A Victim of Arson



The remains of Balfour Castle, County Fermanagh. In 1618/19 the surveyor Captain Nicholas Pynnar noted that the Scottish settler James Balfour, first Lord Glenawley had ‘laid the foundation of a bawne of lime and stone 70 ft square, of which the two sides are raised 15 ft high. There is also a castle of the same length, of which the one half is built two stories high and is to be three stories and a half high.’ Because of Balfour’s origins, the castle was built very much in the Scottish style of a fortified house, necessary because it was damaged during both the Confederacy Wars of the 1640s and the Williamite wars later in the same century. However, it remained occupied until 1803 until destroyed by arson, the person responsible believed to have been a member of the Maguire clan which had once owned all the land in this part of the country. Balfour Castle has remained a ruin ever since and now looks over a graveyard on one side and a housing estate on the other.


Saintly Connections


The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.





One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.





The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.

Pallas Life


There are over twenty place names in Ireland incorporating the word ‘Pallas.’ Seemingly this derives from a Norman term, paleis, meaning boundary fence (hence the word palisade which clearly comes from the same source). One such spot is Pallas, County Galway found at the end of a boreen (from the Irish word bóithrín, meaning ‘a little road’). Here can be found, if not quite a palace, certainly the remains of a very substantial tower house and ancillary buildings. Pallas Castle as it is known, is believed to date from c.1500 when it was built by a branch of the Burke family, descendants of the Norman de Burghs, the first of whom William de Burgh had seized territory in this part of the country and in 1203 called himself Lord of Connacht. Rising five storeys, the tower stands within a bawn wall access to which is through an east-facing two-storey gatehouse flanked by similarly propotioned turrets. Immediately adjacent to the tower house on the west side are portions of a 17th century house, its gable end built into the bawn wall, through which separate entrance was created. The walls on either side retain their internal parapets, reached via flights of stone steps.





The Burkes remained in possession of Pallas until the mid-17th century when, like many other families who had risen against the Cromwellian forces, they were dispossessed of their lands and moved further west. The same fate befell another ancient family of Norman origins, the Nugents, formerly Barons Delvin but since 1621 Earls of Westmeath. They too were required to depart their original property and move west, being given part of the former Burke land including Pallas. Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the second Earl of Westmeath was allowed to return to his ancestral lands and those in County Galway bestowed on his second son, the Hon Thomas Nugent, created Baron Nugent of Riverston by James II in 1689. As a Roman Catholic and Jacobite he went into exile, dying in 1715 but his sons conformed to the established church and so were able to retain both the family title and estates. Their descendants remained at Pallas until the 1930s, having some thirty years earlier become Earls of Westmeath when the main line of the family died out. Ultimately the Land Commission took over the Pallas estate and divided it up, thereby ending the Nugent link. What remains of Pallas Castle is today a National Monument.





So this is what is left at Pallas, but another very substantial building in the immediate vicinity has since disappeared. In 1797 the amateur architect William Leeson, now best known for laying out the town of Westport, County Mayo, was commissioned by the fourth Lord Nugent of Riverston to design offices and, it seems, a new residence. This building was considerably enlarged by the tenth Earl of Westmeath after he inherited the title and estate on the death of his father in 1879. Surviving photographs show a house typical of the period, with an abundance of plate glass, parapets and balustrades, cement-rendered pilasters and quoins, together with a three-bay extension to one side. Further improvements were carried out on the property in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War  with the addition of a new library and smoking room, but in the aftermath of the war circumstances were very different. The Nugents left the area for good soon after the death of the 11th Earl in 1933 when the title passed to his younger brother. A sale of the contents took place and then in 1945 the house itself was demolished, followed by an auction of its fixtures and fittings, including no less than 150 interior and exterior doors and a similar number of windows, marble chimney pieces, library shelving and so forth. Despite  the building’s scale, today there is no obvious trace of it on the landscape and only the older structures survive at Pallas.

Jacobean Sophistication



The façade of Portumna Castle, County Galway seen from the outer court. The house dates from 1618 when it was commissioned by Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde and his wife Frances Walsingham, who had previously been married to both Sir Philip Sidney and the second Earl of Essex. The building’s design bears similarities to the Clanricardes’ mansion at Somerhill, Kent completed just a few years earlier. At the time it was probably the most sophisticated semi-fortified house in Ireland, with Italianate influences apparent throughout beginning with the Tuscan gateway providing access to the inner court. Few changes were made thereafter to the property, other than the addition of a bow at the centre of the rear elevation. However Portumna Castle was accidentally gutted by fire in 1826 and the family later built a new residence on an adjacent site. The latter was destroyed in 1922 and its stones used to build a Roman Catholic church in the nearby town. The old castle was subsequently acquired by the state and re-roofed although, having stood exposed to the elements for over 150 years, its interior retains few original features.


From Bishops to Bullocks


In a report compiled for the Ordnance Survey in February 1836, Lt. I.I Wilkinson observed that in Raphoe, County Donegal, ‘The bishop’s palace stands on the eastern side of the town, in a pleasant demesne containing groves, serpentine walks, plantations and every other variety to please the human mind. A little distance to the north east of the palace is the residence of the dean, in the midst of an enclosed demesne full of groves and plantations with grand fields all beautifully round. Both places indicate as if Heaven itself had designed the place and situations for the use of the pious servants of the Lord.’ A year later in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Samuel Lewis wrote of Raphoe, ‘The Episcopal palace, formerly a strong castle, is about a quarter of a mile from the town: it is a handsome and spacious castellated building, pleasantly situated in tastefully disposed grounds…The deanery-house, which is also the glebe-house of the parish, was built in 1739, at an expense of £1680, and has been subsequently enlarged and improved from their own funds by various successive incumbents ; it is pleasantly situated about a mile from the town.’ Of these two buildings, the deanery – otherwise known as Oakfield – still stands and was discussed here a few weeks ago (see Et in Arcadia…, June 26th 2017). The former bishop’s palace, on the other hand, has enjoyed less good fortune.





A date stone on the building advises that Raphoe Palace was begun in May 1636 and finished in August the following year. It was constructed at the behest of the then-Bishop of the diocese, John Leslie. Born in Aberdeenshire in 1571, Leslie spent two decades in Spain before returning to Britain where he became a favourite of James I who made him a privy councillor of Scotland. In 1628 he was appointed Bishop of the Isles, and five years later translated to Raphoe where he found much of the Episcopal lands in lay hands but succeeded in regaining them. Bishop Leslie’s combative nature became more apparent and more necessary after 1641 with the onset of the eleven-year Confederate Wars. Leslie was a staunch royalist, and battled against both the Irish and Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, for this reason becoming known as the ‘Fighting Bishop.’ Despite ultimately being on the losing side, he was permitted to remain in situ during the Commonwealth period. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Leslie – then aged 90 – is said to have rode from Chester to London in order to pay homage to the king. As a reward for his unstinting loyalty, Charles in return recommended the bishop to the Irish House of Commons which voted him a gift of £2,000. By now transferred to the see of Clogher, he used this money which he used to buy the Glaslough estate in County Monaghan. His descendants live there still because at the age of sixty-seven the bishop finally married, his bride being Catherine Cunningham, teenage daughter of the Dean of Raphoe: the couple had five children. Bishop Leslie died in 1671, aged 100.





Writing in The Architecture of Ireland (1982) Maurice Craig notes the debt owed by Raphoe Palace to Rathfarnham Castle, built on the outskirts of Dublin half a century earlier (see A Whiter Shade of Pale, August 26th 2013). The latter had likewise been built by an Anglican cleric, Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, and had similarly been intended to withstand assault: as Craig points out in both instances the main block has four flanking spear-shaped towers which provided the occupants with a defensive advantage in the event of attack. This indeed is what happened during the Confederacy Wars, and the building was later plundered by the troops of James II in 1688. The palace as seen today is taller than would originally have been the case: it has been proposed that originally the palace was two storeys over basement, the additional floors being added in the 18th century. But the dimensions of the building remain as they were in Leslie’s day, the central portion being a square measuring forty-six feet each way, and the interiors of the towers being each 12 and a half feet square: the walls throughout are four feet thick. The palace’s architectural history in the post-Leslie period is unclear, although it remained in use as an Episcopal residence for a considerable time. Restoration works are known to have been carried out after John Pooley was appointed Bishop of Raphoe in 1702, and more alterations took place at a later date, the window openings being enlarged to admit additional light. The east front features a fine stone Gibbsian door with coats of arms inserted into the walls of the towers on either side. An attack during the 1798 Rebellion led to further renovations and the last bishop to live here, William Bissett, carried out improvements including the castellations and bartizans around the top floor. Following his death in 1834, the bishopric of Raphoe was amalgamated with that of Derry and the old palace put up for sale. In 1838 it was gutted by fire, and has remained a ruin ever since. Today the ‘pleasant demesne’ noted by Wilkinson has been turned over to pasture, and at its centre bullocks rather than bishops now occupy the palace.

For Fine Dining



One of Ireland’s lesser known mediaeval monuments: the 15th century Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, County Limerick. Built on the remains of an earlier structure (the remains of lancet windows on the south wall suggest it may once have served as a chapel), the hall sits above a vaulted lower chamber. The building was part of a castle complex developed here by the FitzGerald family, Earls of Desmond who remained in occupation until the end of the 16th century. The castle then passed into the possession of the Courtenays, later Earls of Devon, but was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and likely not occupied thereafter (an adjacent house, occupied by the Courtenays’ agent, was burnt in 1922 during the Civil War). The Banqueting Hall was restored some years ago when an oak screen and musicians’ gallery were installed, along with a hooded limestone chimneypiece.


Back in Business


After being closed for several years, the Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary reopened to the public last weekend. The building is notable for being the best-preserved unfortified 16th century house in the country, although it benefitted from the protection of a twin-towered 15th century castle to the immediate rear. The later section dates from the 1560s when it was built for Thomas, tenth Earl of Ormond who had been raised in the English court and was related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Anne Boleyn. On his return to Ireland, Lord Ormond imported the manor house style with which he had become familiar during his youth. The most immediately striking feature of the latest renovation programme is that the exterior of the Tudor building has been rendered, as was originally the case.