On two adjacent hills in the north-west corner of County Meath can be found the remains of what was seemingly once a prominent settlement for both clerics and laity. This is Moylagh, its fragmentary ruins testifying to the harsh passage of time, and the inevitability of change and decay. Consensus holds that the nature of the site, with its undulating mounds and deep ditches, indicates early human habitation: the prehistoric passage tombs of Loughcrew are not far away. And there is said to have been a monastic house established here not long after Christianity arrived in Ireland. However, the modern history of Moylagh really begins with the appearance of the Normans in the 12th century. Around that time a motte and bailey was constructed, together with a wooden fort, on the highest point of the taller mound which offers superlative views across many miles of surrounding land.
At some date in the 15th century the wooden fort was replaced with one of stone: in 1470 Roger Rockford was granted assistance to build a tower ‘near Moylagh Castle’ (perhaps a continuation of the statute issued by the Henry VI in 1429 which offered landowners a grant of £10 towards the construction of such defensive residences). This castle is associated with the Barnwells (often spelled Barnewell), an Anglo-Norman family originally settled in County Dublin, members of which arrived in Meath in the mid-14th century and gradually built up a considerable land holding. One branch became Barons Trimlestown, a title still extant after more than 550 years, while another based elsewhere in the county at Crickstown were created baronets in the 17th century. It was this line which owned Moylagh: according to the Down Survey of 1654-56, Sir Richard Barnwall of Crickstown had held 182 acres at Moylagh in 1640, including ‘a ruinous castle with a bawn, a church with a steeple (tower) and 20 cabins.’ From which one deduces that the castle fell into ruin, or was destroyed, relatively early. Today only the buttressed stump of an east gable survives.
On the neighbouring mound can be found the more substantial portions of another fortified tower, this one originally attached to a church built around 1470 and supposedly once linked to the nearby Benedictine abbey at Fore (see Fore and After, January 5th 2015). The construction of a fortified tower is explained by the general lawlessness of the period in which religious establishments were often attacked and ransacked by rival, warring families. In any case, the church at Moylagh did not last much longer than the castle and little survives to indicate its presence. The tower, on the other hand, remains in reasonable condition, its religious connections still indicated by a graveyard which was heavily used for the burial of occupants of Oldcastle Workhouse during the years of the Great Famine. Little evidence of that turbulent period, or other earlier ones, can be seen today in what is now a little-visited spot tucked down a remote country road.