Looking at Rossbrin

Last week we talked a little about the history of Rossbrin’s medieval castle, and the importance of this natural inlet as a historical centre of fishery, scholarship and European culture. Rossbrin Cove stills serves as an anchorage and refuge for sailing boats on the edge of Roaringwater Bay, but is now a peaceful haven, with only the sounds of the shore birds and slapping masts to lightly disturb an overriding tranquility that gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Our photograph (above) is taken on the boreen going to the castle; on the skyline in the centre is a wind turbine, and just below that is Nead an Iolair (Irish for Eagle’s Nest). The picture below shows the eagles wheeling over our house, with Rossbrin Castle and our view to the Cove beyond.

I have been exploring images of the Cove and its castle – some historic photographs and a few artists’ impressions. As it’s right on our doorstep, we have taken many pictures of Rossbrin during our years here. I am also sifting through a few of these.

Ten years ago, the west of Ireland experienced an exceptional snowfall, and above is a photograph taken by our near neighbour, Julian van Hasselt, before we arrived. Mostly, our weather is relatively mild due to the effects of the gulf stream on the south-western coast. The castle can clearly be seen here, beyond the fields of Castle Farm. This view of our house (below) was also taken in 2010 by our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt:

I showed a couple of early photographs of the castle last week. Here are two more taken before a substantial part of the ruined structure was toppled by a storm in the 1970s:

It’s good to see a bit of context, so here is another winter view of the castle on its rock with Castle Island behind. That island was also part of the O’Mahony territory. It is farmed by its present owner but no-one lives there now. You can make out the ruined castle on the island by the shore, just to the right of centre; it’s one of many that can be seen on, or close to, the shores of the Bay.

Let’s have a look at some of the art works that feature the Cove and the Castle. Jacqueline Stanley was one of many artists who was attracted to the beauty of West Cork. Now in her nineties, she moved from England to Ireland in the mid 1970s and purchased the old School House at Rossbrin as a country retreat: it has only recently changed hands.Here are two of her works, depicting Rossbrin. You can find more on her website.

I particularly like this view (above) which was painted by Jackie from the vantage point above the high road going down to the Cove, close to the remains of the copper mine at Ballycumisk. Last week I showed a painting by Geraldine van Hasselt, Julian’s mother, also from the 1970s. Every painting or photo is a historical document – and important to retain, in view of the fragile nature of the structure today.

Our friend Peter Mabey is an architect and artist. He has lived in West Cork for a long time: he and I were at college together in Kingston, Surrey, and were surprised to meet each other by chance in Skibbereen market a good few years ago now. Above is one of his attractive watercolours looking down towards the Cove. The vantage point looks remarkably like the one chosen by Jackie Stanley. Below is a drawing of Rossbrin from the monumental work The Castles of County Cork by the late James N Healy, published in 1988 by Mercier:

The ruin is a romantic reminder of past times, enhanced by the changing weather moods of Roaringwater Bay. This photograph, by Finola, emphasises the character of the place:

I can’t resist finishing this little two-part foray into the medieval remnants of our historically significant ‘centre of culture and learning’, which now languish on the edge of the waters below us with an artist whose work we admire: Peter Clarke, who writes and illustrates the Hikelines blog. His watercolour sketches are exquisite and always atmospheric. He has kindly allowed me to use his portrayal of Rossbrin Castle as my tailpiece. Thank you, Peter – and thank you to all the other artists who have been inspired by this remote and beautiful part of Ireland.

Liscarrol: Cork’s Keepless Castle

Liscarrol walls and towers

As soon as the Normans arrived in Ireland (1169) they set about building enormous fortifications, the like of which had never been seen in this country before. Dublin Castle was typical, but not a lot remains to be seen of the original shape. More accessible is Limerick Castle – a space enclosed by imposing stone walls with corner towers and a strong gatehouse. Few of these very early castles remain. Leask, in his Irish Castles, termed them keepless castles, since they had no central tower houses or keeps. (Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal will recall several earlier posts about castles – these refer almost exclusively to the much smaller tower houses, most of which date to the 15th century and later. See When is Castle…? Tower House Tutorial Part 1 and Part 2, and Illustrating the Tower House.)

Trim Castle with Keep

Trim Castle in Co Meath is one of our best examples of an early Norman castle with a central keep

Alongside the keepless castles, and gradually taking over in popularity, were built those in which a tower, or keep, was the dominant feature located inside those high curtain walls. These great Norman castles were the predominant form during the late 12th and early 13th century. However, in the late 13th century, for some reason, keepless castles experienced a resurgence and several were built around the country. Most of these are in a ruined state and of course some have entirely disappeared or been so altered as to be unrecognisable.

Liscarrol front elevation

In the middle of the village of Liscarrol in North Cork – this!

But there’s one (and only one) in Cork and it has has retained all its magnificent features. On a recent trip to Duhallow (mostly looking for holy wells with Amanda and Peter of Holy Wells of Cork) we rounded a corner on a country road approaching the village of Liscarrol and there it was – as unexpected as it was jaw-dropping!

bawn walls

Note the splayed base batter of the walls, providing a solid foundation

Liscarrol Castle was probably built in the mid-13th century by the De Barry family but eventually passed into the possession of the Percevals in the 17th century. It was besieged by an Irish army of loyalists in 1642, but was eventually subdued and retaken by the parliamentarians under Sir Hardress Waller, whereupon it was again occupied by the Percevals who owned it into recent history.  James N Healy, in his magisterial The Castles of County Cork provides a detailed account of the back-and-forth sieges of the 1640s, as well as a charming sketch of the castle as it was in the early 1980s, when the key could be obtained from a local pub.

Liscarrol by Healy

It was extensively repaired and stabilised by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on several occasions in the 20th century. The sad state of the walls can be seen in a picture from The Illustrated Dublin Journal of 1862.

Liscarrol from Illustrated Dublin Journal

The Illustrated Dublin Journal is available online through the kindness of the University of Illinois

There are several older illustrations of Liscarrol Castle and they show two features that are no longer obvious today. The first is a moat, which must have been drained a long time ago as the ground is dry around the walls.

Liscarrol Castle drawing

The second is an outermost fortification known as a ravelin – a triangular projection that would have been the first line of defence in front of the entry tower.

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Both illustrations above are courtesy of the National Library

Rubble Construction

A section through the wall showing the rubble construction between outer facings of worked stone

How did a keepless castle work? Quoting Prof Tadgh O’Keefe of DCU, the description of Roscommon Castle (another of the keepless castles) has this to say:

Earlier on in the 13th century, two Royal castles in Ireland at Dublin and Limerick were built- the first castles in Europe that were built as keepless castles with an encircling wall that included towers. The emphasis in castle design here was on the encircling curtain wall. This wall included large barrel towers used as storage and partly living space, with emphasis on a residential gate house.

postern gate

The enclosure of these castles then contained further buildings, possibly built from wood or mud. The move to a keepless castle design seems meaningless to us today until we start thinking about the difference this would have made in terms of castle defence.

castle behind bars

The interior of this enormous enclosure is now home to some bullocks

In a castle with a keep, the attacker would have stormed and overcome the walls first, and then attacked the keep where all defenders would have withdrawn to now. Defending the keep was dependent on a single gate/ door holding up, and the bawn then had to be re-captured as well. In a keepless castle, defenders withdrew into the super thick walls themselves, supported by food storage and living space in the towers. The walls contained arrow loops facing both sides of the walls, meaning both the bawn AND the outside of the castle could be defended at an advantage. So, in fact, the move to a keepless castle design was an ingenious innovation providing super safe castles.

Entrance tower

The entrance tower would have provided living space for the De Barrys and the Percevals. Note the garderobe chute high on the walls, and the entrance off the battlements

The entrance is one of the most impressive aspects of the castle. Many defensive features were deployed, including murder holes and a portcullis.

Liscarrol entrance

liscarrol signSome modifications to the earlier structure are visible here and there, although on the whole it remains truly a thirteenth century stronghold.

Later window features

Windows were widened, probably in the 15th century – the ogee heads are a dead giveaway

The only problem with Liscarrol Castle is that it is accessible solely on the outside – the inside was occupied by a small herd of young cattle. Given the amount of public money that has been spent on it, this seems an immense pity. Duhallow and its towns and villages are doing a great job at putting together interesting tourist experiences: Liscarrol Castle, unique and awe-inspiring, could be a jewel in its crown.

keepless castle pic

And to finish off in good old Irish tradition – there is, of course, a tune called The Walls of Liscarrol. Have a listen.