Trim, County Meath can be described as an urban might-have-been. Site of the largest Norman Castle in Ireland, it is also the location for a Church of Ireland cathedral and almost became a university town in the 16th century. However aside from the castle which still dominates the skyline, little enough of Trim’s former aspirations are evident today. Instead over recent decades the place has often displayed a resolutely disinterested attitude towards its distinguished past, despite ample signs advising visitors that this is a heritage town.
The name Trim derives from the Irish ‘Baile Átha Troim’, meaning ‘town at the ford of the alder trees’, since it is located on the banks of the river Boyne. Originally a monastery was founded here – the peripatetic St Patrick is inevitably said to have been involved – and in the 12th century it was refounded as St Mary’s Abbey under the Augustinian order. A wooden statue of the Virgin reputed to work miracles made the abbey a site of pilgrimage, at least until the Reformation when the statue was burnt and the abbey dissolved. Several other religious orders had a presence in the vicinity of the town. The Franciscan Grey Friary, established in the early 14th century and dedicated to St Bonaventure, stood on the site of the present courthouse; following the dissolution of the monasteries, its buildings were destroyed and the church turned into a tholsel. A Dominican friary was also established in 1263 by Geoffrey de Genneville who had married the heiress Maud de Lacy, fought in the Eighth Crusade and served as Marshall of England. At the end of his life, he entered the friary he had founded in Trim and died there in 1314. Close by also were the abbey church or Cathedral of Newtown Trim as well as the Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist. These religious settlements were a reflection of Trim’s importance after this part of the country had been granted by Henry II to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 in return for the service of fifty knights. On a raised site overlooking a fording point on the Boyne de Lacy built a motte and bailey with double palisade and external ditch, although these defences were insufficient to stop the structure being subsequently attacked and burnt the following year by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland.
Trim Castle stands in the midst of a three-acre site surrounded by a curtain wall with a series of semi-circular towers along the south and east sides. Soon after O’Connor’s attack it was rebuilt and presumably reinforced so that as better to withstand future assault. Work is believed to have been completed around the end of the second decade of the 13th century. Local limestone is the predominant material and, as has been noted, with little superfluous ornament the overriding effect is one of massive strength. While the river flows past the north and east sides, a ditch was cut on the other two so that water from the Boyne would cut off the castle and limit access except via a drawbridge. The Town Gate, for example, through which most visitors enter the complex, is today approached by a ramped roadway but formerly would have been reached across a drawbridge. It is one of two access points, the other being the Barbican Gate which by its design was intended to force opponents into a confined passageway where they could be more easily defeated. Within the walls rises the great three-storey castle, a square with similar corner turrets plus four-storey towers projecting in the middle of each side (that on the north long-since demolished). Different reasons have been advanced for this variant on the Greek cross design, among them that it was the best solution to a need for many rooms or that the complex architecture was intended to make a statement of authority. Whatever the reason, it continues to create a powerful impact on anyone approaching, especially since some of the other buildings in the complex, such as the great hall that once ran along the north defensive wall, are now gone. By the 17th century the castle seems no longer to have been much in use; in fact from around the mid-14th century onwards it ceased to be permanently occupied. In the following century, during which the building reverted to the crown, the Irish parliament met there on several occasions and a mint operated within the grounds. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, it was granted to the Wellesleys who retained ownership until the first Duke of Wellington sold Trim Castle to the Leslies. It then passed to the Plunketts of Dunsany and remained in their possession until sold to the state in 1993: after a programme of restoration it has been open to the public since 2000.
Trim it is claimed contains more mediaeval buildings than any other town in Ireland. Certainly there are ample remnants of its past to be seen, not least what is known as the Yellow Steeple, so called because of the hue it takes when hit by sunlight at dawn and dusk. Situated across the Boyne from Trim Castle, this is the seven-storey east wall of the steeple of St Mary’s church, part of the former Augustinian establishment that housed the supposedly-miraculous statue of the Virgin. To the south-west, and directly above the river stands the so-called Talbot’s Castle, its name deriving from a belief that Sir John Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for several years from 1414 was responsible for the building’s construction soon after his arrival in this country. However more recently the suggestion has been made that the core of the building was the refectory of the Augustinian house. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, when he was living in the area prior to becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, advised Esther Johnson, otherwise known to posterity as ‘Stella’ that the local diocesan school had become ‘thin.’ A few years after she bought the building and either sold or gave it to Swift, after which it became the home of the Diocesan School and remained such until the 19th century. It has since served as a private residence. Elsewhere on the southern side of the Boyne are such historic structures as the vast rusticated limestone screen wall of the former gaol designed by John Hargrave in 1827, a fitting match for the castle immediately north, although the two are separated by a singularly modest police station. Then there is the Wellington Monument of 1817, a Corinthian column on top of which stands a statue of the Iron Duke whose former family estate, Dangan Castle, lies a few miles south of the town.
In 1584 when Trim was being suggested as the site for Ireland’s first university, the local rector Robert Draper advised that the town was ‘full of very faire castles and stone houses builded after the English fashion and devyded into five faire streetes.’ Aside from the great castle, the others of that name have gone and so too have most of the old stone houses. And, a problem by no means unique to Trim, much of what survives has suffered from a shaming want of due care. Directly to the south of the castle and facing its walls, for example, is a terrace of ten early 19th century cottages with decorated bargeboards and canopied porches, and mullioned windows. Several of these are visibly decaying, with panes of glass broken and vegetation sprouting in the gutters: hardly a good advertisement for a heritage town. Nor is the adjacent hotel built a decade ago after much controversy and the production of an independent report criticised a government minister for ignoring objections to the development from the relevant officials in his own department. Not only is the resultant building ill-considered for its location but also poorly designed and demonstrating little awareness of this most sensitive location. On the other hand, such insensitivity is widespread in Trim. At the top of Market Street stands a substantial mid-18th century five-bay, three-storey market house with first floor Venetian window and Diocletian window above. All have suffered from the insertion of uPVC (like so many other buildings throughout the town) while the ground floor is defaced with crassly-executed contemporary shop fronts. Richard Morrison’s nearby Courthouse of 1810 similarly is afflicted by a recent development to one side that shows no respect for the context or for Trim’s history. Elsewhere old buildings, and even new ones, are allowed to remain fallow, and this in an era when shortage of housing is constantly lamented. Vacant sites litter the streets and more recent additions display no regard for the original urban layout. The difficulty of securing a clear view of the Wellington Monument embodies all the place’s problems: nobody seems to have noticed what has happened to the town’s architectural heritage and moved to have matters improved. Everywhere one turns there appears to be a want of coherence or planning, and the complete absence of any vision. The outcome is that Trim fails to capitalise on its advantages as a heritage town, with obvious economic consequences. An unfinished housing estate on the edge of Trim, a victim of the recent recession, rejoices in the name Maudlin Vale: enough said.