When writing here last month about Fota, County Cork (see Saved for the Nation « The Irish Aesthete), mention was made of the Barrys, Earls of Barrymore. For many centuries, their main residence lay much further north, in Castlelyons. Although subject to dispute, this village’s name (Caisleán Ó Liatháin) is said to derive from having been an important centre in the ancient kingdom of Uí Liatháin. However, in the last quarter of the 12th century, the land in this part of the country came into the hands of the Anglo-Norman knight Philip de Barry; his son William’s ownership of this property was confirmed by King John in 1207. Some time thereafter, the family constructed a castle on a limestone outcrop at Castlelyons and this became one of their most important bases. A settlement grew up around the base of the castle, with a Carmelite priory established to the immediate north in the early 14th century.
David de Barry is thought to have become first Lord Barry in 1261, beginning the family’s ascent through the ranks of the peerage and indicating its increasing importance. In 1541 his descendant John fitz John Barry was created first Viscount Buttevant, and then in 1628 David Barry became the first Earl of Barrymore. He was indirectly responsible for the construction of what can now be seen of the former castle at Castlelyons. The earl had been born in 1605, some months after the death of his father, so that he was raised by his grandfather, the fifth viscount who died in 1617. Young David then became a ward of the powerful Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. Seeing an opportunity to ally himself with a long-established dynasty in the region, the latter duly arranged a marriage in 1621 between his young charge and his eldest daughter Alice: the bride was aged 14, the groom 16. In the mid-1630s Boyle also decided to rebuild his son-in-law’s residence at Castlelyons, since the Barrys were already heavily in debt (the canny Great Earl had earlier taken on the Barry wardship in exchange for the redemption of substantial mortgages left by the fifth Viscount). A vast new house was erected on the site of the old one, but the Earl of Barrymore had little opportunity to enjoy it, since he died in September 1642, probably as a result of wounds received at the Battle of Liscarroll a couple of weeks’ earlier. His heir, once again a minor, became the second earl. Successive generations then followed, but increasingly the family spent their time in England and it appears that by the mid-18th century the great castle at Castlelyons was falling into disrepair. This probably explains why, in 1771, repair work was undertaken on the building’s roof. Unfortunately, careless workmen left a soldering iron against wooden beams and the place caught fire. The sixth earl – who would die two years later – was as debt-ridden as his forebears and so made no effort to repair the damage. Instead, the castle was abandoned, along with its surrounding gardens, and left to fall into the state of ruin that can be seen today.
Understanding the original layout of Castlelyons Castle can be challenging today, since what would have been the building’s central courtyard has long since been quarried away. In addition (and perhaps as a result of the quarrying), both the west and east ranges have disappeared, leaving just exposed sections of those to the south and north. What still stands on the south-west corner is considered to be the oldest part of the property, perhaps part of the original 13th century construction, with walls in some places 3.4 metres thick. Across what is today a deep ravine rises the north range, dating from the 17th century and dominated by three rectangular chimney stacks that rise above the three-storey block (with a basement at the east end). Beyond the exposed rubble walls, nothing survives of the interior and one must imagine what the house looked like when first built as it then included a great gallery, some 90 feet long and two storeys high, although it appears this may never have been finished (presumably due to the death of the first Earl of Barrymore and the chaos of the Confederate War). The castle was once surrounded by equally splendid grounds, with a large terrace to the immediate north and a series of enclosed gardens to the west and south, of which scant traces remain, serving as witness to the decline and fall of the once-might Barry family.