Swords lies a couple of miles north of Dublin Airport and about ten miles from Dublin city centre. In one sense, it is an outlying suburb, but remote enough from the metropolitan area to be its own unique place.The population of Swords has mushroomed since the turn of the century, just passing the forty thousand mark. So, it is Dublin’s largest town outside the Metropolitan area.
Such vague childhood memories I have of the town are culled from the odd drivethrough on the Belfast Road. Swords always sounded exotic. I imagined a town beneath a towering castle, its denizens rakishly outfitted in chain mail and shields. Black nights, a long way from home.
It sort of is.
The town’s origins date back to 560 AD when, legend has it, Saint Colmcille (521–567) blessed a local well, giving the settlement its name: Sord, meaning “the water source”. St. Colmcille’s Well is located across the Ward River, by way of Church Road, off Main Street. The saint established a monastic settlement here. Its round tower remains. Nearby is the Belfry, a surviving remnant of the medieval church of the thirteenth century. The modern St Columba’s Church is in an appropriate Old Gothic style. It was built in 1811 on the foundations of the old, and serves the Church of Ireland community.
Swords Castle at the north end of Main Street, was built as the manorial residence of the first Norman Archbishop of Dublin, John Comyn, around the year 1200. It was never strong in the military sense, but covers a large pentagonal walled area of one and a half acres with a tower on the north, and an impressive gateway complex facing down Main Street. The warder occupied quarters to the left of the gate, while to the right was the janitor’s room with the priest’s room overhead. The adjoining chapel, built in the late thirteenth century, was probably used as the Archbishop’s private oratory.
Other buildings subsequently vanished, including the great hall on the east side of the enclosure. The Archbishop abandoned Swords once a new palace was built at Tallaght in 1324 – a move no doubt encouraged by damage sustained during Edward Bruce’s campaign the previous decade. Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, was proposed as High King of Ireland and made significant territorial gains in an attempt to establish the Scottish dynasty at the head of Ireland. The prospect of a Pan Gaelic alliance of Ireland and Scotland, and even Celtic soul brothers, the Welsh, in opposition to English expansion, flickered briefly, and died. Having breathed fire at Dublin, the Scots and their allies were forced to retreat to Ulster. Famine, fuelled by near Ice Age conditions prevailing at the time, further diminished Bruce’s campaign. Edward was killed in battle at Dundalk in 1318, and the Normans re-established their primacy in Ireland and attachment to the English Crown.
The stepped battlements suggest some form of occupancy during the fifteenth century, but by 1583, when briefly occupied by Dutch Protestants, it was described as “the quite spoiled old castle”. It was used as a garden in the nineteenth century and sold after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. Now the castle was so vacant as to be fully occupied by ghosts. On nights of freezing fog, or when full moons prevailed, between the blare of passing jets, phantom guardians looked out from the battlements. And all history was replayed.
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too
Following a century of neglect, a campaign of redevelopment has rescued Swords Castle from ruin and turned it into a visitor attraction. The newly renovated castle was used as a film location for the TV seriesThe Tudors making a convincing Medieval backdrop. But I doubt the ghosts have departed.
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl.
(Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, most brilliantly covered by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.)
The town remained something of a backwater late into the twentieth century. However much aircraft flew overhead, the town grew quiet, with the main road to Belfast at last upgraded and bypassing the old main street route. From the seventies on, suburbs grew, although Swords is protected by its green belt and remains distinct from Dublin city. In 1994 Swords became capital of the new county of Fingal, named for its Danish inhabitants of yore, comprising the lowlands of North County Dublin.
I’m here on a daytime jaunt after a drop off at Dublin Airport, so while Swords pub culture appeals, I don’t have opportunity to imbibe on this visit. Appropriately in a town formed on a. sacred well, beckoning watering holes are many. The Old Schoolhouse Bar, is billed as and looks like, an Olde World style traditional pub. There’s the Forty Four on Main Street, The Cock Tavern across the road, and Taylor’s near the Castle. Taylor’s stern but stylish stone facade has the appearance of an urban pub. The Cock Tavern sets out a more boisterously traditional stall. Such reports I have suggest the village core has a lively and musical night life. I’d drink to that!
Meanwhile, on a cool day in early spring, we take a leisurely stroll along Main Street, casing the joint for future trips and an overdue coffee. The village atmosphere persists at the centre of teeming suburbs. There’s good town centre shopping. Swords Town Centre is in an arcade off Main Street. The Pavilions, larger and modern, is packing the crowds in. Out on the street, Cafe society was not as good as it should be. We found a cafe on the north end of Main Street that was okay but lacking in people or atmosphere. Needed the coffee though. I’m keen to return at another time, and explore deeper. Both here and Malahide, with another castle, which is only five kilometres away. Everything now is a cold distance, but maybe we’ll find, down the line, we’ll be free.
This article contains two mentions of Deep Purple’s Black Night.