A thousand years ago the O’Mahonys were a powerful sept occupying a swathe of territory running from where now stands Cork city to the south-west of the region. However, following the Norman invasion in the second half of the 12th century the O’Mahonys were gradually pushed ever closer to the region’s Atlantic extremities, ultimately settling on the peninsulas that jut into the ocean. Here, according to the medieval Annals of Inisfallen, they built themselves a fortified settlement in a place now known as Dunlough Castle. It is easy to understand why the location was chosen. To the east lies a lake, Dun Lough which would have provided fish for the building’s occupants. To north and south the land rises making it possible to anticipate any potential attack, since those responsible would have been visible on the horizon. Meanwhile immediately to the west are cliffs dropping precipitately to the Atlantic. As Peter Somerville-Large, who formerly lived in this area, wrote more than thirty years ago: ‘To an invading army, the cliff edge, the defensive wall, the lake and the sternly inaccessible approach would have made the castle appear impregnable.’
In this sheltered spot Donagh na Aimrice O’Mahoney (Donagh the Migratory) erected a castle on what is believed to have been the site of an Iron Age fort. What we see here today, however, are the remains of a 15th century development. This gives Dunlough its popular alternative name of Three Castles since the structure comprises three fortified towers joined by a wall some twenty feet high and almost 1,000 feet long running from cliff face to lakeshore. All three towers are rectangular and of three storeys, the most substantial being that furthest to the west. Rising almost fifty feet and over fifty square feet inside, the building would have served as residence for the owners. It has entrances on both the ground and first floors, the latter presumably accessed by means of a ladder, to provide additional protection for occupants in the event of an attack. Internally the first floor was of wood and is therefore long gone but the second floor, of stone, survives: the space above would have been used for dining and large gatherings. The roof of towers from this period was typically of wood and so no longer extant.
The middle tower at Dunlough was probably used for storage and that closest to the lake provided ingress to the whole site. The construction technique used throughout was dry stone masonry, unusual for the period when wet mortar and sand were used in building; dry stone masonry had been common at an earlier date meaning Dunlough was somewhat anachronistic, the reason perhaps being its remote location. The stone used – indigenous schist-slate rock – was quarried from local pits. The nature of its construction left the building vulnerable to decay, since it appears Dunlough was never subject to serious attack. The O’Mahonys remained there until the 1620s when their lands were confiscated: the last occupants are believed to have been members of the O’Donohue family, all of whom apparently died by murder or suicide: according to legend a drop of blood falls every day in the tower closest to the lake. Whether true or not – the building today looks clear of all bloodstains – the story adds to Dunlough’s inherently romantic character.
Famously described by John Betjeman as the largest pyramid tomb ‘beyond the banks of the Nile, this is the extraordinary Howard Mausoleum, County Wicklow. Clad in granite, the monument’s exterior has a square base six feet high after which it rises to a peak some thirty feet above the ground. The mausoleum was erected Ralph Howard of nearby Shelton (later Shelton Abbey) in 1785, the year in which he was created first Viscount Wicklow: his widow would later be made Countess of Wicklow, the couple’s descendants thereafter being Earls until the death of the ninth holder of the title without heirs. The design is attributed to English-born stonemason and sculptor Simon Vierpyl who had moved to Ireland almost thirty years earlier at the request of the Earl of Charlemont: Vierpyl was placed in charge of the building of Charlemont’s casino at Marino, Dublin designed by Sir William Chambers. Why a pyramid was chosen is unknown but even odder is another tomb to the immediate north and on lower ground. This was erected by another branch of the Howard family and takes the form of an entrance to an Egyptian temple.
In memory of Nicola Gordon Bowe who to the infinite regret of her family and many friends was yesterday buried in County Wicklow. Her scholarly work will serve as Nikki’s own fitting memorial.
On February 1st next it will be 95 years since Moore Hall, County Mayo was needlessly burnt by a group of anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. Since then the building has stood empty and falling ever further into ruin. Moore Hall’s history was discussed here some time ago, (see When Moore is Less, June 30th 2014), and at the time it looked as though the house, dating from the 1790s, had little viable future. For many years the surrounding land has been under the control of Coillte, the state-sponsored forestry company, which displayed no interest in the historic property for which it was responsible. However, yesterday Mayo County Council announced it had purchased Moore Hall and 80 acres. The council proposes ‘to develop the estate as a nationally important nature reserve and tourism attraction’, its chief executive declaring this will ‘ensure that the natural, built and cultural heritage of Moorehall is protected yet developed and managed in a sustainable manner for current and future generations.’ Further details have yet to be provided, but one initiative Moore Hall’s new owners could immediately undertake is to clear away the trees that now grow almost up to the front door, thereby reopening the view to Lough Carra and explaining why the house was built on this site.
The name of Leamcon Castle, County Cork derives from the Irish ‘Leim Con’ meaning a leap or chasm and hound (also a hero or champion). The reason is that the castle, actually a late 15th century tower house, stands on an island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel through which, at this time of year, churn the waters of the Atlantic: a narrow bridge now links the two. Originally built by a branch of the O’Mahony family, in the early 17th century Leamcon passed into the ownership of Devon-born Sir William Hull, appointed Vice-Admiral for the province of Munster with responsibility for dealing with piracy which was then rampant along the south-western coast of Ireland. In fact, Hull proved to be a gamekeeper-turned-poacher and became known as a friend and ally, rather than foe, of the pirates.
Some time ago the European Commission designated 2018 as European Year of Cultural Heritage. According to the commission’s website, ‘Heritage is our cultural identity, values and traditions that we have inherited from previous generations, live with today, and pass on to future generations. It includes buildings, monuments, historical and archaeological sites, museum objects, our customs, sports, language, music, dance, folklore, crafts and skills, and natural heritage, such as landscapes, wildlife habitats and biodiversity.’
In this country, the Heritage Council has been charged with coordinating and promoting the year’s programme. The council has chosen as a theme for Ireland ‘Make a Connection’ intended ‘to deepen the connection between people and heritage, and build a legacy of increased public engagement.’ Engagement is critical, particularly with regard to our historic buildings. Since 2016 the Heritage Council has run an ‘Adopt a Monument’ scheme but the take-up has been relatively small: just seven projects were added last year. All over Ireland there are many sites which have fallen into neglect and dereliction. Frequently they can be found in the centre of towns such as the two shown today, both of which are in County Galway and have featured here before. Above is St John’s, the former Church of Ireland church in Ballymoe: dating from 1832 it has been remorselessly vandalised. The same is true of the building below, St Brigid’s, the original Roman Catholic church in Portumna, built in 1825. When a new church was constructed in the 1950s, this property served for a time as a sports hall but has now been abandoned and suffered accordingly.
There are many buildings such as these standing empty and forlorn. If the European Year of Cultural Heritage is to have any long-term impact, a concerted effort must be made to engage local people’s interest in and concern for the architectural legacy of their own area. The coming twelve months offer an opportunity which may not occur again. Making a Connection can make a difference.
The Irish Aesthete wishes friends and followers a Happy New Year. Thank you all for your continued interest and support in 2017 and may you prosper in 2018.