Dusk at Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1182 by Hervé de Montmorency, uncle of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. The site was initially offered to the monks of Buldwas, Shropshire but after they declined it came under the care of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. Most of the extant buildings, including the substantial church, date from the first half of the 13th century. Dunbrody was officially dissolved in 1536 and nine years later the buildings and surrounding land were acquired by Sir Osborne Etchingham.
A thousand years ago the O’Mahonys were a powerful sept occupying a swathe of territory running from where now stands Cork city to the south-west of the region. However, following the Norman invasion in the second half of the 12th century the O’Mahonys were gradually pushed ever closer to the region’s Atlantic extremities, ultimately settling on the peninsulas that jut into the ocean. Here, according to the medieval Annals of Inisfallen, they built themselves a fortified settlement in a place now known as Dunlough Castle. It is easy to understand why the location was chosen. To the east lies a lake, Dun Lough which would have provided fish for the building’s occupants. To north and south the land rises making it possible to anticipate any potential attack, since those responsible would have been visible on the horizon. Meanwhile immediately to the west are cliffs dropping precipitately to the Atlantic. As Peter Somerville-Large, who formerly lived in this area, wrote more than thirty years ago: ‘To an invading army, the cliff edge, the defensive wall, the lake and the sternly inaccessible approach would have made the castle appear impregnable.’
In this sheltered spot Donagh na Aimrice O’Mahoney (Donagh the Migratory) erected a castle on what is believed to have been the site of an Iron Age fort. What we see here today, however, are the remains of a 15th century development. This gives Dunlough its popular alternative name of Three Castles since the structure comprises three fortified towers joined by a wall some twenty feet high and almost 1,000 feet long running from cliff face to lakeshore. All three towers are rectangular and of three storeys, the most substantial being that furthest to the west. Rising almost fifty feet and over fifty square feet inside, the building would have served as residence for the owners. It has entrances on both the ground and first floors, the latter presumably accessed by means of a ladder, to provide additional protection for occupants in the event of an attack. Internally the first floor was of wood and is therefore long gone but the second floor, of stone, survives: the space above would have been used for dining and large gatherings. The roof of towers from this period was typically of wood and so no longer extant.
The middle tower at Dunlough was probably used for storage and that closest to the lake provided ingress to the whole site. The construction technique used throughout was dry stone masonry, unusual for the period when wet mortar and sand were used in building; dry stone masonry had been common at an earlier date meaning Dunlough was somewhat anachronistic, the reason perhaps being its remote location. The stone used – indigenous schist-slate rock – was quarried from local pits. The nature of its construction left the building vulnerable to decay, since it appears Dunlough was never subject to serious attack. The O’Mahonys remained there until the 1620s when their lands were confiscated: the last occupants are believed to have been members of the O’Donohue family, all of whom apparently died by murder or suicide: according to legend a drop of blood falls every day in the tower closest to the lake. Whether true or not – the building today looks clear of all bloodstains – the story adds to Dunlough’s inherently romantic character.
I send you inclosed a sketch of Hore Abbey, in the county of Tipperary (fig.4). As I am often in the country, and fond of sketching, I shall now and then send you a sketch of some old castle or abbey in this kingdom, which you may think worth a place in your Magazine…
…Formerly there was an abbey of Benedictines or black monks, near St Patrick’s cathedral, at Cashell; but in the year 1272, David MacCarwill, who was then archbishop, having dreamed that the said monks intended cutting off his head, with the advice of his mother, turned them out of their abbey and despoiled them of all its revenues.
Having taken on himself the habit of the Cistercian order the same year, he founded Hore abbey, which was supplied with monks of the same order from Mellifont, in the county of Louth, and endowed it with the possession of the Benedictines, for which, for such an absurd reason, he had so cruelly and unjustly deprived them.
At the general suppression of the monasteries, Patrick Stackboll, who was then abbot, surrendered it the 6th of April, 1541.
Queen Elizabeth granted it to Sir Henry Radcliffe, with all its appurtenances on the 27th of January 1561; since which it has often changed its masters…
…It is situated on a flat, about five hundred yards from the rock of Cashell. The steeple, which is almost perfect, and about 20 feet square, is supported by a number of ogives, springing from each angle, some meeting in an octagon in the centre, and others at the keystone of the arches on which the structure is supported. The choir is about 29 feet in length and 24 in breadth; the east window small and plain. The nave is about 63 feet long and 23 broad.
It is said by the common people there is a subterraneous passge from the cathedral on the rock of Cashell to this abbey, but I could not find the remains of such place.’
From The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1796
In Ireland the term ‘castle’ is widely applied, on occasion to buildings which have nothing fortified about their appearance, and even lack relevant appurtenances such as towers and battlements. The most widespread appropriation has been for structures that are actually tower houses, built in large numbers between the 15th and early 17th centuries. A typical example is Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary believed to have been constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, Chieftain of Ormond (died 1588). Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’: the Ua Cinneides were supposedly the first people in this country to wear helmets when going into battle against the Vikings. The name was later anglicised to Kennedy and the family remains widespread in this part Ireland. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it was surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of four storeys and holds the remains of several chimneypieces as well as two flights of stairs, initially a straight run to the first floor, and then a spiral staircase to the upper levels concluding in a large open space, once roofed and containing the main living chambers.
Lackeen is one of thirty-six properties featured in Tarquin Blake’s latest book, Exploring Ireland’s Castles. Some of them – such as those in Trim, Kilkenny and Limerick – really are castles in the original sense of the word and date back to the arrival here of the Normans. Others, like Lackeen, Leap in County Offaly and Fiddaun in County Galway follow the classic tower house form. Another group, including Kanturk, County Cork and Burncourt, County Tipperary are representative of that transitional period in the late 16th/early 17th century when fortified manor houses were constructed. And finally there are a substantial number of buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century like Tullynally, County Westmeath and Lough Cutra, County Galway that were given a castellated appearance in order to imply greater antiquity.
Many of the castles selected by Blake are now ruins, a common enough occurrence for old properties in this country. Others, like Birr Castle and Charleville Forest, both in County Offaly, still retain their roofs. The two latter are in private hands whereas examples are also included of castles in public ownership, like Malahide in County Dublin and Johnstown, County Wexford. It makes for an eclectic and heady mix, all photographed by Blake who accompanies his pictures with a short history of each property. An excellent introduction to the distinctive yet diverse character of Irish ‘castles’.
A story is told that at some ancient date two brothers, members of the O’Connell family, occupied Ballycarbery Castle as constables for the MacCarthy Mór, lords of much of south Kerry. The elder sibling lived on the lower storey, the younger on the upper and both wished to offer dinner to their lord on the same night. Accordingly to settle the dispute MacCarthy Mór declared he would eat with whichever brother had the meal prepared first. The elder then ordered his servants to block up all access to the upper floors and stand guard so that nobody could enter or exit. When his younger brother discovered this scheme, he arranged to have all his pots filled with Spanish wine in which the food was cooked, and by this means he had dinner ready first and was able to entertain the MacCarthy Mór.
The present Ballycarbery Castle appears to be of 16th century origin, although built on the site of an older fortified structure. From about 1350 the building was occupied and under the care of the O’Connells, serving their overlord the aforementioned MacCarthy Mór. The main body of the building is substantial, measuring some 74 by 42.6 feet with a projecting tower in one corner that rising four storeys. Sections of a surrounding bawn wall remain. A large vaulted chamber on the ground floor survives, and portions of other rooms at this level: much the same is true of the floor above, accessed by one of the building’s two staircases. It is easy to understand why a castle was erected here, since the spot on which it stands is close to the edge of the Atlantic, with views for several miles south-west towards Valencia Island and beyond, and towards Caherciveen and its hinterland to the east. Whoever held the castle could see the approach of any potential opponent, on either land or sea, well in advance.
Ballycarbery Castle appears to have remained in the custody of the O’Connells until the early 17th century: by this time, a large portion of the MacCarthy Mór territory – including the Lakes of Killarney – had passed into the possession of the Brownes, future Earls of Kenmare. The castle itself seems to have been attacked and badly damaged by English troops in 1652 but enough survived to ensure its survival. In the 18th century a family called Lauder built a new house attached to one side of the bawn wall: it appears in a watercolour made in 1792 by Daniel Grose. Already a ruin when he saw it, this building was demolished at the start of the last century. Grose’s picture shows large chunks of masonry fallen from the southern section of the castle, this damage presumably from the mid-17th century when the building was subject to attack. In 1910 it was noted that a tenant farmer had demolished some twenty-five feet of the southern outer wall and was clearing away quantities of stone work until cautioned to desist. It looks as though little has changed since then.
‘The Abbey of Mellifont, in the County of Louth, situate about five miles from Drogheda, in the Barony of Ferrard, was originally one of the most important and magnificent monastic edifices ever erected in Ireland. It was founded, or endowed, by Donough M’Corvoill, or O’Carroll, prince of Oirgiallach, the present Oriel, A.D. 1142, at the solicitation of St. Malachy, the pious and learned archbishop of Armagh, and was the first Cistercian Abbey erected in Ireland.
The monks by whom it was first inhabited were sent over from the parent Monastery of Clairvaux in Normandy, by St. Bernard, and four of them were Irishmen, who had been educated there for the purpose. On the occasion of the consecration of the Church of Mellifont in 1157, a remarkable Synod was held here, which was attended by the primate Gelasius, Christian bishop of Lismore and apostolic legate, seventeen other bishops, and innumerable clergymen of inferior ranks. There were present also Murchertach, or Murtogh O’Loghlin, King of Ireland, O’Eochadha, prince of Ulidia, Tiernan O’Ruaire, prince of Breiffny, and O’Kerbhaill, or O’Carroll, prince of Ergall, or Oriel. On this occasion the King (Murtogh O’Loghlin) gave as an offering for his soul to God, and the Monks of Mellifont, 140 oxen or cows, 60 ounces of gold, and a townland, called Finnavair-na-ningen, near Drogheda. O’Kerbhaill gave also 60 ounces of gold, and as many more were presented by the wife of Tiernan O’Ruaric, who was a daughter of the prince of Meath, that is a former prince Murchad. She likewise gave a golden chalice for the high altar, and sacred vestments. &c., for each of the nine other altars that were in the church. This was the unfortunate Dearbhfhorguill, or Dervorgal, whose abduction by the profligate Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster, was the first link in the chain of events which led to the introduction into Ireland of the British arms, under the celebrated Strongbow. Her pious donations to the abbey of Mellifont appear to have been in some measure intended as an expiation of her crime; and hither she retired towards the end of her life, which she closed in religious exercises about the year 1193…’
‘On the establishment of the English power in the district called the Pale, in which Mellifont is situated, it was taken under the especial protection of the settlers. In 1177 a confirmation of their house and possessions was granted by King Henry II. as appears by the Charter of his son John, who renewed and confirmed the same; and in 1203 a new charter was granted to the abbey by King John, confirming to it several additional possessions which it had acquired after the arrival of the English. Many other grants and confirmations were made by succeeding Princes.
For a considerable period the abbey of Mellifont, as well as the other Cistercian monasteries in Ireland, continued to be connected with the parent establishment at Clairvaux, to which monastery, considerable sums of money were continually remitted. To correct this abuse, an act was passed in the reign of Edward III. enjoining all ecclesiastics not to depart the kingdom on any account whatsoever, nor to raise or transmit any sums of money privately or openly from hence, contrary to the form of the statute. In consequence of this enactment, Reginald, the abbot of Mellifont, was by a jury in 1351, found guilty of raising from the abbots of Boyle, Knockmoy, Bective and Cashel, the sum of 664 florins, one half of which he had remitted to the abbot and convent of Clairvaux; and again, in the year 1370, the abbot, John Terrour, was similarly indicted for remitting to the same abbey the sum of forty marcs. This abbot was, in the year 1378, indicted for killing one of his monks, named John White, in the year 1367; but the jury acquitted him. In 1380, it was enacted by parliament that no mere Irishman should be permitted to make his profession in this abbey…’
‘In 1540, Richard Conter, the last abbot, surrendered his abbacy, and had an annual pension of £40. granted to him for life. He had 16 fishing corraghs or skin-boats at Oldbridge, on the Boyne, which produced him annually £13. 13s. 4d., which, with various other possessions, amounting in the whole to £315. 19s. were granted to Sir Edward Moore, (ancestor to the present noble family of that name,) who made it his principal seat, converting the abbey into a magnificent residence, and, at the same time, a place of defence. In the memorable rebellion of 1641, a considerable body of the Irish sat down before it, and the garrison, which consisted of only 15 horse, and 22 foot, made a vigorous defence; but, on the failure of their ammunition, the foot surrendered, and the horse, charging vigorously through the enemy, arrived safe at Drogheda.
Such are the chief incidents in the history of this important monastic foundation, of which but trifling remains are now to be found, but these are sufficient evidence of its ancient beauty and splendour. They consist of the ruins of a beautiful little chapel, dedicated to St. Bernard, which in its perfect state was an exquisite specimen of the Gothic, or pointed architecture of the thirteenth century.
This chapel had a noble eastern window, and three smaller ones on each side, nearly all of which are now destroyed, together with the entrance doorway…This doorway was ornamented with a profusion of gilding, and painting in variegated colours, and was justly considered as one of the most beautiful specimens of the kind to be found in Ireland. It is said to have been sold to make a chimney piece!
Not inferior in architectural elegance to this chapel, are the ruins of an octagonal building, supposed a baptistery, on the top of which was a large cistern, from which water was conveyed by means of pipes, to the different offices of the abbey. The style of this building, which is Roman, indicates an earlier age, and it is probably coeval with the foundation of the monastery.
To these is to be added, the lofty abbey gateway; it is now appropriated to the humble purpose of a mill-dam.’
Extracts from The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 22, November 24, 1832. The little chapel described here as being dedicated to Saint Bernard was actually the abbey’s Chapter House and likewise the ‘Baptistry’ was the monks’ Lavabo.
Anyone driving south-east from Durrow, County Laois on the N77 cannot fail to notice a striking ruin on a rise just outside the town. This is Knockatrina, yet another Irish house with unclear origins. The land here was owned by the Flower family, created Viscounts Ashbrook in 1751, whose main residence was nearby at Castle Durrow. The fifth Lord Ashbrook had three sons, the youngest of whom, Lt-Colonel Robert Flower is known to have been living in Knockatrina by the late 1860s following his marriage to Gertrude Hamilton: with no expectations of inheriting the main property, this would have been as much as he could expect to receive. And as the youngest of the family, he had to earn his living which he proved admirably capable of doing since he had a strong interest in engineering. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a handloom for the unskilled and a latch-hook needle for faster weaving: these devices would be put to use by his neighbour the fifth Viscount de Vesci who in 1904 opened a carpet factory in Abbeyleix. Two years later Robert Flower became eighth Viscount Ashbrook, neither of his elder brothers having had male heirs (in 1877 the sixth Lord Ashbrook had divorced his wife Emily on the grounds of adultery with a Captain Hugh Sydney Baillie). As a result he came into possession of Castle Durrow but by that time the family finances were in poor condition and three years after his death in 1919 the ninth viscount was obliged to sell Castle Durrow.
Knockatrina was inherited by the eighth Lord Ashbrook’s eldest daughter the Hon Frances Mary Flower who in 1893 married Henry White, the younger son of a neighbour. As early as 1908 she and her husband were in trouble for failure to pay debts yet somehow they managed to hang on. Following her husband’s death in 1923, Frances White continued to farm and train horses, despite being declared bankrupt in 1928. It was only in 1946 that she finally moved out of Knockatrina and into a nursing home in Kilkenny where she died the following year aged eighty.
Knockatrina meanwhile had been bought by Mary Mooney who acted as housekeeper and companion to another local woman, Amy Mercier (Mary Mooney would be the beneficiary of the latter’s will). It seems Ms Mooney acquired Knockatrina as an investment rather than a residence since in 1958 her agent, a farmer in the vicinity, arranged to have the house stripped of all removable fittings and unroofed (this was the period when any such building with a roof was liable to domestic rates, hence many of them had the slates removed). Left a shell, Knockatrina quickly deteriorated and the land on which the remains stand was subsequently sold.
As is so often the case, no records appear to exist offering information about when Knockatrina was built or who might have been its architect. It has been proposed that Robert Flower was responsible for the house’s construction but this seems unlikely, not least because by the time he moved there the family was already burdened by debt. More importantly, on the basis of design it looks to belong to the group of medium-sized country houses including Rathwade, Wykeham and Mount Leinster Lodge. There were all in nearby County Carlow and built during the 1830s to the designs of the prolific (and – like the Flowers – permanently indebted) Daniel Robertson in a loosely Tudor Gothic style. If Knockatrina belongs to the same group, and indeed was designed or inspired by the same architect, this means it would have been erected during the lifetime of the fourth Viscount Ashbrook, whose first wife Deborah Friend was a considerable heiress. Given its proximity to Castle Durrow, Knockatrina would then have served as either a dower house or an agent’s residence. However neither would have been required by the late 1860s, so handing it on to a younger son made sense. Inevitably given that the house has been unroofed for almost sixty years almost nothing of the interior survives (other than some tiles on the entrance hall floor). Fortunately, as can be seen in the photographs above, the present owner does not wish for the building to fall into further disrepair. On the contrary, he is keen to undertake a programme of restoration over the coming years and return Knockatrina to residential use. All being well it won’t be long before the view from the N77 offers passers-by not a ruin but once again a fully functioning house.