From the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume XXVIII, Part IV (1898) by Francis Joseph Bigger: ‘The ancient church of Kilmakilloge stands on a rocky eminence a little north of Bunaw. Burials have been very numerous in the interior of the church ruins, and many bones and portions of coffins are strewn about. The gravestones clearly denote the overwhelming proportion of O’Sullivan to any other name; and one curious monument to the east of the church bears an inscription worth recording. This monument is a high, square altar-tomb raised on steps and supported on four carved pillars, the intervening spaces being filled with stone panels. On the east end is the following inscription “I H S This Monument contains the Last Remains of the Late McFININ DUFFE He DEPD THIS LIFE THE 1 DAY of SEPT 1809 aged 58 years Pater Patrie.” This McFinin Duffe was an O’Sullivan, and the last of his line.’
The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
‘In the autumn of 1868 the late Lord Lansdowne, accompanied by his uncle, the Hon. James Howard, paid a visit of ceremony to the various Irish estates to which he had recently succeeded. After inspecting his property in other parts of Ireland, he came in the month of October to Kerry, travelling via Cahirciveen and Killarney to Kenmare, and finally to Derreen…It was not long after this that Lord Lansdowne became engaged to Lady Maud Hamilton, youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. He soon determined to make Derreen his summer residence, and came over in 1870 to superintend the necessary alterations. In the following year he spent several months with his wife in their new home. Thenceforward a visit to Derreen became an annual affair, looked forward to with eager anticipation by all concerned. But from 1883 to 1894 he was abroad, first in Canada and afterwards in India, as Viceroy, and he was only able to snatch a few weeks in Kerry in 1888 during his few months at home between the two appointments. During his absence in India the place was let to the late Duke of Leeds, for whom as a gardener, a keen fisherman, and a good shot, it held a strong appeal. Meanwhile the new line from Headford to Kenmare had been completed and the drive of forty miles over the mountains from Killarney was shortened to one of seventeen miles on the flat, while the train service had been improved; after 1895 more frequent visits thus became possible.’
‘Derreen had by this time greatly changed from what it was when [historian James Anthony] Froude spent his “Fortnight in Kerry.” The clearing and planting, which had been systematically carried on for twenty-five years, had borne fruit. The scrub of hollies and brambles with which the ground had been for the most part covered had given place to green lawns and winding paths through groves of bamboos, tree-ferns and shrubs of all kinds. The peat bank, from which McSweeny used to draw his household turf, had become a bog garden, and the existence of the numerous small inclosures which constituted the former farm was only betrayed here and there by traces of a bank or ditch amidst the sub-tropical vegetation. Indeed the principal gardening difficulty in Kerry is the rapidity and luxuriance of growth. Shrubs, which in England would take years to make a show, here under the influence of the Gulf Stream soon develop into trees, and many are to be sacrificed if the rest are to have room. When my father first came over, he put in about a hundred plants of hybrid “arboretum” rhododendrons. They grew to such a size that it became apparent they would exclude all light and air from the narrow paths. One by one, they have almost all had to go; of those remaining there are today one or two specimens quite fifty feet in height.’
‘The year 1903 was made memorable at Derreen by a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their Majesties made in that summer a tour of Ireland, partly in the Royal Yacht and partly overland. The original intention had been that they should come to Derreen by water from County Clare, but weather conditions made this inadvisable, and the journey was eventually made by motor-car. They arrived on the afternoon of July 31. A Union Jack had been floated on the top of Knockatee and a triumphal arch was erected outside the Derryconnery Gate, where an address of welcome was presented by the assembled tenantry. On the lawn in front of the house the children of Lauragh school had been marshalled and they presented a bouquet to the Queen. Then there was a walk around the gardens where two commemorative bamboos were duly planted in the glade now called “the King’s Oozy”. After tea in the new dining room, which had been added to the house that year, the party went down to the pier, where Queen Alexandra was initiated into the mysteries of prawn fishing. The ground had been lavishly baited in advance and the fishing was such a success, that in spite of the obvious impatience of His Majesty, she could scarcely be persuaded to relinquish her net when the hour came for departure.’
The extraordinary ‘Triumphal Chariot’ created for Daniel O’Connell in 1844. At the start of that year, he and a number of other men had been found guilty of conspiracy against the government and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. This verdict was overturned by the House of Lords at the beginning of September and O’Connell duly released from Richmond House of Correction (now Griffith College, the original building was designed by Francis Johnston in 1813). In a subsequent, carefully choreographed event he was brought from that place to his residence in Merrion Square in this chariot which measures almost ten feet high and near 15 feet long. Inspired by chariots used in processions in ancient Rome, the vehicle was drawn by six grey horses and accommodated not just the hero of the hour but also a costumed ‘ancient harper.’ Three years later the empty vehicle would lead the funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery following O’Connell’s death. Now restored and in an outbuilding at Derrynane, County Kerry the chariot’s decoration includes a number of painted panels including this one showing Hibernia complete with harp, Irish Wolfhound and, in the distance, a ruined monastery and round tower.
After our recent blizzards, a reminder of what Ireland can look like in the summer: Muckross, County Kerry. Here is the east front of the house designed by Scottish architect William Burn and built 1839-43 for Col. Henry Arthur Herbert whose family settled here in the second half of the 16th century. Famously Queen Victoria came to stay with the Herberts for two nights in August 1861: seemingly so much was spent preparing for this visit that the owners’ finances never recovered. In 1899 the estate was sold to Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun whose wife was related to the Herberts. Later it was acquired by Californian mining magnate William Bowers Bourn who together with his son-in-law Arthur Vincent later presented the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish state. Muckross accordingly became Ireland’s first National Park.
In 1809 in an effort to put a stop to marine-based smuggling the British government – then at war with Napoleonic France – established a body called the Preventive Water Guard (otherwise known as the Preventive Boat Service). Operating across these islands, the Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement, its members based in Watch Houses around the coast of Britain and Ireland, with boat crews patrolling the waters at night. While they were primarily concerned with bringing smuggling to an end, they also gave assistance to shipwrecks and indeed kept an eye out for foreign vessels entering national waters. In 1821 a committee of enquiry proposed responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred from HM Treasury to the Board of Customs. Until then, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise each had their own long-established preventative forces: shore-based Riding Officers for the former and sea-going Revenue Cruisers for the latter. The committee recommended these services be consolidated and so in January 1822 they were placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and renamed the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard established in 1822 duly inherited existing shore stations and watch houses from the two earlier bodies (as well as a number of coastal vessels) and these provided bases for its operations, with additional properties being constructed as deemed necessary. The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829: while still primarily occupied with the prevention of smuggling they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. By the 1850s, coastal smuggling was no longer so serious a matter and so responsibility for the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Over the following decades the service began to operate more like a supplementary naval service, although it still was responsible for carrying out rescues and protection of property in the event of a shipwreck.
The Coast Guard service was based in stations right around the island, with fifteen of these in County Kerry. The stations were usually built to a standard design. Typically they comprised a terrace of five or six houses set back from the shore but within easy reach of it. There would also be a watch tower and, by the sea, a boat house and slipway. Each terrace included residences for the chief boatman, his men and their families. Inside would be a sitting room and kitchen (plus scullery) on the ground floor, and bedrooms upstairs. As a rule the entrance to each house was to the rear (away from coastal winds) with just windows on the front looking out to sea. These stations survived until the early 1920s when, like other centres such as army and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, they were attacked and burnt during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War to ensure they could not be used by the enemy. Many of them, like this example in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, now stand empty and ruinous, a largely forgotten aspect of the country’s maritime history.
The remains of St Patrick’s, Killowen located on the outskirts of Kenmare, County Kerry. The church was reported in good repair in 1806 and enlarged six years later but replaced in 1856 by another building closer to the town centre, it being declared at the time ‘the old church was so small the increasing number of Protestants could not be accommodated.’ Since then it has fallen into ruin but the graveyard is notable for being the burial site of English-born composer Ernest J Moeran who from 1930 onwards spent the greater part of his time living in this part of the country (both his father and grandfather had been an Irish Anglican clergymen). Moeran died after falling into the river Kenmare in December 1950.
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.
In recent years there has been some discussion about when the Franciscan Order first arrived in Ireland. A long-standing tradition had it that the earliest friars here established a house in Youghal, County Cork in 1214 (twelve years before the death of Francis of Assisi). However, the earliest contemporaneous account of an Irish Franciscan house dates from 1233, and refers to a property in Dublin which was evidently well-established by then since mention is made of the need to repair a church and house. Whatever the facts, the Franciscans proved highly popular and over the course of the thirteenth century, some 45 friaries had been set up across the country, usually at the behest – and with the funding – of an important local family. Such was the case with the house at Ardfert, County Kerry established in 1253 by Thomas FitzMaurice who would be buried in the church close to the altar following his death in c.1280.
The remains of Ardfry Friary indicate it was a substantial building. The wide body of the church concludes in a five-lancet window. As was usual with mendicant houses, the church had no side aisles but in the 15th century a transept was added on the southern side. This has a handsome nine-lancet window removed from the building in 1670 and installed in nearby Ardfert Cathedral before being returned to its original location in the second decade of the 19th century. To the north of the church lie the remains of the cloister, only the eastern side being still intact. In the 15th century a six-storey tower was added to the complex at the western end of the church, presumably to provide secure accommodation for the friars during a period of considerable internal turmoil when even religious establishments were not safe from attack. Ultimately, like all other such houses, Ardfert Friary was closed down in the 16th century, after which it passed into the control of Colonel John Zouche, an English soldier at the time based in Munster. By the 1630s the property had passed into the possession of the Crosbie family with whom it remained until the last century.
Ardfert Friary today stands in the middle of what was once a landscaped park, with the religious house serving as a romantic ruin. It is hard to appreciate this now because the former Crosbie residence has gone. The family, originally called Mac an Chrosáin, were bards in Laois who in the 16th century moved to Kerry. There Sean Mac an Chrosáin changed his name to John Crosbie, converted to Anglicanism and in 1601 became Church of Ireland Bishop of Ardfert. It was his descendants who occupied the site of the old friary and who towards the end of the 17th century built themselves a new residence, named Ardfert Abbey. Surviving photographs give an idea of what the building looked like with the main block, its breakfront centre pedimented, flanked by two ranges that came forward to create an open forecourt (further outbuildings ran on either side). Internally the most striking room was the hall, its panelling painted in monochrome with a series of classical figures running around the walls. But there was also a fine early-18th century staircase and handsome early classical reception rooms. All survived intact until Ardfert Abbey was burnt in August 1922, the remains being subsequently demolished. As a result, visitors to the friary today only see part of the site’s history and can easily misread the setting in which the building stands. An important part of Ardfert’s history has been forever swept away so that what now remains tells only part of the tale.
What remains of Dunkerron Castle, County Kerry. This four-storey tower house was built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Norman fortification probably around the middle of the fifteenth century when it became a stronghold of the O’Sullivan Mór, chiefs of this particular branch of the family: a stone inscription formerly on the site noted that work had been carried out here in 1596 by Owen O’Sullivan Mór. Burnt during the Cromwellian Wars, the land on which the castle stood was confiscated and granted to Sir William Petty. The building thereafter fell into ruin and in the 19th century a new residence was built close by. More recently a development of holiday homes has been constructed in the vicinity.