Attention to Detail

Viewing an old building, one is often so engaged absorbing the totality that details of design can be overlooked. How many visitors to Ballyvolane, County Cork, for example, pay much attention to the stairs? This house, originally built in 1728 by Sir Richard Pyne, was extensively modified in the second half of the 1840s by a descendant, Jasper Pyne. Evidently a new staircase was one of his additions but note how on the side of every tread is affixed a cast-iron putto in each of whose fists can be found a nail holding one of the balusters in place.


A Path Through the Fields

In the depths of grey winter, a memory of six months ago, and a distant view of Kilcrea Castle, County Cork. This five storey tower house was completed by 1465 by Cormac Láidir Mór, then-head of the McCarthy clan. As Coyne and Wills wrote in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), ‘The ruins evince it to have been a place of considerable extent and rude magnificence.’ Although today on private land, the castle is regularly explored by visitors to the area, as testified by a well-worn path through the field.

An Abandoned Project

The history of Ireland in the later Middle Ages becomes immensely complicated due to the fractious character of Irish families and their habit of forming, and then breaking, alliances with each other. The south-west of the country (now Counties Kerry and Cork) was for a long time dominated by the MacCarthy Mórs, Kings of Desmond under which were three cadet branches ruling over their own territories whenever not feuding among themselves. Following the death of the last of King of Desmond, Donal IX in 1596 leaving only an illegitimate son, a dispute broke out between various members of these septs over who was entitled to claim his position. One of those who sought to become the new MacCarthy Mór was Dermot MacOwen MacCarthy, a descendant of Dermod, the third son of Cormac Fionn MacCarthy Mór (1170-1242), King of Desmond (although for the purposes of his claim MacOwen MacCarthy contended he was descended from Cormac’s eldest son). But at the same time Dermot MacOwen was in dispute with a cousin, Donogh MacCormac MacCarthy for the title of Lord of Duhallow, one of the three subordinate septs of Desmond. Yet in 1598 the two men joined forces to attack Castle Hyde, home of the settler Arthur Hyde, which after a three-day siege was captured and burnt. They then reverted to their earlier quarrel over the Lordship of Duhallow. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder the Irish were so often unable to defeat their common foe, the invading English.

Following the death of Donogh MacCormac MacCarthy during a skirmish in the Clare-Galway region in 1601, Dermot MacOwen MacCarthy became the undisputed Lord o Duhallow and it is likely that around this time (or following his release by the English government in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale during which he had been imprisoned) work began on the construction of a his new residence immediately south of Kanturk, County Cork: on a map of Ireland made by John Norden between 1609 and 1611, there is a castle shown at “Cantork” (Kanturk). It is sometimes proposed that Donogh MacCormac was responsible for initiating work on this castle, but given that he died in 1601 that seems unlikely. Seemingly in order to pay for the building’s construction, MacCormac MacCarthy mortgaged large tracts of his territory even though under Gaelic law all such land was deemed communal property. The mortgagee was Sir Philip Percival who had arrived in Ireland in 1579 and by such means was able to amass a large estate for himself. No documentation survives about Kanturk Castle’s construction, but one legend claims it was built by seven stone-masons all called named John: for a time the building was known as ‘Carrig-na-Shane-Saor’ (the Rock of John the Mason). Work on the site seems to have stopped in 1618 after English settlers in the area objected to the castle being too large and too fortified. Accordingly the English Privy Council ordered work be discontinued. It is said that MacCormac MacCarthy was so angry at this instruction that he ordered the blue ceramic tiles on the castle’s roof be smashed and thrown into a nearby stream, which thereafter has been known as Bluepool.

Kanturk Castle, otherwise called Old Court, rises beside the Dalua river, a tributary of the Blackwater. It is constructed of local limestone rubble, with cut stone used for the mullioned and transomed windows as well as the hoods, cornices, quoins and corbels. The same cut limestone can also be seen around entrance doors, and what remain of the chimney pieces on each floor inside the building. The castle is rectangular in form, measuring twenty-eight by eleven metres and rising four storeys with a five storey, twenty-nine metre high tower at each corner. The main entrance is on the western side, a work of Italian Renaissance inspiration with an elaborate entablature above the Ionic columns on either side of the round headed door frame. Since it is located on what would have been the first floor, presumably the original approach was via a flight of steps (on the other hand, given the gun holes on other parts of the building, perhaps the raised entrance served as a defensive device?) To the rear of the castle is another more familiar arched entrance on the ground floor. Inside the floors are all gone. One of the stories about Kanturk Castle is that, after his fit of pique over the Privy Council order, MacCormac MacCarthy never occupied the place. However, given the quality of the remaining chimney pieces (some were later removed to Lohort Castle), this seems unlikely. Whether the building was ever fully completed or thereafter much used remains open to conjecture.

Dermot MacCormac MacCarthy was succeeded by his son, Dermot Oge, who married Julia, daughter of Donal, last O’Sullivan Beare and widow of Sir Nicholas Browne whose father had bought the vast MacCarthy estates in Kerry. Having participated in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, both Dermot Oge and his son were killed in 1652 at Knocknaclashy, west of Mallow, in the course of battle against a Cromwellian force led by Lord Broghill. Twenty years earlier financial exigency had led him to enter into the aforementioned mortgage agreement with Sir Philip Percival, so the family’s ongoing possession of their land was already vulnerable. In the aftermath of the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 the Court of Claims denied the MacCarthys Equity of Redemption on the old mortgage.  Instead ownership of the Lordship of Duhallow and the manor of Kanturk was awarded to ‘Sir Philip Percival, baronet, minor, grandson and heir of the said Sir Philip the Elder.’ Ultimately Sir Philip’s great-grandson Sir John Perceval became Baron of Burton, county Cork, in 1715, Viscount Perceval, of Kanturk, in 1722 and finally Earl of Egmont in 1733. Although Kanturk Castle appears in the background of a portrait of the second earl and his wife painted c.1759 by Sir Joshua Reynolds (now in Bradford Museum), the family made their residence at Lohort Castle, another former MacCarthy stronghold. In 1900 the seventh earl’s widow presented Kanturk Castle to England’s National Trust, which had only been founded five years earlier, on condition the building be maintained in the condition in which it was received. For much of the last century the castle was the National Trust’s only property in the Republic. In September 1951, it granted the building to An Taisce (a long-established charitable organisation engaged in the preservation and protection of  Ireland’s natural and built heritage) on a 1,000 year lease and at a rent of one shilling per annum if so demanded. In 2000 the National Trust officially transferred the title deeds of Kanturk Castle to An Taisce, which is now responsible for the building, a national monument, on behalf of the Irish people.


A Generous Welcome to the World

The generous proportions of the front door in the entrance hall at Ballymacmoy, County Cork. Since the early 18th century the house has been home to successive generations of Hennessys, one of whom Richard emigrated to France where he became an officer in the famous Dillon’s Regiment before settling in the Cognac region and founding the eponymous family firm. The present building dates from the second decade of the 19th century, replacing an older property when its excessively heavy slates caused the roof to collapse, killing a pig and a goose, and injuring a beggar who unfortunately happened just then to call to the door.

Well Janey Mac

On the upper section of Main Street, Kinsale, County Cork can be found this house dating from c.1780. Of two storeys and three bays, it retains sash windows, that at the centre of the first floor being tripartite. Evidently at a relatively early date part of the building was converted into retail premises which required the insertion of a second entrance as well as adjacent shop window and fascia, all achieved with unusual sensitivity. The property now houses a café and bakery called Janey Mac (an old Irish expression used to denote surprise).

Lo Arthur Leary

In Ireland the term Abbey is often applied to any mediaeval religious ruin. Thus the friary at Kilcrea, County Cork is often called an abbey, even though it was established by the Observant Franciscans. On the other hand, the site – or at least a spot close to it – was originally settled by St Cere or Cyra. An early Irish Christian, she founded a nunnery here and it is from her that the friary’s name derives: Cill Chre (Cell of Cyra) which was anglicized to Kilcrea. The Franciscan friars only arrived in 1465 at the request of Cormac Láidir Mór, Lord of Muskerry (as this part of Cork was anciently called). A branch of the great MacCarthy Mor dynasty, this family later became Viscounts Muskerry and Earls of Clancarty before being dispossessed of their lands and attainted in the late 17th century. But they were at the height of their power when Kilcrea Friary was established, as is testified by the nearby castle built around the same time: Cormac Láidir Mór was also responsible for building the castles at Blarney and Dripsey (otherwise known as Carrignamuck). However in 1494 he was killed by his brother and nephew at the latter location, and was interred in the centre of Kilcrea’s choir.

Kilcrea friary was dedicated to St Brigid of Kildare and for more than a century appears to have thrived under MacCarthy patronage even after religious houses were officially suppressed in 1541. During the Elizabethan era circumstances changed, especially following the appointment of John Perrot as President of Munster in 1570. During his tenure in office Thomas O’Herlihy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ross was imprisoned in the Tower of London and only released after almost four years on the surety of Cormac MacDiarmuid MacCarthy, then Lord of Muskerry: following O’Herlihy’s death in 1579 he too was buried at Kilcrea. Five years later the friary was sacked by English soldiers and thereafter it was subject to several assaults and changes of ownership. In Joseph Stirling Coyne and Nathaniel Willis’s The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), it is written that Kilcrea Friary’s ‘principal interest arises from the melancholy contemplation of the gloomy and neglected aisles, where the dust of prince and peasant lie mingled in undistinguishable contusion beneath the ruinous tombstones, which are scattered over every portion of the church and convent. Most of these stones bear the names of the old families and septs of the district: McCarthy, M’Swiney, and Barrett, are the most numerous. There are doubtless many interesting monuments to be found here; but the accumulation of mould, bones, and other relics of mortality within the precincts of the ruins, renders it impossible to discover them without considerable labour…’

One of the monuments at Kilcrea Friary so summarily dismissed by Stirling Coyne and Willis is the tomb of Art Ó Laoghaire or O’Leary, whose widow Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (an aunt of Daniel O’Connell) wrote a famous lament following her husband’s death in 1773 at the age of just twenty-six. A former captain in the Huzzars Regiment of the Austrian Imperial army O’Leary had, following his return to Ireland six years earlier, become involved in a dispute with a neighbour, Abraham Morris, High Sheriff of County Cork. Following his refusal to sell a horse to Morris for £5 (as Roman Catholics were obliged to do under the Penal Laws of the time) O’Leary was declared an outlaw and on being discovered by Morris and a group of men was shot dead at Carrignanimma: Morris would die two years later, his life shortened, it was believed, after he had in turn been shot by O’Leary’s brother. Meanwhile Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill composed her remarkable Caoineadh, a 390-line lament in which she mourned her husband’s death and called for revenge on his killers; for long remaining part of the country’s oral tradition, the words were only written down many years later. Art O’Leary was initially buried elsewhere before being interred in Kilcrea Friary where his tomb can be seen with an inscription believed to have been also composed by his widow: ‘Lo Arthur Leary, Generous, Handsome, Brave/Slain in His Bloom lies in this Humble Grave.’
After passing through diverse hands, since 1892 Kilcrea Friary has been in the care of the Office of Public Works.


Vanishing into the Clouds

Sufficiently spooky for Halloween: the spire of the former Presbyterian church in Clonakilty, County Cork. On a plot of land leased from the town’s then-owner the fourth Earl of Shannon, this dressed limestone building was completed in 1861. The tower is its most distinctive feature, the spire’s onset marked by a gargoyle at each corner. Since 1924 the site has served as Clonakilty’s post office.