May These Characters Remain, When All is Ruin Once Again*

Thoor Ballylee, County Galway is a 15th/16th century tower house originally built by the de Burgo family but now best known as the former property of poet William Butler Yeats who acquired it a century ago and subsequently undertook a restoration of the old building. Opened to the public in 1965, the tower closed seven years ago after being flooded by adjacent Streamstown river. It might have remained shut thereafter but for the endeavours of a local group, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, which tirelessly worked for the building’s refurbishment in time for last year’s 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. These pictures were taken two months ago, since when the tower – like so much of the surrounding country – has once more been subjected to severe flooding. However, according to the society’s website ( determined efforts are being made to ensure it will reopen later in the spring: an example of local, private initiative that deserves to be applauded and emulated elsewhere.

*A plaque on the castle’s wall contains the following text: ‘I the poet William Yeats/With old millboards and sea-green slates/And smithy work from the Gort forge/Restored this tower for my wife George./And may these characters remain/When all is ruin once again.’


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.

Scouting Around for a Saviour


A week ago the national tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, announced that €60,175 in funding is to be made available to Castle Saunderson, County Cavan. Seemingly this money is part of the organisation’s ‘New ideas in Ancient Spaces’ Capital Grants Scheme for attractions within the Ireland’s Ancient East initiative. The latter scheme was launched by Fáilte Ireland’s last April and ‘seeks to build on the wealth of historical and cultural assets in the east and south of Ireland.’ Leaving aside the fact that Castle Saunderson could never be described as being located in either the east or south of the country (north-midlands might be the simplest summary) one wonders what will be the result of this expenditure. According to Fáilte Ireland, the money ‘will be used to enhance the “on the ground” visitor experience and present the story of Castle Saunderson through the ages. This will be achieved through the development of a new “easy to explore” heritage trail – The Castle Trail. Through interpretative displays, visual art and written interpretation, the story will imaginatively portray the dramatic history and transition of this place as part of Ireland’s Ancient East from free land, through conflict, plantation and the divisive advent of Unionism and the Orange Order to the peaceful coexistence of the present day.’ In other words, the money doesn’t appear to be going towards the restoration of a building on the site which has only fallen into dereliction in the past twenty years and which, with a hint more creativity and resourcefulness, could be restored to serve as a splendid base for the aforementioned ‘on the ground’ visitor experience.

Around the middle of the 17th century the land on which Castle Saunderson stands passed into the hands of one Robert Sanderson whose father, Alexander Sanderson, had come to Ireland as a soldier and settled in County Tyrone. Robert Sanderson had been a Colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and in 1657 served as High Sheriff of County Cavan. On his death in 1675, the estate passed to his eldest son, another Colonel Robert who sat in the Irish House of Commons and married Jane Leslie, a daughter of the Right Rev John Leslie, Bishop of Clogher. The couple had no children and so Castle Saunderson passed to a nephew, Alexander Sanderson. It was the latter’s grandson, another Alexander, who changed the spelling of the family name to Saunderson as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to claim the Castleton peerage of the Saundersons of Saxby, Lincolnshire (the first and last Earl Castleton having died unmarried in 1723). It is his son Francis who is credited with having built the core of the present house. Staunchly anti-Catholic, he is said to have disinherited his eldest son for marrying a member of that faith (or it could have been because she was the daughter of a lodge keeper at Castle Saunderson). So the estate of over 12,000 acres went to a younger son, Alexander. He likewise disinherited his first-born son because he was crippled, and another son who proved rebellious, instead leaving Castle Saunderson to the fourth son, Colonel Edward James Saunderson who, like his forbears, was a Whig politician, and in Ireland leader of the Liberal Unionist opposition to Gladstone’s efforts to introduce some measure of home rule. It appears to have been after the death of his eldest son Somerset Saunderson in 1927 that the family moved out of the house, although they did not sell the property until half a century later.

As has been mentioned, at the core of Castle Saunderson is a classical house built by Francis Saunderson probably around the time of his marriage to Anne White in 1779. In the mid-1830s the building was extensively remodeled in a version of Elizabethan gothic for his son Alexander Saunderson. In December 1835 Nathaniel Clements wrote to Lady Leitrim that he had called by Castle Saunderson where the owner was ‘altering and castellating his house, so I was quite in my element’ The architect responsible for this work is now considered to be George Sudden, who was employed elsewhere in the area, at Lough Fea, County Monaghan and Crom Castle, County Fermanagh, Castle Saunderson displaying certain similarities with the latter (where the original design had been by Edward Blore). This intervention resulted in a bit of a mongrel, the east-facing, two-storey former entrance front retaining long sash windows to either side of a central three-storey castellated tower, its octagonal turrets echoed by lower, square ones at either end of the facade. The north and south fronts are asymmetric, the former having an octagonal entrance tower placed off-centre, the latter featuring a four-bay loggia between two further towers, as well as a substantial service wing at right angles that once incorporated a single-storey orangery. Although unoccupied by the Saundersons, the property was not sold by the family until 1977 when it was bought by a businessman who undertook restoration work. For a period it then became an hotel before being sold again in the 1990s after which fire gutted the house. In 1997 Castle Saunderson and its grounds were acquired by what is now called Scouting Ireland which initially appeared to show interest in restoring the building but eventually chose to construct a new centre elsewhere in the grounds at a cost of some €3.7 million. Meanwhile the old castle has continued to deteriorate: it looks unlikely Fáilte Ireland’s recently-trumpeted initiative will change this situation.


Distinguished Remnants

Last Saturday’s post featured the former Church of Ireland place of worship at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny. Immediately adjacent to this are the remains of a large tower house dating from the 15th century. Burnchurch Castle is believed to have been built by a branch of the FitzGerald family and remained in their hands until the mid-17th century when it passed into the possession of the Cromwellian soldier Colonel William Warden. Subsequently owned by the Floods, it remained in use as a residence until the second decade of the 19th century. Rising six storeys, the main building well preserved, although an adjacent great hall has long since disappeared. However, close by is a remnant of the former bawn wall that used to surround the site: a now-free standing castellated turret.


Still Standing Proud


The free-standing tower at Donadea Castle, County Kildare. Presumably this is the oldest part of the building, erected by the Aylmer family on the site of an earlier mediaeval residence and completed in 1624. Later a larger house was constructed immediately adjacent to the tower, and the whole property Gothicised in the early 19th century (this work is often attributed to Sir Richard Morrison). Now at the centre of a national park, Donadea was unroofed in the 1950s but somehow traces of its former state survive, not least the wooden window frames and shutters. A shame these have never been rescued, rather than being allowed to fall into decay.


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.


Vaulting Ambition

Mention has been made recently of George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, and the time he spent with his mistress Lady Conyngham in Slane Castle, County Meath. Here is a view of the ceiling in the castle’s saloon on which – if any horizontal position was assumed during the time spent there – he likely gazed. The history of the building’s construction and decoration is complex, and seems to have involved a number of architects. It has been proposed that an amalgam of Francis Johnston and Thomas Hopper was responsible for the design of the saloon, its historically inaccurate but delightful Gothic dome from c.1813 featuring twenty miniature fan vaults which lie between the same number of ribs all leading to a central boss from which is suspended the single candelabra.