Now in the middle of a busy farmyard but presumably once standing on its own, this is Clara Castle, a five-storey late 15th/early 16th century tower house in County Kilkenny. It was originally constructed for the Shortall family but in the second half of the 17th century passed into the possession of the Byrnes, successive generations occupying the building until 1905. Alas, the building does not seem to be open to visitors at present, as seemingly it has well-preserved interiors on the upper floors, including original oak beams and floorboards, no doubt due to the fact that it remained a residence into the last century.
‘Ballymote Castle – Just near the town of that name is 150 feet square, sixty high, and flanked and quoined by towers six feet broad in the wall, with a strong rampart and parapet all around. The front is very regular, and the whole of this ruin equally handsome and strong.
It was built in the year 1300 by Richard de Bourg, second Earl of Ulster. This castle, and that of Sligo, being in the hands of the Irish, made a considerable stand against the reduction of that part of the country. But Ireton, having joined with Sir Charles Coote, retook them in 1652.’
From Statistical Survey of the County of Sligo by James M’Parlan, 1802.
As M’Parlan noted more than 200 years ago, Ballymote Castle, County Sligo was originally built in 1300 by Richard de Burgh, second Earl of Ulster, often called the Red Earl, a great-grandson of the Anglo-Norman knight, William de Burgh who had arrived in Ireland in 1185 and before his death had already taken the title ‘Lord of Connacht.’ Like his forebear, the second earl was ambitious and combative, and often in opposition to his fellow Norman lords, not least John FitzThomas, first Earl of Kildare. However, his pugnaciousness failed him in 1315 following the invasion of Ulster by Edward Bruce. The latter’s brother, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was married to de Burgh’s daughter Elizabeth (the couple’s son would become David II of Scotland) but that did not stop him attacking the earl and defeating him in battle in County Antrim (Edward Bruce would in turn be defeated and killed three years later at the Battle of Faughart).
It was during the upheaval that followed his defeat by Bruce’s army that the earl lost his recently-built castle in Ballymote, which was then seized by the O’Connor clan. Thereafter no one was able to hold onto it for very long. Just twenty years later the O’Connors lost the castle to the MacDermots who would, in turn lose it to the MacDonaghs in 1381. For the next two centuries, ownership of the castle passed back and forth between these local families. Finally in 1577 it fell to the English. However, Richard Bingham, appointed Governor of Connacht, sacked the place in 1584, and a few years later it was attacked and burnt by an alliance of local families, the O’Connors, O’Hartes and O’Dowds. Next the MacDonaghs regained control of the site, but soon after sold it to the O’Donnells, supposedly for £400 and 300 cattle. Following the defeat of Red Hugh O’Donnell at the Battle of Kinsale (1601), the castle once again passed into English hands. In 1610 it was granted by the crown to Sir William Taaffe whose son John was created Baron of Ballymote in 1628. But during the Confederate Wars it was once more subject to attack and in 1652 was taken by General Ireton. Finally, in the Williamite Wars, the castle was once again taken by the MacDonaghs before being surrendered to Arthur Forbes, Viscount Granard in 1690. Given such a history, it is remarkable that much of the building still stood, but at that point Ballymote Castle was finally abandoned, its moat filled in and the place left to become the ruin that can be seen today.
Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly was originally known as Castle Bernard, its name reflecting that of the man responsible for commissioning much of what is seen today, Thomas Bernard, although an earlier house is incorporated to the rear of the building. All cased in crisp limestone, it was designed in the early 1830s by architect siblings James and George Pain, and reflects the period’s fondness for the Tudor-Revival style, although an octagonal tower on the south-west corner harks back to an earlier era. Kinnitty Castle was burnt out in 1922 and subsequently rebuilt, before becoming an agricultural college in the 1950s. A quarter of a century ago it was converted into an hotel, and remains so to the present. Inside the main gates is a pretty Tudoresque lodge (with the most charming ogee-headed doorcase) which is thought to be older than the main house, perhaps dating to the opening years of the 19th century and designed by Samuel Beazley. Alas, despite providing a first impression for guests to the hotel, it stands empty and has been allowed to fall into the present sad condition.
What remains of an old tower house in Ardmayle, County Tipperary. Some four storeys high and likely dating from the 15th century, it is one of two ‘castles’ close to each other, the other being a later fortified manor, also now in ruins. Around 1225 the lands here were acquired by Richard Mór de Burgh, 1st Lord of Connaught (c. 1194 – 1242), Justicar of Ireland, following his marriage to Egidia de Lacy, daughter of Walter de Lacy, and Margaret de Braose. Later they passed into the ownership of the Butlers and finally the Cootes before it appears the place was abandoned. Today is home only to cattle who can take shelter from the elements under a fine vaulted roof.
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.
What’s left of Blackhall Castle, County Kildare. A typical late-medieval tower house of four storeys, it was built by the Eustace family who controlled much of this part of the country between the 13th and early 17th centuries. The building survived intact until February 1999 when, in the aftermath of a storm, the entire east front collapsed, bringing down much of the south and north walls. Today the exposed west wall provides an interesting spectacle, offering a display of how the different levels were arranged, from a vaulted chamber on the ground floor up to a well-lit living space with large fireplace at the very top of the building, access provided by a spiral staircase in the south-west corner. A sheila-na-gig once set higher into the castle has been moved into a wall space at eye level.
In the last quarter of the 16th century a number of members of the Cuffe family, all from Somerset, arrived in Ireland seeking opportunities to enrich themselves. Henry Cuffe, for example, came to this country as secretary to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex when the latter was appointed Lord Lieutenant here in 1599. But when Essex fell from favour two years later and was executed, Cuffe suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, one of his relatives, perhaps a brother (it seems unclear) called Hugh Cuffe had also settled in Ireland where he was granted some of the Earl of Desmond’s lands in Munster, following the earl’s own death in 1583. Initially Hugh Cuffe seems to have been based in County Clare, but within a few years he was recorded as receiving land in County Cork, close to property which had been given to Edmund Spenser. However, before much longer had passed Cuffee had to surrender at least some of what he had been granted, after his right to it was challenged by members of an Old English family related to the FitzGeralds . Nevertheless, he must have held onto something because a marriage settlement drawn up in 1604 between his daughter Dorothea, and Charles Coote, describes Hugh Cuffe as being ‘of Cuffe’s Wood (or Kilmore), County Cork.’
Like Hugh Cuffe, Charles Coote was an English settler, arriving here in 1600 as captain of a foot regiment in the army of Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy who had succeeded the Earl of Essex as Lord Deputy of Ireland: Coote was therefore a member of the force that a year later defeated the Irish and Spanish forces at the Battle of Kinsale. He soon began to reap the benefits of being on the winning side. In 1605 he was appointed Provost Marshal of Connaught and then in 1613 was given the office of General Collector and Receiver of the King’s Composition Money for Connaught, also for life, before being further promoted to Vice-President of Connaught. As a result of holding these positions, his main base was in Roscommon where he built a residence, Castle Coote. He also founded the towns of Jamestown and Carrick-on-Shannon, both in County Leitrim, as well as Mountrath, County Laois. Knighted in 1616, five years later Coote was appointed a Privy Councilor by James I, who also made him the first Baronet of Ireland, ‘in consideration of his good and faithful services in the province of Ulster.’ All seemed to be going well for him until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars in 1641. Although by then aged 60, he was instructed by the English government to raise a regiment and suppress insurrection, which he did with considerable force in County Wicklow before moving north. In May 1642 he was shot dead while leading a cavalry charge against a Confederate army in Trim, County Meath.
As already mentioned, in 1604 Hugh Cuffe’s daughter Dorothea married Charles Coote. Although the couple spent much of their time in Connaught, Coote owned land in what is now Laois but was then called Queen’s County. Here at some unknown date, perhaps around 1621 when he became a baronet, perhaps later, he embarked on building a substantial new house, which in honour of his wife he named Castle Cuffe. Was the place ever finished and occupied? We shall probably never know because soon after the onset of the Confederate Wars it was threatened with attack by the O’Dunnes who had formerly owned the land on which the castle stood. A cunning strategy was adopted to capture the place: Captain Daniel Dunne placed a tree trunk, coloured to look like a large cannon, on a hill some distance from the building and threatened to fire on it unless the occupants surrendered, which they duly did – fleeing to the town of Birr some miles away. Meanwhile, Dunne’s troops, having taken everything they wanted from Castle Cuffe, set fire to the place. It appears to have remained a ruin ever since and only scant remains survive, although their height gives an idea of how impressive a house must once have stood here, constructed on a H-plan, rising three storeys high and with a facade 100 feet long. What mostly survive are a number of gable ends topped with high, squared chimneys, their striking appearance – as is so often the case in Ireland – a matter of indifference to the cattle which now call Castle Cuffe home.
Castle Deel, County Mayo derives its name from the adjacent Deel river beside which a branch of the Bourke family built a great four-storey tower house, probably in the 16th century. This eventually passed to Colonel Thomas Bourke who, after he had supported James II during the Williamite Wars, saw his property forfeited by the English government and subsequently granted to the Gores, future Earls of Arran. They remained living there until the late 18th century when a new house – now also in ruins – was built close by, after which Deel Castle was occupied by the land agent. At some date, perhaps in the 17th century while still owned by the Bourkes, a residential wing was added to one side of the tower house, this section distinguished by a handsome rusticated doorway. Along another side runs a long service wing. In 1732 when Mary Delany (then still the widowed Mrs Pendarves) visited Mayo, she called on the place, afterwards writing to her sister that it was ‘an old castle patched up and very irregular, but well fitted up and good handsome rooms within. The master of the house, Arthur Gore, a jolly red-faced widower, has one daughter, a quiet thing that lives in the house with him; his dogs and horses are as dear to him as his children, his laugh is hearty, though his jests are coarse’. Deel Castle was still intact during the earlier part of the last century but has since been left to fall into its present sad condition.
For those who believe in the supernatural, there’s stiff competition for the title of Ireland’s Most Haunted House. But one property which often appears to lead the field is Leap Castle, County Offaly. Superbly located on a rocky outcrop and with views across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in its present form the core of the castle is a late medieval tower house but likely built on the site, and perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier fortified structure. The name Leap (pronounced, incidentally, ‘Lepp’), derives from the Irish Léim Uí Bhánáin meaning Leap of the O’Bannons, the latter being a minor sept in this part of the country which for many centuries was dominated by another family, the O’Carrolls, ancient rulers of the kingdom of Éile. Leap Castle became one of their principal strongholds, although their authority was greatly weakened over the course of the 16th century by internecine feuding. To give a flavour of what took place during this period: in 1541 the castle’s then occupant Fearganhainm O’Carroll was murdered by the O’Mulloys, and was succeeded by one of his sons Teige ‘the one-eyed.’ It has been claimed that Teige murdered one of his own brothers, a priest, while the latter was performing the rite of mass in the chapel at the top of the castle. In any case, Teige in due course met a sticky end when he was killed by another of his kinsmen, Cahir O’Carroll who was in turn killed by Teige’s younger brother William. Inevitably William was then murdered by one of his relations, and his son John was killed the following year by one of his cousins, Mulroney, a son of the late Teige. It will come as no surprise to learn that Mulroney was then slain by John’s brother Charles, who would eventually also meet a bloody end: no wonder the place is often thought to be haunted. Somehow, despite this extraordinary roll call of murder and mayhem, the O’Carrolls managed to hold onto Leap Castle and its surrounding lands until the mid-17th century when they were finally displaced by another family.
The first of a long line of men bearing the same name to live there, Jonathan Darby is thought to have been granted Leap Castle in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, as a reward for his military services. Although he briefly lost the property back to the O’Carrolls in the aftermath of the 1660 Restoration, Darby and his descendants would remain in residence at Leap until the early 1920s, one Jonathan succeeding the next. In the first half of the 18th century, the building was expanded by the addition of wings on either side of the tower house, and the interiors remodelled in the Gothick style, inspired by Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1742). Alas, these would all be lost when the castle was gutted by fire in 1922. Typical of the time, the family’s younger sons had to find alternative careers and in two instances, despite the estate being as far inland as is possible in Ireland, they became distinguished admirals in the Royal Navy, George Darby commanding the Channel Fleet during the American War of Independence, and then relieving Gibraltar during the Spanish siege of 1781, and in the next generation Henry d’Esterre Darby being an important naval figure during the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the most interesting character produced by the family was John Nelson Darby, his middle name given to acknowledge his godfather and family friend, Horatio Nelson. Typical of many younger sons, John Nelson became an Anglican clergyman renowned as a young curate serving in Delgany, County Wicklow for his fervent, and often successful, evangelising of Roman Catholics in the area. However, he parted ways with the Church of Ireland, ostensibly because of an insistence by the Archbishop of Dublin that converts must swear an oath of loyalty to the English crown, but more likely because it was insufficiently evangelical for his tastes. He then became one of the founders of a new Christian movement which was established in Dublin in the late 1820s: the Plymouth Brethren, its name derived from the first meeting of the group in England which took place in the Devon town (a subset, otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren, were also called Darbyites). Many visitors to and natives of Dublin will be familiar with the Davenport Hotel close to Merrion Square: this building dates from the 1860s when built as a gospel hall for the Plymouth Brethren. The largest such hall ever constructed, it could hold 3,500 persons seated, or 5,000 standing. The Merrion Hall remained in use for its original purpose until the 1980s when sold, and following a fire which gutted the interior, today only the facade is original. One suspects there is little awareness now of how strong was the Christian evangelistic movement in mid-19th century Ireland, not least among the country’s landed gentry: a number of notable families in County Kerry, for example, became members of the Plymouth Brethren during this period. It is an area ripe for further investigation.
Returning to Leap Castle, this remained in possession of the Darbys until July 1922 when destroyed during the Civil War. The last of the family to live there, yet another Jonathan, was married to Mildred Dill who had a particular interest in the supernatural and held séances in the house, which helps to explain why it has been associated with hauntings. Writing in the Occult Review in 1909, she described an incident in Leap Castle: ‘I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin, gaunt, shadowy. its face was human, to be more accurate, inhuman. Its lust in its eyes, which seemed half decomposed in black cavities, stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.’ All of which helps to explain why the building has long been associated with hauntings. Meanwhile her husband Jonathan Darby appears to have been a testy man, given to outbursts of temper. Inheriting the estate while still in his teens, he also inherited much debt at a time when the Land Wars were getting underway and tenants resisting efforts to increase the rents they were obliged to pay. Nevertheless, determined to improve his financial circumstances, Darby raised rents by up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, unlike many other landowners, he declined the opportunity to sell the greater part of his estate under the generous terms of the 1903 Wyndham Act. The consequence was that he was not popular in the area, and that Leap Castle was ripe for attack once the War of Independence and then the Civil War saw a widespread breakdown of law and order. In late July 1922 the Darbys were out of the country, and the castle was occupied only by a caretaker, his wife and child. In the early hours of July 30th, the building was set on fire by a party of 11 men, who in the usual fashion, poured petrol over the floors and furniture and then set it alight. As a consequence the castle’s north wing was completely gutted, but the main part of the property remained intact. Looting took place during the day and then, in the early hours of July 31st, the rest of the building was set alight and destroyed. Darby duly applied for compensation for the loss of his property, suing the county council on the grounds that local residents were responsible for destroying his home and that the relevant military authorities had made no effort to intervene and save the castle. He sought £35,000 but, as was almost invariably the case, received only a fraction of this sum, £7,000. Furthermore, the land he had hitherto refused to sell was now compulsorily purchased by the Land Commission and distributed among tenants. By the mid-1930s he no longer owned any part of the Leap estate, and the castle stood a ruined shell. That is how I remember first seeing it almost 40 years ago, not long after the building had been bought by an Australian, Peter Bartlett whose mother had been a Bannon and who therefore felt an affinity with the place. In the years before his death in 1989, he carried out initial restoration work on the site but a lot remained – and remains to be done. In 1991 Leap Castle was bought by traditional musician Seán Ryan who has lived there with his wife and daughter ever since, untroubled by having to share the spot with multiple ghosts. More structural work has been undertaken but, as can be seen, large parts of the building, not least the north wing, remain shells. Whatever about being haunted, Leap Castle is certainly a most haunting place.
Located on the shores of Lough Gill, this is Parke’s Castle, County Leitrim. Despite its name, the building was originally a tower house erected by the O’Rourkes and it was here that Sir Brian O’Rourke entertained Francisco de Cuéllar, the sea captain shipwrecked in Ireland in 1588 after participating in the Spanish Armada, who later wrote an account of his time in this country. Sir Brian just a few years later was convicted of treason by the English government and hanged in London’s Tyburn. In the early 17th century his tower house and surrounding land were acquired by the planter Sir Roger Parke who created the building seen today. In 1677 two of Parke’s children were drowned in the lough, and his surviving daughter Anne married Sir Francis Gore and moved to his home in neighbouring County Sligo. As a result, the castle, a particularly fine example of the plantation fortified house, fell into disrepair. It remained in that state until restored by the Office of Public Works in the last century and opened to the public.