On Saturday 29th October 2011, the Irish Times Supplement published an article by Fionnuala Fallon entitled Trees of life and lineage of which the following is an extract.
Before Maynooth College was founded in 1795, these yew trees were in the grounds of Maynooth Castle. Silken Thomas (Thomas FitzGerald) lived in the castle, and he was the son of Gerald Fitzgerald, (Gearóid Óg Fitzgerald) the Ninth Earl of Kildare and Lord Deputy of Ireland.
In 1534, Gearóid Óg had been summoned to London by Henry VIII to answer charges of disloyalty. Enemies of the FitzGeralds spread a false rumour that he had been executed in the Tower of London. His son Silken Thomas rose in revolt, which had been the intention of those who spread the rumour. At the beginning of the insurrection his followers murdered the Archbishop of Dublin and attacked Dublin Castle. His supporters wore a silk ribbon on their helmets - thus the nickname 'Silken Thomas'.
He was easily repelled, and he withdrew to his castle in Maynooth. The English forces under Sir William Skeffington besieged Maynooth Castle in March 1535, and after a battering of five days, the breach was made on the north side of the walls, on the banks of the Lyreen. It was one of the first occasions that artillery was used in Ireland.
Being overwhelmed, Silken Thomas negotiated for his safety, and asked pardon of the King. On the night before his surrender, he played his lute beneath the boughs of the tree that now bears his name. Despite the music, twenty-five of the defenders were executed on the spot before the present gateway of the Castle. He and his five uncles were lodged in the Tower of London and were executed for treason at Tyburn on 3 February 1537.
When the College celebrated its first centenary, the Silken Thomas Yew tree was already part of the folklore of the College, as illustrated and told in John Healy's Centenary History of Maynooth College published in 1895:
For it is an old tradition, that Silken Thomas, on the last evening that he ever spent in the castle, when the fortunes of his house were growing dark as the gathering gloom, sat beneath its spreading branches, which had sheltered so many generations of the Geraldines; and there with his heart full of sad forebodings for the future, he played on the harp that he loved, for the last time in the home of his fathers."
Healy also relates the story of the Yew tree when Prime Minister William Gladstone visited the College more than tree hundred years later, on 5th November 1877:
"In the lawn before 'the front house' of the College there is an ancient wide-spreading yew tree, said to be coeval with the Castle itself. Mr Gladstone, when he visited Maynooth, greatly admired the luxuriant growth of the vererable yew, which, he said, was the finest of its kind he had ever seen.
The Silken Thomas Yew is one of a row of yew trees on front of Stoyte House. To celebrate the College's bicentenary in 1995, a further yew tree was added to the row near the entrance to the Rhetoric Car Park. It was planted on 11th June 1995 by the Chairman of the Trustees, Cardinal Cahal B Daly and the President of the College, Monsignor Matthew O'Donnell.
Yews are often found around castles, as the wood, being flexible, was ideal for making longbows. They are also found around graveyards, but the fruit and leaves are poisonous to people and livestock.