Today a dormitory town sprawling adjacent to Dublin airport, Swords is thought to have originated as a monastic settlement founded by Saint Colmcille in the sixth century. Today the most prominent feature of its pre-modern existence is a medieval castle which, having been left in ruins for hundreds of years, was restored by the local authorities in the late 1990s. The castle is thought to have been constructed around 1200 by John Comyn, a Benedictine monk and former chaplain to Henry II on whose recommendation he was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1181 (although he did not arrive in Ireland until some years later). Comyn’s principal residence was St Sepulchre’s Palace in the centre of Dublin, but he had also been granted lands to the north of the city, hence his construction of a castle in Swords. Following Comyn’s death in 1212, it remained a manorial residence for successive Archbishops of Dublin until c.1324 when the then-holder of the office, Alexander de Bicknor, erected a new archiepiscopal palace to the west of Dublin in Tallaght. Swords Castle’s primary function was never defensive (which meant it was vulnerable to attack), and accordingly it lacks the sturdy features of other such Anglo-Norman buildings. Roughly in the shape of a pentagon, the curtain wall, its height varying between three and ten metres, encloses an area of more than an acre, with the gatehouse (and adjacent chapel) to the south and a large, four-storey building known as the Constable’s Tower, to the north: the latter was likely added in the mid-15th century by which time the castle was occupied by the archbishop’s Chief Constable. Other structures inside the enclosure, such as a Great Hall along the east side, have since disappeared.
Although Swords Castle no longer served as a residence for the Archbishops of Dublin after the 1320s, it continued to be an archiepiscopal property, or at least placed by the government at their disposal, and, as mentioned, appears to have been occupied by holders of the office of Chief Constable. Even before being displaced by the palace in Tallaght, the buildings here may have been damaged during the military campaign waged by Edward Bruce in Ireland from 1315-18, and this would have discouraged residency. Already by the 16th century, the place was in poor repair, described in 1583 as ‘the quite spoiled old castle’. In 1641 during the Confederate Wars it briefly served as a meeting place for old Catholic families before they were put to flight by Sir Charles Coote. Thereafter the castle looks to have been abandoned, until, following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870, it was sold to the Cobbe family of Newbridge. For much of the last century, the castle was leased to a local shopkeeper who used the site as an orchard. In the 1930s it came under the care of the Office of Public Works before finally being sold in 1985 to the county council.
As already noted, Swords Castle was extensively restored by the local authority in 1996-98. The chapel, for example, had its walls reconstructed and a new oak-beamed roof constructed. Inside, a tiled floor was laid, its design based on remnants found during an earlier archaeological excavation. The windows on the north and south side of the chapel feature the four Evangelists, while that at the east end depicts the Tree of Jesse, inspired by the famous window in Chartres Cathedral. Similarly, considerable work was undertaken on the mid-15th century Constable’s Tower, which once again was given a new timber and slate roof, internal oak floors and new glass in all the windows.
Eight years ago, the local authority, Fingal County Council, commissioned a plan to create what is called the Swords Cultural Quarter adjacent to the old castle; indeed, part of it will be developed on a cleared site running along the eastern side of the ancient structure. The ‘cultural quarter’ will incorporate a library, performance space and arts venue. According to the authority’s own documentation, this scheme ‘is intended to be the town’s centre of knowledge, arts and culture with a strong focus on people and experiences which, through the delivery of a modern, dynamic, inspirational and educational programme of events and activities, will become a destination and a focal point for the local community and visitors.’ Last July, it was announced that the architectural practice O’Donnell + Tuomey would lead the design team, although actual construction work, taken two years, is not expected to begin until autumn 2023. In the interim, there is plenty of time to visit Swords Castle, which is open to the public without charge, in its present guise.