Like so many other similar buildings in Ireland, the history of Ballyadams Castle, County Laois is often unclear, although its name appears to derive from one Adam O’More who lived here in the late 15th century. At least part of the castle, however, may be some 200 years older, since – as Andrew Tierney has pointed out in his admirable guide to Central Leinster (part of the Buildings of Ireland series) – the two upper storeys of the central B-plan block are a later addition to what was already there, and the earlier section looks not dissimilar to the Norman gatehouses of Welsh castles from the late 13th/early 14th centuries. Tierney therefore speculates that this section of the building may be the remnants of the castle of ‘Kilmokedy’ recorded as being in the possession of the de la Poers in 1346.
Whatever about its earlier history, certainly by the start of the 16th century Ballyadams Castle was in the possession of the O’Mores, then the dominant family in this part of the country. During the upheavals which then followed, in 1551 it was granted by the Earl of Desmond to the Welsh-born John Thomas Bowen, known as ‘John of the Pike’ since he always carried one of these weapons (and, according to legend, did not hesitate to use it). The Bowens remained in occupation thereafter, although this was threatened in 1643 during the Confederate Wars, as the third Earl of Castlehaven would record in his memoirs: ‘While this place was putting in order, I went with a party of horse to Ballyadams, a Castle about a mile distant belonging to Sir John Bowen, Provost Marshal an old soldier, and my long acquaintance. I went to speak with him and after some kind expressions, told him I must put a garrison into his Castle. He flatly denied me and calling for his wife and two very fair daughters, he had desired only one favour, that in case I was resolved to use violence, I would show him where I intended to plant my guns and make my breach. I satisfied his curiosity and asked him what he meant by this question. Because saith he swearing with some warmth, I will cover that, or any other your Lordship shoots at, by hanging out both my daughters in chairs. ’tis true the place was not of much importance, however this conceit saved it.’ So, thanks to this act of bravado, Ballyadams continued to be home to further generations of the same family, and it may have been Sir John’s son William who added a large, two-storey house to the rear and one side of the house, indicating that the Bowen’s now felt secure in their property. At the start of the 18th century Katherine Bowen, William Bowen’s only surviving child and heiress to the place, married Pierce Butler from County Tipperary. In 1759 their grandson sold Ballyadams to Garret Fitz David Butler. Members of the same family own the place still.
In 1837 Samuel Lewis recorded the castle as being ‘the residence of Capt. Butler.’ However, back in August 1782 the antiquary Austin Cooper had visited Ballyadams and came away with quite a different impression of the building. He noted that ‘the front consists of two large round towers between which is an entrance, and over it a wall is carried in a line with the exterior limits of these towers, so as to form a machicolation over the door. Adjoining these towers on each side are two large modem wings, one of which is kept in repair as a lodge by Mr Butler, the present propriotor; the other was never finished. The inside of the castle exhibits a scene sufficient to excite compassion from every lover of ancient grandeur – the boarded floors all torn up, the plastered wall and ceilings threatening the observer with destruction and to complete this grand scene of desolation, the great state room still remains hung with elegant tapestrys now left to rot away.’ Similarly, in 1826 James Norris Brewer described how ‘the ruins of the embattled walls, projecting towers, and elevated keep of this antient edifice, produce an interesting and highly picturesque effect.’ Therefore it would seem that the castle had already begun to fall into disrepair before the end of the 18th century and has been a ruin for more than 200 years, still highly picturesque. Unfortunately, it has been prey to more recent assault than that threatened by Lord Castlehaven in 1643: until three years ago, a pair of iron-studded wooden doors that formerly hung at the entrance to the old castle were stolen. Believed to date from the 17th century, and so perhaps installed when the house to the rear was being erected, the doors were each about eight feet high, three feet wide and over three inches thick. Alas, they have not been seen since.
Robert, that’s a great story about Sir John Bowen and his daughters. I included it in my book ‘The Earls of Castlehaven’ 2018. The 3rd Earl, who led the Confederate army in many of the battles, usually tried to preserve the castles and houses of his enemies as much as possible, a prime example being Lismore castle. As he stated in relation to Lismore and indeed others, he had enjoyed his visits to them in times of peace and so was minded to leave them intact whenever he could.
That’s what happens when our heritage isn’t appreciated and looked after. Someone else will take it. I would imagine there are very few doors of this age left in the country.
That is what happens when authors reveal through photographs and location, what can be stolen by disreputable people
I live in Ballyadams and have great memories of visiting the castle as a boy. John Bowen or Sean a Piche is buried in nearby Ballyadams (old) church. There are many stories locally about him and his infamous deeds. A hole above the entrance door was apparently used to pour boiling water or tar over unwelcome guests and a vertical shaft from top to bottom of the main dwelling with an exterior door was used as lavortrine or to get rid of unwelcome guests depending on whom you want to believe. Stories my father Jack Dempsey RIP related to me My grandparents are buried in the old cemetery.