King John’s Legacy


The much-repaired castle in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Situated at the mouth of the river Colligan, the castle, prior to the construction of the town’s quays, stood on the water’s edge. It is supposed to have been built by Prince (later King) John during his first visit to this country in 1185. The castle has a polygonal shell keep with a series of corner towers and in the 19th century was used as a barracks for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Some months after they had left the premises, it was burnt out by anti-Treaty forces. Subsequently restored, it was used by the local police until 1987 but now contains a visitors’ centre.

Keeping Watch


In 1809 in an effort to put a stop to marine-based smuggling the British government – then at war with Napoleonic France – established a body called the Preventive Water Guard (otherwise known as the Preventive Boat Service). Operating across these islands, the Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement, its members based in Watch Houses around the coast of Britain and Ireland, with boat crews patrolling the waters at night. While they were primarily concerned with bringing smuggling to an end, they also gave assistance to shipwrecks and indeed kept an eye out for foreign vessels entering national waters. In 1821 a committee of enquiry proposed responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred from HM Treasury to the Board of Customs. Until then, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise each had their own long-established preventative forces: shore-based Riding Officers for the former and sea-going Revenue Cruisers for the latter. The committee recommended these services be consolidated and so in January 1822 they were placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and renamed the Coast Guard.





The Coast Guard established in 1822 duly inherited existing shore stations and watch houses from the two earlier bodies (as well as a number of coastal vessels) and these provided bases for its operations, with additional properties being constructed as deemed necessary. The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829: while still primarily occupied with the prevention of smuggling they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. By the 1850s, coastal smuggling was no longer so serious a matter and so responsibility for the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Over the following decades the service began to operate more like a supplementary naval service, although it still was responsible for carrying out rescues and protection of property in the event of a shipwreck.





The Coast Guard service was based in stations right around the island, with fifteen of these in County Kerry. The stations were usually built to a standard design. Typically they comprised a terrace of five or six houses set back from the shore but within easy reach of it. There would also be a watch tower and, by the sea, a boat house and slipway. Each terrace included residences for the chief boatman, his men and their families. Inside would be a sitting room and kitchen (plus scullery) on the ground floor, and bedrooms upstairs. As a rule the entrance to each house was to the rear (away from coastal winds) with just windows on the front looking out to sea. These stations survived until the early 1920s when, like other centres such as army and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, they were attacked and burnt during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War to ensure they could not be used by the enemy. Many of them, like this example in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, now stand empty and ruinous, a largely forgotten aspect of the country’s maritime history.

On the Defensive


All conquering powers need to guard against not only internal rebellion but also attack from an external force. So it was that over several centuries the British authorities remained on the alert for the possibility of Ireland being invaded by a rival power.  This being an island, the invaders would initially be seaborne but their means of assault changed as methods of warfare became more sophisticated and potentially more lethal. Once ocean-going ships capable of carrying cannon were developed, coastal defences had to adapt as earlier methods of resistance threatened to be ineffective. Hence the construction of Charles Fort outside Kinsale, County Cork.





Located at the mouth of the river Bandon, Kinsale harbour is virtually landlocked, providing good shelter and anchorage to sea vessels. When Philip III of Spain sent an expeditionary force here in 1601 to support the indigenous army then fighting the English crown, it disembarked at Kinsale. So too did James II, accompanied by a contingent of French troops, in 1689. Understandably Kinsale was seen by the governing authorities as a vulnerable point of entry, and therefore in need of defence. Already in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale, the pentagonal James Fort had been erected to the south of the port, but well before the end of the century this was judged insufficient. The development of another and bigger fortification began on the opposite side of the harbour. This is Charles Fort, named after Charles II.





There seems to be a degree of uncertainty over who was responsible for the design of Charles Fort. Stylistically it derives from the system of fortifications developed by the Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), a French soldier and military engineer who among much other work in the course of a busy life oversaw the building of some thirty-seven new fortresses and fortified harbours in his native country. Vauban’s star-shaped fortifications featuring a sequence of acute angles allowed defendants of a building better to see and repulse any assault, as well as to withstand cannon fire. This design was much emulated from the second half of the 17th century onward and accordingly served as inspiration for Charles Fort. Built between 1678 and 1683, the fort was planned as a pentagonal star but the completed structure is simpler and lacks adequate landward bastions (it can also be overlooked from higher ground, which proved a serious drawback during the Williamite Wars). Nevertheless it is one of the largest and most impressive fortifications ever erected here, with massive seaward bastions and ramparts featuring gun platforms and embrasures, glacis (a bank sloping down from the building which leaves potential attackers exposed) and a citadel. The interior of the fort runs to some twenty acres, much of which is filled with the remains of military accommodation.





Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor-General in Ireland, is said to have played a role in the development of Charles Fort, but so too it seems did Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery – a polymath who was both soldier and playwright, gentleman-architect and engineer – and James Archer, a Roman Catholic architect and engineer who managed to survive several changes of regime. Internally, the majority of the buildings are later than the fortifications. The limestone pedimented gateway, for example, was put in place in 1759 (incorporating older fabric) and may have been designed by Thomas Roberts who was then employed in erecting new buildings inside the fort. One of the houses on site, first occupied by Governor Walander, dates from 1710 and also features a neo-classical pedimented doorcase. Other blocks are from different periods in the 18th century. The passage of time and a long period of neglect in the last century mean that today it is difficult to tell what dates from when. Charles Fort remained in use by the British armed forces until their departure in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. The following year the site was set alight by anti-treaty forces and badly damaged. Charles Fort thereafter fell into ruin until the early 1970s when it was declared a national monument and partially restored: in this condition it has been open to the public ever since.