One of Ireland’s lesser known mediaeval monuments: the 15th century Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, County Limerick. Built on the remains of an earlier structure (the remains of lancet windows on the south wall suggest it may once have served as a chapel), the hall sits above a vaulted lower chamber. The building was part of a castle complex developed here by the FitzGerald family, Earls of Desmond who remained in occupation until the end of the 16th century. The castle then passed into the possession of the Courtenays, later Earls of Devon, but was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and likely not occupied thereafter (an adjacent house, occupied by the Courtenays’ agent, was burnt in 1922 during the Civil War). The Banqueting Hall was restored some years ago when an oak screen and musicians’ gallery were installed, along with a hooded limestone chimneypiece.
After being closed for several years, the Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary reopened to the public last weekend. The building is notable for being the best-preserved unfortified 16th century house in the country, although it benefitted from the protection of a twin-towered 15th century castle to the immediate rear. The later section dates from the 1560s when it was built for Thomas, tenth Earl of Ormond who had been raised in the English court and was related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Anne Boleyn. On his return to Ireland, Lord Ormond imported the manor house style with which he had become familiar during his youth. The most immediately striking feature of the latest renovation programme is that the exterior of the Tudor building has been rendered, as was originally the case.
Another ruined castle, this one in County Tyrone. Believed to date from the mid-14th century, Harry Avery’s Castle is named after the Gaelic chief in this area Henry Aimhréidh O’Neill who died in 1392. As can be seen, not a lot of it remains, other than a pair of D-front towers. Captured by the English forces in 1609, the site was subsequently plundered for stone, which explains why so little remains today.
Buried in the midst of woodland in north-west County Cork, Lohort Castle has had a turbulent past and, by the look of the place today, is experiencing a none-too secure present. As so often in Ireland, the building’s origins are uncertain. It has been proposed that a castle was constructed here in the late 12th centuries on the instructions of Prince (future King) John, but more likely it was one of the innumerable tower houses that appeared on the Irish landscape in the 15th and 16th centuries. As such it would have been built for the MacCarthys who were then the dominant family in the region. At the time, the castle would have been at the centre of a larger site with other buildings surrounded by an enclosing wall. In plan and form it is typical of the Irish tower house, being rectangular and rising five storeys to a machiolated parapet, with only one small point of access on the ground floor. The building’s most striking feature is its curved external walls, which while unusual are not unique. An engraving from the early 1740s shows it looking much as is still the case today, albeit surrounded by a moat (drained in 1876) and protected by star-shaped Vaubanesque outerworks. The only obvious differences are the stepped gable on the east side of the roof and the chimney stacks: these were added towards the end of the 19th century.
In the late 1630s Lohort Castle passed out of the hands of the MacCarthys and came into the possession of Sir Philip Perceval, an English adventurer who acquired an extensive estate in Ireland. With the onset of rebellion in 1641 Perceval garrisoned the castle with 150 soldiers but it still fell to the native Irish who remained in occupation until 1650 when besieged by Sir Hardress Waller and his troops. It was written that Waller ‘by the Help of Cannon reduced it in four days’ but there is no evidence of such damage on the exterior walls (which are ten feet thick at the base) so perhaps the threat of cannon fire was enough to encourage surrender. Lohort was duly returned to the Percevals and remained in their hands for several centuries. It was Sir Philip’s grandson, John Perceval, created first Earl of Egmont in 1733, who paid most attention to the building. Formal classical gardens with long straight vistas were laid out in the surrounding grounds while alterations were made inside the main building including the provision of a library and an armoury holding sufficient weapons to equip men. In 1740 the builder John Hickey was hired by Lord Egmont to carry out this work but he miscalculated the costs and the following year was imprisoned for debt. Following the first earl’s death, his son seems to have lost interest in Lohort which was thereafter occupied by an agent.
In the late 19th century, Lohort again changed ownership, being bought by the O’Briens: Sir Timothy O’Brien was a cricketer famous for his short-temper. It was presumably during their tenure that further alterations were made to the original building in the mid-1870s. The need for additional guest accommodation was resolved by an unknown architect designing a large twin-towered gate house at the end of an avenue directly in front of the castle. As well as providing more bedrooms, this building added further drama to the site. The O’Briens were still in ownership when the gatehouse and castle were burnt by the IRA in July 1921 during the War of Independence. However, both were sufficiently sturdy to survive and, after some restoration work, to be habitable once more. This no longer looks to be the case. About a decade ago Lohort was offered for sale, and finally found a buyer at the end of 2011. Either before or after that date some rather aggressive work appears to have been undertaken on the buildings (and to an adjacent stableyard) but then halted. As a result, they are now suffering badly, the gatehouse especially being in pitiful condition. What an English army could not achieve four centuries ago, neglect in our own time may yet accomplish.
Florence Court, County Fermanagh was discussed here a couple of weeks ago (see Unravelling the Mysteries, May 15th 2017). Prior to moving to that part of the country, the Cole family lived further north-east on the island of Enniskillen. The castle there is believed to have been originally built in the early 15th century by Hugh Maguire but this, together with surrounding lands was granted in 1607 to Sir William Cole. A few years later a report stated that there was ‘a fair house begun upon the foundations of the old castle with other convenient houses for store and munition.’ The portion shown here, called the Watergate, likely dates from that period. After the Coles moved to Florence Court the castle became a military barracks; today it houses a museum.
€1.7 million. This was rightly regarded as something of a coup, since when the property had first been offered for sale in 2005, the asking price had been €7.5 million. So the local authority had done well to secure this important part of its architectural heritage, located in the centre of the town. Since then a further sum in the region of €400,000 has been spent on repair of existing landscaping, the installation of new external lighting, and repair of garden structures. At the time of the initial purchase, one local councillor declared that ‘if properly developed and managed, the castle would be more than capable of paying for itself – and the potential spin-off benefits could transform Mallow.’ Note the use of the conditional ‘if’. here…
Cork County Council has declared that the work carried out in grounds of Mallow Castle is the first part of a three-phase development programme for the site and in February it was announced that a masterplan tender brief for the property is currently being prepared. In the meantime, that conditional ‘if’ must remain in place. On a recent weekend visit to Mallow Castle, a group of French tourists looked somewhat stunned as they entered the site to discover it heavily littered and the house firmly shut. In fact it is somewhat surprising that they managed to find their way to the place, since what is supposed to be a major tourist attraction appears un-signposted, with access located up a minor lane. But evidently local carousers know the spot well, and have no problem entering it even when the gates are closed: hence the abundant litter.
As the owner of any historic property could advise Cork County Council, looking after such a house is perforce a time-consuming and expensive business – but not looking after it will ultimately prove to be even more time-consuming and expensive. The installation of better security around the site would help deter unwanted visitors, and their litter (sundry notices advise the presence of CCTV, but there is precious little evidence of it). A few bins would not go amiss either. Furthermore it seems that the house has sat empty and unoccupied since being purchased by the council. An obvious way to discourage nocturnal trespassers would be to have people living onsite: get a tenant, or better yet several, into the house. This would be beneficial for the building which at present is visibly suffering from neglect (thereby increasing the cost of its eventual refurbishment, a cost to be borne – as ever – by the nation’s tax payers). Shutters are closed and curtains drawn across windows, the frames of which are rotting (leaving them more vulnerable to being broken and illegal access being gained to the building). Doors are likewise in poor condition and in at least one place roof tiles have slipped. What, one wonders, must be the state of the interior? What sort of example is Cork County Council setting to other owners of historic buildings by displaying so little interest in the welfare of one under its care? Can it really expect anybody else to act as guardian of our heritage when it manifestly fails to do so? Houses need to be occupied and used, otherwise they risk falling into decline. Such is the case here: what’s required now is more of the flair and imagination displayed by the authority when it made the decision to acquire the property. Reports and action plans can wait: a house cannot.
At the time of that purchase, another local politician announced, ‘This is a very significant development in unlocking the future potential of Mallow Castle as a tourism and heritage resource for all the people of Cork.’ For the moment that potential remains unrealised.
Lining the northern banks of the river Suir in County Tipperary are a series of tower houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries. That above is Dove Hill (or Duff Hill), originally built on land under the control of the O’Mores. In 1542 it was garrisoned by Sir Thomas Butler of Cahir, but a century later was noted in the Civil Survey as being ‘a small castle wanting repaire’. The description remains apposite. A few miles to the west stands Poulakerry, another building once associated with the Butlers. Unlike Dove Hill, it has been restored and is now occupied.