It is impossible to miss the castle in Cahir, County Tipperary, and nor should it be missed. Most likely the town – the name of which derives from the Irish ‘an Chathair’ meaning stone ringfort – would not exist but for the castle. Occupying a rocky island in the river Suir the present building’s core dates from the 13th century when it was constructed by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond most probably on the site of an earlier native fortification. In 1375 as a reward for his loyalty to the English crown the castle was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and remained in possession of branches of this family for almost six centuries. Henry VIII created Thomas Butler Baron Cahir in 1543. It was during the lifetime of his great-nephew Thomas Butler, second Lord Cahir (of the second creation) that the castle was besieged and then captured in 1599 by a force of 18,000 under the command of the Earl of Essex. However since Lord Cahir surrendered, he received a pardon and was able to hold onto his lands. Cahir Castle was once more threatened with a siege in 1647, this time by Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron Inchiquin but its occupants quickly surrendered, as they did also in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell advised ‘If I be necessitated to use my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremities usual in such cases.’ Capitulation thereby saved the castle from a potentially ruinous assault. It remained in use, although not always by its owners, until the 19th century: in the second half of the 18th century the Butlers built for themselves a classical residence in the town (today the Cahir House Hotel). But they maintained the old castle and even carried out some restoration on the property in the 1840s. Following the death of the last member of the family in 1961 Cahir Castle was acquired by the state and is now open to the public.
The town of Cahir largely owes its present appearance to two men, Richard Butler, tenth Lord Cahir who was created first Earl of Glengall in 1816, and his son also called Richard, the second earl. To the first of these Cahir is indebted for such charms as the Swiss Cottage (of which more on another occasion) and the Anglican St Paul’s Church, the former attributed to John Nash, the latter certainly designed by him 1816-18. It replaced an older church, the ruins of which can still be seen, as can those of an Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century. The former Erasmus Smith School adjacent to St Paul’s and now used as local authority offices is likely by Nash also. In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, the author notes that Cahir ‘owes its rise to the late earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl whose seat is within its limits; it is pleasantly situated on the river Suir, is well built and of handsome appearance, and now consists of 588 houses.’ His words were echoed by other visitors to the town during this period, and especially after 1843 when, the majority of leases issued in the previous century coming to term, the second earl embarked on an extensive programme of rebuilding which saw Castle Street and the Square, as well as various approach roads, assume their present form. The architect responsible was the Clonmel-based William Tinsley who gave the place a coherence rarely found in this country. As G.H. Bassett commented in his 1888 publication County Tipperary: A Guide and Directory, ‘The houses of Cahir devoted to business as well as residential purposes, are superior to those found in most country towns in lreland.’ Remodelling Cahir was estimated to have cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. Unfortunately as a consequence of this and other expenditure on the eve the Great Famine, and despite marriage to an heiress, Cahir’s owner found himself heavily indebted and the family’s fortunes never recovered from his expenditure on Cahir. In 1853 the town was sold on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court.
From the 18th century on Cahir thrived thanks to lying at the centre of a prosperous agricultural region, witnessed by a large market house erected in the 1770s on the north side of the square facing Cahir House. The town’s prosperity was further increased by the establishment of a number of large mills on the banks of the Suir, including the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills. These buildings still exist and are a dominant presence in the town, although redundant and badly in need of alternative use. When Henry D Inglis travelled through Ireland in 1834 he visited the town and after remarking on the beauty of its situation he observed that ‘Cahir is rather an improving place. The flour trade is pretty extensively carried on, both in grinding, and in carrying to Clonmel. Very extensive cornmills have recently been erected; and they are in full employment.’ The mills were mostly run by the town’s substantial Quaker population, their significance evident by the fine Meeting House in the town, dating from the early 1830s. Almost directly opposite is a terrace of exceptionally large houses erected during the same period, another testament to Cahir’s former importance in the area, as is a similar terrace of four, three-storey over basement residences called the Mall close by the castle. In the 1820s the second earl leased the land on which they stand to a Dr Thomas Beale specifically for the purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses, the first three of which were completed by 1830, two of them serving as the Cahir Castle Hotel. The advent of famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and others similar planned for the town.
Cahir now suffers from the same problems as so many other Irish towns, not least the disappearance of the industries that once provided employment. Today it gives the impression of existing because it did so in the past. Those substantial mills, in their shabby vacancy, are witness to changing circumstances that have not been to the advantage of the town and testify to the departure of former prosperity. On the other hand, Cahir enjoys benefits not enjoyed by many other Irish towns, having a splendid castle and attractively laid-out streets. In other words, Cahir has an opportunity to exploit its potential as a tourist magnet, and to some extent already does so. The castle clearly attracts tourists and has an attractive and well-maintained park to one side. But on the other, close to the centre of the town, is a vast car and bus park. One understands the importance of offering visitors somewhere to leave their vehicles, but to create a desolate expanse of tarmac right beside the castle seems self-defeating: why not conceal it behind buildings that follow the original line of the street, or engage in extensive planting that would soften the prospect and avoid conflict with Cahir’s principal attraction? The same failure better to exploit opportunities is found throughout the town. In the main square, for example, far too many properties are vacant, an inevitable consequence of planning authorities permitting supermarkets to be constructed on the outskirts. But the square’s appearance is not helped by the former Butler residence, the 18th century Cahir House Hotel with its fine first-floor Venetian window, being disfigured by the insertion of uPVC windows, as are so many other properties in the area: does nobody see what damage this does to the perception among visitors of Cahir as a supposed heritage town? On the other side of the square, another significant building, the 18th century former Market House, underwent a grotesque ‘renovation’ in the 1980s when original arched openings were replaced with over-sized plate-glass windows, thereby destroying the integrity of the design. Visiting Cahir one is conscious of missed opportunity and a failure to exploit potential, with inevitable consequences for the town and surrounding region. Not very different to anywhere else in the country so.