Bank Holiday Monday morning and a coach pulls into the main square of Macroom, County Cork. The passengers step gingerly down, a few of them take photographs outside the former castle’s entrance but most wander about for a few minutes looking bewildered. Then they all climb aboard again and the bus departs. It doesn’t help that in the middle of a town which promotes itself as the tourism gateway to West Cork and South Kerry not a single premises is open for the visitors. No chance of getting a cup of coffee, or buying a postcard, or bringing home a souvenir of Macroom. Nothing to look at but shuttered shops and the residue of Sunday night’s revelry on the streets. No wonder the bus didn’t linger.
Deriving its name from the Irish Maigh Chromtha, believed to refer to a crooked oak that once stood in what is now the main square, Macroom was of some significance in pre-Christian Ireland. However, its modern history really begins with the construction of a castle above the river Sullane, probably first begun in the 12th century by the O’Flynns who then controlled this part of what was the Kingdom of Muskerry. The McCarthys subsequently became the dominant family and at various dates they both enlarged and improved Macroom Castle. The building suffered a series of assaults in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1602 Cormac McDermot Carthy, Lord of Muscry was arrested by the government authorities and the castle besieged, during which time it caught fire. Then in 1650 Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross who was a leading figure in the Confederate camp (and clearly not a pacifist) assembled a force at the castle which was set on fire rather than allow it fall into the hands of the approaching English Commonwealth army led by Roger Boyle Lord Broghill. In an ensuing battle the bishop was captured but promised his freedom if he persuaded the garrison of Carrigadrohid Castle to surrender: instead he exhorted those inside the castle to ‘Hold out to the last’ and was accordingly hanged from a nearby tree. Seemingly Macroom Castle was then burnt again by the New Model Army’s General Henry Ireton, presumably prior to his death after the Siege of Limerick in 1651. Macroom next passed briefly into the hands of Admiral Sir William Penn of whose son, the Quaker convert William Penn, would found the state of Pennsylvania in America in the 1680s. Meanwhile following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Macroom had been restored to the McCarthys who renovated the castle before losing it again in 1691 owing to their allegiance to James II. The need for the English government to pay troops who had fought in Ireland led to the castle being sold at auction in 1703 when it was bought by that speculative entity the Hollow Sword Blade Company. In turn this organization resold it to lawyer and politician Francis Bernard (popularly known as Judge Bernard after he became a Judge on the Irish Court of Common Pleas). By the middle of the 18th century Macroom Castle was occupied by the Hedges Eyre family who acquired the building outright in the 19th century. When Robert Hedges Eyre died childless in 1840, Macroom was inherited by his cousin, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White who, following the death of his elder brother twenty-eight years later, became third Earl of Bantry. In 1850 his eldest daughter, Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born in Macroom Castle which she eventually inherited.
The town of Macroom effectively grew up around, and in order to service the needs of, the castle at its centre. However the advantageous location at a river crossing on the main route from east to west also helped to encourage development as a centre for commerce: seemingly the original market house was erected here by the McCarthys in 1620 (its sandstone successor, now the Town Hall, dates from two centuries later). Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis described Macroom as consisting ‘of one principal street, nearly a mile in length, and towards the western extremity having a wider space, in which is the newly erected market-house, forming one side of a square, of which the opposite side is occupied by the hotel and the castle gateway: the inhabitants are supplied with water from springs and public pumps recently erected by subscription…There are no fixed sources of public amusement, but the town is frequently enlivened by the lovers of field sports and steeple chases, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. There are two flour-mills and two tanyards at present in operation; and there were formerly a distillery and saltworks, which have been discontinued. The principal trade is in corn, which is brought into the town daily by the farmers, and purchased on account of the Cork merchants; the quantity sold during the year 1835 exceeded 39,000 barrels. The market is on Saturday, and is abundantly supplied with butchers’ meat, vegetables, and provisions at a moderate price; and from January till May there is a weekly market for pigs, many of which are slaughtered here and afterwards sent to Cork. From May till the end of the year, cattle fairs are held on the 12th of every month alternately in the town and at the village of Masseys-town, the property of Massey Hutchinson Massey, Esq., a little to the southwest.’
Masseytown mentioned above is a district to the immediate west of the Sullane that includes a particularly charming terrace of houses dating from the early 1860s; these are overlooked by the fine limestone courthouse with central Venetian window. The building probably dates from the 1820s, as does the Church of Ireland across the river which was designed by George Pain. Most of the houses in the immediate vicinity likewise were erected in the first half of the 19th century when the mud cabins hitherto occupied by many of Macroom’s residents were replaced by the present structures.
Nothing better represents Macroom’s current state than the condition of its castle remains. The building which had already survived so much damage over the previous centuries, was burnt one last time by Anti-Treaty forces in 1922 and two years later the castle and demesne were sold by the widowed Lady Ardilaun (previously Lady Olivia Hedges-White) to a group of local businessmen. The structure survived until the 1960s but so poorly supported that the greater part of it then had to be demolished. What remains is a section of the western wall with a three-stage square tower at its north-west corner, the whole perched above the river and providing a dramatic view from the other side of the bridge, not dissimilar to that at Lismore with the castle above the Blackwater. But unlike Lismore what remains of Macroom Castle appears as insufficiently maintained, and as vulnerable to demolition, as what has already been lost. So too do the buildings directly below it, several of which are now vacant (a not uncommon condition throughout the town). Likewise the early 19th century Church of Ireland directly across the road to the castle: this is now boarded up and its stained glass windows in perilous condition (several have already been broken). Two years ago the National Roads Authority controversially tacked a pedestrian crossing onto the old stone bridge: while such a facility was obviously necessary, its siting and design (or want of same) took no account of the historical context. The same is true elsewhere in the town. Visitors passing through the old castle gates on the square will not find open parkland but a series of ugly buildings developed from the 1930s onwards as a secondary school: again no doubt an important facility for the townspeople but the location is ill-chosen, particularly when in the background can be seen the remnants of the castle falling into irreparable decrepitude. An opportunity to exploit the castle’s significant history, not least to American visitors thanks to a link with William Penn, remains grossly unexploited. But this is the case throughout Macroom, a town that markets itself as a tourism destination and then does little to encourage tourists to linger. No wonder those bus passengers soon climbed back onboard and drove away.