Clontarf Castle is central to the narrative of Clontarf in that for centuries the political, cultural and socio-economic life of the entire area revolved around the castle. In former centuries no conceivable activity within the hinterland could take place without the knowledge, consent and blessing of the Lord of the castle.
The Story Begins
Clontarf’s long association with castle rule began back in 1172 when King Henry the Second of England granted the entire lands of this region to the Norman knight, Hugh De Lacy. It is believed that construction on the original castle began some years later when De Lacy leased and later granted these lands to fellow Norman knight, Adam de Phepoe.
The purpose of the castle was to provide a line of defence protecting the city of Dublin but, more importantly, to keep the disinherited Gaelic tribes out.
The Knights Templar
Adam de Phepoe, in turn, passed the castle and its lands on to the Knights Templars, who were a monastic order, founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, and had their headquarters on the Temple Mount on the site of the old temple of Solomon.
Though very poor at first, the Order received the official recognition of the Catholic Church in 1129 and became the favourite early-medieval charity rapidly acquiring lands, wealth and influence. They became too powerful however and were falsely suppressed and disbanded by the Catholic Church in 1312.
They were succeeded as overseers of Clontarf by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John the Baptist, thereby commencing a tradition associated with Clontarf to the present day in that the parish church is dedicated to John the Baptist.
Surrender and Re-grant
Following the suppression of the monasteries, Henry V111 in 1541 introduced Surrender and Re-grant to Ireland in that if estate owners surrender their lands to him, denounce the pope, paid taxes and swore allegiance to the crown, he would, in turn, re-grant them their lands complete with an English title.
Sir John Rawson, the last prior of Kilmainham and principal of Clontarf Castle, did just that. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the title Lord Clontarf and given the castle as his residence.
Castle enters Protestant Hands
Following the accession of Elizabeth the First to the throne of England in 1558 Protestant rule. For although Henry accepted Protestantism, largely for selfish reasons, it can be argued that he held on to many of the old rites of the Catholic Church.
However, Elizabeth, his daughter by the beheaded Ann Boleyn, totally embraced the Reformation and set out to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland.
During her reign, the castle passed from Sir Geoffrey Fenton to George King. His son, Matthew King, became involved in activities against the crown during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and as a result, lost possession of the castle.
Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland on August 15th 1649 and within two weeks had granted Clontarf Castle and lands to his favourite commander, Captain John Blackwell.
It is virtually certain that Cromwell sojourned in the Castle during his Drogheda campaign.
Blackwell later assigned the Castle to John Vernon, who at that time was Quartermaster General of Cromwell’s army in Ireland.
Vernons’ 300-year Reign
John Vernon was the first of a long Vernon succession to reign over Clontarf and its inhabitants. They possessed a large, prosperous, productive and fertile estate and leased out the surrounding lands to protestant farmers.
Those lands were further enlarged in 1675 by special decree of the King, who also granted the Vernon family the right to hold two annual fairs of Clontarf on April 10th and October 6th respectively.
Vernon’s Dispute with City Assembly
John Vernon’s descendant, Captain John Vernon, was in the 17th century a man who liked to exercise control over his tenants, property and indeed anybody who came in close proximity to him. A dispute that commenced with the City Assembly in 1729 over oyster fishing rights, escalated into open conflict when he additionally claimed that he was legally entitled within his lands ‘seize such things as are cast on the shore by Shipwreck’.
To substantiate such claims he quoted the Charter of King John, which defined the boundaries of Clontarf. In the end the City Assembly gained the upper hand but in a compromise deal, Captain Vernon was declared Sheriff of Dublin.
The Vernon family, who in the 17th century owned every inch of terrain within Clontarf, had by the late 19th century sold large tracts of land to various persons and institutions. What remained was a historic stately home, but the large income and aura of prosperity associated with it were but a remnant of former days.
The last Vernon, Edward Kingston Vernon, finally sold the property to John George Oulton in 1933 who in turn passed the property on to his son, Desmond on his death in 1952.
Clontarf Castle Hotel
Clontarf’s iconic landmark is once again back in Irish hands and enjoying a new wave of prosperity, popularity and heritage value as a first-class hotel, bar and restaurant.
When you next wander into the bar for a tipple, spare a thought for all those pilgrims before you have come through the castle gates, and for those poor unfortunate souls who suffered here in centuries past!