Not a Happy Place

Conna Castle, County Cork, few owners of which appear to have enjoyed happy lives. Situated on a limestone outcrop above the river Bride, work on this tower house began in 1554 and seemingly took ten years to complete for the FitzGeralds, a branch of the Earls of Desmond. Hoping to inherit the title, they did not participate in either of the Desmond Rebellions and following the death of the fifteenth earl in 1583 petitioned Elizabeth I to be recognised as his successor. Unfortunately, they were descended from a marriage between the fourteenth earl and his own grandniece, judged to be outside the acceptable boundaries of consanguinity, thus making offspring from the union illegitimate. James FitzThomas FitzGerald, who had hoped to become the sixteenth earl, on his return to Ireland from London was mockingly known as the the Sugán or ‘Straw’ Earl. In 1598 he joined in the rising initiated by Hugh O’Neill but was defeated and went into hiding, eventually being betrayed to the English forces by a cousin Edmund FitzGibbon, the White Knight: taken to London, FitzGerald died in the Tower of London apparently having become insane. The lands around Conna then passed through a number of hands before becoming part of the territory owned by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In 1645 during the Confederate Wars it was captured by the third Earl of Castlehaven: five years later the English forces made an unsuccessful attempt to take the castle back. However damage occurred a few years later owing to a fire which also claimed the lives of the steward’s three daughters. Conna has been in state ownership since 1915.

3 comments on “Not a Happy Place

  1. Brian Walsh says:

    Very interesting piece about a tower I know reasonably well, but now know a lot better .

  2. Michael Christopher Keane says:

    A very interesting contribution on the chequered history of Conna Castle. You refer to its taking by the 3rd Earl of Castlehaven in 1645. As it happens I have just launched a book on the Earls of Castlehaven which includes three chapters on the 3rd Earl, mainly involving his exploits in leading the Catholic Confederacy in the 1640s.
    The Castlehavens or Audleys (the family name) were a colourful lot who played central roles in Irish history for around 250 years. The 1st Earl was a leading English commander in the decisive Battle of Kinsale in which he was wounded. He later became one of Ireland’s largest plantation landowners, possessing 200,000 acres throughout Ireland, extending from West Cork through six midlands counties to Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland. The colourful lives of the Castlehavens are best illustrated by the 2nd Earl. He married royalty as his second wife Anne, eldest daughter of Lord Derby and Alice Spencer of Althorp of more recent Lady Diana fame, was at one stage heir presumptive to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I. However the 2nd Earl was accused by Anne of extreme sexual depravity and, following a sensational trial, was executed in London. It was against this remarkable background that the 3rd Earl, himself a prosecution witness against his father, became a leading commander in the Catholic Confederacy uprising and resistance to Cromwell. The Castlehaven title became defunct when the eighth Earl died childless. In the 19th century three successive Lord Audleys were involved in copper mining on their estate in the Mizen peninsula near Ballydehob in West Cork, a venture which was riddled with fraud and corruption. Their estate later became a focal point in the tragedy of the Great Famine in the region.
    The book is available in selected bookshops as well as online (,, Amazon) or direct from myself, cost €20.

    • Thank you, that’s all most interesting to learn. Curiously, just a few weeks ago I was in Fonthill, Wilts which as you will know had been one of the Castlehaven estates in England (prior to being acquired by the Beckfords…)

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