The Wran, The Wran . . .

. . . New Year’s Day saw the Wran coming out in our village of Ballydehob, County Cork. It’s an old tradition here. That time “the fool” accompanied the wren boys. He was mounted on a donkey and carried a bladder tied to a stick. I got the song from John Levis, Ballydehob, (34 years of age) who procured it from Jeremiah Driscoll, Ballydehob (age 64yrs) who was an old wren boy. “Wren” is pronounced wran locally in Ballydehob and surrounding districts . . .

Duchas Schools Folklore Collection : Collector J Barry

This account dates from around 1936. It’s referring, therefore, to something happening regularly in the late 1800s and, probably long before that. ‘The Wran’ is still active in Ballydehob, well over a century later. I have written about our own Wran Day preparations not so long ago – and included the song – and I’m pleased to report that the day went well. That’s me, above and below, playing the melodeon (although perhaps I shouldn’t be giving away the disguise)! I’m actually wearing ‘tatters’, which was my costume when I took part in Mummers’ plays in England from relatively early in my life: I was brought up on the Surrey / Hampshire borders, prime country for this English tradition. Mumming also takes place in parts of Ireland, have a look here.

New Years’ Day was quiet day in the village – until we took to the streets! If you want to know the purpose of it all, I can’t really tell you. These are activities that happen around the natural turning point of the year – the change from the sun getting progressively lower in the sky, and weaker, to its returning strength: already we can sense the lengthening of each day. In the mumming on these islands you got a sense of it from a symbolic play where combatants fought and died, then were brought back to life by The Doctor who can apparently cure all illnesses. And, of course, we are always anxious to see the solstice in action!

In Ireland, the Wran Day tradition is accompanied by a play in some places, but more usually it’s a procession through a community, involving interaction by going into houses and shops, making a lot of noise and generally stirring up the spirits with a bit of mischief-making. We were fairly passive this year because of Covid restrictions, but it felt good to be out and about. Let’s hope that this anomaly in the regularity of daily life can become more marked as things gets back to near normal in future years!

Thanks are due to Sonia Caldwell – who instigated proceedings, keeping us all focussed – and Joe and Caroline of Levis’s Bar who provided the venue for making the masks – and gave great moral support! Traditionally, the masks are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s day. Finola kindly provided the pics.

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 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

Working With Glass

Finola and I went to a workshop on creative fused-and-painted glass. It was wonderful! We were guinea-pigs in that the glass artist – Angela Brady – was keen to try running an event and we were privileged to be invited, joining our friends Brian and Clair Lalor.

Top: that’s Angela introducing us to the medium of glass and showing us some of her own work. Centre: she’s encouraging Brian to turn his artist’s mind to the possibilities of the material. Above: Angela Brady and Robin Mallalieu (who are also architects) have taken over the former Brush Fire Pottery, just outside Ballydehob. This was the home and workplace of dynamic artists John and Noelle Verling, who bought the Gurteenakilla premises in 1973 and lived and worked there for very many years. John died in 2009 and Noelle now lives not too far away. To spend the workshop day in such hallowed surroundings added to the ambience, and could only have inspired us in our artistic endeavours!

Back in the 1960s – the heyday of the Ballydehob Artists’ community – the pottery at Gurteenakilla was established by Christa Reichel who – together with her partner Nora Golden – went on to set up the Flower House on the main street in the village as a gallery and meeting place for the artists. They painted the vivid facade of the Flower House (the photo below dates from 1963, and is reproduced with the permission of Andrew Street): similar decorations were applied to the Brush Fire studio, where they survived and are now being restored by Angela and Robin.

Below the Flower House picture is Nora Golden outside the studio at Gurteenakilla; and here are pics of Robin painting the studio building, and Angela’s restoration of the Reichel / Golden decorations. But back to the job in hand: in these venerable surroundings we learned how to cut glass, paint on it and prepare pieces for the kiln. We all had our own ideas: Finola and I decided to paint glass tiles with ancient motifs: Rock Art from Ireland and Scandinavia, some thousands of years old. Brian chose to use cut glass to enhance one of his exquisite sketches, while Clair was perhaps the most ambitious, planning a flower from cut pieces of glass which would require two sessions in the kiln to allow it to be ‘slumped’ to a three-dimensional shape. My view is that all the pieces were equally successful in their execution (but I am prejudiced!)

Top: Angela instructs Finola in the technique of cutting glass shapes, although Finola chose to use glass paint to reproduce some of her own Rock Art images traced during her studies in the 1970s. Above: Clair cuts and assembles a flower shape.

Top: my own pieces: on the left are attendants pushing the sun across the sky, while on the right is a ship carrying souls to the land of the Gods under a potent sun. All these Bronze Age images are found in Norway. Above, Brian working on his cut-glass sketch.

Artists at work in the studio – and the kiln room at Brush Fire. Before going in the kiln, we laminated our pieces with additional glass, to provide a stable background and – in some instances – colour. The firing is carried out overnight at a temperature of at least 760 degrees C. During that time the glass fuses and – hopefully – does not crack.. Angela was firing some of her own pieces at the same time: if you went to the West Cork Creates exhibition in Skibbereen during August of this year you would have seen many examples of Angela’s brilliant work, together with the work of other artists using glass as a medium.

In Angela’s studio are many reminders of past times. John and Noelle Verling specialised in fish imagery – here’s the Brush Fire Ceramics sign that they made back in the day (above – since presented by Noelle to the Ballydehob Arts Museum), while above that is one of Angela’s glass pieces which pays due respect to her predecessors at Brush Fire. Below is a quirky example of Angela’s experimentation: she collected some interestingly shaped bottles from the recycling centre, and fused them together in the kiln:

The following day, Angela took our pieces out of the kiln once it had cooled, and washed them (above). Then we assembled at Nead an Iolair for the reveal. Thank you to Robin for the photos. Clair’s work had to be refired to allow it to ‘slump’, so that was unveiled later on.

Pieces (top to bottom) by Brian, Finola and myself. And – to finish as we started – Clair’s magnificent flower – before and after the second firing! Thank you to Angela for enabling each one of us to experience this most satisfying process. We would all like to take part again another day – and expand our new-found skills!

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.