The remains of Rattin Castle, County Westmeath, a substantial four-storey tower house that was built in the 15th or 16th centuries. During this period the land on which it stands, formerly under the control of Hugh de Lacy, was in the possession of the d’Arcy family. The last member, Nicholas d’Arcy, forfeited the castle in the 1640s during the Confederate Wars and it seems to have fallen into ruin after that: a source from that period claimed the building originally had several towers and no less than 500 rooms.
The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
‘As it is right that these holy and glorious men who attained by their merits the highest praise on earth and eternal happiness in heaven should be celebrated in books and records, so on the other hand the wicked and abandoned men should not be passed over in silence, in order that not only might the living justly condemn them, but also that posterity might execrate their name. And so Miler [Magrath], a man not as exalted in birth as famous for wickedness, entered into religion in which he conducted himself in a very irregular way and with very little of the manner of a religious. Consecrated a priest and endowed by the Pope with no little power and authority, he set out from Rome to Ireland as if he were going to denounce the new dogmatic errors of the English, but, perhaps, thinking otherwise in his mind; for from the time he reached England, I am informed, he used to carry the apostolic letters in a large and beautiful pyx or locket which hung openly from his neck and was obvious to everyone, for no other purpose but that he might betray himself and his calling. Being arrested by the ministers of justice, he was brought, together with the apostolic letters, before Queen Elizabeth or her council, and deserted with little unwillingness the Catholic religion, readily embracing the Queens’ sect and bribes before he performed the least duty. Then made pseudo-bishop of Cashel, he right away in unholy union wedded Anna (Amy) Ni-Meare. She upon a Friday would not eat meat. “Why is it wife,” said Miler, “that you will not eat meat with me?” “It is,” said she, “because I do not wish to commit sin with you.” “Surely,” said he, “you committed a far greater sin in coming to the bed of me a friar.” The same woman asked by Miler why she wept: “Because, “said she “Eugene who was with me to-day assured me by strong proof and many holy testimonies that I would be condemned to hell if I should die in this state of being your wife, and I am frightened and cannot help crying lest this be true.” “Indeed,” said Miler, “if you hope otherwise your hope will lead you much astray, and not for the possibility but for the reality should you fret.” Not long after Anna (Amy) died consumed with grief. This Eugene who then, as at many other times, had endeavoured to bring her back to a good life was (O’Duffy), a Franciscan friar, some of whose rather incisive poems, written in Irish against Miler and other heretics, are extant. Well, the wicked Miler married a second wife, and now lives sinning, not in ignorance but willingly. He does not hunt priests nor endeavour to detach Catholics from the true religion. He is now nearly worn out with age.’
From Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s Catholic History of Ireland, originally written in Latin in 1621 but portions of it published in English in 1903.
‘The foundation of this castle, according to popular tradition, is ascribed to the celebrated Malmurry, or, as he was usually called, Myler Magrath, the first Protestant Bishop of Clogher; and there is every reason to believe this tradition correct. The lands on which the castle is situated anciently constituted the Termon of St. Daveog of Lough Derg, of which the Magraths were hereditarily the termoners or churchwardens; and of this family Myler Magrath was the head; so that these lands properly belonged to him anteriorly to any grant of them derived through his bishopric. He was originally a Franciscan friar, and being a man of distinguished abilities, was advanced by Pope Pius V to the see of Down; but having afterwards having embraced Protestantism, he was placed in the see of Clogher by letter of Queen Elizabeth, dated 18th May 1570, and by grant dated the 18th September, in the same year. He remained, however, but a short time in this see, in which he received but little or nothing of the revenue and in which he was probably surrounded by enemies even among his own kindred, and was translated to the archbishopric of Cashel on the 3d February the year following. He died at Cashel at the age of 100, and was interred in the choir of that ancient cathedral, where a splendid monument to his memory still exists, with a Latin inscription penned by himself.’
From the Irish Penny Journal, December 26th, 1840.
‘The castle of Termon Magrath, or Termon as it is more usually called, is situated at the northern extremity of Lough Erne, about half a mile to the west of the pleasant little town of Pettigoe, county of Donegal. Like most of the edifices of the kind erected in the sixteenth century, it consisted of a massive keep, of great strength, with circular towers at two of its angles, and encompassed by outworks. During the Parliamentary Wars it was besieged by Ireton, who planted his batteries on the neighbouring hill, and did it considerable damage. According to popular tradition, its foundation is ascribed to the celebrated Malmurry, or, as he is usually called, Myler Magrath, and Dr. Petrie says there is every reason to believe this tradition correct. The lands on which the castle is situated anciently belonged to the Termon of St. Daveog of Lough Derg, of which the Magraths were the hereditary termoners, or custodians of the church lands. Of this family Myler Magrath was the head. He was a churchman of distinguished abilities, and according to a tradition among the peasantry, was the handsomest man in Ireland of his day. He died at Cashel, of which see he was archbishop, in the year 1622, at the age of 100, and was interred in the choir of that ancient cathedral, where the monument to his memory still exists, with a Latin inscription penned by himself. The scenery in the immediate vicinity of the Castle is very beautiful, the shores of the lake being fringed with the plantations of the glebe of Templecarn, and those of Waterfoot.’
From the Illustrated Dublin Journal, November 9th, 1861.
From across the river Shannon, a view of the castle erected on the site of an earlier Viking settlement in Limerick city during the opening years of the 13th century. Built at the order of King John, its purpose was to protect this part of the country from incursions by Gaelic clans to the west. This part of Limerick, King’s Island, accordingly came to be known as ‘English Town.’ In the mid-18th century an infantry barracks was installed inside the castle, resulting in the demolition of its eastern side so that more accommodation could be constructed. In turn, during the last century the local corporation demolished the barracks and erected municipal housing inside the complex. In turn this was pulled down and the inevitable glass-box ‘interpretative centre’ installed in its place.
From The Irish Times, March 7th 1923: ‘Wilton Castle, the residence of Captain P.C. Alcock, about three miles from Enniscorthy, was burned by armed men on Monday night. Nothing remains of the beautiful building but smoke-begrimed, roofless walls, broken windows, and a heap of smouldering debris. The Castle was occupied by a caretaker – Mr. James Stynes – the owner, with his wife and family, having gone to England about a year ago. Shortly after 9 o’clock on Monday night the caretaker was at the Steward’s residence…when he was approached by armed men, who demanded the keys to the Castle. When he asked why they wanted the keys, one of the armed men said: “We have come to burn the place. We are sorry”. The raiders told the caretaker that he could remove his personal belongings from the part of the Castle that he occupied, but they would not allow him to remove the furniture. Fearing that the Castle might be burned, however, Captain Alcock had removed the most valuable portion of his furniture some weeks ago, but a good many rooms were left furnished. When the caretaker had removed his property he was ordered back to the Steward’s house. Soon the noise of breaking glass was heard. It appears that the armed men broke all the windows on the ground floor, and having sprinkled the floors with petrol, set them alight. They did not hurry over their work of destruction, and they did not leave the Castle until near 12 o’clock, when the building was enveloped in flames. About thirty men took part in the raid. After the raiders left, the caretaker and Steward, with what help they could procure, tried to extinguish the flames, but their effort was hopeless’.
As seen today Wilton Castle, County Wexford dates from the mid-1830s when designed by Daniel Robertson for Harry Alcock. His great-great-grandfather, William Alcock, whose family were said to have settled in County Down in the 12th century, had bought the estate on which the house stands in 1695. Prior to that the place, originally known as Clogh na Kayer (The Castle of the Sheep), had been owned first by the de Denes and then a branch of the Butlers before being briefly in the possession of the Thornhills who had come to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell’s army. William Alcock built a new residence for himself on the site of an old castle, and this was occupied by his descendants for several generations. A handsome classical doorcase of granite with segmental pediment above fluted pilasters survives on the façade of the former steward’s house at Wilton to indicate the appearance of the original Alcock house, dismissed by Martin Doyle in his 1868 book on the county as being ‘in the dull style of William and Mary.’ Although the youngest son of the family, Harry Alcock inherited this property as all his brothers died unmarried. Famously one of them, William Congreve Alcock was involved in the last duel fought in County Wexford: this took place during the election campaign of 1807 when he shot dead one of his political opponents, John Colclough. Alcock was subsequently tried for murder and although acquitted lost his reason and spent the final years of his life in an asylum.
Wilton Castle may incorporate portions of the earlier house: the large slate-covered block to the rear, facing south-west and on land that drops steeply to the river Boro, looks as though it might predate the front section. Robertson’s design, surely one of his very best, is rich in detail, not least the main entrance where a neo-Tudor doorcase with hooded moulding stands beneath a double-height oriel window. This is flanked by projecting three-storey towers that to the right being extended by a great square tower with two stone balconies, one above the other. The roofline is dominated by castellation carried on projecting corbels, above which rise the chimneystacks with octagonal shafts. To the south-east the building is considerably extended by a two-storey former service wing, almost as substantial as the main block. This part is dominated by a three-storey octagonal tower with a smaller turret above. Deliberately intended to evoke antiquity and encourage belief in the long lineage of the Alcock family, Wilton is surrounded by a pseudo-moat so that the forecourt must be reached via a bridge. In Houses of Wexford (published 2004) David Rowe and Eithne Scallan wrote that ‘this superb example of neo-Tudor architecture awaits some very rich man to restore it.’ However, just at that date the building’s owner, dairy farmer Sean Windsor whose grandfather had once been the Alcocks’ estate steward, pluckily embarked on a programme of conservation work at Wilton. Initially this involved clearing the site of vegetation and taking care of the stonework. More recently he re-roofed and fitted out the southern section of the castle and for the past three years has been renting this for weddings and short-term lets. An admirable initiative and one that other owners of historic ruins might like to consider emulating.
Kilmanahan Castle, County Waterford was discussed here early last year (Shrouded in Mystery, January 9th 2017). Built on the banks of the river Suir almost directly across from Knocklofty, County Tipperary the house has at its core a mediaeval castle erected by the FitzGeralds. In the late 16th century the land on which it stood passed to Sir Edward Fitton, and then a few decades later to Sir James Gough, before changing hands again in 1678 when acquired by Godfrey Greene. His descendants remained there until the mid-19th century when the Kilmanahan estate was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court. By the start of the last century it had been bought by the Earls of Donoughmore whose main residence was the aforementioned Knocklofty. As their fortunes declined, so too it seems did those of Kilmanahan.
In June 1984 Suzy Roeder, an American visitor to this country, stayed in the area and went to look at Kilmanahan with her hosts. While there she took the photographs shown today, which give an idea of what the place looked like more than thirty years ago: at the time, it seems, the interior of the castle was being used to store cattle: they were in occupation of the courtyard at the centre of the building. This was by no means an unusual fate for such properties. Local farmers would buy the land without having an interest in any structures then standing and accordingly put them to practical use.
What makes these photographs especially interesting are the views they offer of the interior of Kilmanahan Castle. Those portions of the building that were accessible still retained at least some of their original decoration and show that the Tudor-Gothic style prevailed here as in so many other similar properties refurbished in the decades before the Great Famine. At the same time, there are elements of earlier classical plasterwork which also lingered (note the great arched window mid-way up the since-lost staircase), demonstrating that Kilmanahan’s rooms had been overhauled at some point in the 18th century. Impossible to say what, if anything, remains today. Although the castle still stands, one suspects that in the intervening thirty-four years the elements have taken further toll and the interiors are still-further stripped.
The history of the 17th century Ulster Plantations is as contested as the land onto which settlers from Scotland moved during the same period. Prior to 1600 the northern region of Ireland had been least subject to control by the English government and accordingly most liable to resist efforts by the latter to impose its authority. The Nine Years’ War (1594-1603) which had been largely driven by the Ulster chiefs Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell would end with their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and a treaty agreed at Mellifont two years later. Then in 1607 came what is known as the Flight of the Earls when both the O’Neill and O’Donnell chiefs left Ireland for mainland Europe with some of their followers and never returned. A turning point had been reached.
Even before this date, groups of Scottish adventurers, most notably James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery, had begun arriving in Ulster and settling on lands in Counties Down and Antrim. From 1609 onwards a more formal, government-sponsored settlement of Ulster began. James Stuart, who had assumed the throne of England in 1603 as James I had already long been King of Scotland (as James VI) and needed to reward supporters in his native country now that he was no longer resident there. The simultaneous desire to ensure there would be little or no further trouble in Ulster led to the plantation of Ulster. Unlike the indigenous Irish who were Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic, the planters were obliged to speak English and be of the Protestant faith (a large number of the Scots were Presbyterian). It is estimated that over 500,000 acres were officially granted to settlers but the figure was likely much higher. Obviously they were not welcome and many decades of unrest followed as the new arrivals fought to hold onto the land they had either been granted or seized. For this reason, the residences they built were heavily fortified.
Occupying a raised site above the west banks of Lower Lough Erne, Monea Castle, County Fermanagh stands on land previously been owned by the Maguires and confiscated from them by the crown authorities. The castle was built for a Scottish-born cleric, Malcolm Hamilton who first served as Rector of Devenish before being appointed Chancellor of Down in 1612. Eleven years later he was consecrated Archbishop of Cashel where he died and was buried in 1629. Considered the finest surviving settler castle of the period, Monea was begun in 1616 and finished some two years later: a bawn wall was added in 1622. Although essentially a rectangular tower house, the building reflects the Scottish origins of its original owner, with crow-step gables and projecting turrets similar to those found in his country during the same period. As was typical at the time, the ground floor was used for storage and utilitarian purposes, with accommodation on the two upper levels, including a great hall on the first floor. The defensive character of Monea proved necessary because in 1641 during the Confederate Wars the castle was attacked by the Maguires who killed a number of its occupants. It was subsequently returned to the family and in the later 18th century owned by Malcolm Hamilton’s grandson, the Swedish-born soldier Gustav Hamilton who served as Governor of Enniskillen during the Williamite Wars. It was later sold by his heirs and fell victim to fire in the 18th century, remaining a ruin ever since.
Located on the north-west shores of Lower Lough Erne some seven miles from Monea, Tully Castle was built Scottish settler Sir John Hume between 1611 and 1613. According to the survey of Ulster counties conducted by Nicholas Pynnar in 1618/19, Tully was composed of ‘a bawn of lime and stone, 100 ft square, 14 ft high having four flankers for defence’ and inside ‘a fair strong castle, 50 ft long and 21 ft broad.’ As with Monea, the Scottish influence is apparent in Tully’s design, not least in the steep gable ends of the castle. And once more the upper floors were used for accommodation and entertaining, the ground floor for storage and defence. Unfortunately it proved of no avail in 1641 when, like Monea, this castle was attacked by the Maguires. At the time, Sir John’s son George was away so the latter’s wife Mary was left to guard Tully, into which the residents of an adjacent settler village had crowded. Greatly outnumbered, Lady Hume negotiated a surrender that was supposed to include the safe passage of all those inside the building once it, and all arms, had been handed over to the Maguires. In the event, while she and her family were permitted to leave, everyone else (said to have been 15 men, and sixty women and children) was kept inside and massacred, after which the castle was set on fire. Like Monea, it has been a ruin ever since.