Driving west from Limerick city along the N69 after some ten miles one’s attention is caught by the spectacle of immense battlemented ruins to the right. These are the remains of Dromore Castle, built almost 150 years ago, and unroofed for the past sixty. Situated on a promontory overlooking a lake and with sweeping views across the Shannon estuary Dromore’s dramatic silhouette, as has often been commented, would not look out of place above the Rhine. Yet one of the paradoxes of this extravagant building is that the architect responsible was anxious it be historically accurate to Ireland.
Dromore was designed by Edward William Godwin whose influence on the late 19th century Aesthetic movement was considerable, not least because of his advocacy of Japanese taste: Whistler, for example, commissioned Godwin to build him a house in Tite Street (and later married Godwin’s widow) and another of his clients was Oscar Wilde. He also produced many designs for Liberty & Co where in 1884 he became director of the Regent Street store’s new costume department. However earlier in his career Godwin had been a supporter of Ruskinian Gothic and one of the most fascinating aspects of Dromore is the way in which it reflects a transition in his interests and tastes.
Dromore was commissioned by William Pery in 1866, the year in which he became third Earl of Limerick. The Perys had been prominent in the region since the late 1600s, owning a large amount of land beside the mediaeval Limerick City; here in the second half of the 18th century the earl’s forebear Edmund Sexton Pery laid out what became known as Newtown Pery. Although the family had a large house in the city on Henry Street, it did not have a country residence in Ireland and for the first half of the 19th century the Perys spent the greater part of their time in England.
Hence when William Pery chose to commission Dromore he was indicating a re-engagement with this country. It is open to question whether his decision was received with much favour here. February and March 1867 saw the failed Fenian Rising organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and at the end of the latter month the Building News, writing of Dromore, then under construction, noted ‘The corridors are kept on the outer side of the building and all the entrances are well guarded, so that in the event of the country being disturbed, the inmates of Dromore Castle might not only feel secure themselves but be able to give real shelter to others.’ The pictures above and below give an indication of just how difficult it remains to gain access to the building’s interior.
On receiving the commission from Lord Limerick, Godwin went to a great deal of trouble to make sure the building was authentically Irish in design. With his friend and fellow architect William Burges (then working on St Finbarr’s Cathedral in Cork) he travelled around the country drawing and measuring old castles and churches; what he saw during the journey influenced the eventual building which was finished by 1869.
The initial impression created by Dromore, no doubt due to a lack of external windows on the lower levels of the roughly-dressed limestone structure and the loss of the original softening landscaping, is of sheer unadorned mass. With walls six feet thick, the entrance block to the south is of three storeys, the actual gateway being rather too squat (it immediately proved insufficiently tall to accommodate a coach and four). A tympanum above features carved lions flanking a sequence of heraldic motifs. Behind to the north is a larger five-storey main keep, this accommodated most but not all of the principal reception rooms. These two blocks overlook an internal courtyard on the opposite side of which are a range of service buildings that included both a chapel and a chaplain’s residence (presumably to increase the impression of mediaeval authenticity), as well as a banqueting hall. The last of these could only be reached by crossing over the entrance gateway, which must have been uncomfortable in bad weather. But again, perhaps this was to encourage the sense of re-enacting life in the Middle Ages. Most of the main windows take the form of paired lancets with quatrefoils above, although in the courtyard there are lines of single arched windows. Despite its relative austerity Godwin provided enough variation in the surface rhythm to hold interest; writing in Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones noted how ‘There are Irish stepped crenellations, bold chimneys, bartisans and machicoulis on stout corbelling, trefoil windows and angle loops.’ As can be seen, the castle also incorporates a round tower, something not as a rule found in domestic residences, but Godwin appears to have included it on the grounds that such towers were found on Irish fortified sites like that at the Rock of Cashel.
Godwin was responsible for not just the design of the castle but also much of its interior decoration including chimneypieces, wall paintings, sculpture, tiles, stained and painted glass, brass- and ironwork, and even the furniture, the manufacture of which was undertaken by William Watts of Grafton Street, Dublin. The subject of Dromore’s elaborate interiors will be discussed here at a later date.
When the place was finished its owner professed himself ‘extremely delighted’ with the result. However, the family spent relatively little time at Dromore, and certainly not much after the third earl’s death in 1896. Valued at £75 and ten shillings in 1906, the castle appears to have been almost entirely unused in the aftermath of the First World War and towards the end of the 1930s the whole estate was sold to a local timber merchant called McMahon for a reputed £8,000. However, he did not live there for long and around 1954 Dromore was unroofed to avoid rates being paid on the building (a regrettably common fate for old houses at the time). And so it has remained ever since, indomitable as Godwin intended and proving able to withstand the assault of time and an inclement climate without demonstrating evidence of dilapidation. Rising above the surrounding woodland Dromore’s silhouette continues to dominate the skyline for many miles around and continues to give the impression of a Rhineland castle transported to west Limerick.