The so-called abbey in Mungret, County Limerick. There had been a monastery here, supposedly founded in the mid-sixth century by Saint Nessan, but due to frequent assault and despoliation over subsequent centuries, no trace of the original buildings survives. Instead, what can be found here dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1179 Donal Mór O Brien, King of Leinster granted the monastery and its lands to the Bishop of Limerick, and this subsequently became a parish church for Augustinian Canons Regular. The building is divided into three sections, the oldest part at the east end being the chancel, followed by the nave and then, at the west end, a square tower added in the 15th century and incorporating living quarters for a priest. Following the 16th century Reformation, the building continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until replaced by a new church designed by the Pain brothers in 1822 and located a short distance to the west of the older structure. The Pains’ work – which took the form of a Greek cross – did not survive long, since falling numbers of parishioners meant the new church at Mungret closed just 55 years later in 1877, before being unroofed in 1900, with much of the stone then reused to build a parochial house in nearby Raheen.
Last weekend marked the centenary of the final burning of a big house in County Kerry during the War of Independence/Civil War period, the property in question being Ballycarty, which lay to the south-west of Tralee and had been occupied by the Nash family since the third quarter of the 18th century. In total, 15 such houses in the county were destroyed during the period 1920-23, a list of these appearing in the recently published The Big House in Kerry: A Social History edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe. Amid the 18 properties examined in individual chapters by different authors, four of them are among those lost at the time: Kilmorna (burnt April 1921 and its occupant Sir Arthur Vicars killed), Ballyheigue Castle (burnt May 1921, see Particularly Commodious « The Irish Aesthete), Ardfert Abbey (burnt August 1922) and Derryquin (burnt August 1922).
In a fascinating chapter at the start of The Big House in Kerry, historian John Knightly looks at ‘The Destruction of the Big House in Kerry 1920-23’ and the various reasons for these properties being burnt. He proposes that the destruction of two houses was due to suspicions that they might be used by British forces, seven were burnt as a result of land agitation, and six the consequence of looting. It is clear that in the aftermath of the First World War and the economic depression that followed, a large number of agricultural workers found themselves in dire circumstances, leading to agrarian unrest. Initially much of this took place in north Kerry with attacks made on large farms, popularly known as ‘ranches.’ The persons involved sought for these land holdings to be broken up and divided into small parcels for distribution among the local populace. By this time, taking advantage of schemes such as the 1903 Wyndham Act, many estate owners had sold the greater part of their land and only held onto the immediate demesne. Some owners, in the face of threatened or actual attacks on their property, sought to sell up and leave, although given the real or incipient violence, purchasers were not easy to find. A number of owners simply decided to leave. In north Kerry, Rose Trent-Stoughton, last owner of Ballyhorgan, who had already sold much of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, organised for the house’s contents to be auctioned in April 1919. Since she, by then an elderly woman, was living in England, the building was vulnerable to theft: in March 1920 two men were charged at Listowel District Court for removing boards, door frames and a gate from Ballyhorgan. Two months later, the house, dating from the 1750s, was set alight and left a shell: the first of such arson attacks in Kerry. The remains were later demolished and nothing now remains. Glenbeigh Castle, otherwise known as Winn Towers, was next: like Ballyhorgan, it was unoccupied but in this case rumours had spread that the building was due to be taken over by a British regiment. Having stood empty for some time, the castle, designed by Edward Godwin in the 1860s, did not burn easily. The leader of those responsible for its destruction later wrote ‘after sprinkling twelve tins of petrol over the floors, it refused to light, and at dawn I was faced with a problem. It was damp, old and much of it stonework. I noted a lot of shrub nearby, and sent the men to collect and fill up one room with it…’ And so it went on, often in waves, with a series of attacks in spring 1920, another during the same period the following year, a third in summer/autumn 1922 and then, closing the sequence, Ballycarty in January 1923.
It is important to note that while their destruction should be lamented, only 15 Kerry country houses were burnt in the years 1920-23. In another, introductory chapter, John Knightly observes that at the start of the last century there were some 115 properties in the county. These varied in size and age, and the amount of land holdings differed considerably. Three families – the Petty-FitzMaurices, Brownes and de Moleyns – owned estates running to almost 100,000 each, but others might have a few hundred acres. Inevitably, most of them were members of the Church of Ireland but a few, not least the Earl of Kenmare, were Roman Catholic: interestingly in 1913/14 the local president of the Irish Unionist Alliance – formed to oppose home rule – was the aforementioned Lord Kenmare. Knightly estimates that out of a county population of 160,000 in 1911, perhaps between 700 and 1,000 were members of this landed elite. The situation soon began to change, the burnings of 1920-23 being just one factor in this transformation. As Knighty comments, ‘Ultimately, the Land Commission and the Irish State were responsible for more big houses than the War of Independence and Civil War combined. The process begun in 1879 at the start of the Land War was thus completed over 100 years later. High taxes, high rates and falling incomes did the rest.’ Typical in this respect is Flesk Castle, abandoned in the 1940s (although now happily being brought back to use). Knightly notes that today only four Kerry houses remain in the hands of the family responsible for their construction. But others happily survive, such as Beaufort (subject of a chapter by Donald Cameron), a picture of which can be seen below.
The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe is published by Irish Life and Lore (€39.00)
After last Monday’s fake castle, here is the real thing. Now situated on the north bank of the Grand Canal (which would not have existed at the time of its construction), this is the four-storey Srah Castle, County Offaly which dates from 1588 when built by Andrew Briscoe and his wife Eleanor Kearney. As was typical of tower houses of the period, it has a battered base, machiolation directly above the single, round-headed entrance, a series of gun-loops and a bartizan on the south-west corner (its match on the north-east has since collapsed, leaving a large hole in the structure). To the immediate west are the remains of a large hall, of which little other than one gable end survives. Seemingly the castle was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars and never recovered, the Briscoes moving elsewhere in the county.
Despite Ireland being a relatively small country, it can often be difficult to discover information about many of our historic buildings, the precise details of their origin and development lost to local fable. Such is the case with Gortkelly Castle, County Tipperary, about which surprisingly little is known. Samuel Lewis, for example, did not include the place in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) nor, more than a century later, does it appear in Mark Bence-Jones’s Guide to Irish country houses (1978), or indeed in any other relevant publication. Yet this is hardly a modest cottage, so the absence of documentation is strange, although by no means unusual.
It appears that for at least two centuries, Gortkelly was home to a branch of the Ryan family. In 1746 John Ryan received a lease for 31 years of the land on which the house stands. The lease was given by one Daniel Ryan: despite the same surname, the two men are not thought to have been related. Based at Inch, a few miles to the east of Gortkelly, Daniel Ryan was that relatively rare individual in the mid-18th century: a Roman Catholic who had held onto a large estate. Six years before granting the lease, he had employed John Ryan as an agent, to oversee the management of his property, collect rent from other tenants and so forth. Presumably John Ryan had proven competent in the position, and this explains why he was leased several hundred acres at Gortkelly. The lease was renewed in 1781 to Andrew Ryan and then in 1814 to John Ryan. In the 1870s, another Andrew Ryan of Gortkelly Castle, Borrisoleigh, owned 906 acres in County Tipperary. This estate was advertised for sale in December 1877 but the family seems to have remained in residence, since one Patrick Ryan is listed as dying there in 1937.
As already mentioned, almost no information exists about the building now known as Gortkelly Castle. www.buildingsofireland.ie proposes that the core of the house dates from c.1800 with alterations made to its external appearance some 30 years later. However, given that John Ryan received his lease on the land here in 1746, the original construction date could be earlier. On high ground facing almost due east, the building clearly began as a classical house of five bays and three storeys; an extensive range of outbuildings, presumably from the same period, still stand to the immediate south. From what remains of the interior, it appears there were four reception rooms on the ground floor, with the central space to the rear occupied by a staircase hall lit by a tall arched window on the return. At some subsequent period, the decision was taken to modify the exterior – of rubble limestone – so as to give the house the appearance, if only superficially, of a castle. Accordingly, a crenellated parapet was added to the front and side elevations, slender octagonal towers placed on corners of the facade, and the entrance dressed up with a projecting polygonal tower climbing above the roofline to a belvedere which must have offered wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. These elements are of brick, the whole building then rendered and scored to look as though of dressed stone. These decorative flourishes are so shallow that they must be early 19th century, certainly before the Gothic Revival movement demanded a more authentic historical approach. Whoever was responsible for this work is now unknown. Seemingly Gortkelly Castle was unroofed around 1940 (in other words, a few years after the death of Patrick Ryan) and then left to fall into the striking ruin that can be seen today, another part of Ireland’s architectural history wrapped in mystery.
Located on the north-east corner of the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, this is Scully’s Cross – or at least what remains of it. Dating from 1867, the rusticated base of the structure contains a mausoleum to the wealthy Roman Catholic Scully family: above the entrance is a plaque carved with their name in Irish Ó Scolaidhe. A stepped pyramid then leads up to the base of the cross proper, its shaft, each side of which is carved with a series of biblical scenes, rising some 20 feet high. The top of the cross – ringed in the early Irish Christian style – can be found scattered on the ground around the mausoleum, having fallen when the monument was struck by lightning in 1976.
A handsome ashlar limestone triumphal arch marking the former entrance into the Johnstown estate, County Tipperary. This structure presumably dates from the last quarter of the 18th century and was erected at the same time as the main house, commissioned for Peter Holmes, M.P. for Banagher, County Offaly in the Irish House of Commons. In typical fashion of the time, he called the place after himself: Peterfield. Members of his family continued to live there until 1865 when the estate was bought for more than £13,000 by William Headech. He had arrived in Ireland around a quarter-century earlier as secretary to the Imperial Slate Quarry Company at Portroe. Headech later bought the company and made a fortune from slate production, allowing him to buy Peterfield, which he renamed Johnstown.
Headech’s descendants continued to live at Johnstown until the 1930s when the property was acquired by the Land Commission. The house, of three storeys over basement and believed to have been designed by architect William Leeson, was unroofed in 1941 and then demolished a couple of decades later, so that today just fragments of this fine property remain.
Below are two older images of the Johnstown, the first taken from a late 18th century engraving by Jonathan Fisher made when the property was still called Peterfield, the second, a photograph by the late Paddy Rossmore, taken in the 1960s when the building, although roofless, was still standing.
Lines from Yeats’ Coole Park come to mind:
‘Here, traveller, scholar, poet take your stand,
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone…’
As its name indicates, the County Longford village of Abbeylara (‘Mainistir Leathrátha’, meaning ‘Abbey of the half – or small – fort’) grew up around a religious house. In this instance, a monastery is supposed to have been founded here in the fifth century by St Patrick, who then appointed St Guasacht as its first abbot. Guasacht, who also acted as Bishop of the short-lived diocese of Granard, just a few miles away, was the son of Maelchu, the man under whom Patrick worked as a slave when a youth in Ireland. Following Patrick’s return to this country, it is said that Maelchu preferred to lock himself into his home and set fire to it – perishing in the flames – rather than encounter his former slave. His son Guasacht, on the other hand, did so and was duly converted to the Christian faith.
The present remains of a monastery at Abbeylara can be traced back to 1205 when the Anglo-Norman knight Richard Tuite invited a group of Cistercian monks to settle there. Tuite, who had come to Ireland as one of Richard de Clare’s supporters, was granted large swathes of land in this part of the country and in 1199 had built one of the largest motte and baileys in Ireland. A daughter house of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin, the Abbeylara monastery was likewise dedicated to the Virgin. When Tuite, by then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, died in 1210, he was buried here. A century later, in 1315, Edward Bruce – brother of Scotland’s Robert Bruce – who arrived in Ireland with his army earlier that year, having first burnt nearby Granard, seized control of the Abbeylara monastery and spent the winter there. The monks returned following his departure but the establishment’s decline appears to have begun soon after: in both 1410 and 1435 the Papacy permitted funds to be raised for the buildings’ repair through the sale of Indulgences.
From the start of the 15th century until its eventual closure, the monastery at Abbeylara had come under the control of a powerful local family, the O’Farrells, as testified by the fact that successive members of this family were appointed its abbot. The last of them to do so, Richard O’Farrell, surrendered the abbey with its lands and possessions to Henry VIII in 1539: in return, he was appointed Bishop of Ardagh. At the time of its dissolution, the Abbeylara house held over 5,500 acres of land but the buildings were falling into ruins. Today little remains other than the former abbey church’s great central tower, and the adjacent north and south walls: high on the latter can be seen a badly weathered figure which may be a Sheela-na-gig. A Church of Ireland church which once occupied part of the surrounding graveyard has long since been demolished.
The remains of a church that was once part of a Carmelite monastery in Castlelyons, County Cork. This religious house was established in 1309 by John de Barry, but much of what can be seen today dates from the following century. Although sections of the cloister also survive, the church is the most substantial extant part of the site, a long nave separated from the chancel by a semi-ruinous three-story crossing tower. The building’s best-preserved details can be found on the west front, featuring a pointed doorway with hoodmoulded surround below a twin-light, ogee-headed window.
‘Maynooth Castle was the original residence of the Kildare family. The manor of Maynooth in 1176 was granted by Strongbow to Maurice Fitz-Gerald, who erected the castle for protection against the incursions of the natives. His son Gerald, first Baron of Offaly, obtained from John, Lord of Ireland, son of Henry II, a new grant of sundry lordships. Thomas, second Earl, was married to a daughter of the Red Earl of Ulster, and sister to Ellen, the wife of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland. During the latter half of the fourteenth century, Maynooth was one of the border fortresses of the Pale, or English possessions, in the defence of which Maurice, fourth Earl of Kildare, distinguished himself. John, the sixth Earl, enlarged the castle (1426) and it was then said to be “the largest and richest earl’s house in Ireland”.’
From an article on Carton in The Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, Vol.22, May 16, 1872.
‘In March 1535 the new Earl of Kildare had with him 120 horse, 240 gallowglasses and 500 kerns. Leaving Maynooth Castle strongly fortified in the hands of his foster brother and confidante Christopher Pareses, he went into Offaly to raise additional adherents for the summer campaign. Skeffington [Sir William Skeffington, then Lord Deputy of Ireland] invested Maynooth Castle of the 14th March, and on the 23rd Parese, consenting to betray his trust, permitted the outer defences to be taken without resistance, after which the keep was carried by assault. A park of heavy artillery, brought up to the siege by the English, and for which the Anglo-Irish were quite unprepared, had no small effect in compelling such a speedy surrender of a place the Earl of Kildare regarded as almost impregnable. Of the garrison, twenty-five were beheaded and one hanged, as it was thought dangerous to spare skilled soldiers. “Great and rich was the spoile, such store of beddes, so many goodly hangings, so rich a wardrobe, such brave furniture, as truly it was accounted, for household stuffe and utensils, one of the richest earl his houses under the crown of England.” Pareses, to increase the estimation in which his treachery should be regarded, dwelt on the trust and confidence bestowed on him; and Stanihurst tells us how his treachery was rewarded; “The Deputy gave his officers to deliver Parese the sum of money that was promised, and after to choppe off his head”.’
From an account of the Rebellion of Silken Thomas and the Siege of Maynooth given in A Compendium of Irish Biography by Alfred Webb, Dublin, 1878.
‘On the 7th January, 1642 a party of Catholics seized and pillaged Maynooth Castle, carrying off the furniture and the library, which was of great value; all the stock, including thirty-nine English cows and oxen, thirty horses worth £270, household goods worth at least £200, and corn and hay worth £300; they also deprived him of rents amounting to at least £600 a year. The castle was soon retaken, but in 1646 was occupied by a detachment sent for that purpose by the Catholic general, Preston [Thomas Preston, first Viscount Tara], when he was advancing against Dublin, and on his retreat it was dismantled, and has never since been inhabited.’
From The Earls of Kildare and Their Ancestors from 1057 to 1773 by the Marquis of Kildare (future fourth Duke of Leinster), Dublin, 1858.
‘Many a time I walked for three or four hours without meeting even one human being. Here and there a stately mansion, around it the gate lodge of the serf, the winding avenue, the spreading oaks, and the green fields in which no man was visible. Landlordism, the willing instrument of British rule, had wrought this desolation. I renewed my resolve to do my share in bringing about the change that must come sooner or later.’
Dan Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924)
‘“I’ll bloody well settle that: six big houses and castles of their friends, the Imperialists, will go up for this. I don’t know what GHQ will do – but I don’t give a damn.” We selected six houses and castles from the half-inch map, then sent off the order.’
Ernie O’Malley quoting Liam Lynch in On Another Man’s Wound (1936)
‘Castles, mansions and residences were sent up in flames by the IRA immediately after the British fire gangs had razed the homes of Irish Republicans. Our people were suffering in this competition of terror, but the British Loyalists were paying dearly, the demesne walls were tumbling and the British ascendancy was being destroyed. Our only fear was that, as time went on, there would be no more Loyalist’s homes to destroy, for we intended to go on to the bitter end. If the Republicans of West Cork were to be homeless and without shelter, then so too would be the British supporters. ‘
Tom Barry, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949)
Photographs show Deel Castle, County Mayo, formerly owned by the Gore family, Earls of Arran, and burnt by the IRA in September 1921.