Baron Trimlestown is one of the oldest titles in Ireland, created in 1461 for Sir Robert Barnewall. The family were of Norman origin, their name originally de Berneval (from the small seaside town of Berneval-le-Grand, where Oscar Wilde stayed following his release from Reading Gaol in June 1897). Having first moved to England, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, they followed Richard de Clare to Ireland, the first to do so, Sir Michael de Berneval, landing in Cork in 1172. Rising to power in the Pale, they were responsible for building Drimnagh Castle, now in a suburb of Dublin, and then gradually acquired substantial land holdings in County Meath. Here in Trimlestown, a few miles west of the town of Trim, they erected a mighty castle, probably in the 15th century and perhaps around the time that the title of baron was granted to Sir Robert Barnewall.
The core of Trimlestown Castle is late mediaeval, rising three storeys and with a massive square tower in the south-west corner. The main block is some 114 feet long and 40 feet wide, internally dominated by a two-storey vaulted great hall that faces towards the river Trimlestown: the exterior of this side is marked by massive corner buttresses. On the south-east side of the tower there is (or perhaps was) a shield bearing the arms of the Barnewall and Nugent families – the two had intermarried – but whether it remains in place is impossible to tell due to vegetation covering much of the walls. Considerable alterations to the building were undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a large addition was made on the northern section of the site. It is likely that at this time towers similar to those on the river front were demolished and a modern house built, the most notable feature of this being a large bow-front with views to the east. Similarities with the work undertaken during the same period at Louth Castle (see Saintly Connections, August 28th 2017) have led to suggestions that Richard Johnston might have been the architect responsible in both instances. This may have happened around 1797 when the 14th Lord Trimlestown, then aged 70, married a woman less than a third of his age: the suggestion is that she got a new house in return for an old husband. Soon afterwards, her husband also inherited Turvey, County Dublin from a distant cousin and in due course the family moved there, leaving Trimlestown Castle to slip into decay.
For much of the 18th century, although the Barnewalls held onto the greater part of their lands, they were unable to use the title Baron Trimlestown. Their problems had begun in the 1640s when Matthias, eighth Lord Trimlestown, had supported the royalist cause, deprived of his estates by Cromwell and banished to County Galway. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he regained the greater part of his original property, but remained true to the Roman Catholic faith, as did his son Robert who sat in James II’s parliament in 1689. The next couple of heirs, because of their support for the Jacobite cause and their loyalty to Catholicism, were not allowed to use the old title. They lived in France and it was only in 1746 that Robert Barnewall (who claimed the title of twelfth Lord Trimlestown) returned to Ireland and took up residence in the old castle. It is likely to have been during his lifetime (he died in 1779) that the building was first modernised. As an ardent supporter of the Catholic cause, it must have been a blow to him when his heir Thomas conformed to the Established Church (thereby reversing the government attainder and allowing him to be acknowledged after his father’s death as the 13th Lord Trimlestown). Thereafter one generation succeeded another, although more than once the title had to go to a cousin as there was no direct heir. However while there is still a Lord Trimlestown – the 21st – he has no known heirs. It seems likely that after more than 550 years one of Ireland’s oldest peerages will go the same way as the castle from which its name was derived, and fall out of use.