A Pasteboard Castle



For a long time based in what is now north County Cork, the O’Keeffe (in Irish  Ó Caoimh) family used to claim descent from the Celtic goddess Clíodhna. She and another mythical woman Aibell were in love with the same man Caomh but Clíodhna triumphed by turning her rival into a white cat. Whatever about this legend, it is true that members of the family were Kings of Munster for several centuries but with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, they were driven from their original territory and obliged to settle a little further west, the senior branch having its seat at Dromagh, just a few miles east of the border with Kerry. Here a castle still stands as evidence of their former presence.





As it now exists, Dromagh Castle is thought to date from around the late 16th century when constructed by Art Ó Caoimh who in 1582 received a re-grant of his lands from the English authorities (a common device during this period, which not only ensures the loyalty of Irish chiefs to the crown, but also changed the nature of land ownership from collective to individual). The family seems to have stayed out of the conflict until the time of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s onwards, when Dromagh was until the control of Donal Ó Caoimh. The last great battle of this conflict took place a few miles away at Knocknaclashy in July 1651 and it is said that the leader of the Catholic Confederate forces, Donough MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry, marched out of Dromagh to face General Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, head of the Cromwellian forces. The latter’s victory on this occasion signalled the imminent end of Roman Catholic opposition to the English government. It appears that Dromagh Castle may have suffered some damage at this time, and was also taken from Ó Caoimh but following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the property was returned to the family. Its history thereafter seems unclear but the original owners may have supported the cause of James II at the end of the 1680s, after which they lost their lands for good. When next mentioned in the second quarter of the 18th century, Dromagh Castle was owned, or at least occupied, by a William Philpot whose daughter Christabelle married Henry Leader in 1741. The Leaders had arrived in Ireland in the middle of the previous century and acquired land in this part of the country, their seat being the now-ruined Mount Leader a few miles to the south-west. Through judicious marriage, the Leaders acquired not just Dromagh Castle but also other estates in the vicinity, and in the early 19th century established a number of profitable collieries. In the early 19th century, Nicholas Philpot Leader was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the cause of Catholic Emancipation, and as an MP criticized the lack of government measures to relieve the ‘mass of misery, distress and destitution’ in Ireland.





Given that they owned other houses not far away, the Leader family did not live in Dromagh Castle but instead farmed the land. They fitted out the interior courtyard with offfices and other buildings along the two longer walls, as well as a certain amount of accommodation in the circular corner towers. Much of what can be seen today is due to their work on the site. It is likely that here, as elsewhere, the centre of the space would have been occupied by a tower but this has long since vanished. The Leaders added battlements to the outer bawn walls and then raised the height of the corner towers, making them five storeys to the front and and three to the rear. The join between original and later sections can clearly be seen on the outside of the building. Battlements were again added, as they were to the small square towers flanking the main entrance fore and aft. The upper portions of the corner towers have thinner walls – and larger window openings – than the original lower parts, showing their purpose was more decorative than defensive. It had become, in effect, a pasteboard castle. Unfortunately this lack of substance has meant the towers are vulnerable if not maintained. Indeed a section of that in the south-east corner has already fallen down, and a large crack down the front of what still stands suggests more could soon follow suit. Dromagh Castle remained in use until the War of Independence when members of the IRA set fire to the property in March 1921. While some of the lower buildings inside the walls were subsequently used, in more recent years it has stood empty and gradually falling into decay. Perhaps some wealthy descendants of the original O’Keeffes might like to consider rescuing their former family seat?


One comment on “A Pasteboard Castle

  1. I know the detail is paper thin but it looks enchanting.

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