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.
Undoubtedly one of the quirkiest residences in Ireland, this is Boland’s Lock-Keeper’s House. Situated on the 26th lock of the Grand Canal outside Tullamore, County Offaly, the building dates from c.1800 and is thought to have been designed for himself by Michael Hayes, a contractor working on the project. The house has bowed side elevations with semi-conical roofs, and, facing the canal, a bowed and castellated central bay: although it looks to be only two storeys’ high, the land to the rear drops away, allowing for a third floor. Well restored in recent years, the building is now for sale (in case anyone felt like moving home in 2023…)
This week marks the first anniversary of the death of architect and garden designer Angela Jupe at her home at Bellefield, County Offaly, where the Irish Aesthete had paid a visit just a few weeks before that unhappy event. After graduating from university, she worked for a number of architectural firms before heading up a design team at the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). But by the mid-1980s she had established her own practice and begun to follow her personal passion for gardening. She created two businesses, the Traditional Gardening Company which specialised in garden design and construction, and the Garden Furnishing Company, a retail outlet.
As the name of her garden design business indicates, Angela Jupe loved old-fashioned gardens: an obituary in the Irish Times quoted her observation that ‘Some modern landscape architecture feeds only the eyes and forgets that we have noses for scent and hands for touch…Not only is there too much hard landscaping but it leads to plants that grow into a little circle requiring no pruning, care or attention.’ The first country garden she created for herself was at Fancroft Millhouse, County Tipperary which had stood empty and neglected for 12 years before she bought it in 1997 and embarked on a thorough restoration, not just of the grounds but also the house and outbuildings. Then in 2004 she took on a fresh challenge, moving to Bellefield, where the stables and walled garden had stood unused for the previous three decades.
Bellefield is a charming small gentleman’s residence dating from the first years of the 19th century. A keen believer in conservation and architectural salvage, Angela Jupe filled the house with decorative items brought from other buildings, as she also did when restoring the stableyard to the rear. And in the two-acre walled garden, which again benefitted from her attention and experience, she constructed both a charming little onion-domed folly and a large glasshouse from various pieces of salvage. The garden itself, formerly completely overgrown, displays her various passions, not least for snowdrops, of which there are more than 300 different varieties, one of the largest such collections in Ireland. In addition, there is an abundance of old French roses, rare daffodils, Chinese peonies and old fruit trees. Following her unexpected death, it emerged that she had left the Bellefield, the house and its garden, to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) of which she had been a long-standing supporter and board member. The process of transfer of ownership is still ongoing, but the RHSI is currently maintaining the site and hopes to open it to the public next year.
In The Beauties of Ireland (1826), James Norris Brewer explains the name of Busherstown, County Offaly as follows: ‘Busherstown, the seat of the Minchin family, was originally called Bouchardstown, and formerly belonged to the de Mariscos. Bouchard de Marisco, from whom the name of this place is derived, left a daughter and heir, who married O’Carroll, of Clonlisk and Couloge…’ The accuracy of this tale might be open to question, since it seems hard to find any de Marisco with the first name Bouchard. There certainly were members of the family prominent in this part of the country, not least Geoffrey de Marisco, an ally of King John who in the first half of the 13th century was Justiciar of Ireland on several occasions: through his wife, Eva de Bermingham, he came to hold large swathes of land in this part of the country.
Whatever the origins of its name, Busherstown appears to have originated as a tower house perhaps in the 16th century when it was held by the O’Carrolls: the space now serving as a dining room in the centre of the western side of the building was probably the tower house. For their part in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, the O’Carrolls forfeited the property and in 1669 it was granted by the English government to Charles Minchin, a soldier who had risen to the rank of Colonel in the Parliamentary army. Shortly before his death in 1681, Colonel Minchin bought a second property not far away, Ballinakill Castle, County Tipperary which had also begun as a tower house, this time built by the Butlers. The Minchins sold Ballinakill in 1760 and it is now a ruin, but they remained at Busherstown until 1973.
As mentioned, Busherstown appears to have originated as a tower house and at some date in the 18th century, perhaps following a fire in 1764, a new residence was added to the south end of the older building. This plain, three-bay, two-storey extension is clearly visible, the centre breakfront presumably once serving as an entrance; the room behind is much smaller than those on either side, indicating it was a hallway giving access to reception rooms. In the early 19th century, when the property was owned by George Minchin, further alterations to the property were made, not least the addition of a castellated entrance front, which was now moved to the west side. This features a round tower with hood mouldings at one end, and a bow-ended square tower at the other, the latter containing a porch through which one enters the building. Internally, little effort was made to continue the facade’s pseudo-Gothic decoration. What had probably been a dining room in the 18th century house was turned into a large hall, with the room behind it (formerly the entrance hall) becoming an ante chamber for the drawing room beyond. Behind this space is a curious wedge, thinner at the west than the east end, into which was inserted a staircase leading to bedrooms upstairs; a further extension beyond to the west leads gives access to a splendid stableyard. The quirky, provincial character of Busherstown means the house possesses an exceptional charm, helped by the mature and well-planted parkland in which it sits. After being sold by Richard Minchin in 1973, the property was owned by the Rudd family until they in turn disposed of Busherstown in 2011 after which it sat empty for some years until being bought more recently by the present owner who is gradually, and sympathetically, restoring the house.
Tucked away in a corner of the grounds of Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly is this sandstone High Cross, thought originally to have stood not far away on the site of a monastery at Drumcullen. An inscription on the south face of the base records that it was commissioned by Máel Sechnaill, High King of Ireland (846-62) while on the other side the cross is noted as being the work of ‘Colman’. The monument now rises seven feet 10 inches but was originally almost three feet taller, the cross-head being damaged. The north face offers, among other scenes, Eve tempting Adam, the south shows the Crucifixion.
Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly was originally known as Castle Bernard, its name reflecting that of the man responsible for commissioning much of what is seen today, Thomas Bernard, although an earlier house is incorporated to the rear of the building. All cased in crisp limestone, it was designed in the early 1830s by architect siblings James and George Pain, and reflects the period’s fondness for the Tudor-Revival style, although an octagonal tower on the south-west corner harks back to an earlier era. Kinnitty Castle was burnt out in 1922 and subsequently rebuilt, before becoming an agricultural college in the 1950s. A quarter of a century ago it was converted into an hotel, and remains so to the present. Inside the main gates is a pretty Tudoresque lodge (with the most charming ogee-headed doorcase) which is thought to be older than the main house, perhaps dating to the opening years of the 19th century and designed by Samuel Beazley. Alas, despite providing a first impression for guests to the hotel, it stands empty and has been allowed to fall into the present sad condition.
Daingean, County Offaly was formerly called Philipstown, the name given to it in the mid-16th century in honour of her husband (Philip II of Spain) after whom this part of the world was also given the nomenclature King’s County. Philipstown was intended to be the county town (like Maryborough – now Portlaoise – in neighbouring Queen’s County – today County Laois). However, even before the end of the 18th century, the place was being eclipsed by Tullamore and never recovered its status. A couple of buildings survive to show Philipstown’s municipal ambitions, not least the courthouse which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced an earlier building. This one, with a large market square in front, is of five bays and two storeys, the two outer ones pedimented with relieving niches beneath and limestone urns above. The slightly recessed three centre bays are rusticated on the ground floor, and divided by limestone pilasters on the first (seemingly there were once windows between these). The building has had a chequered history, intermittently allowed to fall into poor condition, and it does not appear to be in great shape at present, despite some work being undertaken there a few years ago. In his excellent Pevsner Guide to Central Leinster, Andrew Tierney politely describes the courthouse as being ‘disheveled at the time of writing.’ Others might opt for stronger language.
For those who believe in the supernatural, there’s stiff competition for the title of Ireland’s Most Haunted House. But one property which often appears to lead the field is Leap Castle, County Offaly. Superbly located on a rocky outcrop and with views across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in its present form the core of the castle is a late medieval tower house but likely built on the site, and perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier fortified structure. The name Leap (pronounced, incidentally, ‘Lepp’), derives from the Irish Léim Uí Bhánáin meaning Leap of the O’Bannons, the latter being a minor sept in this part of the country which for many centuries was dominated by another family, the O’Carrolls, ancient rulers of the kingdom of Éile. Leap Castle became one of their principal strongholds, although their authority was greatly weakened over the course of the 16th century by internecine feuding. To give a flavour of what took place during this period: in 1541 the castle’s then occupant Fearganhainm O’Carroll was murdered by the O’Mulloys, and was succeeded by one of his sons Teige ‘the one-eyed.’ It has been claimed that Teige murdered one of his own brothers, a priest, while the latter was performing the rite of mass in the chapel at the top of the castle. In any case, Teige in due course met a sticky end when he was killed by another of his kinsmen, Cahir O’Carroll who was in turn killed by Teige’s younger brother William. Inevitably William was then murdered by one of his relations, and his son John was killed the following year by one of his cousins, Mulroney, a son of the late Teige. It will come as no surprise to learn that Mulroney was then slain by John’s brother Charles, who would eventually also meet a bloody end: no wonder the place is often thought to be haunted. Somehow, despite this extraordinary roll call of murder and mayhem, the O’Carrolls managed to hold onto Leap Castle and its surrounding lands until the mid-17th century when they were finally displaced by another family.
The first of a long line of men bearing the same name to live there, Jonathan Darby is thought to have been granted Leap Castle in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, as a reward for his military services. Although he briefly lost the property back to the O’Carrolls in the aftermath of the 1660 Restoration, Darby and his descendants would remain in residence at Leap until the early 1920s, one Jonathan succeeding the next. In the first half of the 18th century, the building was expanded by the addition of wings on either side of the tower house, and the interiors remodelled in the Gothick style, inspired by Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1742). Alas, these would all be lost when the castle was gutted by fire in 1922. Typical of the time, the family’s younger sons had to find alternative careers and in two instances, despite the estate being as far inland as is possible in Ireland, they became distinguished admirals in the Royal Navy, George Darby commanding the Channel Fleet during the American War of Independence, and then relieving Gibraltar during the Spanish siege of 1781, and in the next generation Henry d’Esterre Darby being an important naval figure during the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the most interesting character produced by the family was John Nelson Darby, his middle name given to acknowledge his godfather and family friend, Horatio Nelson. Typical of many younger sons, John Nelson became an Anglican clergyman renowned as a young curate serving in Delgany, County Wicklow for his fervent, and often successful, evangelising of Roman Catholics in the area. However, he parted ways with the Church of Ireland, ostensibly because of an insistence by the Archbishop of Dublin that converts must swear an oath of loyalty to the English crown, but more likely because it was insufficiently evangelical for his tastes. He then became one of the founders of a new Christian movement which was established in Dublin in the late 1820s: the Plymouth Brethren, its name derived from the first meeting of the group in England which took place in the Devon town (a subset, otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren, were also called Darbyites). Many visitors to and natives of Dublin will be familiar with the Davenport Hotel close to Merrion Square: this building dates from the 1860s when built as a gospel hall for the Plymouth Brethren. The largest such hall ever constructed, it could hold 3,500 persons seated, or 5,000 standing. The Merrion Hall remained in use for its original purpose until the 1980s when sold, and following a fire which gutted the interior, today only the facade is original. One suspects there is little awareness now of how strong was the Christian evangelistic movement in mid-19th century Ireland, not least among the country’s landed gentry: a number of notable families in County Kerry, for example, became members of the Plymouth Brethren during this period. It is an area ripe for further investigation.
Returning to Leap Castle, this remained in possession of the Darbys until July 1922 when destroyed during the Civil War. The last of the family to live there, yet another Jonathan, was married to Mildred Dill who had a particular interest in the supernatural and held séances in the house, which helps to explain why it has been associated with hauntings. Writing in the Occult Review in 1909, she described an incident in Leap Castle: ‘I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin, gaunt, shadowy. its face was human, to be more accurate, inhuman. Its lust in its eyes, which seemed half decomposed in black cavities, stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.’ All of which helps to explain why the building has long been associated with hauntings. Meanwhile her husband Jonathan Darby appears to have been a testy man, given to outbursts of temper. Inheriting the estate while still in his teens, he also inherited much debt at a time when the Land Wars were getting underway and tenants resisting efforts to increase the rents they were obliged to pay. Nevertheless, determined to improve his financial circumstances, Darby raised rents by up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, unlike many other landowners, he declined the opportunity to sell the greater part of his estate under the generous terms of the 1903 Wyndham Act. The consequence was that he was not popular in the area, and that Leap Castle was ripe for attack once the War of Independence and then the Civil War saw a widespread breakdown of law and order. In late July 1922 the Darbys were out of the country, and the castle was occupied only by a caretaker, his wife and child. In the early hours of July 30th, the building was set on fire by a party of 11 men, who in the usual fashion, poured petrol over the floors and furniture and then set it alight. As a consequence the castle’s north wing was completely gutted, but the main part of the property remained intact. Looting took place during the day and then, in the early hours of July 31st, the rest of the building was set alight and destroyed. Darby duly applied for compensation for the loss of his property, suing the county council on the grounds that local residents were responsible for destroying his home and that the relevant military authorities had made no effort to intervene and save the castle. He sought £35,000 but, as was almost invariably the case, received only a fraction of this sum, £7,000. Furthermore, the land he had hitherto refused to sell was now compulsorily purchased by the Land Commission and distributed among tenants. By the mid-1930s he no longer owned any part of the Leap estate, and the castle stood a ruined shell. That is how I remember first seeing it almost 40 years ago, not long after the building had been bought by an Australian, Peter Bartlett whose mother had been a Bannon and who therefore felt an affinity with the place. In the years before his death in 1989, he carried out initial restoration work on the site but a lot remained – and remains to be done. In 1991 Leap Castle was bought by traditional musician Seán Ryan who has lived there with his wife and daughter ever since, untroubled by having to share the spot with multiple ghosts. More structural work has been undertaken but, as can be seen, large parts of the building, not least the north wing, remain shells. Whatever about being haunted, Leap Castle is certainly a most haunting place.
This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.
I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.
And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.
The Enkindled Spring by D.H. Lawrence
Photographs of Balrath House, County Meath (balrathcourtyard.com)
Kilcormac is a village in County Offaly which at the last census (2016) had a population of 935 persons (the figure was 973 in 1991). The most prominent building on its main, indeed only really significant, street is that shown here: an eight-bay convent built in 1885, probably to the design of William Henry Byrne who specialized in such commissions, for the Sisters of Mercy. Members of the order remained in residence here until two years ago, when the last nuns left and the premises, together with an acre of land to the rear, were put on the market. This is a story that can be told in almost every town and village across the country, where the decline in clerical numbers has made the maintenance of what is almost invariably the most substantial property in the vicinity unsustainable. Often the buildings then sit neglected for years, the only attention they receive from vandals and arsonists. Let’s hope this one, a handsome solid structure with nice brick detailing around the windows and attractive use of the quatrefoil motif, finds a new owner soon.