Unlikely to last much longer: a ruined tower house in County Tipperary known as Knigh Castle. The north-west portion of this four-storey building survives best, but much of the other walls has tumbled down, exposing the interior with its barrel-vaulted roof on the first floor. Despite occupying a prominent position on high ground beside a crossroads, little is known of Knigh Castle, and soon it threatens to become no more than a memory.
The first St Johns to come to Ireland were of Anglo-Norman origin and settled here in the 13th century, many of them in what is now County Tipperary. It is, therefore, not surprising to find one of the places in which they established themselves came to be called St Johnstown, or that this now contains the remains of what was once a substantial tower house: St Johnstown Castle.
St Johnstown Castle dates from some time in the later 15th/early 16th century when many such edifices were being constructed. While the precise year remains unknown, the man responsible for commissioning the building does not, since inserted above the main entrance on the east side of the building is a large carved panel, the centre of which is occupied by a shield divided into quarters: two sets of six scallop shells diagonally face two sets of three fishes. Around the shield, and onto the surrounding wall, raised lettering carries the following inscription ‘Robert De Sero Johe Ons De Cualeagh, Lismoynan, Scadanstown Et socius Illuis Plebis Fecit.’ (Robert St John, Lord of Cooleagh, Lismoynan, Scadanstown, and a friend of his people had me built). Of rough-hewn limestone from a local quarry, the now-roofless, five-storey tower house is some 60 feet high and measures 35 feet from east to west, and a little over 29 feet from north to south. There are chimney stacks on the north and south sides, and substantial bartizans wrapping around the north-east and south-west corners. While the lower floors have only narrow slits to let in light, more substantial window openings exist on the upper levels
It would appear that at some date during the upheavals of the 17th century the St Johns were displaced from this property, which then passed into other hands; by the second half of the 18th century, it was owned by one Matthew Jacob, whose only daughter and heiress, Anne, in 1782 married the M.P. Richard Pennefather of New Park. St Johnstown Castle was subsequently inherited by one of the couple’s sons, Matthew Pennefather but by 1837 Samuel Lewis could refer to it as being ‘the property of James Millet Esq who has a modern house in its immediate vicinity.’ Millet died in 1850, after which there does not seem to be much information about what happened to the place. But the ‘modern house’ mentioned by Lewis is of interest, since it looks to be a late 18th/early 19th century building with pretensions towards grandeur: lying to the immediate north of the tower house, it is of seven bays and two storeys with one bay, single-storey wings to either side. Although the site is now accessed via the yard behind the house, originally there was a drive that swept through the parkland to the south and then arrived at the main, east-facing main entrance, with a fine carriage arch leading to the aforementioned yard on one side. While the tower house has long since been abandoned, the same is not the case for the later building, albeit this now rather dilapidated. A fascinating example of a site that, while undergoing alterations, has remained in use since the Middle Ages.
In North Tipperary, particularly around the area bordering on County Offaly, one frequently comes across variants of the same late 18th century house: tall (usually three storeys over basement), narrow (often only one room deep), grey and plain, its facade only relieved by a limestone pedimented doorcase reached via a flight of steps. Milford conforms to this type and, as is frequently the case, its external austerity – another regularly encountered characteristic, and one not confined to this part of the Irish countryside – gives way to an interior full of delights.
Milford was built by a branch of the Smith family, the origins of which are believed to have been in Durham, north-east England. Initially they settled in Ballingarry, presumably occupying the castle there but then built a house at Lismacrory north of the village. That building no longer stands; as early as 1841, the Ordnance Survey Name Books description says ‘it was a very commodious house of the modern style of architecture with extensive offices attached to it, but it is now falling into ruins, the last occupier was Rev. Mr. Smyth of Ballingarry.’ The Reverend in this instance was John Smith, a Church of Ireland clergyman who died in 1813. His brother Ralph appears to have been responsible for constructing Milford, some five miles to the west of Lismacrory, perhaps around the time of his marriage in 1772 to Elizabeth Stoney. Two further generations of the family, both with heads called Ralph, occupied the property but in the aftermath of the Great Famine, like so many others they seem to have found themselves in an impecunious position. In July 1852 over 800 acres of the estate of Ralph Smith Smith was advertised for sale and five years later, the remaining estate of his son Richard Flood Smith, a minor, which included Milford and its demesne, was on the market. The Smiths subsequently emigrated to New Zealand and Milford was bought by a local farming family called Murphy, apparently keen advocates for both Roman Catholic causes and women’s education. The property changed hands several times during the last century and much of the land around it was divided by the Land Commission so that today the house stands on 17 acres. It then stood empty for some 15 years (the only residents being long-eared bats) before Milford was purchased by the present owners in 2020.
The site on which Milford stands was originally called Lisheenboy and owned by the once-dominant O’Carroll family. While there is evidence of human habitation here going back to the 11th century, the earliest surviving remains of construction can be found to the south of the present building where a sunken rectangular walled structure suggests that a fortified house or bawn once stood here. And within those remains are a number of bee boles which have been dated to 1650. At that date the lands would still have been in the hands of the O’Carrolls, but in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, they lost their remaining property. However, at some prior date a farmhouse was constructed at Lisheenboy and it was directly in front of this building that Milford was erected. This addition is of five bays, with a single bay breakfront. The entrance doorcase is flanked by narrow sidelights and these are replicated on the two floors above, widely spaced on either side of a central arched window to produce a charmingly provincial variant on the Serlian window. The internal plan is typical of such houses, with the entrance hall having doors to left and right for access to drawing and dining rooms, while directly behind is the toplit staircase. In the hall a frieze below the cornice contains what seems to be a random selection of motifs including agricultural implements, classical figures and wreaths of leafs. The friezes in the dining and drawing room are more typical, the former incorporating trails of vine leafs and grapes, the latter regular repeats of lyres and profiles linked by more sinuous lines of foliage. The drawing room’s current Chinese-inspired wall decoration was introduced by an earlier occupant. As already mentioned, three years ago, Milford was bought by artists Deej Fabyc and MJ Newell, and they are gradually restoring the house as funds and time permit. They run a number of events here and also offer workspaces for up to eight artists in residence through their organisation, Live Art Ireland.
For more information on Live Art Ireland, please see: live art Ireland – Ealaín Bheo Centre for Art Research and Development at Milford House (live-art.ie)
As many readers will know, Charles Bianconi was an Italian-born entrepreneur who at the age of 16 came to Dublin in 1802 to work as a printer and engraver. Moving to Carrick-on-Suir a few years later, in 1815 he eventually settled in Clonmel, County Tipperary and there established a highly successful business offering passengers inexpensive and efficient travel in coaches around the country. In May 1854, his elder daughter, Catherine Henrietta Bianconi, died at the age of 25 and her father decided to build a mortuary chapel in Boherlahan, a village close to the Longfield estate which he had bought some years earlier. In November 1861, the limestone and sandstone chapel – designed by Bianconi and built at a cost of £1,000 – received the remains of Catherine Henrietta which were placed in a vault; her father would join her there following his own death in 1875.
Few old ruins in Ireland are as dramatically situated as Graystown Castle, County Tipperary. Perched on an outcrop of limestone rock, to its immediate west the land drops steeply towards the Clashawley river, the castle offering views of the surrounding countryside for several miles. There appears to be some dispute about how it came to be called Graystown, one suggestion being that this is a corruption of the name of Raymond le Gros, one of the first Norman knights to arrive in Ireland; he would come to own large swathes of land in the south-east of the country and is said to have been buried at Molana Abbey, County Waterford (see A Diligent Divine « The Irish Aesthete). On the other hand, it seems more likely that a Norman family called de Grey gave their name to the place. The history of Graystown becomes clearer after 1305 when 120 acres of land here was acquired by Henry Laffan, a clerk closely associated with the powerful Butler family. Despite various disturbances and upheavals, he and his descendants would continue to occupy the site for more than 300 years.
As mentioned, the Laffans were based at Graystown for several centuries, although their relationship with the Butlers appears to have deteriorated: : in 1524, James Laffan of Graystown was among the freeholders of Tipperary, who complained to Henry VIII of the ‘extortions, coyne and livery’ levied on them by Sir James Butler of Kiltinan and Sir Edmond Butler of Cahir as deputies of the Earl of Ormonde. Still, they managed to stay in place. In 1613, Thomas Laffan of Graystown was a member of the Irish Parliament for Tipperary and in 1640 Henry Laffan held some 3,200 acres of land in the area. In the Civil Survey of 1654, Graystown is described as follows: ‘Upon this land standeth a good castle, a slate house wantinge repaire with a large bawne & severall cabbins.’ Henry Laffan’s son Marcus served as Commissioner of troops and taxes in the barony of Slieveardagh. However, in the following decade, the Laffans’ land was seized from them by the Commonwealth government and the family was transplanted to East Galway, being settled near Ballinasloe. Graystown was granted to one Gyles Cooke who is listed as proprietor of the place in the 1659 Census of Ireland. And thereafter there is little information about the castle: in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) he mentions its ‘remains’, indicating that the building had become ruinous by that date, as it remains to the present.
Text here. As mentioned, Graystown Castle is wonderfully sited on the edge of a limestone escarpment, the north-west of the building – where an arched entrance is located – seeming to teeter right on the edge of the outcrop. Some sections of a bawn wall survive but much has been lost, as with the castle itself. This looks to have been a typical tower house from the late 16th/16th centuries, rectangular in form, of four storeys and rising some 60 feet high. A large portion of the south wall has gone, leaving the interior exposed and showing the layout of the different floors and the form of the vaulted chambers on various levels. To the immediate north of the castle is a three-storey gable wall, the only section of what was presumably a later mansion, perhaps constructed by the Laffans in the first half of the 17th century before the country was overwhelmed with warfare and destruction. This must be what survives of the ‘slate house wantinge repaire’ mentioned in the 1654 Civil Survey. The same document also refers to a number of cabins, indicating there was once some kind of village in the immediate vicinity, but of this there is no trace.
The background to the appearance of workhouses around Ireland in the 19th century has been discussed here before (see Silent Witness « The Irish Aesthete). In total, 163 such institutions were constructed, one of them on a six-acre site to the immediate south of Tipperary town. Overseen by a Board of Guardians, in November 1839 a Poor Law Union had been established in this part of the country and the workhouse soon followed; built of limestone in a loosely Tudorbethan manner and at a cost of £6,240 plus a further £1,110 for fixtures and fittings, it received the first occupants in July 1841. As was the case with all other such properties, this one was designed by the Poor Laws Commissioners’ architect George Wilkinson and intended to provide places for 700 persons. Inevitably, with the advent of the Great Famine in 1845, that figure was greatly exceeded; by the end of the famine period, there were four times as many occupants, this severe overcrowding leading to many deaths from diseases such as typhus. A graveyard was opened in August 1847 to provide burial sites for those who had died in the workhouse. Subsequently additions were made to the site, with a long, two-storey wing running behind the austere three-storey entrance/admissions block, the former concluding in a chapel, constructed in 1871.
By the start of the present century, much of the former workhouse in Tipperary had fallen into disrepair, although part of it had been converted into commercial premises (and this remains the case today). In 2000, the Tipperary hostel project, a community-based project, embarked on the transformation of the building into self-catering accommodation for tourists. The project successfully secured support and finance from a number of agencies, most notably FÁS, a state-funded training agency intended to encourage employment. Upon completion, the facility was expected to operate primarily as a local community-based hostel under community and voluntary management. The income generated from this enterprise was expected to finance further educational and training work in the fields of traditional trades and crafts, not least by hosting residential workshops. However, while the project was supposed to be completed in four or five years, in 2010 it transpired that while almost €4 million had been provided in state funding, the job remained unfinished and further finance had been suspended. Three years later, in December 2013, the Irish Independent reported that a police investigation had been launched into ‘how a derelict pre-famine workhouse, which was to be refurbished into a modern hostel in a Fas-run project, remains rundown despite almost €5m of public funds being spent on the project’, with only room on the site completed. Furthermore, ‘several of the 23 workers who were supposed to be working on the site of the former workhouse ended up working in 62 other locations, including local GAA and tennis clubs as well as community halls and other local amenities. Twenty private dwellings were also renovated.’ Work on the project had already been halted and was not resumed.
Following this debacle, responsibility for the Tipperary workhouse passed to the local authority, which appears to have done nothing to ensure the building’s future or to secure it against incursion: in March 2018 the site suffered a bad arson attack which left large sections of the roof exposed to the elements, but no repairs were undertaken, leading to further deterioration. Meanwhile, most of the windows were broken and also left unrepaired. Then in February 2019 it emerged that the county council was attempting to sell the workhouse, although it seems there were no offers made for the place, or at least none sufficiently satisfactory for the place to change hands. Instead, it was left to fall into the present condition. This is how the workhouse now looks, abandoned and neglected, with little evidence that just over 20 years ago the plan was that it would become an important tourist asset for Tipperary, bringing visitors to the area, providing employment for residents, improving the local economy. Instead, it has become another broken-down building, an eyesore instead of an asset. This isn’t an unusual story in Ireland. Indeed, there’s hardly a town around the country that doesn’t have a substantial property, too often owned by either a national or local authority, or a state body, which has enormous potential but has been allowed to fall into a ruinous condition. Once again, this is how we choose to treat our architectural heritage.
Despite Ireland being a relatively small country, it can often be difficult to discover information about many of our historic buildings, the precise details of their origin and development lost to local fable. Such is the case with Gortkelly Castle, County Tipperary, about which surprisingly little is known. Samuel Lewis, for example, did not include the place in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) nor, more than a century later, does it appear in Mark Bence-Jones’s Guide to Irish country houses (1978), or indeed in any other relevant publication. Yet this is hardly a modest cottage, so the absence of documentation is strange, although by no means unusual.
It appears that for at least two centuries, Gortkelly was home to a branch of the Ryan family. In 1746 John Ryan received a lease for 31 years of the land on which the house stands. The lease was given by one Daniel Ryan: despite the same surname, the two men are not thought to have been related. Based at Inch, a few miles to the east of Gortkelly, Daniel Ryan was that relatively rare individual in the mid-18th century: a Roman Catholic who had held onto a large estate. Six years before granting the lease, he had employed John Ryan as an agent, to oversee the management of his property, collect rent from other tenants and so forth. Presumably John Ryan had proven competent in the position, and this explains why he was leased several hundred acres at Gortkelly. The lease was renewed in 1781 to Andrew Ryan and then in 1814 to John Ryan. In the 1870s, another Andrew Ryan of Gortkelly Castle, Borrisoleigh, owned 906 acres in County Tipperary. This estate was advertised for sale in December 1877 but the family seems to have remained in residence, since one Patrick Ryan is listed as dying there in 1937.
As already mentioned, almost no information exists about the building now known as Gortkelly Castle. www.buildingsofireland.ie proposes that the core of the house dates from c.1800 with alterations made to its external appearance some 30 years later. However, given that John Ryan received his lease on the land here in 1746, the original construction date could be earlier. On high ground facing almost due east, the building clearly began as a classical house of five bays and three storeys; an extensive range of outbuildings, presumably from the same period, still stand to the immediate south. From what remains of the interior, it appears there were four reception rooms on the ground floor, with the central space to the rear occupied by a staircase hall lit by a tall arched window on the return. At some subsequent period, the decision was taken to modify the exterior – of rubble limestone – so as to give the house the appearance, if only superficially, of a castle. Accordingly, a crenellated parapet was added to the front and side elevations, slender octagonal towers placed on corners of the facade, and the entrance dressed up with a projecting polygonal tower climbing above the roofline to a belvedere which must have offered wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. These elements are of brick, the whole building then rendered and scored to look as though of dressed stone. These decorative flourishes are so shallow that they must be early 19th century, certainly before the Gothic Revival movement demanded a more authentic historical approach. Whoever was responsible for this work is now unknown. Seemingly Gortkelly Castle was unroofed around 1940 (in other words, a few years after the death of Patrick Ryan) and then left to fall into the striking ruin that can be seen today, another part of Ireland’s architectural history wrapped in mystery.
Located on the north-east corner of the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, this is Scully’s Cross – or at least what remains of it. Dating from 1867, the rusticated base of the structure contains a mausoleum to the wealthy Roman Catholic Scully family: above the entrance is a plaque carved with their name in Irish Ó Scolaidhe. A stepped pyramid then leads up to the base of the cross proper, its shaft, each side of which is carved with a series of biblical scenes, rising some 20 feet high. The top of the cross – ringed in the early Irish Christian style – can be found scattered on the ground around the mausoleum, having fallen when the monument was struck by lightning in 1976.
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 present town of Cahir owes its rise to the late Earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl. Cahir, however, is of remote antiquity, and it appears that a castle was built here prior to the year 1142 by Connor, King of Thomond; and in the reign of John, Geoffry de Camoell founded an abbey of which there are still some remains. The manor was one of those belonging to the Butler family, and in the reign of Elizabeth the castle was besieged by the Earl of Essex, with the whole of his army, when the garrison, encouraged by the hostilities then waged by the Earl of Desmond, held out for ten days, but was compelled to surrender. In 1647, this fortress was invested by Lord Inchiquin, and, notwithstanding its great strength, surrendered in a few hours after some of its outworks had been gained by the assailants.
Cahir Castle, the extensive old seat of the Butlers, is in the town. It is in good preservation and occupying the summit of an isolated rock, which rises over the left bank of the Suir, is a highly interesting and picturesque object.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland by James Fraser, 1844.
‘The chief historical events connected with the castle were the sieges of it by the Earl of Essex, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and by Lord Inchiquin, in that of Charles I. The readers of English history are familiar with the unhappy expedition of Essex to Ireland, which was greatly promoted by his powerful enemies at court, as certain to end unfortunately, and thus as certainly to break his influence with the queen. Former viceroys and commanders in Ireland had suffered disaster upon disaster; and by the Battle of the Blackwater, in 1598, the English forces were reduced to the lowest ebb. Essex landed with an army of more than 20,000 men, the largest force, according to the Four Masters, sent to Ireland by the English since the invasion of Strongbow. But Essex was no more successful than his predecessors. His orders were, in the first place, to reduce the rebels in Ulster, and to put strong garrisons into their forts; but, instead of this, he marched into Munster and laid siege to Cahir Castle. He invested it with 7,000 foot and 1,200 horse; but the Earl of Desmond and Redmond Burk came to its relief, and Essex found himself unable to reduce it till he had sent to Waterford for heavy ordnance. On the tenth day of the siege, being the 20th of May, 1599, the castle was surrendered to the Earl of Essex and the Queen. But the surrender of the castle was of no real advantage. He made, indeed, capture of the rebels’ cattle in those parts, and drove the rebels themselves into the woods and mountains; but, as fast as he retired again towards Dublin, these rebels came out from their retreats and followed on his track, harassing his rear, so that his return was rather like a rout than the march of a conqueror. The disasters which befell him on this journey completed his ruin.’
From Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain and Ireland by William Howitt, 1864.
‘During the troubles which followed on the rebellion of 1641, Cahir Castle was taken for the Parliament, by surrender, in the beginning of August 1647 by Lord Inchiquin; and it was again taken in February 1650 by Cromwell himself, the garrison receiving honourable conditions. The reputation which the castle had at this period as a place of strength will appear from the account of its surrender as given in the manuscripts of Mr Cliffe, secretary to General Ireton, published by Borlase. After observing that Cromwell did not deem it prudent to attempt the taking of Clonmel till towards summer, he adds that he “drew his army before a very considerable castle called Cahir Castle, not very far from Clonmel, a place then possessed by one Captain Mathews, who was but a little before married to the Lady Cahir, and had in it a considerable number of men to defend it; the general drew his men before it, and for the better terror in the business brought some cannon with him likewise, there being a great report of the strength of the place, and a story told the general, that the Earl of Essex in Queen Elizabeth’s time, lay seven or eight weeks before it and could not take it. He was notwithstanding then resolved to attempt the taking of it, and in order thereunto, sent them this thundering summons:-
“Sir – Having brought my army and my cannon near this place, according to my usual manner in summoning places, I thought fit to offer you terms honourable for soldiers, that you may march away with your baggage, arms and colours, free from injuries or violence; but if I be, notwithstanding, necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect what is usual in such cases. To avoid blood, this is offered to you by,
Notwithstanding the strength of the place, and the unseasonableness of the time of the year, this summons struck such a terror in the garrison, that the same day the governor, Captain Mathews, immediately came to the general and agreed to the surrender.’
From The Irish Penny Journal, Volume 1, No.33, February 1841.