Robert’s Favourite Posts of 2021

It was another strange year: we had hopes that the pandemic would be conquered. We have had vaccines, boosters and mutations, but Covid still dominated all the headlines and affected our lives. (Finola’s selection is here.) We coped with lockdowns and restrictions, but took full advantage of the times when we could travel freely. One of the most memorable expeditions brought us to Kerry, where we looked at early Christian sites but also took in a lot more:

Earlier in the year I went back to my childhood days, remembering when I first learned about Jonathan Swift from my Granma, and walked with her to the places associated with him in the town of my birth: Farnham, Surrey. Here is the post.

If you read my ‘Dean Swift and I’ post you will find this engraving of ‘Mother Ludlam’s Cave’ which was close to Stella’s Cottage, and must have been familiar to Jonathan Swift during his years living in Surrey. I came across this old print in a local bookshop when I was growing up in Farnham, and it has stayed with me ever since

I have been keeping a few series of posts going through the year: one is about the Napoleonic signal towers that dot the coastline all around this island. I began the series in 2020 (do you remember how we thought the Covid restrictions would soon be over?). In 2021 I continued the posts with new episodes. This is one of my favourites.

The Napoleonic Signal Tower at Brow Head, West Cork

Another series explored the Ilen River, West Cork’s most significant waterway. We still haven’t been to its source – said to be on the summit of Mullaghmesha, north of Castle Donovan – but this post (Ilen’s End) took us to the point at which the river meets the Atlantic.

West Cork had good coverage from our blog during the year which has just ended. I began a series of posts about West Cork Villages and Towns. Perhaps it was an interesting time to concentrate on our local communities: hopefully it proved that we West Corkonians are not deterred from celebrating life as much as is possible in these strange times.

The communities of (top to bottom) Bantry, Schull and Skibbereen have been the subjects of posts in my West Cork Villages and Towns series in the past year. There are many more to come in the future, including the remarkable activities that take place in our ‘home’ village, Ballydehob (below).

All but a year ago I put my tongue firmly in my cheek and imagined an encounter between my ancestor Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fáin and  the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin – Finghinn O Mathuna – who was Tánaiste of the great West Cork O’Mahony clan, and who lived down below us in Rossbrin Castle in the fifteenth century.

It proved a remarkably popular post and I was forced to admit that it did come from my imagination, although all the background historical information can be verified. What really interested me was the interest and enthusiasm that everyone has about life here on our wild West Cork coastline all those centuries ago!

We are most fortunate to live overlooking Rossbrin Cove and the islands of Roaringwater Bay

It’s always a difficult task to choose just a few posts from the 50 or so each of us has written over the last twelve months. If I started all over again I would probably choose many different ones. But they are all still there to be read (dating back to 2012): you only have to search the archives! Our new year began – yesterday – with the enactment of an ancient Irish tradition in Ballydehob: the Wran Day. That will be my post next weekend, but here’s a taster. Happy New Year everybody…!

Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 2

As I said in Part 1, this map was made to provide information for the purposes of plantation – that is, colonisation – of Munster, and in particular of those lands forfeited by the Desmonds after their ill-fated rebellions. Jobson, the cartographer who signed this was, according to Andrews, an enthusiastic map-maker who was unusually determined that his maps would survive. Accordingly, he made copies and presented them to likely future employers – hence this one, inscribed to Lord Burleigh, faithful and long-serving eminence grise to Elizabeth 1. That’s herself, below. (Full citation for the map is at the end of the post.)

Andrews says of Jobson:

He also showed unusual zeal in presenting duplicates to likely patrons: no one was going to deprive posterity of a Jobson map by “borrowing” the only copy. Other features of his complex cartographic persona were more distinctly Irish, such as his deceptively slapdash-looking style and his apparent ignorance of earlier Anglo-Irish cartography.

Colonial Cartography in a European Setting:The Case of Tudor Ireland
J. H. Andrews

Much of the ‘slapdash’ nature of the map can be explained when we realise that this map, in fact, was a reduction to small scale of detailed townlands surveys that he, Jobson, and others had carried out, and that he obviously had not been able to make all his observations ‘on the ground’ for whatever reasons. The map was studied in the late nineteenth century, along with a host of other evidence by W H Hardinge. He starts his paper, read to the Royal Irish Academy in 1891, by giving the background to the maps: 

So soon, however, as the Queen and her Council decided upon establishing, under certain conditions and limitations, a plantation of her English subjects upon these forfeited territories; and for that purpose determined to grant them out to undertakers, in scopes of twelve, ten, eight thousand, and a lesser number of English acres, it became indispensable to the interests of the crown, as well as to equity in the distribution of the lands amongst the undertakers, to have the area of each town accurately measured, ascertained, and laid down upon a plot or map. Accordingly, I find a commission to that end, bearing date the 19th June, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth [1584], accompanied by minute instructions from the ministers and lords of Her Majesty’s Privy Council in England addressed to Sir Henry Wallop, Knt., under-treasurer of Ireland, and to other commissioners there, of whom the auditor-general, and the surveyor and escheator-general were two; authorizing and requiring them to make special inquiry in relation to said forfeitures, to measure the demesnes, and to reduce acres to plow lands, according to the custom of the country, and to value the acres rateably according to perches. The survey was completed in the year 1586, and must have been returned into England, as ” The Plot from England for inhabiting and peopling Munster” was soon afterwards sent to the lord deputy. And, further, a very large proportion of the principal plantation grants were passed under the great seal of England almost simultaneously, based upon that survey, and which could not have been so passed unless the guiding information enabling the distribution had been on the spot.


On Mapped Surveys of Ireland Author(s): W. H. Hardinge and Ths. Ridgeway
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869) , 1861 – 1864, Vol. 8 (1861 – 1864), pp. 39-55 Available here

Hardinge then goes on to comment on Jobson’s Map of Munster:

In a long and expressive marginal note, Jobson sets out his services, stating “that he was three years in her majesty’s service, surveying and measuring part of the lands escheated to the crown in Munster ;” and further, “that Arthur Robinson and Lawson were employed on same survey.” The map in question is genuine, and clearly a reduction by Jobson from the townland surveys, made in pursuance of the pre-recited commission, as a gift likely to be acceptable to Lord Burleigh. 

From such accumulated evidence, I concluded that there must have been mapped surveys accompanying the inquisitions and books of survey; and that nothing less could satisfy the exigencies of the plantation – a work that was to be guided by a measure of land up to that time unknown in Ireland, and by a scale of crown rent imposition of three-pence per English arable acre. 

In a further note, he cites the cost of the survey as £2,900 – this translates to about £700,000 in today’s money.

This is the frontispiece to Saxton’s Atlas of the Countries of England and Wales. Christopher Saxton was one of the premier Elizabethan cartographers and in this glorious illustration he is showing how indispensable maps and map-makers are to Elizabeth and to the world. Source Wikimedia Commons

Munster in this map refers to the counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry and Limerick, rather than the present-day province which also includes Tipperary and Clare. Let’s take a closer look now at some more elements of the map, starting with the section on the counties of Cork and Kerry. Two peninsulas (yes – only two!) are clearly delineated, surrounded by galleons. Note the two crests, one with a harp and the other with the English cross of St George, both bearing the regal motto of Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.

Honing in to take a closer look at the green area (below) labelled the Counte (County) of Desmond we see that the principal families names are Macarte Moor (McCarthy Mór)), who were the overlords of West Cork, and O’Swellivan Bear (O’Sullivan Bear) on the south coast. Below is Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare – the very man named on the map – read more about him in An Excursion to Dunboy.

Bere Island is Illan Moor (Illaun Mór, which is its traditional name – Large Island – as it is, in fact, Ireland’s largest island). Whiddy Island is called Illanfoyde, and is assigned to the O’Sullivans. All around Bantry is assigned to Rogers, a completely unfamiliar name, although one of our commentators last week noted that there is a strand there called Roger’s Strand!

That whole green area is odd, though, isn’t it? In fact, the Beara and Iveragh Peninsulas are shown as one large landmass, with the Beara marked off by an orange line. Here is the surest evidence we have that this map was not drawn on the ground (or by sea) using actual observations and measurements. The coasts and hinterland of both these peninsulas must have presented formidable obstacles to cartography and reminds us that mapping was a dangerous profession in Elizabethan Ireland.

The dangers are starkly revealed in an account by the Attorney General who related that Richard Bartlett, ablest of all the Queen’s Anglo-Irish cartographers, was beheaded in Donegal in 1609 “because they would not have their country discovered”.

And if it wasn’t the natives, then it was the arduous work of surveying these wild lands that challenged the map makers. This was highlighted by the story of Robert Lythe, an English military engineer who almost went blind and lame while serving in Ireland from 1567 to 1571.

how ireland was mapped By Rose Mitchell Map Specialist, The National Archives

Dingle (in red), however, is a different matter – it has assumed outsize proportions, probably an indication of its importance in the Desmond Rebellions. There are many more place names on it than there are on the green mass. Ventry and Smerwick Harbours are indicated since both were important sites of resistance in the Desmond Rebellions – the barbarous massacre of Spanish and Italian allies at Smerwick was one of the decisive acts in the war, and involved such luminaries on the British side as Black Tom Butler, Earl of Ormond (below), Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. Ventry was where the English troops entered the peninsula.

The Bay of Tralee is noted and the area around it is labelled DENE – this refers to the lands granted to Sir Edward Denny (below). I have written about the extraordinary story of the Dennys and their tenure in Tralee – a story that culminated in Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. And by the way – can you see Sliabh Luacra at the bottom of this section – the home of a distinctive tradition in Irish music.

Whew – better end there for today. As you can see. we have barely scratched the surface of what can be gleaned from this map. Perhaps we will revisit it in a future post – but for now I leave you with the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, slightly expanded from the lead image, so you can try your own hand at making out what an Elizabethan planter might have been vitally interested in.

I am grateful indeed to Michelle Agar, Cataloguer, Digital Collections, at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, who gave permission to feature the map from the Hardiman collection in this blog. Also to the kind office of Dr Áine Madden, Communications and Engagement Coordinator with the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy. The complete citation for the map is as follows: Jobson, Francis, & Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. (2021) The Province of Munster, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.rb69b272p

Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 1

The sixteenth century was a desperate time in Munster. Two successive Desmond Rebellions (read about them here and here) had resulted in a devastated countryside where, according to the Annals of the Four Masters the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dunquinn to Cashel in Munster. The power of the FitzGeralds, Lords of Desmond, and their allies among the Gaelic chieftains, had been broken.

The Tudor government determined that what was needed was a complete colonising effort, that would bring the benefits of English civilisation to the lawless Irish. William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, set about planning the Plantation of Munster. 

In June 1584, a commission surveyed southwest Munster, mapping out the lands belonging to a swathe of Irish lords associated with the rebellion, which were then granted to a small group of wealthy English Undertakers.

John Dorney: The Munster Plantation and the MacCarthys, 1583-1597
Jobson’s dedication – to the Right Honourable the Lord Burleigh, Lord High Treasurer of England

What a project like this needed, of course, was an accurate map and they were hard to come by in medieval Ireland. Francis Jobson, a free-lance cartographer, set himself the task of producing such a map, and in 1589 he inscribed this one, The Province of Munster Map (the subject of this post), to Cecil. The original is in the library of Trinity College and I have been given permission to use it in our blog (see end of post for complete citation.)

Jobson’s signature

George Carew, one of the primary planters, the first President of Munster, was a man who asserted he had an ancestral claim to large chunks of Munster. To back up his various claims, he collected papers and maps in support of the colonising efforts, and these maps later found their way to Trinity College in Dublin, to form part of a collection called the Hardiman Atlas, after the nineteenth century librarian who recognised what they were and bound them together.

The Province of Munster Map is but one of this collection, now digitised and available for viewing in the Digital Repository of Ireland. And an excellent job they have done of it – the high-resolution image is so clear that it allows us to zoom in and see lots of detail. Here is the complete map.

The first thing that strikes the modern viewer is that Ireland is on its back – that is, instead of north being at the top, west is. This wasn’t unusual for the time. JH Andrews, one of Ireland’s foremost cartographic historians explains it thus, With east at the bottom, Dublin, the Englishman’s point of entry to Ireland, is the point on the map nearest him. To provide a more normal orientation, I have turned the map sideways, below, so you can assess how accurate it is.

The task facing Jobson was to provide as clear information as possible for the colonising effort. Any kinds of fortifications, where the Irish could defend their territory, were important, as were transportation corridors, by sea, river or land, as well as barriers to movement, such as mountains or dense forests. Control of the fisheries had generated great wealth for the Irish chieftains so it was important to have details of coastal areas. 

Speaking of Jobson’s Map of Ulster, Annaleigh Margey says

His maps are crucial to our understanding of England’s changing relationship with Ulster at the end of the sixteenth century. As the Nine Years’ War began, Jobson provided representations of the Gaelic lordships in Ulster, but also imposed England’s vision for the creation of a new county system onto the provincial landscape. In Jobson’s 1598 map, now at Trinity College, Dublin (p. 42), this framing of the new political geography is obvious. Throughout Ulster, the various Gaelic lordships are denoted by the lord’s name and a line defining their boundary. Settlements such as castles and churches that could be integrated into English settlement plans are displayed by small replicas in red across the map.

Annaleigh Margey: Visualising the Plantation:mapping the changing face of Ulster
History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Volume 17

She could well have been speaking of the Map of Munster. The principal families and their territories are all presented, as well as their main castles. While West Cork is not rendered accurately, we can see what Jobson felt was important to include. The O’Mahonys (Mahound) are there and the castles shown for them are Dunbeacon, Rossbrin and Ardintenant, which is labelled C o mahoun, as befits the castle of the Chief (see my post on Ardintenant here). The whole of Ivaha (now the Mizen Peninsula) is assigned to Mohon (spelling was approximate in these maps) and Crookhaven is indicated, probably because it is an excellent harbour.

The O’Driscolls are shown at Baltymore, with Castles also on Sherkin (Ineseyrkan) and Cape Clere. The Ilen River is shown as the Ellyn ff (ff or flu is often found on old maps to designate a river). Interestingly, the whole of the Sheep’s Head has no detail on it and only one word – Rymers. The O’Dalys were the traditional bards of several Irish families and they had their bardic school near Kilcrohane – they are The Rymers! The Abbey in Bantry is noted (in fact it was a Franciscan Friary) – and even Priest’s Leap is on this map. Once the only land route between Bantry and Kenmare, it is now a steep, treacherous and extremely scenic back road.

We have only just started looking at this map. The next post will continue the journey. Meanwhile – have a look yourself and see what you can see. I have lots of questions about it – for example, about the scale that Jobson uses (above) – I am hoping our readers might have some answers!

I am grateful indeed to Michelle Agar, Cataloguer, Digital Collections, at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, who gave permission to feature the map from the Hardiman collection in this blog. Also to the kind office of Dr Áine Madden, Communications and Engagement Coordinator with the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy. The complete citation for the map is as follows: Jobson, Francis, & Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. (2021) The Province of Munster, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.rb69b272p

Ardintenant Castle

Home of the Taoiseach, or Head of the Clan, Ardintenant was one of the most important of the O’Mahony Castles of Ivaha (or what we now call The Mizen). Fortunately, it is relatively intact and we can observe and record much about it. The drawing above was done by James N Healy for his magnificent book on The Castles of County Cork. This post is another in my series on The Castles of Ivaha.

First the name – Ardintenant has been variously interpreted as coming from Árd an Tine (Ord on Tinneh, Height of the Fire), Árd an tSaighneáin (Ord on Tye-nawn Height of the Flash, or Beacon) or Árd an Tiarna (Ord on Teerna, Height of the High Chief). Any of these would be apt, since tower houses by the sea like this one (viewed from the sea, above) could be used as navigation beacons, possibly with a fire on the battlements. We also know that it was the residence of the head of the O’Mahony Clan, even though it was not the largest or most elaborate of the O’Mahony castles. Locally, it is also known as White Castle, which may refer to the white render that once made it stand out in the landscape (for more on render and castle colours, see the discussion on Kilcoe Castle). The photograph below demonstrates that it was prominent on the landscape and close to, although not right on, the sea.

It now stands in the middle of a working farm, surrounded by stone buildings that are picturesque and notable in their own right.

Ardintenant is typical of castles built during the 15th century by Irish clan chiefs – wealthy and powerful and anxious to assert their claims on land and sea.

Dermot Runtach (the Reliable) succeeded in I400; his life and the lives of his sons spanned the Fifteenth Century. He was celebrated as a ‘truly hospitable man, who never refused to give anything to anyone’ . . . The period of 1400 -1500 was the most peaceful and prosperous period in the history of the clan. The Ivagha peninsula was protected by the sea on three sides and the family became wealthy from the exaction of dues from the continental fishing fleets; trade also enriched them, causing long-standing enmity with the citizens of Cork. Tradition relates that the majority of the O’Mahony tower houses in Ivagha were built by or for the sons of Dermod Runtach. The date of Dermod Runtach’s death is recorded in the Annals of Loch Cé as 1427.


THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998

Dermot Runtach’s sons were the castle builders. Conor Cabaicc succeeded his father in 1427 and remained Taoiseach for 46 years, embarking on an ambitious program of construction to provide castles for his sons and brothers, beginning with Ardintenant. He died in 1473, by which time probably all of the castles of Ivaha were built and occupied by various members of his derbfine (extended family). Cabaicc means of the exactions (or forced tributes), although it is possible that Conor was more benignly known as Cabach – meaning talkative. His brother, Fineen, the Táiniste (heir-in-waiting) built Rossbrin Castle, about which Robert has written, and which is the castle in our view at Nead an Iolair. Rossbrin and the remains of a small tower on Castle Island are both visible from Ardintenant.

While there is evidence that other O’Mahony castles were built on pre-existing fortifications such as promontory forts (see Three Castle Head, for example) or ring forts, this is most visible at Ardintenant, where the ring fort can still be seen as a circular rampart around the tower house. You can make out part of it in the photo above. Another unusual feature is the survival of a single flanking tower, along the line of the ring fort and across from the tower house, although there may have been more than one originally, since the 1840s OS map shows what could be a second one – the leftmost building on the line of the ringfort below. Note that farm buildings also dot the site even at this early stage.

The possible second flanking tower had disappeared by the time the next series of maps were produced, around the 1890s. The farm buildings have changed as well.

In his marvellous paper on Ardintenant Castle in Mizen Journal 11, 2003, John Hawkes investigates the history and construction of the castle and provides elevation and plan drawings. I am grateful for his scholarship and thoroughness, which has informed the following description of what is left at this site, as well as provided illustrations.

The presence of the ringfort raises an intriguing prospect since it appears that instead of the usual rectangular bawn, surrounded by a stone wall (see the illustration in this post), we have a round bawn, with the stone wall built on top of the bank of the ringfort. Although that stone wall is not obvious now, it is noted in the description of the ring fort in the National Monuments survey. Thus, what we have here is a hybrid ring fort/tower house – a sensible adaptation of a pre-existing fortification and a continuation of the site as a high-ranking residence. The National Monuments survey also refers to an external fosse, although traces of it are hard to see on the ground. If it was originally a substantial ditch, another possibility is that the bank was surrounded by a moat. 

As with all of the O’Mahony Castles, Ardintenant is the type of tower house known as Raised Entry, that is, the ground floor door allows access to the public areas of the castle, while the door above it, originally accessed via a wooden stairway, gives on to a set of steps up to the private area.

The first two-and-a-mezzanine floors are covered by a vault. This set-up was partly defensive – the upper floors could only be accessed through this raised doorway and staircase – and partly for security, in that the vault was a barrier should a fire break out on the lower floors. The doorway to the left leads to a garderobe, while on the right are two deeply splayed window embrasures.

At Ardintenant, as with Dunmanus, the ground floor has been in use as a cow byre. It is normally impossible to access the upper floors, although those who have done so report that it is in good condition. That floor is reached by means of a mural staircase that rises from the raised entry.

A second staircase, in this case a spiral, gives access from the upper floor to the wall walk. This was not a castle built for comfort – in common with the other 15th century O’Mahony castle it had no fireplaces and very few windows.

Above the vault was what Hawkes calls the Great Hall. One large room, accessed via the mural staircase, the only notable feature of which is are deeply splayed window with seats in the embrasure. Picture the Lady of the house seated here, trying to catch whatever light she could as she bent over her handwork. 

In one corner of the Great Hall, the spiral staircase led up to the wall walk (what Hawkes calls the Allure). While nothing remains of these battlements now, we can assume that there was a walkway around the roof, perhaps with Irish crenellations and a sentry box.

The flanking tower (above) is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out details. It may have looked a bit like the one Westropp called The Turret, at Dunlough.

It’s much smaller than the castle, rectangular, and three stories high. The illustration above, by Jack Roberts, indicates the relative sizes. The way in was from the level of the curtain wall and each floor was connected by a ladder, except for the wall walk/allure, reached by a spiral stone stairs. 

Hawkes tells us that “its function appears to have been to accommodate hostages.” He bases that on the absence of a ground level entry (the current hole on the ground level having been broken through in more recent times), so that the ‘dungeon’ was accessed through a trap door from the room above, which in turn he calls a ‘detention room.’ See my post on Dunmanus for a discussion of possible functions for rooms like the ‘dungeon.’

Ardintenant is still standing and intact, but a lot of the base batter – the broad stone base that gives it its strength and stability – is missing and holes have been punched through the walls in the past.

Along with the other extant O’Mahony castles, its continued survival cannot be taken for granted. It’s a listed monument on private land, and Ireland’s complicated heritage laws means that it can’t be deliberately damaged, but conversely, there is no onus on the landowners to conserve it at their own expense. All fingers crossed that it remains standing for ages to come.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of Ardintenant Castle from 1987, from his field notebook

Dunmanus Castle 2: The Castle

Dunmanus Castle stands guard over a natural harbour on the north side of The Mizen Peninsula and is one of the largest of the still-standing Castles of Ivaha.

All of the O’Mahony castles (or tower houses as the archaeologists prefer to call them) were the raised entry type, where the door that gave access to the living quarters of the chief was on the first, rather than the ground floor. There is an entrance on the ground floor, but it allowed access only to the lowest level. While at some of the castles of Ivaha, the raised entry was immediately above the ground-floor entry, at Dunmanus, it is above and to the left of the ground-floor entry: this offset placement probably allowed easier access to the lower entrance.

Dunmanus is the only O’Mahony Castle (as far as we know – several have disappeared) to have an additional turret, this one located at the south west corner. In fact the only other castle like it in this part of West Cork is Kilcoe Castle – see my post about its Magnificent Reconstruction. Jeremy Irons’ restoration also allows us to see what Dunmanus Caste would have looked like in its heyday. 

After the false start at Knockeens (see Dunmanus Castle 1: The Cliff-Edge Fort) the tower house was constructed on the site of an earlier fortification probably called Dún Manus, or the Fort of Manus. It was built by Donagh Mór, a chief of the O’Mahony Fionn (the Fair-Haired) sept, sometime in the 15th century. Donagh Mór had been elected Táiniste (next in line to become Taoiseach, or Chief) but he had to wait over 40 years, until 1473, for his brother to die before he succeeded, and then he only lived two more years. This timeframe fits with the architecture of the castle, which is firmly fifteenth century gothic – the window style below is typical.

Like all the O’Mahonys at this time he was very wealthy, riches that came from his control of both the fisheries in Dunmanus Bay and the resources of the hinterland behind his castle. He could therefore afford to indulge his taste for a high-status residence. While the castle may not have been warm or bright (no fireplaces and small windows) it was certainly a statement in the landscape, designed to impress upon all who saw it that this was the centre of power in this part of the world.

The Castle originally had two floors (ground and first) and a mezzanine under a vault in the main tower. Above this was the principle chamber and above that were the roof and battlements. The floors of the turret (foreground, above) did not line up with the floors of the main tower, but were offset and reached by a series of stairs.

The ground floor was probably used for storage and perhaps public business. It had a wooden ceiling that formed the floor of the room above it (first floor). You can also see the corbels that supported the beams that formed the base for the floor, as well as the large sockets into which the beams were set. If this castle followed the pattern of others, there was no access from the ground floor to any floor above it – no stairway or ladder.

Still visible are the bar holes for the door as well as the spud stone and hanging eye – this was how the door was hung and how it turned. Can you make them out just to the left of the arch above – the spud stone is close to the ground and the hanging eye is level with the top of the arch.

The first floor was a more complex room and it had a mezzanine (you can see the corbels for it) under the vault. From the outside, a set of steps ascended to the raised entry and once you were at this door you could go straight ahead into the first floor room, or turn left and ascend a mural staircase to the floor above the vault. That staircase became spiral further up.

In this first floor room were two other doorways. The first (above), on the west side, was to a mural chamber that included the first floor garderobe or toilet (fifteenth century indoor plumbing!) – more on that later. The second (below) gave onto a short flight of steps leading downward to a vaulted chamber in the turret.* 

This chamber is one of the most interesting features of Dunmanus Castle, because in the floor is a hatch or trap-door which is the only access to yet another small, vaulted windowless cell below.

We know about this cell because there’s a hole in the wall that allows us to see into it – and even go into it. 

Once you’re inside, you realise that originally you would have been in the pitch black and that the only way in or out was the trapdoor in the ceiling. Was this a dungeon? An oubliette? It certainly could have functioned as such, and there are historic accounts of prisoners being confined in such spaces in Irish castles. 

But there are other possible explanations. Mark Samuels, in his Tower Houses of West Cork, speculates that this is in fact a cistern, fed from below, filled in over the years with debris so that it is now impossible to see how deep it went. There are identical features, he says, at Kilcoe and Monteen tower houses. It would have been a significant advantage, especially during a siege, to have a source for water.

However, the best evidence for the use of rooms like this comes from the excavations of Barryscourt Castle, near Carrigtwohill, east of Cork City. Here’s what the authors of this section of the report, Dave Pollock and Conleth Manning conclude about its function.

The ground floor, originally accessed only through a trapdoor in its vault, has in the past been regarded as a prison or dungeon. The more likely explanation is that it was a safe vault or basement strongroom, where cash and records were kept securely, and could be accessed with the aid of a ladder when required. The room above this, referred to variously in other cases as the accounting room or counting house, was where an officer of the Manor called the receiver or cofferer worked. He documented all produce and commodities coming into the castle and made payments as necessary. At Barryscourt this room was only accessible through a small external doorway . . . It is interesting that good examples of accounting rooms with basement strong rooms under them, accessed through trap doors, are found in some late 14th century great towers in England such as Bolton Castle and Warkworth Castle.


Barryscourt Castle Co Cork, Archaeology, History and Architecture, Dave Pollock, ED.
Published by the National Monuments Service, 2017,

There is, of course, no access nowadays to the upper floors of Dunmanus Castle, but we know that the top floor was the ‘solar’ – the largest and most commodious chamber reserved for the Chief and his family. It was also where he entertained, and there are accounts of the lavishness with which guests were received. Take a look at my post, Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of) to see how the brilliant artist JG O’Donoghue, has managed to show us the internal layout of a tower house. Here is his image of the upper floors and wall walk.

From that chamber, a set of stair led up to the battlements, where a wall walk would have surrounded the pitched roof. The wall walk was protected by a set of stepped merlons and crenels in the style known as Irish Crenellations – Kilcoe gets these exactly right.

My final note is on the garderobe, or rather, garderobes, since there was one off the first floor and another at the level of the solar. The chute which served both of them, was divided down the middle by a set of perpendicular slabs set into the inner wall (above and below). 

When I photographed Dunmanus in 2016 these perpendicular slabs were in place. However, as you can see below, by five years later two of them have fallen.

While these particular slabs may not be integral to the cohesion of the building, every stone that falls or slips weakens the overall structure and is another step towards ruination. It would be very sad indeed if Dunmanus Castle is not here in its current state for future generations.

*I am grateful to a friend who shall remain nameless (but who is a relative of Spiderman) for the photographs of the turret room and staircase. Do not attempt to access these spaces.

Dunlough, or Three Castle Head

It’s actually amazing that in all the years we’ve been writing Roaringwater Journal (since 2012), we’ve never written before about Three Castle Head in detail, although we’ve mentioned it lots and visit it often. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful places in West Cork, perhaps in Ireland, and certainly one of the most interesting. It’s one of The Castles of Ivaha.

To come over the brow of the hill on a sunny day and catch your first glimpse of Three Castle Head is breathtaking, so let’s describe first what you actually see in front of you. Instead of three distinct castles, what you see is a long wall, known as a curtain wall, punctuated by three towers. The wall stretches from a precipitous cliff on the south west to a lake on the north east end, and it is this lake that gives this place its Irish name of Dunlough (from Dún Loch, or Fort of the Lake).

The lake may have been held back at one point at the north east end where it drains into the sea – a long wall stretches partly across it here – or this wall may have been part of the fortification system for the whole promontory. 

The curtain wall would have constituted a formidable defence for the area behind it – the cliff makes it impregnable on the west side, while the lake forms a barrier on the east. Our old friend Thomas J Westropp visited Dunlough in about 1914, when there was more to see on the ground of the pre-curtain wall fortifications, wrote up his observations, and supplied a drawing.* More on his conclusions later. For convenience, I will use his terminology for the three towers, although they are not necessarily what a modern medieval historian would use. He called the largest tower, located more or less in the middle of the wall, the Keep; the one immediately to the east the Turret, and the one closest to the lake the Gatehouse. You might like to have a good read of the posts Tower House Tutorial Part I and Part II to help you make sense of what follows.

The wall and the three towers are very finely built, using the rubble construction method, where both sides of the wall are shaped with stones carefully chosen for their straight edges, and the interior is filled with rubble. Mark Samuels, in his discussion of the construction of this tower says:

A proper lime mortar, quite hard, white and capable of adhering to the stones was used in the basebatter. However, at second-floor level, the mortar was little more than earth and the building stands entirely by virtue of the careful laying of the stones. The unusual drystone construction gives it a ‘vernacular’ air which is a peculiarity of this stronghold.

The Tower Houses of West Cork by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, 1998

There is evidence of little mortar being used where the interior of the curtain walls can be seen, so this was a very skilful job indeed of ‘dry stone’ construction. Where mortar is discernible, however, it appears to be the local blue till, rendered into a kind of mud, rather than limestone-based mortar, and this has robbed the walls of some cohesion, so that they crumble more quickly once they start deteriorating. For a fairly thorough outline of what’s involved, see my post Building a Stone Wall. The curtain wall is likely to have had a rampart or wall walk, but no sign of this remains. Our budding archaeologist companions on our recent visit are taking a good look at the construction, below.

The Keep is the kind of tower house that the O’Mahonys were building all over Ivaha (The Mizen) in the 15th century and is typical of those towers, with a few interesting variations. There are two entrances, one above the other, denoting that this was, in common with all the other O’Mahony tower house, a ‘Raised Entry’ castle. However, unlike the others, the entries are surrounded by a small forecourt. Typically, the ground-level entry gave access only to the ground and first floors and there was no access to the upper, or residential floors (those above the vault) from it. The residential floors were accessed by means of a staircase inside the raised entry: it runs inside the wall to the right of the doorway.

Above that floor is the vault, which would have separated the lower floors from the upper floors where the household of the chieftain lived or where they would have entertained visitors. Some of the O’Mahony Castles, where they survive sufficiently to asses them, had a continuous vault, such as the one at Dunmanus. However, in others, and this is the case in the Keep at Dunlough, the Vault is formed by archways, upon which great slatey slabs have been laid to form the floor above. In the Keep, you can still see the impression in the mortar overlaying the arches of the wicker used to build these wicker-centred arches.

There would have been at least one and probably two more floors above the arch/vault – the residential floors. These were not comfortable dwellings – there were no fireplaces and the windows, although bigger than the lower floors, would not have let in much light. Above the top floor, a wall walk would have patrolled by look-outs. 

Westropp christened the middle tower (below) the Turret as it is the slimmest of the three. There is no evidence of a stairway so the floors were reached by means of ladders. Unlike the other two towers, which were built straddling the curtainwall, this one has three of its sides outside the wall, with the entrance through the wall on the north side.

The gatehouse is perhaps the most complex of the three towers. At its base is an arched passageway, now with the collapse of ages completely blocking it.

Because it’s difficult to really see this tower now, I will give you Westropp’s description of it from his 1914 visit:

The entrance had inner and outer arches, which were closed and barred from the inside, I presume lest anyone should get into the enclosed hill, hide till night, and then open the gate treacherously. The outer gate is 6 feet 10 inches wide, the inner, 6 feet 3 inches and 9 feet 8 inches apart ; they have slightly pointed arches. From the interspace a small door opens into a little court, or rather passage, round the other two sides of the gate tower. This turret has a vaulted basement 9 feet by 9 feet 9 inches, and walls 4 feet thick, with a loophole, commanding the outer face of the gate. There are two stories or lofts, reached by a ladder through a trap-door and under another vault. The second floor has slits in each face ; the third, one to the south, and a torn gap westward above the gate. Over the upper vault is a little gabled attic, with an ope overlooking the lake. A small stair runs spirally up the north-west corner. The walls having been very thin there, have fallen, or been broken, down to the basement vault. A short wall runs from the gatehouse out into the lake. 

Westropp, 1915 (see footnote)

The small spiral staircase can be clearly see where the outer wall has fallen away (above).

Several sources tell us that this is the oldest of the O’Mahony Castles, built in 1207 by Donagh the Migratory O’Mahony – there are references in Annals to a ‘castle at Dun Locha’. Modern scholarship on castles tends to agree that there were structures called castells before the coming of the Normans, but it is clear that they did not look like these tower houses. It may be that the reference in the annals is to Dunloe in Kerry, but it may also be that there was indeed a castell here in 1207. If there was, it was not what we are looking at now: any analysis of its construction places it firmly in the fifteenth century. 

Once again, we turn to Westropp. When he  visited Dunlough in about 1914 there was more to see on the ground of the pre-curtain wall fortifications, and he wrote up his observations, and supplied a drawing (above). This was an ancient promontory fort, he said, dating to well before the  castle-building era, and he traced the line of the fort bank through the remains of fosses, or ditches, vestigial but still visible. The next phase was the building of a wall, and this may well have been the castell of 1207. It follows a line south-west to north-east, at a different angle to the curtain wall. He was able to make out a gate feature near the cliff. This was demolished, he said, to build the curtain wall we see today.

I agree with the broad strokes of Westropp’s analysis. Yes this is an old stronghold of the O’Mahony clan – and what you are looking at today was not built in 1207, but built on top of the 1207 fortifications. The O’Mahonys went on a castle-building spree in the 1400s and the Dunlough curtain wall and towers, in terms of their architecture and their similarity with all the other O’Mahony castles, fits with that timeframe. 

But all of that is dry as dust – who can worry about a dating timeframe when what presents itself to your view is so beautiful, so perfectly situated and so hopelessly romantic? So let’s take a vote – is this Ireland most beautiful castle? Hands up who agrees with me!

One last word – for many years Three Castle Head was off limits as a private farm. In recent years the owners have been welcoming visitors and this is gratefully acknowledged. However, the increased footfall is coming with a cost in wear and tear. Look at the walls above – these are fragile ruins: knocking off one loose stone can have a catastrophic effect on the building envelope.

It’s also dangerous to go clambering over unstable ruins like this. So, a heartfelt plea – if you visit, and I hope you do, PLEASE STAY OFF THE WALLS! I was pleased to see a new notice up about this on our most recent visit, and indeed visitors seemed more respectful than they had when I was last there (above). If we stay away from the walls, hopefully they will stand to delight us for more generations to come.

*Fortified Headlands and Castles in Western County Cork. Part I. From Cape Clear to Dunmanus Bay by Thomas Johnson Westropp Source: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: 1914 – 1916, Vol. 32 pp. 249-286, (accessed at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25504178