Three for One


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.

Taking a Leap


The name of Leamcon Castle, County Cork derives from the Irish ‘Leim Con’ meaning a leap or chasm and hound (also a hero or champion). The reason is that the castle, actually a late 15th century tower house, stands on an island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel through which, at this time of year, churn the waters of the Atlantic: a narrow bridge now links the two. Originally built by a branch of the O’Mahony family, in the early 17th century Leamcon passed into the ownership of Devon-born Sir William Hull, appointed Vice-Admiral for the province of Munster with responsibility for dealing with piracy which was then rampant along the south-western coast of Ireland. In fact, Hull proved to be a gamekeeper-turned-poacher and became known as a friend and ally, rather than foe, of the pirates.

Presents of Mind II


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’.


Exploring Ireland’s Castles by Tarquin Blake is published by the Collins Press

A Castle by the Sea


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.

Playing to the Gallery


The extraordinary first-floor gallery at Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. Designed by Edward Blore, the present house dates from the mid-1830s to replace an earlier castle destroyed by fire: ironically sections of this one suffered the same fate soon after completion and had to be reconstructed. The core of the castle is given over to an inner hall that features a bifurcating staircase composed of wood and plaster and in late-Perpendicular style. It rises to the generous gallery screened by a run of arches at either end, the whole lit by an immense octagonal roof lantern.

Brief Lives


Once prominent in the East Muskerry region of County Cork, the Long family is believed to be descended from a branch of the Ui Eachach. By the late Mediaeval period, their base was at Canovee, otherwise called Cannaway, and often referred to as an island since so much of the area is surrounded by water, with the river Lee to the immediate north, north-east and north-west, the river Kame and one of its tributaries to the east and another stream to the west. The Civil Survey of the Barony of Muskerry conducted in 1656 lists a great deal of the land around here as having belonged to ‘John Long of Mount Long, Irish Papist (deceased).’ This John Long was the son of Dr Thomas Long, a doctor of civil and canon law who had evidently prospered since he was able to acquire land elsewhere in County Cork, specifically to the south overlooking Oysterhaven Creek. Here in 1631 John Long embarked on building himself a new residence, named Mount Long. 





At the time of its construction Mount Long’s design would have embodied contemporary architectural trends. By this date, Irish domestic dwellings were no longer being built as tower houses but, in misplaced expectation of future peace, as fortified manors. As Stephen Byrne writes, the building ‘exemplifies the new style. Its proportions and detailing, including large mullioned windows, mark the transition from dimly-lit towerhouses with an overt defensive capability to properties boasting comfortable well-lit rooms and a modicum of fortification.’ Of three storeys and three bays on every side, Mount Long features a near-square flanker tower at each of its four corners, a feature borrowed from English architecture and intended to increase both the amount of accommodation and the quantity of light, aided by those aforementioned abundant mullioned windows. Obviously these left the building more vulnerable to attack and the presence of gun loops on the exterior walls indicates this was still deemed a threat. The elevations are notable for their then-fashionable gables: originally twenty in number, today just twelve survive. The present state of the building makes it difficult to understand how the interior looked, or the layout of rooms, not even a chimneypiece remaining. As late as 1907 architect James Franklin Fuller could write that cornices survived ‘with figures representing scriptural subjects and fieldsports’ but these can no longer be seen. 





John Long only enjoyed his smart new residence for a very short time. 1641 saw the start of what would become known as the Confederate Wars, in which Long and his two sons took the side of the Roman Catholic forces. They established a camp not far away near Belgooly but the following spring were defeated close to Bandon. Taken prisoner, Long was convicted of treason and hanged. It is said that, knowing his fate, he sent a message to his daughter at Mount Long in 1643 telling her to burn the house in order to stop it falling into enemy hands. Whether true or not, the building was certainly consumed by fire at some date: extant lintels over doors and windows still show evidence of scorch marks. Despite post-Restoration efforts by John Long’s heirs to regain their property, Mount Long was granted to the Busteed family who built another house on higher ground close by. Mount Long fell into dereliction and is now a ruin. The west wall has entirely collapsed, along with most of the towers on either end, but the other three sides still stand, albeit in a somewhat precarious state. With just twelve years between its construction and destruction Mount Long reminds us that owing to changed circumstances buildings can sometimes have very brief lives. 

Mount Long is the October Building of the Month on http://www.buildingsofireland with an accompanying text written by Stephen Byrne. 

A Long Way from the Loire

Despite looking as though it belongs in the Loire Valley, Killyleagh Castle rises close to the south-western shore of Strangford Lough, County Down. The oldest part of the building was constructed in the late 12th century by the Norman knight John de Courcy and this subsequently passed into the control of the O’Neill family. However in the early 17th century Killyleagh was given by James I to a Scottish supporter, James Hamilton whose descendants have lived here ever since: much of its present form dates from c.1666 when the castle was rebuilt by James Hamilton’s grandson, Henry Hamilton, second Earl of Clanbrassil. A complex family dispute towards the end of the 17th century led the castle remaining in possession of the Hamiltons while the bawn wall and gatehouse passed to their relatives the Blackwoods. The two portions of the site were only reunited in 1860 when Frederick Temple Blackwood, future first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, handed over his share to Archibald Rowan-Hamilton. By then the latter had employed Charles Lanyon to redesign the castle, including the addition of turrets on the two towers.