The tower house at Donore, County Meath. This is believed to date from the early 15th century after Henry VI had offered to grant £10 to anyone prepared to build a defensive tower to protect the Pale. Donore conforms to type, measuring 24 by 20 and a half feet at its base and rising some 39 feet over three storeys. An interesting feature is that the corners are all rounded and one has a small projecting round tower. An illustration from 1785 shows the building with a pitched thatched roof but over a century earlier, in 1650, it had been the scene of a bloody denouement after the English commander Sir John Reynolds captured Donore and killed over forty members of the McGeoghegan family.
Looking north across the Boyne almost mid-point between Slane and Navan, one sees the impressive remains of Dunmoe Castle, County Meath. Sitting high on a bluff above the river, the building presents a high, near blank face (there are a few window openings towards the top) flanked by circular towers. From this position, it is easy to imagine the rest of the building being equally substantial. But the notion quickly proves erroneous. Despite putting on a good front, Dunmoe is the Potemkin village of Irish castles: nothing lies behind its fine façade.
It is believed the original castle at Dunmoe was built in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy. However, by the mid-15th century when the present building is thought to have been constructed the land on which it stands had passed into the hands of another family of Norman origin, the d’Arcys. Much intermarried with other local families like the Plunkets, Nugents and St Lawrences, their main residence was elsewhere in the county at Platten but by the 16th century Dunmoe belonged to the descendants of a younger d’Arcy son. Inevitably they were caught up in the troubles of the Confederate Wars, Dunmoe being taken by the Irish forces in 1641 and later fired at across the Boyne by the passing Cromwellian Army. Following the restoration of Charles II, in 1663 Thomas d’Arcy was declared ‘an innocent Papist.’ It was he who is said to have entertained James II at Dunmoe on the night before the Battle of the Boyne, and the victorious William III on the night after. This is supposed to have inspired the couplet, ‘Who will be king, I do not know/But I’ll be d’Arcy of Dunmoe.’
The d’Arcys remained at Dunmoe for much of the 18th century, converting what had been a fortress into a more comfortable house. The last of them to occupy appears to have been Judge d’Arcy (his first name deriving from the surname of his mother, Elizabeth Judge). Dying young in 1766, he left an infant heiress Elizabeth who would later marry Major Gorges Irvine of Castle Irvine, County Fermanagh (for the unhappy fate of this house, see A White Elephant, October 3rd 2016): thereafter that family were called the d’Arcy-Irvines. As for Dunmoe, it survived until the end of the century before being largely destroyed by fire during the 1798 rebellion (presumably around the time of the Battle of Tara Hill on May 26th of that year). It has since fallen into the present ruinous state so that only one of the four outer walls remains, and only two of the equivalent number of corner towers. To the immediate west inside a low walled enclosure are likewise the remains of an old church and graveyard containing what had been the d’Arcy mausoleum.
The much-repaired castle in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Situated at the mouth of the river Colligan, the castle, prior to the construction of the town’s quays, stood on the water’s edge. It is supposed to have been built by Prince (later King) John during his first visit to this country in 1185. The castle has a polygonal shell keep with a series of corner towers and in the 19th century was used as a barracks for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Some months after they had left the premises, it was burnt out by anti-Treaty forces. Subsequently restored, it was used by the local police until 1987 but now contains a visitors’ centre.
One of the groundfloor windows in a building known as the Mint in Carlingford, County Louth. A three-storey tower house dating from the 15th/16th centuries, the property is believed to have derived its name from a charter granted to the town in 1467 to mint its own coinage. The house may have been used for this purpose, or may simply stand on what was the site of a mint. It was perhaps built as a defensive residence for a local family, although the absence of chimneypieces argue against this proposal. In any case, what now distinguishes the Mint are its limestone ogee windows, five on two floors, which beneath substantial hoods feature a variety of carved figures including a horse and a man, as well as abstract interlace decoration which indicates a revival of interest in more ancient Celtic art.
What remains of Ferns Castle, County Wexford. It is believed to have been constructed in the mid-1220s by William Marshal, second Earl of Pembroke. The family is said to have suffered from a curse placed on it by Ailbe Ua Maíl Mhuaidh, Bishop of Ferns after the first Earl of Pembroke had seized some of his property. The bishop declared that the male line of the Marshals should die out, as indeed it did as all five sons of the first earl failed to leave behind an heir. The fate of Ferns Castle was not much better: during the Confederate Wars, it was blown up in 1641 by Sir Charles Coote (future Earl of Mountrath) to prevent the building falling into his opponents’ hands. Only one of the original four corner towers survives and large sections of the walls are entirely lost, but enough survives to give an idea of how it must have looked.
A thousand years ago the O’Mahonys were a powerful sept occupying a swathe of territory running from where now stands Cork city to the south-west of the region. However, following the Norman invasion in the second half of the 12th century the O’Mahonys were gradually pushed ever closer to the region’s Atlantic extremities, ultimately settling on the peninsulas that jut into the ocean. Here, according to the medieval Annals of Inisfallen, they built themselves a fortified settlement in a place now known as Dunlough Castle. It is easy to understand why the location was chosen. To the east lies a lake, Dun Lough which would have provided fish for the building’s occupants. To north and south the land rises making it possible to anticipate any potential attack, since those responsible would have been visible on the horizon. Meanwhile immediately to the west are cliffs dropping precipitately to the Atlantic. As Peter Somerville-Large, who formerly lived in this area, wrote more than thirty years ago: ‘To an invading army, the cliff edge, the defensive wall, the lake and the sternly inaccessible approach would have made the castle appear impregnable.’
In this sheltered spot Donagh na Aimrice O’Mahoney (Donagh the Migratory) erected a castle on what is believed to have been the site of an Iron Age fort. What we see here today, however, are the remains of a 15th century development. This gives Dunlough its popular alternative name of Three Castles since the structure comprises three fortified towers joined by a wall some twenty feet high and almost 1,000 feet long running from cliff face to lakeshore. All three towers are rectangular and of three storeys, the most substantial being that furthest to the west. Rising almost fifty feet and over fifty square feet inside, the building would have served as residence for the owners. It has entrances on both the ground and first floors, the latter presumably accessed by means of a ladder, to provide additional protection for occupants in the event of an attack. Internally the first floor was of wood and is therefore long gone but the second floor, of stone, survives: the space above would have been used for dining and large gatherings. The roof of towers from this period was typically of wood and so no longer extant.
The middle tower at Dunlough was probably used for storage and that closest to the lake provided ingress to the whole site. The construction technique used throughout was dry stone masonry, unusual for the period when wet mortar and sand were used in building; dry stone masonry had been common at an earlier date meaning Dunlough was somewhat anachronistic, the reason perhaps being its remote location. The stone used – indigenous schist-slate rock – was quarried from local pits. The nature of its construction left the building vulnerable to decay, since it appears Dunlough was never subject to serious attack. The O’Mahonys remained there until the 1620s when their lands were confiscated: the last occupants are believed to have been members of the O’Donohue family, all of whom apparently died by murder or suicide: according to legend a drop of blood falls every day in the tower closest to the lake. Whether true or not – the building today looks clear of all bloodstains – the story adds to Dunlough’s inherently romantic character.
The name of Leamcon Castle, County Cork derives from the Irish ‘Leim Con’ meaning a leap or chasm and hound (also a hero or champion). The reason is that the castle, actually a late 15th century tower house, stands on an island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel through which, at this time of year, churn the waters of the Atlantic: a narrow bridge now links the two. Originally built by a branch of the O’Mahony family, in the early 17th century Leamcon passed into the ownership of Devon-born Sir William Hull, appointed Vice-Admiral for the province of Munster with responsibility for dealing with piracy which was then rampant along the south-western coast of Ireland. In fact, Hull proved to be a gamekeeper-turned-poacher and became known as a friend and ally, rather than foe, of the pirates.