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Building of the Month - September 2010

Clock Gate, South Main Street/North Main Street, YOUGHAL-LANDS Td., Youghal, County Cork

Clock Gate, Youghal 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: Erected to a design tentatively attributed to John Coltsman of Cork, and standing on the site of the medieval South Gate, the imposing height of the tower and its severe Classicism suggest its former use as a gaol.  That it was no longer suited to its purpose in the early nineteenth century is confirmed by Samuel Lewis (1837) who wrote: 'The borough gaol is a lofty square building of four stories, called the Dockgate [sic], surmounted by a lantern and cupola containing the town clock; it was rebuilt in 1777, but is defective in several of the accommodations essential to the health of the prisoners and the proper regulation of the place' (Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Volume II (1837), p.728)

Youghal was one of the most significant maritime centres of medieval Ireland, commanding important trading routes to northern and western Europe.  Like other urban centres of the time, it was surrounded by walls punctuated by defensive towers and heavily guarded gates.  In time, the town expanded southwards and a new "base" or outer town, also walled, developed alongside the older inner town.  A massive battlemented South Gate, depicted in Pacata Hibernia (1633) as comprising a pair of circular towers connected by a portcullis, provided access between the two districts and doubled as a prison.  It was renamed Trinity Gate to distinguish it from the new South Gate which provided access to the outer town at its southern end.

The building was originally equipped with a sundial, but on 28 April 1620 the Corporation ordered 'that there shall be a clock on Trinity Castle'.  Freedoms of the town were granted to merchants and other men of note for financial contributions made towards the project.  Even so, the clock, and the repairs which its erection necessitated, cost the Corporation £113.  In 1622, Balltazar Portingale was appointed as clock-keeper and was given free quarters in return for ringing the clock 'at four in the morning from Easter to Mich[aelmas], and at five in the morning from Mich[aelmas] to Easter, and at nine at night all the year'.

In spite of intermittent repairs to the building, Trinity Gate began inevitably to deteriorate.  On the 20th of October 1776, a decision was made to demolish the building and replace it with 'a gaol and gaoler's house, with a proper building for a Clock and Bell, the gaoler's house to consist of two rooms as the ground will allow, and over the gaoler's house two gaols or Marshalseas, and over them a Bell room, with a spire and cupola and decorations' (fig. 1).  Three weeks later, the Corporation declared 'That as soon as the weather will permit the Clock Castle be pulled down, and a building erected in its room, according to a plan given this day by Mr. Will. Mead'.  Strict orders were given 'that no Corporation money be granted until the completion of the building'.  William Dyke was paid £12 for dismantling the old gate, and a team of masons was employed at 2s. 8½d. per day for the construction of the new building.  In May 1777, an engraver was employed 'to prepare two marble stones for the Clock Castle, with the Corporation arms and the Magistrates' names engraved on them' (fig. 2).

Clock Gate, Youghal 02 - Date Stone (1777) 

Figure 2: A date stone records the provenance of the Clock Gate and is inscribed: "This Building Was Erected/At The Expense Of The Corporation/AD 1777/John Swayne Esquire Mayor/Roger Green James Pratt Esquires - Bailiffs"

The imposing height and austere style of the Clock Gate reflect its function as a prison.  In 1795, the building was enlarged by the addition of a new storey to facilitate the rising number of people arrested as rebels.  Several members of the United Irishmen were publicly hanged from the Clock Gate windows, including the patriots Charles O'Brien and Charles Gallagher, both executed in 1798.  The building became a symbol of terror and tyranny, a reputation it was to hold until 1837 when it ceased to serve as gaol and public gallows.  The Clock Gate has not been in public use since housing a museum in the 1970s, but remains one of the most captivating and distinctive landmarks in Youghal.

Click here to view the record for the Clock Gate, Youghal, in the NIAH East Cork County Survey

Anna-Maria Hajba MA, Historian, is the author of the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of East Cork

Clock Gate, Youghal 03 - Introduction 

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