Surrendering to the Elements

Buried in the midst of woodland in north-west County Cork, Lohort Castle has had a turbulent past and, by the look of the place today, is experiencing a none-too secure present. As so often in Ireland, the building’s origins are uncertain. It has been proposed that a castle was constructed here in the late 12th centuries on the instructions of Prince (future King) John, but more likely it was one of the innumerable tower houses that appeared on the Irish landscape in the 15th and 16th centuries. As such it would have been built for the MacCarthys who were then the dominant family in the region. At the time, the castle would have been at the centre of a larger site with other buildings surrounded by an enclosing wall. In plan and form it is typical of the Irish tower house, being rectangular and rising five storeys to a machiolated parapet, with only one small point of access on the ground floor. The building’s most striking feature is its curved external walls, which while unusual are not unique. An engraving from the early 1740s shows it looking much as is still the case today, albeit surrounded by a moat (drained in 1876) and protected by star-shaped Vaubanesque outerworks. The only obvious differences are the stepped gable on the east side of the roof and the chimney stacks: these were added towards the end of the 19th century. 

In the late 1630s Lohort Castle passed out of the hands of the MacCarthys and came into the possession of Sir Philip Perceval, an English adventurer who acquired an extensive estate in Ireland. With the onset of rebellion in 1641 Perceval garrisoned the castle with 150 soldiers but it still fell to the native Irish who remained in occupation until 1650 when besieged by Sir Hardress Waller and his troops. It was written that Waller ‘by the Help of Cannon reduced it in four days’ but there is no evidence of such damage on the exterior walls (which are ten feet thick at the base) so perhaps the threat of cannon fire was enough to encourage surrender. Lohort was duly returned to the Percevals and remained in their hands for several centuries. It was Sir Philip’s grandson, John Perceval, created first Earl of Egmont in 1733, who paid most attention to the building. Formal classical gardens with long straight vistas were laid out in the surrounding grounds while alterations were made inside the main building including the provision of a library and an armoury holding sufficient weapons to equip men. In 1740 the builder John Hickey was hired by Lord Egmont to carry out this work but he miscalculated the costs and the following year was imprisoned for debt. Following the first earl’s death, his son seems to have lost interest in Lohort which was thereafter occupied by an agent.

In the late 19th century, Lohort again changed ownership, being bought by the O’Briens: Sir Timothy O’Brien was a cricketer famous for his short-temper. It was presumably during their tenure that further alterations were made to the original building in the mid-1870s. The need for additional guest accommodation was resolved by an unknown architect designing a large twin-towered gate house at the end of an avenue directly in front of the castle. As well as providing more bedrooms, this building added further drama to the site. The O’Briens were still in ownership when the gatehouse and castle were burnt by the IRA in July 1921 during the War of Independence. However, both were sufficiently sturdy to survive and, after some restoration work, to be habitable once more. This no longer looks to be the case. About a decade ago Lohort was offered for sale, and finally found a buyer at the end of 2011. Either before or after that date some rather aggressive work appears to have been undertaken on the buildings (and to an adjacent stableyard) but then halted. As a result, they are now suffering badly, the gatehouse especially being in pitiful condition. What an English army could not achieve four centuries ago, neglect in our own time may yet accomplish.