The so-called abbey in Mungret, County Limerick. There had been a monastery here, supposedly founded in the mid-sixth century by Saint Nessan, but due to frequent assault and despoliation over subsequent centuries, no trace of the original buildings survives. Instead, what can be found here dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1179 Donal Mór O Brien, King of Leinster granted the monastery and its lands to the Bishop of Limerick, and this subsequently became a parish church for Augustinian Canons Regular. The building is divided into three sections, the oldest part at the east end being the chancel, followed by the nave and then, at the west end, a square tower added in the 15th century and incorporating living quarters for a priest. Following the 16th century Reformation, the building continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until replaced by a new church designed by the Pain brothers in 1822 and located a short distance to the west of the older structure. The Pains’ work – which took the form of a Greek cross – did not survive long, since falling numbers of parishioners meant the new church at Mungret closed just 55 years later in 1877, before being unroofed in 1900, with much of the stone then reused to build a parochial house in nearby Raheen.
Last weekend marked the centenary of the final burning of a big house in County Kerry during the War of Independence/Civil War period, the property in question being Ballycarty, which lay to the south-west of Tralee and had been occupied by the Nash family since the third quarter of the 18th century. In total, 15 such houses in the county were destroyed during the period 1920-23, a list of these appearing in the recently published The Big House in Kerry: A Social History edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe. Amid the 18 properties examined in individual chapters by different authors, four of them are among those lost at the time: Kilmorna (burnt April 1921 and its occupant Sir Arthur Vicars killed), Ballyheigue Castle (burnt May 1921, see Particularly Commodious « The Irish Aesthete), Ardfert Abbey (burnt August 1922) and Derryquin (burnt August 1922).
In a fascinating chapter at the start of The Big House in Kerry, historian John Knightly looks at ‘The Destruction of the Big House in Kerry 1920-23’ and the various reasons for these properties being burnt. He proposes that the destruction of two houses was due to suspicions that they might be used by British forces, seven were burnt as a result of land agitation, and six the consequence of looting. It is clear that in the aftermath of the First World War and the economic depression that followed, a large number of agricultural workers found themselves in dire circumstances, leading to agrarian unrest. Initially much of this took place in north Kerry with attacks made on large farms, popularly known as ‘ranches.’ The persons involved sought for these land holdings to be broken up and divided into small parcels for distribution among the local populace. By this time, taking advantage of schemes such as the 1903 Wyndham Act, many estate owners had sold the greater part of their land and only held onto the immediate demesne. Some owners, in the face of threatened or actual attacks on their property, sought to sell up and leave, although given the real or incipient violence, purchasers were not easy to find. A number of owners simply decided to leave. In north Kerry, Rose Trent-Stoughton, last owner of Ballyhorgan, who had already sold much of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, organised for the house’s contents to be auctioned in April 1919. Since she, by then an elderly woman, was living in England, the building was vulnerable to theft: in March 1920 two men were charged at Listowel District Court for removing boards, door frames and a gate from Ballyhorgan. Two months later, the house, dating from the 1750s, was set alight and left a shell: the first of such arson attacks in Kerry. The remains were later demolished and nothing now remains. Glenbeigh Castle, otherwise known as Winn Towers, was next: like Ballyhorgan, it was unoccupied but in this case rumours had spread that the building was due to be taken over by a British regiment. Having stood empty for some time, the castle, designed by Edward Godwin in the 1860s, did not burn easily. The leader of those responsible for its destruction later wrote ‘after sprinkling twelve tins of petrol over the floors, it refused to light, and at dawn I was faced with a problem. It was damp, old and much of it stonework. I noted a lot of shrub nearby, and sent the men to collect and fill up one room with it…’ And so it went on, often in waves, with a series of attacks in spring 1920, another during the same period the following year, a third in summer/autumn 1922 and then, closing the sequence, Ballycarty in January 1923.
It is important to note that while their destruction should be lamented, only 15 Kerry country houses were burnt in the years 1920-23. In another, introductory chapter, John Knightly observes that at the start of the last century there were some 115 properties in the county. These varied in size and age, and the amount of land holdings differed considerably. Three families – the Petty-FitzMaurices, Brownes and de Moleyns – owned estates running to almost 100,000 each, but others might have a few hundred acres. Inevitably, most of them were members of the Church of Ireland but a few, not least the Earl of Kenmare, were Roman Catholic: interestingly in 1913/14 the local president of the Irish Unionist Alliance – formed to oppose home rule – was the aforementioned Lord Kenmare. Knightly estimates that out of a county population of 160,000 in 1911, perhaps between 700 and 1,000 were members of this landed elite. The situation soon began to change, the burnings of 1920-23 being just one factor in this transformation. As Knighty comments, ‘Ultimately, the Land Commission and the Irish State were responsible for more big houses than the War of Independence and Civil War combined. The process begun in 1879 at the start of the Land War was thus completed over 100 years later. High taxes, high rates and falling incomes did the rest.’ Typical in this respect is Flesk Castle, abandoned in the 1940s (although now happily being brought back to use). Knightly notes that today only four Kerry houses remain in the hands of the family responsible for their construction. But others happily survive, such as Beaufort (subject of a chapter by Donald Cameron), a picture of which can be seen below.
The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe is published by Irish Life and Lore (€39.00)
After last Monday’s fake castle, here is the real thing. Now situated on the north bank of the Grand Canal (which would not have existed at the time of its construction), this is the four-storey Srah Castle, County Offaly which dates from 1588 when built by Andrew Briscoe and his wife Eleanor Kearney. As was typical of tower houses of the period, it has a battered base, machiolation directly above the single, round-headed entrance, a series of gun-loops and a bartizan on the south-west corner (its match on the north-east has since collapsed, leaving a large hole in the structure). To the immediate west are the remains of a large hall, of which little other than one gable end survives. Seemingly the castle was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars and never recovered, the Briscoes moving elsewhere in the county.
A handsome ashlar limestone triumphal arch marking the former entrance into the Johnstown estate, County Tipperary. This structure presumably dates from the last quarter of the 18th century and was erected at the same time as the main house, commissioned for Peter Holmes, M.P. for Banagher, County Offaly in the Irish House of Commons. In typical fashion of the time, he called the place after himself: Peterfield. Members of his family continued to live there until 1865 when the estate was bought for more than £13,000 by William Headech. He had arrived in Ireland around a quarter-century earlier as secretary to the Imperial Slate Quarry Company at Portroe. Headech later bought the company and made a fortune from slate production, allowing him to buy Peterfield, which he renamed Johnstown.
Headech’s descendants continued to live at Johnstown until the 1930s when the property was acquired by the Land Commission. The house, of three storeys over basement and believed to have been designed by architect William Leeson, was unroofed in 1941 and then demolished a couple of decades later, so that today just fragments of this fine property remain.
Below are two older images of the Johnstown, the first taken from a late 18th century engraving by Jonathan Fisher made when the property was still called Peterfield, the second, a photograph by the late Paddy Rossmore, taken in the 1960s when the building, although roofless, was still standing.
Lines from Yeats’ Coole Park come to mind:
‘Here, traveller, scholar, poet take your stand,
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone…’
The remains of a church that was once part of a Carmelite monastery in Castlelyons, County Cork. This religious house was established in 1309 by John de Barry, but much of what can be seen today dates from the following century. Although sections of the cloister also survive, the church is the most substantial extant part of the site, a long nave separated from the chancel by a semi-ruinous three-story crossing tower. The building’s best-preserved details can be found on the west front, featuring a pointed doorway with hoodmoulded surround below a twin-light, ogee-headed window.
‘Maynooth Castle was the original residence of the Kildare family. The manor of Maynooth in 1176 was granted by Strongbow to Maurice Fitz-Gerald, who erected the castle for protection against the incursions of the natives. His son Gerald, first Baron of Offaly, obtained from John, Lord of Ireland, son of Henry II, a new grant of sundry lordships. Thomas, second Earl, was married to a daughter of the Red Earl of Ulster, and sister to Ellen, the wife of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland. During the latter half of the fourteenth century, Maynooth was one of the border fortresses of the Pale, or English possessions, in the defence of which Maurice, fourth Earl of Kildare, distinguished himself. John, the sixth Earl, enlarged the castle (1426) and it was then said to be “the largest and richest earl’s house in Ireland”.’
From an article on Carton in The Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, Vol.22, May 16, 1872.
‘In March 1535 the new Earl of Kildare had with him 120 horse, 240 gallowglasses and 500 kerns. Leaving Maynooth Castle strongly fortified in the hands of his foster brother and confidante Christopher Pareses, he went into Offaly to raise additional adherents for the summer campaign. Skeffington [Sir William Skeffington, then Lord Deputy of Ireland] invested Maynooth Castle of the 14th March, and on the 23rd Parese, consenting to betray his trust, permitted the outer defences to be taken without resistance, after which the keep was carried by assault. A park of heavy artillery, brought up to the siege by the English, and for which the Anglo-Irish were quite unprepared, had no small effect in compelling such a speedy surrender of a place the Earl of Kildare regarded as almost impregnable. Of the garrison, twenty-five were beheaded and one hanged, as it was thought dangerous to spare skilled soldiers. “Great and rich was the spoile, such store of beddes, so many goodly hangings, so rich a wardrobe, such brave furniture, as truly it was accounted, for household stuffe and utensils, one of the richest earl his houses under the crown of England.” Pareses, to increase the estimation in which his treachery should be regarded, dwelt on the trust and confidence bestowed on him; and Stanihurst tells us how his treachery was rewarded; “The Deputy gave his officers to deliver Parese the sum of money that was promised, and after to choppe off his head”.’
From an account of the Rebellion of Silken Thomas and the Siege of Maynooth given in A Compendium of Irish Biography by Alfred Webb, Dublin, 1878.
‘On the 7th January, 1642 a party of Catholics seized and pillaged Maynooth Castle, carrying off the furniture and the library, which was of great value; all the stock, including thirty-nine English cows and oxen, thirty horses worth £270, household goods worth at least £200, and corn and hay worth £300; they also deprived him of rents amounting to at least £600 a year. The castle was soon retaken, but in 1646 was occupied by a detachment sent for that purpose by the Catholic general, Preston [Thomas Preston, first Viscount Tara], when he was advancing against Dublin, and on his retreat it was dismantled, and has never since been inhabited.’
From The Earls of Kildare and Their Ancestors from 1057 to 1773 by the Marquis of Kildare (future fourth Duke of Leinster), Dublin, 1858.
‘Many a time I walked for three or four hours without meeting even one human being. Here and there a stately mansion, around it the gate lodge of the serf, the winding avenue, the spreading oaks, and the green fields in which no man was visible. Landlordism, the willing instrument of British rule, had wrought this desolation. I renewed my resolve to do my share in bringing about the change that must come sooner or later.’
Dan Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924)
‘“I’ll bloody well settle that: six big houses and castles of their friends, the Imperialists, will go up for this. I don’t know what GHQ will do – but I don’t give a damn.” We selected six houses and castles from the half-inch map, then sent off the order.’
Ernie O’Malley quoting Liam Lynch in On Another Man’s Wound (1936)
‘Castles, mansions and residences were sent up in flames by the IRA immediately after the British fire gangs had razed the homes of Irish Republicans. Our people were suffering in this competition of terror, but the British Loyalists were paying dearly, the demesne walls were tumbling and the British ascendancy was being destroyed. Our only fear was that, as time went on, there would be no more Loyalist’s homes to destroy, for we intended to go on to the bitter end. If the Republicans of West Cork were to be homeless and without shelter, then so too would be the British supporters. ‘
Tom Barry, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949)
Photographs show Deel Castle, County Mayo, formerly owned by the Gore family, Earls of Arran, and burnt by the IRA in September 1921.
In 1680 two sisters from County Offaly, Elizabeth and Jane Hamilton, were married on the same day. While Elizabeth married Sir Thomas Crosbie, Jane married Sir Thomas’s eldest son (from an earlier marriage), David. Thus the latter’s heir Maurice, future first Baron Branden, was both nephew and cousin of Sir Thomas and Elizabeth Crosbie’s eldest son, also called Thomas. While David inherited the family’s main estate at Ardfert, County Kerry (see An Incomplete Story « The Irish Aesthete), Thomas Crosbie was left another estate further north in the same county at Ballyheigue. The ancient family formerly in occupation here were the Cantillons who supposedly occupied some kind of fortified building; they were displaced in the 17th century by the Crosbies (who, in turn, had been moved by the English government from their own traditional lands in Offaly). The younger Thomas died in late 1730, supposedly after he suffered from exposure and fatigue involved in rescuing the crew and cargo of a Danish vessel, the Golden Lion, which had become stranded on the local coast: the cargo happened to include 12 chests of silver valued at £20,000. A complex drama involving the disappearance of at least some of this silver, and the possible involvement of Thomas’s widow, Lady Margaret Barry (a daughter of the second Earl of Barrymore) then followed; what exactly happened and who benefitted from the theft has never been clearly established. In any case, a new residence was built at Ballyheigue c.1758 by Colonel James Crosbie, heir to the younger Thomas. Seemingly this was a long, low thatched property, by then somewhat old-fashioned in style, and surrounded by an orchard, gardens and bowling green. It was his grandson, another colonel also called James and an MP, first of the Irish Parliament and then, after the 1800 Act of Union, of the Westminster Parliament, who gave the house, renamed Ballyheigue Castle, its present – albeit now semi-ruinous – appearance.
Two early 19th century engravings exist showing Ballyheigue Castle. The first, engraved by W. Radclyffe and published in 1819, depicts the battlemented building dramatically towering over the edge of a cliff with a precipitous drop straight to the sea. Six years later, James and Henry Storer produced an engraving for J.N. Brewer’s Beauties of Ireland (1826) which shows the castle standing so close to the seashore that waves almost lap the entrance. Both images were highly fanciful, testament to the era’s fondness for romantic settings. In truth, the building is located on ground that gently slopes down to a beach with expansive views across Tralee Bay. As already mentioned, the house was given a comprehensive overhaul shortly before either engraving appeared. Like so many other estate owners of the period, Colonel James Crosbie turned to one of the period’s most hard-working architects in Ireland, Richard Morrison. Around 1809, the latter invited his talented son William Vitruvius Morrison – then aged barely 15 – to come up with a suitable design for the building; responding to the challenge and ‘to the astonishment of his father, he, in the course of a few days, produced the noble design subsequently erected.’ How true this tale, or how much – like those early images – it is just an entertaining fancy, remains unknown. In any case, when the first engraving was published, an accompanying text in J.P. Neale’s Views of Seats reported that the intention of the architect(s) was to give an impression that the castle had been constructed in two different periods, neither of them the early 19th century. Instead, ‘the entrance front exhibiting the rich and ornamental style of the early part of the reign of Henry VIII; the flank elevation towards the sea has the character and appearance of the castellated mansions of King Henry VI.’ Inside, the same document observed, ‘the apartments are elegant, and are arranged upon a plan particularly commodious.’ Both the text and the engraving were heavily reliant upon material provided by Richard Morrison.
Text here…Colonel Crosbie died in 1836 and four years later, when Ballyheigue Castle was occupied by his heir Pierce, it suffered a terrible fire during which, according to a contemporary report, the entire interior at the front ‘was consumed from the roof to the ground.’ However, most of the contents were saved and the place was soon rebuilt, presumably with the same ‘elegant’ apartments. The last of the Crosbies to live in the house was Pierce’s grandson, Brigadier-General James Dayrolles Crosbie. In 1912 he decided to sell the property for £7,700 to his eldest sister Kathleen who wished to keep Ballyheigue in the family. However, with the onset of the War of Independence and the Civil War, she in turn opted to dispose of the place: it was bought by a local man, Jeremiah Leen, for £4,000. He did not have long to enjoy possession of the building. During the War of Independence, Ballyheigue Castle had been occupied for a period by Crown forces and perhaps for that reason, in May 1921 the house was torched on the instructions of the IRA. Although Leen received some compensation for his loss, the castle was not rebuilt, the main block left a shell, although the service wing to the east, which presumably survived, remained in use. In the 1970s, the western section of the house was converted into a series of apartments but the most important portion, that once containing those elegant apartments, remains a ruin. Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s the surrounding demesne land was converted into a nine-hole golf course, with a club house built behind the castle. Accordingly, a restoration appears unlikely.
On high ground offering superlative views over the surrounding countryside, this is St Osnadh’s church, Kellistown, County Carlow. It dates from 1810 when built with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, replacing a mediaeval church, the remains of which stand behind the present structure. St Osnadh’s is small and plain, with no windows on the north or west sides and it seems never to have been supported by many parishioners; as early as 1891 an observer noted that it was ‘no longer alas used for Divine Service, and apparently since the demise of its Rector, Rev. Garret, has been more or less closed.’ (This is presumably a reference to the Rev James Perkins Garrett, who died in 1879). Meanwhile, by the same date ‘the burial-ground is being quietly grazed by two goats; a donkey, and occasionally a pig, is allowed to stretch its limbs in a wild chase.’ The grounds today are no longer home to sundry livestock, but the church is a roofless shell.
South-east and to the rear of Kilkea Castle, County Kildare are the remains of a 13th century church, once associated – as was the main building – with the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare (and later Dukes of Leinster). Only the east gable and the remains of a chapel to the north survive, along with fragments of monuments to this once-mighty family. Inserted into a wall, for example, is a carving of a chained and collared animal, which might be a dog or perhaps a monkey which featured on the FitzGerald arms. Aforementioned arms can also be found on another stone. Kilkea Castle is today an hotel.