This is the fourth castle in my series The Castles of Ivaha, and the final one which is intact enough to be able to describe in detail (although I may have more to say about those which are more vestigial). Not just intact, though – Black Castle has been superbly stabilised and saved for future generations by its owner, Niall Hyde.
Niall, by the way, thinks the the term Black Castle is more historically accurate. He points out that there is, in fact, in the townland of Leamcon, about 2km to the northeast, another ‘turret’ marked on the old OS maps, which is the remains of a castle built by the notorious Sir William Hull. Black Castle is in the townland of Castlepoint, and its name neatly distinguishes it from White Castle, AKA Ardintenant. Both were built by the O’Mahonys.
James Healy’s drawing of Black Castle from his wonderful book The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988
As I said in my post on Ardintenant 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. This included Black Castle, which he built for his second son, Finín Caol (pronounced Fineen Kale), or Finín the Slender. This means that Black Castle was built in the period before Conor Cabaicc (Conor the Talkative) died, in 1473. This accords well with its architectural details, which place it among the fifteenth century ‘raised entry’ castles, similar to Ardintenant, Dunmanus and Dunlough.
The best source material for all the castles of Ivaha is the thesis The Tower Houses of West Cork by Mark Samuel. Here’s what Samuel says about the location of Black Castle, which he refers to throughout as Leamcon. Leamcon, by the way, means Hound’s Leap, which Samuel suggests may refer to a legend about the gully across which you must pass to get to the castle.
The western part of the Ivagha peninsula, the territory of O’Mahony Fionn, is now sparsely populated. Away from the formidable Mizen Head, the ice-sculpted land meets the sea with low, rocky cliffs. In this part of the Survey region, the strike of the rock is almost south-west/northeast, the layers being tipped close to the vertical, the shore tends to be sculpted into long peninsulas and islands running along the strike. Exposed to the Atlantic, it is a wild treeless shore. The fields once densely fanned prior to the famine, are now mostly given over to pasture. The tower house stands far from any road at the west end of a long narrow peninsula. Erosion has nearly severed the tip of the peninsula; only a precarious natural bridge, now reinforced with concrete, joins it to the mainland. The island is large, the ruins cover only a small fraction of its area. The tower house stands towards the island’s east end at its highest point. The promontory is for the most part gentle in relief, being covered by grass-grown ‘drift’ deposits.THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998
When Niall bought the property the bridge consisted of a few planks. It must have been a hairy business getting across to it until he built the concrete walkway you see today. Niall and his family spent their summers at the castle – can you imagine, as a child, what it must have been like to have your own castle to play and live in? Magical! Although I do think about what it must have been like for Dorothy, who spent the weeks there with the children while Niall worked in Dublin. How did she manage to feed them and keep them safe? A heroine, indeed.
Like the others I have described in detail, Leamcon is a raised entry castle. To recap – the ground floor entry gave access to the ground floor, and possibly by means of a ladder to the second floor and mezzanine. The raised entry gave access to the second floor, and then, by means of a strait mural staircase, the the floors above the vault. Take a look at the cut-away diagram in Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog to see what I am talking about here. Thus, the upper floors could only be accessed by one staircase, a defence feature, and being above the vault provided security from fire in the lower floors. Given that there were no fireplaces, and that braziers were lit in the middle of the floor, with smoke escaping however it could, this was probably a good idea.
Another defensive feature was the small opes, or windows, through which no attacker could climb and little light could penetrate
As regards defence, the castle was attacked by Carew’s forces after the Siege of Dunboy in 1602. According to Samuel:
Sir George Carew reported, on 13th July 1602, that his lieutenant, Captain Roger Harvy, had taken several castles strongly seated on rocks and necks of land. All were so ‘neere unto the sea where ships may safely ride, and fit places for an enemy to hold as, namely Leamcon, Donnegall’ and others. The decision was taken to burn these tower houses. Conor, the head of the sept, received quarter with his men and migrated to Spain immediately afterwards. He was subsequently pardoned but seems never to have returned.THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998
Black Castle wasn’t burned and it subsequently was reclaimed for a time by the O’Mahonys, although the clan forfeited all or most of their lands after the rebellions of the 1640s, and the castle was abandoned from at least the 1690s. Such was the state of it when the O’Mahony Reunion took place here in 65 or 66.
All those years of neglect had resulted in a castle in a perilous state of dereliction and Niall and his builders set about stabilising it before they could make it habitable. The base batter – the broad foundation that give the walls a strong base – had first to be repaired. This called for great skill and the results are impressive. Niall has left a band of membrane to indicate where the old and new stone work meets.
The castle was built to align with the strike of the rock, a feature of most of the Ivaha tower houses. The strike is the compass direction in which the rock bed is running and for West Cork that is mainly in a northeast to south west direction. The builders chose a prominent and solid rocky platform, still easily discernible, and probably prepared it by digging away any soil and loose rock and may have laid down a layer of mortar to help bind the lowest slabs to the rock surface.
At Black Castle, the quality of the masonry varies, leading me to think that not all stone masons were as skilled, or perhaps as careful, as others. See the variation in the image below. The quoins (corner stones) were made of fine-grained sandstone that can be freely dressed in any direction (called Freestone), while the stones used to dress the outer layer were carefully chosen (or deliberately shaped) to be smooth and even, lending a pleasingly sheer surface to the castle exterior, sometimes called an “ashlar finish.”
The raised entry, in the case of Black Castle, is directly about the ground-level entry, similar to Ardintenant, but unlike Dunmanus where the entries are staggered. The entrance to the upper door would have been by means of a wooden staircase, possible from the small rocky knoll across from the entrance.
In his conversion of the castle to provide habitable space, Niall concentrated on the upper floors. There is a living room, kitchen dining area and bedrooms, along with a toilet and shower which are situated in the original garderobe space.
By roofing and waterproofing the building, Niall has kept further deterioration at bay. It is a joyous thing to sit and look over the countryside with a cup of tea on hand, or to climb up to the wall walk and gaze over the wild and rugged peninsula, imagining Carew’s forces advancing across the sea.
Niall Hyde has managed, on a limited budget, to salvage Black Castle and indeed turn it into a space that his family enjoyed. We should all be grateful to him, and to others who have taken on such tasks with vision and courage. Without the Niall Hydes of this world, we would all be the poorer.