The remains of the cloister garth at Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo. This house was founded in 1216 by Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair (Cathal O’Conor) King of Connaught, and given to the Canons Regular of St Augustine. The church was almost destroyed by fire half a century later, but rebuilt and, along with the ancillary buildings, survived until the 17th century when badly damaged by Cromwellian forces. The church and some other structures on the site have been restored over the past 50 years, but the cloister, in its present form dating from the 15th century, remains as shown here.
Today a dormitory town sprawling adjacent to Dublin airport, Swords is thought to have originated as a monastic settlement founded by Saint Colmcille in the sixth century. Today the most prominent feature of its pre-modern existence is a medieval castle which, having been left in ruins for hundreds of years, was restored by the local authorities in the late 1990s. The castle is thought to have been constructed around 1200 by John Comyn, a Benedictine monk and former chaplain to Henry II on whose recommendation he was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1181 (although he did not arrive in Ireland until some years later). Comyn’s principal residence was St Sepulchre’s Palace in the centre of Dublin, but he had also been granted lands to the north of the city, hence his construction of a castle in Swords. Following Comyn’s death in 1212, it remained a manorial residence for successive Archbishops of Dublin until c.1324 when the then-holder of the office, Alexander de Bicknor, erected a new archiepiscopal palace to the west of Dublin in Tallaght. Swords Castle’s primary function was never defensive (which meant it was vulnerable to attack), and accordingly it lacks the sturdy features of other such Anglo-Norman buildings. Roughly in the shape of a pentagon, the curtain wall, its height varying between three and ten metres, encloses an area of more than an acre, with the gatehouse (and adjacent chapel) to the south and a large, four-storey building known as the Constable’s Tower, to the north: the latter was likely added in the mid-15th century by which time the castle was occupied by the archbishop’s Chief Constable. Other structures inside the enclosure, such as a Great Hall along the east side, have since disappeared.
Although Swords Castle no longer served as a residence for the Archbishops of Dublin after the 1320s, it continued to be an archiepiscopal property, or at least placed by the government at their disposal, and, as mentioned, appears to have been occupied by holders of the office of Chief Constable. Even before being displaced by the palace in Tallaght, the buildings here may have been damaged during the military campaign waged by Edward Bruce in Ireland from 1315-18, and this would have discouraged residency. Already by the 16th century, the place was in poor repair, described in 1583 as ‘the quite spoiled old castle’. In 1641 during the Confederate Wars it briefly served as a meeting place for old Catholic families before they were put to flight by Sir Charles Coote. Thereafter the castle looks to have been abandoned, until, following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870, it was sold to the Cobbe family of Newbridge. For much of the last century, the castle was leased to a local shopkeeper who used the site as an orchard. In the 1930s it came under the care of the Office of Public Works before finally being sold in 1985 to the county council.
As already noted, Swords Castle was extensively restored by the local authority in 1996-98. The chapel, for example, had its walls reconstructed and a new oak-beamed roof constructed. Inside, a tiled floor was laid, its design based on remnants found during an earlier archaeological excavation. The windows on the north and south side of the chapel feature the four Evangelists, while that at the east end depicts the Tree of Jesse, inspired by the famous window in Chartres Cathedral. Similarly, considerable work was undertaken on the mid-15th century Constable’s Tower, which once again was given a new timber and slate roof, internal oak floors and new glass in all the windows.
Eight years ago, the local authority, Fingal County Council, commissioned a plan to create what is called the Swords Cultural Quarter adjacent to the old castle; indeed, part of it will be developed on a cleared site running along the eastern side of the ancient structure. The ‘cultural quarter’ will incorporate a library, performance space and arts venue. According to the authority’s own documentation, this scheme ‘is intended to be the town’s centre of knowledge, arts and culture with a strong focus on people and experiences which, through the delivery of a modern, dynamic, inspirational and educational programme of events and activities, will become a destination and a focal point for the local community and visitors.’ Last July, it was announced that the architectural practice O’Donnell + Tuomey would lead the design team, although actual construction work, taken two years, is not expected to begin until autumn 2023. In the interim, there is plenty of time to visit Swords Castle, which is open to the public without charge, in its present guise.
‘The church to which this doorway belongs stands in a glen at the foot of that part of the mountain of Slieve Mairgre called Knockara, two miles and a half from the town of Carlow, in the parish of Killeshin, barony of Slievemargy, and county of Carlow. The name is derived originally from that in the valley in which it was built, Gleann Uissean, by which title it is mentioned in the Annals and Martyrologies.
The ruin stands not far from a rath on a knoll overlooking a little waterfall, which tumbles over a ledge of rock in the ravine at its foot. The gables and side walls of the church are clothed with ivy and long grass. The ancient pillar-clustered doorway, arch within arch, with its rich adornment of sculptured traceries, mouldings, bas-reliefs and inscriptions appearing in the midst of this framework of leaves, forms a picture of extreme beauty.’
‘The church was remodelled at three different periods. Before the east wall fell, it was 66 ft. long by 25 ft. 8 in. broad internally, but as it stands now it measures 90 ft. from end to end, and the eastern part to the distance of 24 ft. was evidently added at a much later period than that at which the original building was erected. This modern portion may be termed the chancel, and is 1 ft 6 in. narrower than the nave. The walls are 3 ft. 8 in. to 4 ft. thick. The masonry is large, showing little trace of the hammer, with deep granite quoins and pilasters at the west end projecting 9 in., and 3 ft. 2 in. wide. In the modern work, the stones are small and hammered, while the quoins are of limestone. The western gable is partly broken away.
The west door is of four orders…Many of the ornaments are identical with those of the doorway at Timahoe [County Laois] and also resemble some of the later work at Tomgraney [County Clare]. The keystone of the outer order bears a venerable human head carved in relief. The design called the trumpet pattern, or divergent spiral, appears among the other ornaments of this door. The jambs are rounded, but the orders of the arch preserve their square form, and are enriched with surface ornament, while the entablature which runs along the top of the jambs is carved at the salient angles into human heads, the long interlaced hair of each head covering the surface of the stone back to the re-entrant angles. Each order of the doorway has engaged shafts at the angles. The bases have the beautiful feature of leaves connecting the bulbous portions with square plinths at the angles. The following inscriptions run along the abaci at each side, and the beginning of another occurs on the front of the jamb of the second order on the north side which appears to have been continued to the top of the jamb…
…The first inscription may be read:-
Pray for Art…King of Leinster, and for…Steward. Pray for…Iena Ua Mel[lach, Prince of Hy] Duach. Pray for Cellac…
The territory of Hy Duach comes within a mile of this church.’
‘The chancel arch was pulled down upwards of fifty years ago, and a great part of the south wall of the church destroyed. It is said to have contained two round-headed windows widely splayed inside. Two windows of the same character still remain in the north wall. The most perfect is 7 ft. in height by 3 ft. 6 in. internally and is placed at a height of 9 ft. from the ground…About twenty yards to the south-west of the entrance stood the belfry, a round tower of great height and beauty, the doorway of which faced that of the church and was pulled down upwards of a century ago…Molyneaux, writing in the year 1709, thus alludes to the tower:- “Near the foot of the mountain on this road stands the old church of Killeshin, which is a very old building. Here lately stood, over against the Doore of the Church, one of the old round steeples which I am told, was very high, old and well built, so that when the owner of this place had it fallen, it came to the ground in one solid piece, and was not even by the fall against the ground so broke, but that several vast pieces yet remain sticking together, so that you easily discover what this building was. It plainly appears to be of the same building and age with the adjacent church, and this was certainly an Irish building, as appears by two Inscriptions on either side of the door as you enter…”’
The surviving walls of Garron Castle, County Laois. Dating from the late 16th century, it was originally built by the Mac Giolla Phádraig (FitzPatrick) family, possibly in the time of Brían Óg Mac Giolla Phádraig, who in 1541 was created first Baron Upper Ossory, or else his son Barnaby FitzPatrick, second baron, who became a close companion to the boy king Edward VI before returning to Ireland after the latter’s death in 1553. The six-storey tower house remained in the possession of the FitzPatricks until the mid-17th century when it appears to have passed into the possession of the Vicars family. A view painted in 1790 by Austin Cooper shows it still reasonably intact, but in 1863 it was reported that two walls had collapsed, leaving the remains seen here, with a round bartizan on the top of one corner and a corbelled bartizan lower down the wall. Today Garron Castle towers over a farm yard adjacent to the present owners’ bungalow.
If a graveyard could be described as exceptionally fine, then that at Moybologue, County Cavan would qualify. Subcircular in shape and enclosed within a stone wall, the site during the medieval period held a church and some kind of hospice. Little of either remains, but an extant two-storey transept is believed to have served as a priest’s residence. All around these ruins are gravestones going back many centuries, including the tomb shown below which carries a variety of memento mori symbols including an hour glass, a bell, a coffin and a skull and crossbones. Dedicated to members of the Smith family, it dates from the mid-17th century.
A familiar sight across the country: an abandoned and roofless Church of Ireland church. This one is in the parish of Kilfree, County Sligo and, according to the reliable Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland of 1837, was ‘erected in 1826, for which the late Board of First Fruits granted a loan of £600.’ It appears to have closed for services in the 1950s, but as so often the surrounding graveyard remains in use.
‘Castle-Caulfield owes its erection to Sir Toby Caulfield, afterwards Lord Charlemont – a distinguished English soldier who had fought in Spain and the Low Countries in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and commanded a company of one hundred and fifty men in Ireland in the war with O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, at the close of her reign. For these services he was rewarded by the Queen with a grant of part of Tyrone’s estate, and other lands in the province of Ulster; and on King James’s accession to the British crown, was honoured with knighthood and made governor of the fort of Charlemont, and of the counties of Tyrone and Armagh. At the plantation of Ulster he received further grants of lands, and among them a thousand acres called Ballydonnelly, or O’Donnelly’s town, in the barony of Dungannon, on which, in 1614, he commenced the erection of the mansion subsequently called Castle-Caulfield. This mansion is described by Pynnar in his Survey of Ulster in 1618-19, in the following words…’
‘…“Sir Toby Caulfield hath one thousand acres called Ballydonnell (recte Ballydonnelly), whereunto is added beside what was certified by Sir Josias Bodley, a fair house or castle, the front whereof is eighty feet in length and twenty-eight feet in breadth from outside to outside, two cross ends fifty feet in length and twenty-eight feet in breadth; the walls are five feet thick at the bottom, and four at the top, very good cellars under ground and all the windows are of hewn stone. Between the two cross ends there goeth a wall, which is eighteen feet high and maketh a small court within the building. This work at this time is but thirteen feet high, and a number of men at work for the sudden finishing of it. There is also a stone bridge over the river, which is of lime and stone, with strong buttresses for the supporting of it. And to this is joined a good water-mill for corn, all built of lime and stone. This is at this time the fairest building I have seen. Near unto this Bawne is built a town, in which there is fifteen English families, who are able to make twenty men with arms.”
The ruins of this celebrated mansion seem to justify the the opinion expressed by Pynnar, that it was the fairest building he had seen, that is, in the counties of the Plantation, for there are no existing remains of any house erected by the English or Scottish undertakers equal to it in architectural style. It received, however, from the second Lord Charlemont, the addition of a large gate-house with towers, and also of a strong keep or donjon…’
‘…That Ballydonnelly was truly, as we have stated, the ancient name of the place, and that it was the patrimonial residence of the chief of that ancient family, previously to the plantation of Ulster, must be sufficiently indicated by the authorities we have already adduced; but if any doubt on this fact could exist, it would be removed by the following passage in an unpublished Irish MS. Journal of the Rebellion of 1641 in our own possession, from which it appears that, as usual with the representatives of the dispossessed Irish families on the breaking out of that unhappy conflict, the chief of the O’Donnellys seized upon the Castle-Caufield mansion as of right his own:-
“October 1641. Lord Caulfield’s castle in Ballydonnelly (Baile I Donghoile) was taken by Patrick Moder (the gloomy) O’Donnelly.”
The Lord Charlemont, with his family, was at that time absent from his home in command of the garrison of Charlemont, and it was not his fate ever to see it afterwards; he was treacherously captured in his fortress about the same period by the cruel Sir Phelim O’Neill, and was barbarously murdered while under his protection, if not, as seems the fact, by his direction, on the 1st of March following. Nor was this costly and fairest house of its kind in “the north” ever after inhabited by any of his family: it was burned in those unhappy “troubles” and left the melancholy, though picturesque memorial of sad events which we now see it.’
Extracts from The Irish Penny Journal, Saturday, January 9, 1841, Number 28, Volume 1
What remains of Sweetman’s Castle, standing on the western side of the river Nore in Thomastown, County Kilkenny. The building is often described as a tower house, but given that it is listed as dating from c.1350 this surely cannot be correct, as tower houses were only constructed from the early 1400s onwards. It clearly was some kind of fortified structure, with a name derived from the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country at the time. A number of ancillary agricultural structures were added to it around the middle of the 18th century and these also survive. Sadly, the castle is in poor condition and has been left to deteriorate even further in recent years: an regrettable, but not uncommon, phenomenon in Ireland. What makes the state of the building particularly unfortunate in this instance is that its location means shabby, run-down Sweetman’s Castle, adjacent to a bridge over the Nore, is highly visible to anyone entering or leaving the town.
‘In the year 1791, George Hartpole, of Shrewl Castle, Queen’s County, Ireland, had just come of age. He was the last surviving male of that name, which belonged to a popular family, highly respectable, and long established in the county. Few private gentlemen commenced life with better promise, and none better merited esteem and happiness. He was my relative by blood; and though considerably younger, the most intimate and dearest friend I had.
His father, Robert, had married a sister of the late and present Earls of Aldborough. She was the mother of George; and through this connexion originated my intercourse with that eccentric nobleman and his family.
A singular fatality had attended the Hartpole family from time immemorial. The fathers seldom survived the attainment of the age of 23 years by their elder sons, which circumstance gave rise to numerous traditionary tales of sprites and warnings.
Robert, as usual with the gentlemen of his day, was the dupe of agents, and the victim of indolence and hospitality. He had deposited his consort in the tomb of her fathers, and had continued merrily enjoying the convivialities of the world (principally in the night-time) till his son George had passed his 22nd year, and then punctually made way for the succession, leaving George inheritor of a large territory, a moderate income, a tattered mansion, an embarrassed rent-roll, and a profound ignorance (without the consciousness of it) of business in all departments.
George, though not at all handsome, had completely the mien and manners of a gentleman. His features accorded well with his address, bespeaking the cordiality of a friend and the ardour of an Irishman. His disposition was mild—his nature brave, generous, and sincere: on some occasions he was obstinate and peevish; on others, somewhat sullen and suspicious; but in his friendships, George Hartpole was immutable.
His stature was of the middle height, and his figure exhibited no appearance either of personal strength or constitutional vigour: his slender form and the languid fire of his eye indicated excitation without energy; yet his spirits were moderately good, and the most careless observer might feel convinced that he had sprung from no ordinary parentage—a circumstance which then had due influence in Ireland, where agents, artisans, and attorneys had not as yet supplanted the ancient nobility and gentry of the country.’
‘Shrewl Castle, the hereditary residence of the Hartpoles, was in no way distinguishable from the numerous other castellated edifices now in a state of dilapidation throughout the whole island—ruins which invariably excite a retrospect of happier times, when the resident landlord, reverenced and beloved, and the cheerful tenant, fostered and protected, felt the natural advantages of their reciprocal attachment; a reflection which leads us to a sad comparison with modern usages, when the absent lord and the mercenary agent have no consideration but the rents, no solicitude but for their collection; when the deserted tenantry keep pace in decline with the deserted mansion; when the ragged cottager has no master to employ, no guardian to protect him!—pining, and sunk in the lowest state of want and wretchedness,—sans work, sans food, sans covering, sans everything,—he rushes forlorn and desperate into the arms of destruction, which in all its various shapes stands ready to receive him. The reflection is miserable, but true:—such is Ireland since the year 1800.
Hartpole’s family residence, picturesquely seated on a verdant bank of the smooth and beautiful Barrow, had, during the revolutions of time, entirely lost the character of a fortress: patched and pieced after all the numberless orders of village architecture, it had long resigned the dignity of a castle without acquiring the comforts of a mansion: yet its gradual descent, from the stronghold of powerful chieftains to the rude dwelling of an embarrassed gentleman, could be traced even by a superficial observer. Its half-levelled battlements, its solitary and decrepit tower, and its rough, dingy walls, (giving it the appearance of a sort of habitable buttress,) combined to portray the downfall of an ancient family.’
‘George had received but a moderate education, far inadequate to his rank and expectations; and the country life of his careless father had afforded him too few conveniences for cultivating his capacity. His near alliance, however, and intercourse with the Aldborough family, gave him considerable opportunities to counteract, in a better class of society, that tendency to rustic dissipation to which his situation had exposed him, and which, at first seductive, soon becomes habitual, and ruinous in every way to youthful morals…Hartpole’s fortune on the death of his father was not large; but its increase would be great and certain, and this rendered his adoption of any money-making profession or employment unnecessary. He accordingly purchased a commission in the army, and commenced his entré into a military life and general society with all the advantages of birth, property, manners, and character.
A cursory observation of the world must convince us of one painful and inexplicable truth;—that there are some men (and frequently the best) who, even from their earliest youth, appear born to be the victims of undeviating misfortune; whom Providence seems to have gifted with free-agency only to lead them to unhappiness and ruin. Ever disappointed in his most ardent hopes—frustrated in his dearest objects—his best intentions overthrown—his purest motives calumniated and abused,—no rank or station suffices to shelter such an unfortunate:—ennui creeps upon his hopeless mind, communicates a listless languor to a sinking constitution, and at length he almost joyfully surrenders an existence which he finds too burdensome to be supported.
Such nearly was the lot of the last of the Hartpoles. He had scarcely commenced a flattering entrance into public life, when one false and fatal step, to which he was led first by a dreadful accident, and subsequently by his own benevolent disposition, worked on by the chicanery of others, laid the foundation of all his future miseries.
While quartered with his regiment at Galway, in Ireland, his gun, on a shooting party, burst in his hand, which was so shattered, that it was long before his surgeon could decide that amputation might be dispensed with.’
Today’s text is taken from Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington (1830), and the pictures show Shrule Castle, County Laois, ancestral home of Sir Jonah’s friend George Hartpole. Alas, following his shooting accident in Galway, Hartpole’s circumstances deteriorated rapidly; he managed to contract two marriages, the first with the daughter of a local innkeeper and then with the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, both of which soon ended unhappily, as did his own life since after just a few years, his health declined and he died, still a young man. Shrule Castle subsequently passed to the Lecky family and either they, or Hartpole added a large house to one side of the old castle. This, however, was badly damaged by fire in 1940 and its remains then demolished. Some years ago, the current owners embarked on an ambitious restoration of the old building but following an intervention by the local authority the work came to a halt, leaving the castle as it can be seen today.
The striking remains of Bellegrove, County Laois, which has remained a ruin ever since being accidentally gutted by fire in 1887. The core of the house dates from the early 19th century: in 1814, when owned by Thomas Trench, Dean of Kildare, it was described as ‘newly built in a superior style.’ However, the Italianate villa seen today was created much later, in the early 1870s, its architect thought to be William Caldbeck, although other names (among them James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Newenham Deane) have also bee suggested. By this time Bellegrove was occupied by John George Adair, his mother having been one of the dean’s daughters. Much given to buying up estates and then either raising the rents or ejecting the tenants, Adair was one of the most reviled landlords of the period; when collecting rents in Laois, he had to be given a police escort. Eleswhere in the country, in County Donegal he acquired 28,000 acres and there in the late 1860s built the Scottish Baronial-style Glenveagh Castle on land that had been cleared. By this time, Adair had married a rich American widow, Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, and together they profitably invested in a large Texan ranch (the JA Ranch, its initial’s being those of Adair) which grew to over 700,000 acres, thereby further increasing his wealth. Two years after his (unlamented) death in 1885 Bellegrove was, as mentioned, destroyed by fire but not restored by his widow. What remains today is only part of a formerly larger building, since a substantial winter garden (to the right of the house in the photograph below) designed by Sir Thomas Deane & Son in 1865 has since been taken down; some of the columns in its grand arcade – inspired by the cloister of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome – were rescued and can be seen elsewhere in the county.