From the top of this castle you can see five counties: Dublin, Meath, Down, Louth, Wicklow. Or is it seven? Westmeath, Kildare? As small boys, our Geography was not too accurate. There were some who argued for nine. Anyway, you can see a lot of counties. That was the reason for building it where it is or rather, where it was. The original castle covered a large area. What remains is the shell of the castle church. Old engravings show two towers and some shards of the outer wall. The number of counties is now an academic argument. Young lads can no longer climb the spiral stairs to the top and argue about their world view, due to a steel gate and health and safety considerations. In our day, if you fell off, it was ‘on your own head be it.’ When you looked down, the castle whirled. When you looked up from below, it toppled constantly against the background of flying cloud.
I literally tremble to think of how we walked around the open square at the top. That was before vertigo and stiffness in the joints; before good sense took all the thrill out of doing stupid things. We were on level pegging with the birds. The last time I climbed to the top I had some of my children with me. They thought it was a great place. I could not stand upright. My legs shook uncontrollably. I ushered them all downstairs. The gate put an end to any further expeditions. It’s great when you are prevented from doing the thing you dread, by circumstances outside your control. Remember how the lad in For Whom the Bells Toll prayed for rain so that he would not have to be the bravest again, on the day of the bull running.
The jackdaws own the castle now. The empty joist holes provide desirable residences with spectacular views. There is usually a dusting of jackdaws circling around, particularly in the busy nesting season. I remember the toe-holds where you could climb up to peer into the nests. These crevices have been re-pointed, so that pleasure is gone. Twigs and straw still accumulate inside, concealing secret passages and entrances to subterranean passages. Of late, some of the larger raptor birds have put in an appearance, soaring lazily on the thermals, picking out their scurrying evening meal far below.
Secret passages! Aha! Dan Brown could easily squeeze 2,000 pages of twaddle out of Baldungan Castle. Did it not belong to The Templars at one time? Did they not come in secret through the Smugglers’ Cave at Loughshinny, crawling the mile or two on bended knees, (with sharpened bicycle chains around their thighs), emerging through a concealed entrance in the castle to plot yet another futile Middle-Eastern War? Did they not lay out the plan of the castle as a pentangle to guard against the evil descendants of the Merovingians, King Pippin and the deeply sinister Granny Smith?
Eh, no. The Templars owned literally thousands of castles, granges, manors and villages all over Christendom, willed to them by devout people to finance their Crusades. They had more money than God. They excited the envy of kings. The Crusades failed and the Templars became redundant. The kings snaffled their wealth. Are the Templars still out there, pulling the strings of government and the Church, running our banks, listening to our phone conversations, dining in the best restaurants, manipulating the media? Eh, no. They are certainly not up in Baldungan Castle. Cromwell rendered it uninhabitable.
The castle appears to have been built from Loughshinny stone. The folded cliffs fragment into regular blocks, ideal for building castles. Mortar enough of them together and you have a castle that can command five, seven or nine counties, (depending on which small boy can shout the loudest). I remember the old mortar with the horsehair still binding it. Now it has been replaced with cement. Lichens of all types adorn the stone, evidence of clean, healthy air. I recall two tall fragments of wall, each as high as the surviving tower. They swayed in the wind. One fell down, after eight hundred weary years of keeping watch. The farmer asked permission to brace the other one and make it safe. He was refused on the grounds that it was a national monument. He asked permission to knock it down and remove the risk. He was refused on the same grounds. It fell down, one stormy night. Ideal Templar conspiracy weather. Maybe it had been undermined by the Templars to block the entrance to their treasure chamber. Rule nothing out.
In 1649 Cromwell arrived. He ‘sat down before the castle’ and ‘reduced it ‘ by artillery. We believed that he tortured all the priests and plastered them into the walls, before moving on to ‘sit down before Drogheda.’ We looked for plaster with priest-shaped bumps in it. There was never any plaster in Baldungan. The priests must have got plastered somewhere else. Bit of a let-down in a way. It wouldn’t have made much of a headline.SHOCK>HORROR! NO PRIESTS PLASTERED IN BALDUNGAN CASTLE> Cromwell’s work is still evident all around. The soil is full of stone from the castle. Gate pillars and field boundaries show Baldungan stone. Cromwell’s name is still invoked as a curse in Ireland: ‘The curse o’ Crummel on it.’ Strange to see him honoured as a republican in monarchical Britain and reviled in republican Ireland. The historian, Michael Wood, in a BBC documentary, asked a young schoolgirl in Drogheda, what she knew about Cromwell. ‘ A bit of a b***** really, wasn’t he?’ she replied after some thought. Say no more.
The farmer’s straw gleams like Templar gold. The sun shines through the filigree wall. The clouds still fly overhead. The fields stretch away to the misty mountains. The birds still circle. Baldungan Castle still holds its ancient air of mystery.
“After a while I heard someone climbing the stairs and eventually a woolly hat emerged, followed by Kate Sheehy, red in the face and panting. The tip of her nose shone brightly, a sign of health, in dogs at least. Snowflakes clung to the wool of her hat, where my brothers had momentarily forgotten the deference due to ladies, or maybe, I reasoned later, they had been paying her the oblique compliments of the inarticulate. She drew in a deep breath and laughed.
‘That’s a terrible climb. It always gives me cramps in the legs.’
She stamped on the little platform and the snow squeaked under her boots. ‘Have you been up here long?’
‘A good while,’I said.’It’s quite a sight isn’t it?’
She looked around, turning slowly through three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the whole scene. A tremor passed through her body, possibly from the biting wind.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said softly after a while,’so clean, almost untouched.’
I followed her gaze to where the distant hedgerows foreshortened to become a black forest, standing out starkly against the dazzling white.
‘Imagine living here,’ I interjected. ‘Think of the feeling of power, looking down on everyone.’
‘They must have been very frightened all the time, to build such high walls.’
I had never thought of it that way.
‘Thomas de Barneville,’ she said. ‘Did you ever hear tell of him? He built this as his stronghold.’
‘Vaguely,’ I answered, peeved. I was supposed to be the expert.
‘He built this place, all right. He took the land from the Seagraves, Norsemen.’ ”
On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
Available from Chaos Press, hb and pb at firstname.lastname@example.org