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.