Like many Irish houses, Castle Bernard, County Cork has a long and complex architectural history, some aspects of which are still not clear. The place takes its name from the Bernard family, the first of whom – christened Francis like many of his successors – came here during the Plantation of Munster in the late 16th century. He acquired lands which had formerly been owned by the O’Mahonys and was centred around a great square tower house called Castle Mahon to the immediate south of the river Bandon. This became the Bernards’ residence, its name at some date changed to Castler Bernard, until c.1715, Francis Bernard, great-grandson of the original settler, and Solicitor-General of Ireland, Prime Serjeant and Judge of the Court of Common Pleas initiated work on a new building, seemingly to the designs of John Coltsman of Cork. This involved adding wings to the old tower house, the whole encased in brick with Corinthian pilasters and other ornamentations in Portland stone. A decade later the surrounding demesne was transformed into a formal garden with terraces, cascades, jets d’eau and statuary. This arrangement lasted until the end of the 18th century when Castle Bernard underwent a further transformation.
In 1794 the Cork architect Michael Shanahan, best-known work commissioned in Ulster by his patron Frederick Hervey, Earl-Bishop of Derry, prepared designs for a new house at Castle Bernard. (For more on Shanahan and the Earl-Bishop, see It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For There is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014). This involved pulling down the additions to the original tower house, and instead erecting a structure to its immediate east, a linking corridor running between the two. In 1800 another Corkman, William Deane, prepared estimates of £522.4s.4d. for work in finishing the house. In both instances, the client was Francis Bernard who from 1793 gradually scaled the hierarchy of the peerage until 1800 when created first Earl of Bandon. The house he commissioned was classical in style, of two storeys over basement and with a nine-bay entrance front. The garden front was similar but broken by a substantial full-height bow occupying the three centre bays. Just fifteen years later, Lord Bandon undertook further work, this time by an unknown architect, in order to give it the – largely superficial – appearance of a gothic castle, and thereby provide better links both to the old tower house and to the Bernard family’s ancient pedigree. While the garden front experienced little other than the insertion of gothic tracery in its windows, battlements and turrets were added to the façade, and the Bernard coat of arms carved in stone above the main entrance. No great changes were made to the interior, which despite the gothic fenestration otherwise retained its classical decoration. On the ground floor, an entrance hall with Ionic pilasters and columns gave access to a wide corridor which ran like a spine down the centre of the house. Among the reception rooms, the most notable was an oval drawing room overlooking the garden: one sees in its design the abiding influence of the Earl-Bishop on Shanahan.
The Bernard family remained in residence at Castle Bernard until June 1921 when the 70-year old fourth earl and his wife were woken in the early hours of the morning by a group of IRA members and ordered out of the house, which was then set on fire. Lord Bandon was then taken into captivity by the men and held for the next three weeks, constantly moved from house to house before being released at the gates of the now-ruined Castle Bernard after three weeks: during this time he had lost a stone in weight and never recovered from the experience, dying less than three years later. He and his wife had no children, so the title passed to a first cousin twice-removed, Air Chief Marshal Percy Bernard, widely known as ‘Paddy’ Bandon. But he inherited not a lot else and so, although some compensation was received by the family, Castle Bernard was not rebuilt (the fifth earl constructed a modest bungalow behind the ruin). Since he in turn had no son, the earldom became extinct. Although his descendants still live on the estate, the land in front of Castle Bernard is now a golf course.