning members of the extended family met for breakfast in the Great Hall before leaving to take part in the battle with fourteen of them tragically never to return. The atmospheric Oak Room dates from the 16th century. As its names suggests the walls are panelled in darkened Irish oak. Over the mantelpiece is a carved Flemish Coronation of the Virgin Mary and 6 panels on one wall depict Old Testament stories.

An incredible side-story to the castle was that in the 1920s a large collection of long-lost papers came to light in Malahide Castle. These were the private papers of James Boswell, the famous biographer to the English writer Samuel Johnson. The papers are now in Yale University.

Not only is the castle worth the effort to visit but afterwards you have a whole plethora of things to see and enjoy around the 109 hectares of leisure space. Immediately behind the castle are the ruins of a former abbey and graveyard which contains the Talbot family vault. The Visitor Centre can assist you to locate all the other treasures but foremost of these are the exquisite Botanic Gardens. Milo Talbot planted the gardens between 1948 until his death in 1973 with up to 5,000 species, mostly from the Southern Hemisphere (he also owned an estate in Tasmania, which he named ‘Malahide’). The 1.6 hectares walled section of the gardens contains an ornamental pond, a French parterre, seven glasshouses and a Butterfly House containing at least 20 different species. Then the seven-hectares West Lawn holds many different shrubs and trees including a 350-year-old 19m high Cedar of Lebanon. To help you appreciate the gardens there is a garden interactive exhibition in the Visitor Centre.

In the rest of the demesne there are picturesque walks through woodlands or along flat open ground whose paths bring you to a golf and pitch and putt courses, a cricket pitch, a boules area, football fields, tennis courts, a fairy trail and an adventure playground. At the Visitor Centre there is a café and an Avoca retail store.

To organise a guided tour of the castle and/or to walk around the botanical gardens see www.malahidecastleandgardens.ie/info/plan-your-visit or contact +353 1 816 9538.  Alternatively, tickets can be purchased on your arrival at the Visitor Centre where walk-in visitors for the castle are allocated the next available tour time. Opening at 9.30 am the last tour is 4.30 pm Monday through to Sunday (3.30 pm Nov- Mar). Access to the castle demesne can be made by car or walking through several gates dotted around the perimeter. A seasonal road train operates a schedule from the castle to the railway station at Malahide Village.

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