Herewith the surviving fragments of the once-might Morett Castle, County Laois. It was a late-medieval tower house, built by the Fitzgerald family towards the end of the 16th century. During the wars of the 1650s the building came under attack and was then forfeited by the Fitzgeralds, although they were able to regain possession of it during the following decade. Then, in 1690, it was threatened again, this time by the O’Cahills, who claimed ownership of the land on which it stood. The owner at the time, Stephen Fitzgerald, made the mistake of taking a stroll in his garden, and was promptly captured by the attackers, who threatened to kill him unless the castle was surrendered. According to Sir Jonah Barrington (who was her great-nephew), the prisoner’s wife Elizabeth declined the offer, declaring ‘Elizabeth Fitzgerald may get another husband but Elizabeth Fitzgerald may not get another castle; so I’ll keep what I have; and if you don’t get off faster than your legs can readily carry you, my warders will try which is hardest, your skull or a stone bullet.’ She was as good as her word and the castle remained in her possession. The unfortunate Stephen Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was soon seen dangling from a gibbet: his widow did at least have the consideration to wake and bury him. Barrington recounts the sundry other attempts to seize the castle from her, all unsuccessful and ends his tale by informing readers that his great-aunt remained in occupation ‘to a very late period in the reign of George the First.’ The place must have been abandoned not long afterwards because by 1792 Francis Grose could show it in ruins (albeit with more surviving than is now the case).
‘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.
Now in the middle of a busy farmyard but presumably once standing on its own, this is Clara Castle, a five-storey late 15th/early 16th century tower house in County Kilkenny. It was originally constructed for the Shortall family but in the second half of the 17th century passed into the possession of the Byrnes, successive generations occupying the building until 1905. Alas, the building does not seem to be open to visitors at present, as seemingly it has well-preserved interiors on the upper floors, including original oak beams and floorboards, no doubt due to the fact that it remained a residence into the last century.
What remains of an old tower house in Ardmayle, County Tipperary. Some four storeys high and likely dating from the 15th century, it is one of two ‘castles’ close to each other, the other being a later fortified manor, also now in ruins. Around 1225 the lands here were acquired by Richard Mór de Burgh, 1st Lord of Connaught (c. 1194 – 1242), Justicar of Ireland, following his marriage to Egidia de Lacy, daughter of Walter de Lacy, and Margaret de Braose. Later they passed into the ownership of the Butlers and finally the Cootes before it appears the place was abandoned. Today is home only to cattle who can take shelter from the elements under a fine vaulted roof.
Milltown Castle, County Louth is thought to date from the early 15th century when built for the Anglo-Norman Gernon family, who long held land in this part of the country. In many respects it is a typical tower house of the period, but made unusual by having rounded corners and a couple of semi-circular towers. Of four storeys, it underwent the usual alterations across the centuries but remained in use as a residence until relatively recently; a 19th century photograph shows buildings attached on either side, including a two-storey house, but these have since been demolished and today it stands in a farm yard (guarded by a pair of rather aggressive dogs, hence no closer pictures…)
Deerpark Castle, County Galway might be considered the Weight Watchers of Irish tower houses: has all the vertical substance of a regular one, but only half the width. Erected on a natural outcrop of rock, the building is believed to date from the 16th century when this part of the country would have been under the control of the de Burgos, or Burkes a branch of which later became Earls (and eventually Marquesses) of Clanricarde. There are protruding stones on one side of the structure, suggesting an intention – probably not realised – to enlarge it, which may explain the tower’s unusual slimness. Its present name presumably derives from a later date, perhaps the 17th or 18th century, when the surrounding land was enclosed to serve as a deer park for the Burkes; its conversion into use as a dovecote most likely also occurred at this time.
Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones.
The Irish Aesthete has recently been discussing tower houses on YouTube* so here is a fine example rising above the flat landscape of County Louth. The four-storey Roodstown Castle is believed to date from the 15th century although it may be later.
The building has projecting square turrets diagonally opposite each other, one of which contained the garderobe, the other a staircase leading from the usual vaulted entrance space to the upper floors. There is a murder hole just inside the door, and formerly a machicolation outside it but this has since disappeared.