Carlow Town & Environs

Carlow Rowers

Carlow Town (Ceatharlach – “city of the lake” / “four lakes”), aka Catherlough until 1721, stands at the confluence of the Rivers Barrow and Burrin; tradition has it that the junction once formed four lakes.

Graiguecullen is on the western side of the River Barrow, and is thus technically in Co. Laois. Popularly referred to as Graigue, it belongs to the old Civil Parish of Sleaty, and its correct full name was Sleatygraigue until 1922, when it was renamed in memory of Fr Hugh Cullen, a much-loved local priest who died in 1917.

The combined urban entity of Carlow / Graiguecullen & Environs (pop. 21,000) has grown rapidly in the last few years, and is now largely a commuter dormitory satellite for DUBLIN. Carlow’s old streets are bustling and friendly, with something of the feel of a university town. Live music is played in many of the town’s pubs.

The grassy quays and the huddle of warehouses beside the River Barrow evidence the pivotal role Carlow had for the commerce that long used this waterway. Ceatharlach Moorings is a fine modern marina below the lock. Unfortunately, the town is still subject to frequent flooding.

Carlow Castle


Carlow Castle was once one of the most impressive Norman castles in Ireland. Built between 1207 and 1213 by Strongbow‘s successor William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, on the site of a motte erected by Hugh de Lacy in the 1180s, it appears to have been directly inspired by French examples, notably Nemours (Seine-et-Marne), completed in 1180, and may be the earliest example of a four-towered keep in the British Isles.


In 1361 King Edward III appointed his son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, as Lord Lieutenant of the County of Catherlough. Lionel moved the Exchequers to the Castle and spent £500 on the building of the Town Wall, now vanished.


An army personally led by King Richard II was defeated locally by Art McMurrough Kavanagh, Gaelic king of Leinster in the late C14th, reducing English impact on the region for over a hundred years.


The castle was captured by James FitzGerald in 1494, again by Silken Thomas in 1535, and changed hands a number of times before being purchased by Donough, Earl of Thomond in 1616. It fell to the Kilkenny Confederates in 1642 but was later returned to Thomond after being taken by Cromwellian troops under General Ireton in 1650, hastening the end of the Siege of Waterford and the capitulation of that city.



Only the western wall and two towers now survive, the remainder having been accidentally blown up in 1814 by “a ninny-pated physician of the name of Middleton” who leased the building for use as a lunatic asylum and “applied blasts of gunpowder for enlarging the windows and diminishing the walls, and brought down two-thirds of the pile into a rubbishy tumulus in memory of his surpassing presumption and folly“.

Graiguecullen Bridge, linking Carlow Town with Graiguecullen, is one of the oldest and lowest bridges spanning the River Barrow. The attractive five arched stone structure was completed in 1569 and widened in 1815, when it was renamed Wellington Bridge.

St. Mary’s church (CoI) dates from 1727, though the 59 m (195 ft) tower and spire were added in 1834. It is the third church in succession to St Mary’s Abbey, founded nearby in 664 AD by Saint Comgall. The interior retains its traditional galleries and there are several monuments, including some by neo-classical architect, Sir Richard Morrison.

A few years ago some interesting documents reportedly came to light locally, which appeared to indicate that a significant proportion / majority of the populace of the county capital had signed some kind of Oath of Allegiance or declaration of Protestantism in the C18th. The documents mysteriously vanished before they could be analysed.

St Patrick’s, Carlow College (founded 1782 and opened in 1793) was the first ecclesiastical college in Ireland, and nowadays runs humanities courses in conjunction with TCD. (Photo –

Carlow Town & the 1798 Rebellion


The 1798 Rebellion saw an unsuccessful attempt on 25th May by the local United Irishmen to oust the Crown troops garrisoned in the town, who were informed in advance of the plan. The rebels were mown down or roasted alive as the houses where they sought refuge were torched, and by the end of the day the smouldering ruins were littered with charred corpses.


A government “mopping up” followed, during which a character who became known as “Paddy the Pointer” helped to identify surviving insurgents by riding around the town and pointing at them, whereupon they were summarily hanged.


640 rebels and civilians were buried in a pit at the stone quarries near Graiguecullen, known as the Croppy Hole, marked by a monumental cross. The events of 1798 are also commemorated by a John Behan sculpture / fountain called the Liberty Tree in the town centre.

The former Presentation Convent (c. 1820) on College St has been refurbished to house the  the Carlow County Museum, operated by the Old Carlow Society, together with the local Tourist Office, County Library and Archives. The old convent chapel is beautifully preserved.

Killeshin church (CoI), Graiguecullens’s confusingly named Anglican parish church on the Ballickmoyler Road, is a Gothic Revival edifice designed by John Semple, erected c.1827.

Carlow’s graceful Courthouse was designed in 1830 by William Vitruvius Morrison, funded by the Bruen family of Oak Park. It is based on the Temple of llissus in Athens; a Crimean War cannon guards the entrance. Locals claim there was a mix up with the plans and that Carlow got Cork’s Courthouse and Cork got Carlow’s, but such stories are common all over Ireland.

The Cathedral of the Assumption (RC) an impressive Gothic edifice completed in 1833 to a design by Thomas A. Cobden, and partly funded by the principal local landlord, Colonel Henry Bruen of Oak Park, a staunch Tory who had supported Catholic Emancipation in 1829 (this was the first Cathedral to be erected in Ireland after that date). The spire is based on the Beftroi tower in Bruges, as is the magnificent lantern. The founder, James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, is commemorated by an impressive memorial sculpted by John Hogan (1839). An ornate oak pulpit carved in Bruges (1899) is now preserved in the old convent chapel of the Carlow County Museum.

Carlow Railway Station (1846) is served by the Dublin / Waterford Intercity train.

Carlow town did not suffer as much as some parts of the county during the Great Famine. However, various epidemics in the second half of the C19thtriggered another  famine which reduced the regional population by about 20,000 people.

Carlow Town Hall, designed by the church architect William Hague in 1884, was originally the town’s main trading centre.

The modern Regional Technical College, built in 1970 on the site of the former Carlow Union Workhouse, caters for a large student population.

Carlow’s VISUAL Arts Centre & George Bernard Shaw Theatre,  in the grounds of Carlow College, opened in 2009, just in time to coincide with the Recession. Perhaps unfairly, it is widely regarded as something of a white elephant.

Carlow Little Theatre is quite famous, putting on several plays and shows every year, notably during the annual Eigse festival in June.

The Carlow Brewing Company, a highly regarded microbrewery, is housed in The Goods Store, a superb old stone building which in days gone by was the scene of the unloading of provisions for the town traders. The beautifully restored and converted bar area overlooks the main brewing area and the brewing and fermenting vessels. Tours of the brewery are available by appointment.

County Carlow Military Museum, housed in a late C19th church on the Athy Road, features a wide range of exhibits relating to Carlow military history, including Irish UN Peacekeeping in Congo, Lebanon and Somalia, the Carlow Militia, Carlow in WWI and an exhibition about Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th US Cavalry, killed with General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, whose horse Commanche became a national hero as the only survivor of the event.

Carlow Town Park is an attractive amenity linked by a pedestrian bridge across the River Barrow.

Oak Park (Painestown)


Oak Park, property of the Bruen family from 1775 (when they bought 6000 acres from Sir Beauchamp Bagenal) to 1954, is now the headquarters of the State agricultural research body Teagasc.


Oak Park House is a splendid Georgian mansion erected c.1760 and remodelled c.1835 for Colonel Henry Bruen MP by  William Vitruvius Morrison, who also designed the impressive Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the demesne. The C18th farmyard and stable block are interesting. (Photo –


Since 2006 the beautiful mature woodlands beside the artificial lake on the estate have been landscaped with colour-coded loop paths, picnic areas and other amenities.

Hermitage Gardens are charming old world gardens set within a backdrop of mature trees and surrounded by stone walls. They are divided into specific areas, each with a distinct planting and colour scheme.

Carlow Guesthouse is located just outside the town and has a lovely garden.

The Dolmen Hotel on the eastern bank of the River Barrow, has several acres of mature gardens. Luxury options include self-catering lodges.

The Barrow Way and the Slieve Margy Way are two long-distance walking trails in the area.

The Carlow Regatta is run every June by the Carlow Rowing Club

Carlow Heritage Week, due to take place on the third week of August 2012, will feature activities ranging from fairs, night time bat walks, wildlife tours and lectures to music recitals, historical re-enactments and outdoor pursuits.