Donamon Castle, County Roscommon is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland. It is believed that originally there was a fort here (whence the name Dún Iomáin, fort of Iomán), but the first recorded reference to the place occurs in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1154. In 1232, the Anglo-Norman Adam de Staunton further fortified the site but his works were captured and demolished by the O’Connors a year later. After passing back and forth between different hands, the castle was occupied from the early 14th century onwards by a branch of the Burkes who remained here until in 1688 it passed to the Caulfeilds (the main branch of which became Earls of Charlemont). In the last century, like many other estates Donamon was broken up by the Irish Land Commission, the castle being acquired in 1939 by the Divine Word Missionaries, members of which community remain there to the present time. Although much altered and extended in the 18th and 19th century, the core of the old castle resembles that at Bunratty, County Clare, both front and rear featuring a tall arched recess between square towers.
To the immediate north-west of the castle at Charleville Forest, County Offaly stands an equally substantial block that once served as stables for the property. Like the main house, this was designed by Francis Johnston in 1798 for Charles Bury, Lord Tullamore (later created Earl of Charleville) and is in the same solid Gothic style. Unfortunately whereas the greater part of the castle is still in use, the same is not true of the stable block which as a consequence is now in a poor state of repair.
It is easy to miss Roscommon Castle: despite the building’s immensity, it scarcely seems to impinge on the horizon. Such was obviously not the case when the castle was first constructed, since there would have been nothing of similar scale anywhere in the area. Work was initiated here in 1269 on the instructions of the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Ufford, who served as Justiciar, or chief governor, of Ireland for Henry III. There were constant setbacks due to attacks on the site by Aedh O’Conor, King of Connacht; it appears the greater part of the castle was erected only in the years following his death in 1274. Originally much of this area was a lake, Lough Nea, and the castle stood on raised ground to the immediate south-east, surrounded by a moat fed by the lake’s waters. A stone wall stood immediately inside this ditch but the main structure was set further back and featured substantial three-storey D-shaped towers at each corner. The main entrance on the eastern side was flanked by three-storey gate houses, and there was a secondary point of access on the western front. Despite impressive fortifications, Roscommon Castle continued to be subject to attack from the native population and by the mid-14th century had passed into the hands of the O’Conors who remained in occupancy there for the next two hundred years.
In 1569 the then-O’Conor Don Diarmaid mac Cairbre surrendered Roscommon Castle to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Eight years later the building and 17,000 acres were granted by the English government to Sir Nicholas Malby, who was Governor (later Lord President) of Connacht. Malby fundamentally altered the appearance of the castle by transforming it into a Renaissance fortified mansion. The northern side, which had never been of stone, was made into a three-storey domestic dwelling linked to the eastern range to form an L-shaped block: large stone mullion windows were inserted into the upper floors of the latter to admit more light than had hitherto been the case. Within the outer walls a new garden was created. On the northern side, for example, the ditch was turned into a long fish pond while formal geometric parterres were planted to the east and a grand tree-lined avenue to the south. None of these features survive.
Sir Nicholas Malby died in 1584, seemingly a disappointed man since he felt slighted by Elizabeth I who had listened to charges of corruption and violence presented by his political opponents. His estate was inherited by a son who is reported as having been slain in a battle against the Irish at Aughrim in January 1603. But even before that date Roscommon Castle had once more been subject to attack, besieged by Hugh O’Donnell for three months in 1596 and again assaulted in 1599. It changed hands on a couple of occasions during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s before being taken by a Cromwellian force in 1652. In the aftermath of this event, some of the defensive features may have been removed but further damage was apparently done to the structure during the Williamite Wars of the early 1690s. Since then it has stood in a state of decay, and today the castle’s appearance is not much different from that described almost 200 years ago by Isaac Weld in his Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832): ‘It remains merely to say a few words of the general effect of the ruins in a picturesque point of view. From several positions they make a grand and noble appearance, more particularly on the eastern side, where the towers of the portal range in a commanding line with those at the angles…In the evening, when the gleams of the setting sun are seen darting through the ruined casements and narrow loop holes, whilst the main body of the ruins remains involved in deep shade, the effect of the scene is more than usually impressive.’
Some readers might not be aware that the Wellesley family, of which the most famous line is that descended from the first Duke of Wellington, used to spell their name Wesley. More importantly, their original name was Colley: in 1728, on inheriting the estates of Dangan and Mornington in County Meath from a cousin called Garret Wesley, Richard Colley legally adopted the latter’s surname. The grandfather of the Iron Duke, Richard Wesley was eventually created first Baron of Mornington (his son, called Garret Wesley in memory of the man who had bequeathed them his estates, would become first Earl of Mornington in 1760). All this is by way of explaining an oft-mentioned but rarely understood link between the Duke of Wellington and Carbury Castle, County Kildare. …
Carbury Castle stands at the top of a hill believed to have been at the heart of an ancient territory known as Cairbre Uí Chiardha, associated with a sept of the Uí Néill clan, Lords of Carbury first mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters. From this clan was supposed to have been descended Niall of the Nine Hostages, a fourth century king. The name Carbury derives from Cairbre (or Coirpre), one of Niall’s sons. However the origins of the castle lie with the Norman Meiler Fitzhenry who constructed a motte on the site. The land then passed into the possession of the de Berminghams. During the confused wars of the 15th century Castle Carbury, as it was then called, was attacked and plundered on several occasions, passing in and out of diverse hands. By then titular ownership lay with the Prestons: in the second half of the 14th century, Robert Preston, first Baron Gormanston had married Margaret, daughter and heiress of Walter de Bermingham, Lord of Carbury.
In the early part of the reign of Elizabeth I, the lands of Carbury were bestowed by the crown on Henry Colley, an English soldier who rose to become an Irish Privy Counsellor and was invested as a Knight in 1574. He was succeeded by his son, another Henry who made an advantageous marriage to Anne, eldest daughter of Adam Loftus, the great Archbishop of Dublin who also acted as Lord Chancellor of Ireland and first Provost of Trinity College Dublin, which he was instrumental in founding. Several more generations of Colleys followed, until another Henry inherited Carbury in the late 17th century: it was his younger son Richard who, on inheriting estates in County Meath changed his surname to Wesley. Richard’s elder brother, yet another Henry Colley, only had one child, a daughter Mary who married Arthur Pomeroy, created first Viscount Pomeroy in 1791. It was during this couple’s lifetime that Carbury Castle was abandoned, since in the 1760s the Pomeroys built themselves a new residence nearby, the Palladian Newberry Hall.
What remains today of Carbury Castle is primarily a late 16th/early 17th century fortified manor house, presumably erected on much earlier foundations. Its most striking feature are the tall chimney stacks but inside the building one also finds the remnants of the stone window mullions and large fireplaces. The internal floors have almost gone, as have room divisions so it is difficult to gain any sense of the original layout. No doubt soil levels have altered over the centuries, making such an assessment even harder but since the site naturally slopes quite steeply it is likely there were more storeys on one side of the building than on the other, one portion holding a barrel-vaulted cellar. A little further down the hill lies an ancient graveyard, with the remains of a chapel’s west gable, and the Colley mausoleum which looks to be of early 18th century origin. It is not hard to see why a castle was built and maintained here, since it commands views of the surrounding flat Kildare countryside for many miles around, ensuring the occupants were well warned of any threat of attack. Today the scale and location of Carbury Castle ensure that even as a ruin it still exudes authority.
On two adjacent hills in the north-west corner of County Meath can be found the remains of what was seemingly once a prominent settlement for both clerics and laity. This is Moylagh, its fragmentary ruins testifying to the harsh passage of time, and the inevitability of change and decay. Consensus holds that the nature of the site, with its undulating mounds and deep ditches, indicates early human habitation: the prehistoric passage tombs of Loughcrew are not far away. And there is said to have been a monastic house established here not long after Christianity arrived in Ireland. However, the modern history of Moylagh really begins with the appearance of the Normans in the 12th century. Around that time a motte and bailey was constructed, together with a wooden fort, on the highest point of the taller mound which offers superlative views across many miles of surrounding land.
At some date in the 15th century the wooden fort was replaced with one of stone: in 1470 Roger Rockford was granted assistance to build a tower ‘near Moylagh Castle’ (perhaps a continuation of the statute issued by the Henry VI in 1429 which offered landowners a grant of £10 towards the construction of such defensive residences). This castle is associated with the Barnwells (often spelled Barnewell), an Anglo-Norman family originally settled in County Dublin, members of which arrived in Meath in the mid-14th century and gradually built up a considerable land holding. One branch became Barons Trimlestown, a title still extant after more than 550 years, while another based elsewhere in the county at Crickstown were created baronets in the 17th century. It was this line which owned Moylagh: according to the Down Survey of 1654-56, Sir Richard Barnwall of Crickstown had held 182 acres at Moylagh in 1640, including ‘a ruinous castle with a bawn, a church with a steeple (tower) and 20 cabins.’ From which one deduces that the castle fell into ruin, or was destroyed, relatively early. Today only the buttressed stump of an east gable survives.
On the neighbouring mound can be found the more substantial portions of another fortified tower, this one originally attached to a church built around 1470 and supposedly once linked to the nearby Benedictine abbey at Fore (see Fore and After, January 5th 2015). The construction of a fortified tower is explained by the general lawlessness of the period in which religious establishments were often attacked and ransacked by rival, warring families. In any case, the church at Moylagh did not last much longer than the castle and little survives to indicate its presence. The tower, on the other hand, remains in reasonable condition, its religious connections still indicated by a graveyard which was heavily used for the burial of occupants of Oldcastle Workhouse during the years of the Great Famine. Little evidence of that turbulent period, or other earlier ones, can be seen today in what is now a little-visited spot tucked down a remote country road.
The remains of Cullahill Castle, County Laois as seen through the east window of its adjacent former chapel. The castle, really an exceptionally large tower house within its own bawn wall, was constructed on an outcrop of rock around 1425 and served as a stronghold for the MacGillapatricks of Upper Ossory. Rising five storeys and ninety feet, its impressive scale made the castle a target for attack from rivals even in the years after construction but it was eventually destroyed after being bombarded by cannon during the Cromwellian Wars. Recorded in the Down Survey in 1657 as being ‘out of repaire’ it has remained in this condition ever since. There is a Sheela na Gig high on the east wall of the building but sadly this proved impossible to photograph.
The last photograph featured below shows the familiar exterior view of Leamaneh Castle, County Clare which originally consisted of a plain five-storey tower house (the portion to the right). This was built around 1480 by Turlogh O’Brien, King of Thomond and is said to derive its name from the Irish ‘Leim an eich’ (The horse’s Leap). In 1543, Turlogh O’Brien’s son, Murrough, surrendered the castle and pledged loyalty to the English crown; as a result he was subsequently created first Earl of Thomond and Baron Inchiquin. In 1648, his descendant Conor O’Brien extended the tower with the addition of a four-storey manor house following his marriage to Máire ní Mahon who on account of her flaming red hair, was commonly known as Máire Rúa (Red Mary).
Many legends are told of Máire Rúa, most of them apocryphal (such as that which proposes she had twenty-five husbands, after which she was sealed into a hollow tree and left to die). However it is true that when Conor O’Brien was killed by an English soldier, she married a Cromwellian officer, thereby ensuring the family estates were preserved for her son, Sir Donough O’Brien. He was the last of the family to live at Leamaneh, moving instead to live at the larger and more commodious Dromoland Castle. Early in the last century Sir Donough’s descendant, Lucius William O’Brien, 15th Baron Inchiquin organised for the stone gateway (hitherto marking the entrance to Leamaneh) to be removed and re-erected in the grounds of Dromoland where it still remains. Around the same time a stone chimneypiece from the castle was also taken out and installed in the Old Ground Hotel, Ennis where it likewise continues to stand.