An Irishman’s Home is His Tower House

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All across Ireland can be seen buildings commonly known as castles but which ought more correctly be called tower houses. The tower house is not exclusive to this country, similar structures being found along the Scottish Borders. However, the sheer quantity of these edifices make them one of the most distinctive features of the Irish landscape: it has been estimated that between 1400 and 1650 in the region of 3,000 tower houses were constructed.
A statute issued by Henry VI in 1429 declared, ‘It is agreed and asserted that every liege man of our Lord, the King of the said Counties, who chooses to build a Castle or Tower House sufficiently embattled or fortified, wither the next ten years to wit 20 feet in length, 16 feet in width and 40 feet in height or more, that the commons of the said Counties shall pay to the said person, to build the said Castle or Tower ten pounds by way of subsidy.’ It is often proposed that this piece of legislation, with its financial incentive, did much to encourage the popularity of tower houses, and also their uniformity of design.

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There is some dispute whether the tower house’s primary purpose was defensive or residential; one suspects it varied according to geographic and political circumstances. Typically the building is rectangular and constructed of irregular stones, the walls in excess of four feet thick at base level and rising four or five storeys high. A single arch doorway offered admission with the large arched ground floor devoted to diverse purposes including storage of foodstuff and livestock. Above the entrance was an opening called the Murder Hole, through which boiling liquids or arrows could be directed in the event of an attack. Windows at this level were little more than slits although they were larger further up. The family lived on the tower’s top storeys, but levels of comfort were pretty minimal.
Various descriptions of life in a tower house have come down to us and none of them make it sound especially luxurious. For example the Spaniard Cuillar wrote in 1588 ‘The Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes, wet with rain and stiff with frost…’ Half a century later the French traveller, M. de la Bouillaye le Gouz observed ‘The castles of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely high and thatched with straw but to tell the truth, they are nothing but square towers without windows or at least having such small apertures as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in Summer and straw in Winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.’

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In many respects Kilbline Castle, County Kilkenny is a typical Irish tower house. Rising five storeys high, it has round bartizans or wall-mounted turrets at each corner of the east front and a slender chimney-stack between them. The surrounding bawn wall survives in part but some sections were demolished in the last century to permit the erection of modern farm sheds. Kilbline is usually dated to the 14th/15th centuries but a large limestone chimneypiece on the first floor carries the date 1580 so it is possible that was when the building was completed. On the other hand, there is reference to Kilbline Castle being forfeited by one Thomas Comerford of Ballymac in 1566 so perhaps the chimneypiece was inserted into the tower by its subsequent owner.
That person may have been a member of the Shortall family of Rathardmore Castle in the same county. Thomas Shortall of Rathardmore died in 1628 and not long after his heir Peter moved to the castle of Kilbline, where he subsequently lived. His estates, which ran to some 1,500 acres were declared forfeited by the Cromwellian government in 1653 and his sons ordered to be sent to Connaught, although one of them seems to have returned to Kilbline, perhaps after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Nevertheless, Kilbline once more changed hands during this period.

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Originally from Newcastle in Northumberland, William Candler is believed to have served as an officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army during the Irish wars of 1649-53. As a reward for his endeavours, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and granted lands in County Kilkenny, including those on which stands Kilbline Castle. He and his wife Anne Villiers had two sons, the younger of whom John is known to have lived at Kilbline. John Candler had a single son Thomas who, in turn, had only the one child, Walsingham; he never married and so that line of Candlers came to an end.
To return to Lt.Col. Candler, his older son Thomas who lived at Callan Castle had four sons, the youngest of whom Daniel caused a rumpus within the family by marrying an Irishwoman, possibly a Roman Catholic, called Hannah and as a result was obliged to leave first County Kilkenny and then Ireland. Around 1735 Daniel and Hannah Candler moved to the America Colonies, initially settling in North Carolina before they moved to Bedford, Virginia. Their great, great, great-grandson was Asa Griggs Candler, the entrepreneur who in 1888 bought the formula for Coca Cola and made himself fabulously rich as a result.

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Kilbline Castle continued to be occupied until just a few decades ago. At some point, probably in the 19th century, a two storey three-bay house was added on the west end of the tower house and a further single storey structure abuts this. The interior of the house remains relatively intact and suggests a degree of affluence on the part of the occupants.
However, the most architecturally significant feature of Kilbline is a wonderful panelled room on the south-east corner of the ground floor. Most likely of oak (it was hard to tell with certainty) this looks to date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries and must therefore have been created while the building was occupied by the Candlers. Although the ceiling is now covered in tongue-and-groove boards, all the wall panelling is intact, as is the old chimneypiece (the latter marred only by a shelf added at some later date). This rare instance of early Irish interior decoration is some 300 years old and given that the house has been empty for some time it remains in remarkably good condition, as can be seen in the pictures above. The present owners, although they do not live in the building, are aware of its importance and would dearly love to restore Kilbline and ensure its future.

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17 comments on “An Irishman’s Home is His Tower House

  1. Great stuff. You really do do your job very well (if I may say); it’s a pleasure to see a post from you. This place looks like a sort of Irish Wuthering Heights!

  2. I recently discovered your site through English Homes magazine. What a gift you are! And the story about the croccodile mailbox was so intriguing that I downloaded the book on my Kindle. Thank you for these wonderful photos and for the information. Bettejane Wesson

    • Thanks for your kind comment, they are always much appreciated. Please spread the word about The Irish Aesthete and encourage other readers to follow the site. And meanwhile enjoy Selina Guinness’ book which has deservedly had great success.

  3. Danny says:

    These tower houses are very similar to the castellated buildings one sees along the Arno in Florence too… D

  4. Abby H. says:

    I’m in debt to my latest issue of Elle Decor for mentioning you and thereby pointing my inquisitive self in your blog’s direction. But not as in debt as I’d be if I were to renovate a Tower House like you now have me itching to do. : )

    • Thank you and welcome to The Irish Aesthete. Please encourage others to be as inquisitive (and indebted, albeit not financially) as yourself: I am always keen to inspire greatere interest in our country’s heritage.
      Also compliments on your own site which I was equally delighted to discover.

  5. Patrick Pilkington says:

    Robert. Fascinated by Kilbline and particularly the chimneypiece. The winged female figure is the crest of the Candlers and described in the 1905 edition of Fairbairn’s Book of Crest, p.98 as ‘an angel affronte habited azure, girded and winger or, holding in the dexter hand a flaming sword proper and in the sinister a palm-branch proper’. It is, curiously not illustrated but a Worcestershire Candler version is on Pl. 25 of the reprinted 1986 edition. The chimneypiece looks as though it is of Kilkenny limestone overpainted; is this right? Whatever it is, it is a rare crested Irish chimneypiece, circa 1740. Patrick Pilkington

    • Patrick Pilkington says:

      Corrections: winged, not winger and I am not sure that angels are either male or female!

    • Thank you for this additional information – which is sure to be of interest to members of the Candler family, and to the present owners of the Kilbline. On my visit to the building it was not possible to detect the material used for the chimneypiece so I cannot answer that query. But yes, angels do not have a gender…

  6. Paul Weeks says:

    In your research have you come across a Mary Milbanke of Kilbleine (widow 1684) and her son Walter?

    • Thank you for getting in touch. Those names don’t ring any bells but I am travelling at the moment so do not have my library to hand. When back home I will check and revert to you should anything by chance turn up…

  7. Paul Weeks says:

    The Milbanke family seem to be around in the area until at least 1785, The family were in the North East and Essex/London in the 17th C.
    With thanks

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