According to a recent report in this newspaper, the Heritage Council has allocated a grant of €30,000 to the Borough Council of Clonmel for work on the conservation of the medieval walls of Clonmel. The grant will enable the local authority (a member of the Irish Walled Towns Network) to carry out work on the section of the walls in proximity to the Gordon Street (Wolfe Tone Street) carpark.
This is the section where the wall historically turned southwards to the rear of the west side of Wolfe Tone Street on to the West Gate and thence to a circular tower on the riverside, the base of which has been archaeologically identified some years ago. Fragments of this wall still survive on the western side, notably in Hickey’s yard.
The walls of Clonmel defined the parameters of the town; they gave it its Anglo Norman layout and character; as fortifications they were vital in the Cromwellian Siege, and in at least two previous sieges, in the internecine wars between the Desmonds and the Ormondes.
The fact that areas of the walls are still extant and in such relatively good condition today owes much to the work of the late Colonel S.J. Watson, of Ballingarrane, and to the campaigning of many of his forerunners as Presidents of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society.
By the 70s, it was difficult to see the actual masonry, covered as it was by ivy and brambles. Sycamore saplings sprouted from the crevices and from gaping holes. But still, the basic structure remained, even after nearly 800 years of existence, which surely must be a tribute to the original builders.
It was not really anybody’s fault that the walls were in such condition. It was a legacy of history and the exigencies of the times. And the times were difficult. In the immediate past, there was the setting up of the new state, the civil war, poverty, poor housing, economic depression, tuberculosis, epidemics of many kinds, and massive emigration.
Bread and butter issues took priority over ancient heritage.
As a child, I walked every day through St Mary’s Churchyard, under the shadow of the walls, to primary school in Morton Street. On the way I was joined by school-fellows from O’Neill Street and Grattan Place. The morning journeys were made at a trot but in the evenings there was no sense of time. We loitered (‘slinging’ my mother disapprovingly described the pace of our homecoming).
We played hide-and-seek and on grey days peopled the towers and walls with ghosts, waiting to come out and get us at night. All the time at school, we learned the most boring history from textbooks, filled with dates and battles lost and won, but mostly lost. Yet the historical relevance of the walls under which we walked, and the streets in which we lived, remained untaught and unknown to us.
Fast forward many decades and membership of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society and to the increasing concern of that society with the steady loss, through neglect, indifference and destruction, of the relatively few structures linking the town with its ancient past. This was in sad contrast to other towns, notably nearby Kilkenny. The walls were the most important link with that past, and the largest sections remaining above ground formed the northern and western boundaries of Old St Mary’s.
The church could not afford the considerable amount of money required for the reconstruction and conservation of the walls. The late Leo Wallace, then living in Anne Street, in co-operation with the church authorities, arranged annual work parties. Over many years they battled with the rampant growth that enveloped the walls, but wisely never touched the actual walls.
They managed, at least, to stay the complete takeover by nature, and interestingly many of the then youthful work-party participants are now valued members of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society.
Then came S.J. Watson, home from military service and a distinguished diplomatic career. He was a member of the Select Vestry of St. Mary’s. His family had been farming for nearly 300 years in South Tipperary. He was an Oxford scholar, a historian, an author and the President of the Society.
At the request of the Society he appealed to the then Corporation, which at that time, was fortunate to have amongst its members the late Alderman Denis E. Burke, whose uncle had made the invaluable contribution to the town of “Burke’s History of Clonmel”, a work of such superb excellence that it does not have an equivalence in any other Irish town.
The Corporation listened with sympathy. There was a tentative commitment to do something about the walls; tentative because there was no money, and ‘something’ was as yet undefined.
Besides, there was the question of taking the walls from church into public ownership, and the fact that the adjacent ground was consecrated, and public ownership meant public access, and public access had had to be circumscribed because of vandalism.
Colonel Watson set about untangling the maze of legalities and inhibitions. But then, there was the money. The Corporation did not have that sort of money to divert at the time into conservation. Watson approached a Heritage Trust then attached to An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland) and succeeded in getting a modest contribution. To this he added a contribution from a Family Trust. This was the seed money.
The Corporation commissioned an architectural historian and conservation expert. And so, after many years, the work on the decent presentations of the walls of Clonmel (or the small section still extant) was underway, and has continued spasmodically over the decades.
Now with the recent grant from the Heritage Council, the work is entering another phase, In welcoming that progress, it seems to me that the initiatives taken by the late S.J. Watson over forty years ago, and the contribution he made to Clonmel’s heritage, should not be forgotten.