Evening light falls on the remains of the ‘New Church’ by Lough Gur, County Limerick. Originally dating from the 15th century when built by the Earls of Desmond, in 1642 it was described as a ruin. However, the church was restored in 1679 when Rachel, Dowager Countess of Bath (whose late husband had inherited a large amount of land in the area) presented a chalice and patten to what she described as her ‘chapel-of-ease’ as well as an endowment of £20 to provide for a chaplain. By the 19th century it once again became a ruin but conservation work was undertaken in 1900 on the instruction of the seventh Count de Salis, whose forebears had inherited the Bath estates here. Today the church is once more a ruin. Tradition has it that the composer and harpist Thomas Connellan who died nearby in 1698 is buried here in an unmarked grave.
At some date in the late fifth or early sixth century a monastery was founded at Grangefertagh, County Kilkenny by Saint Ciaran of Saighir. This religious house was raided by the Vikings in 861 and it was presumably after that incident that the monks built a round tower to protect them in the event of another attack. It proved unfit for purpose however, since in 1156 it was burnt by Murtagh McNeale, with the monastery’s lector inside. Somehow the tower survived (even if the lector did not) and remains the only remnant of the pre-Norman building, although as can be seen the greater part of its conical roof is lost. In the 13th century a priory of Augustinian Canons Regular was established here, and a portion of its ruined church remains: in the last century part of it was converted for use as a handball alley (not an unusual occurrence). A chapel to one side contains the double tomb of John MacGillapatrick and his wife, carved c.1540 by Rory O’Tunney.
Writing to his daughter Alicia in May 1747, Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, County Roscommon described the new residence he was then building: ‘The Scaffolding is all down, and the House almost pointed, and It’s figure is vastly more beautifull than I expected it would be. Conceited people may censure its plainess. But I don’t wish it any further ornament than it has. As far as I can yet judge, the inside will be very commodious and comfortable.’ He had to wait a further two years to find out whether or not this was the case, but finally in early June 1749 was finally able to advise Alicia, ‘The House is as dry as you could wish. I lay last night as well and as Warm as ever I did in my life, and quite free from the only nuisance I fear’d, the smell of paint and am, I bless God, as well to day, as I was, when I wrote from Palmer’s…’ The design of the Bishop’s Palace at Elphin is attributed to Dublin architect Michael Wills, not least because a ‘Mr Wills’ is frequently mentioned in Synge’s correspondence in relation to the house’s construction. Very much in the Irish Palladian mode, it consisted of a three-storey, east-facing central block, its first-floor Venetian window of the same style and proportions as the main entrance below: quadrants linked this building to wings on either side. Unfortunately the main block was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1911 and subsequently demolished, leaving the quadrants and wings on either side looking rather lost. In recent years, the south wing as been restored as a family residence. However, its match to the north is a ruin with a bungalow built immediately in front, making the site look even more lop-sided.
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 County Limerick town of Kilmallock derives its name from a Saint Mocheallóg who in the late sixth/early seventh centuries established a religious house in the vicinity: the name thus derives from the Irish Cill Mocheallóg meaning ‘the church of Mocheallóg.’ Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Kilmallock grew in importance to become second only to the city of Limerick in this part of the country. It subsequently became a stronghold of the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and owing to a location between Cork and Limerick became a centre for both trade and government.
Evidence of Kilmallock’s former significance can be found in various old buildings, not least the Dominican priory of St Saviour. Located outside the town walls close to the river Loobagh, this house was established in 1291 when with the consent of King Edward I the friars bought land from one of Kilmallock’s burgesses John Bluet. However, Gerald le Marshall, then-bishop of Limerick who held authority over the area disapproved of this transaction taking place without his approval and had the Dominicans expelled from the site. An inquiry held in Cashel by William de Vesci, one of the country’s Lords Justices, ruled that le Marshall should not acted as he did since the friars owed no rent or service to the bishop for their priory. Soon afterwards they returned and remained in residence for several centuries.
St Saviour’s Priory retains a number of fine features, many of them added thanks to patronage by the local FitzGerald family: a niche-tomb believed to commemorate one of them can be seen on the northern wall of the chancel. The core of the extant buildings date from the late 13th/early 14th centuries when the main body of the church was constructed. The tall crossing tower was added in the 15th century, as was the southern transept with its elaborate window. To the north lies the cloister, one side of which has been reconstructed to give an impression of how it would once have appeared. Throughout the site are various carvings in different states of preservation featuring human heads and foliage.
Kilmallock’s strategic importance made it vulnerable to attack from which religious houses were not protected. In 1570 during the first Desmond Rebellion James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, cousin of the fifteenth Earl of Desmond (then in custody in London) burnt the town, leaving it, as the Annals of the Four Masters reported, ‘the receptacle and abode of wolves.’ Already by that date the priory had officially been closed but it appears the friars were still in the area, if not in occupation of the buildings. In 1648 during the Confederate War, Murrough O’Brien, first Earl of Inchiquin sacked the priory and executed two of the remaining friars. Yet even in the 18th century the Dominicans continued to be a presence, three of them recorded in Kilmallock in 1756. The site was finally abandoned thereafter and fell into ruin but has been the scene of extensive restoration work in more recent times.
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.