Courtstown Castle (County Kilkenny)

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, No. 22, November 24, 1832.

Courtstown Castle, Kilkenny

The ruins of Courtstown Castle present to the notice of the tourist, the remains of one of the most splendid ancient baronial residences that ever existed in this country. These ruins are situated within a few miles of Kilkenny, to whose noble castle alone they are said to have once yielded in magnificence. Imposing as these proud castellated residences were in their structure, and rich in historical recollections, we may congratulate ourselves that we have been reserved for more peaceful times, in which in security we may survey them in their ruins. No bands of fierce spoliators now issue from their walls, and their dungeons nave been long untenanted. Nor were the victims of such a power alone entitled to our pity; the oppressors themselves must have lived in that state of barbarous disunion and feverish anxiety, which tends inevitably to destroy the charities, and consequently the best enjoyments of our nature.

Yet human life has ever exhibited a balanced system, and man in the most uncivilized state has the rude virtues, peculiar to his situation, which are unknown to a higher degree of cultivation. These strongholds of power, though almost invariably the seat of violence and oppression, yet were usually the abode of the most unbounded hospitality; the destitute wanderer or the benighted wayfarer never roused the warder from his slumbers, but the portal was thrown open for his reception, with a welcome as lavish as it was habitual.

Raymond le Gros, the founder of the powerful family of Grace, the lords for centuries of this castle, and a vast territory surrounding it, whose representative, even in the reign of Elizabeth, was designated as "An Grassagh more Ballynacourty," (the great Grace of Courtstown) is well known in Irish history as the bulwark of early English power, as the brother-in-law of Earl Strongbow, and as the first viceroy of this kingdom. The name of this chief was more properly Raymond Fitzwilliam de Windsor, and we learn from Giraldus Cambrensis that he was denominated le Gros as a personal characteristic. Of this common mode of discriminating individuals of the highest rank, in the western nations of Europe, during the middle ages, and continued in England even long after the Norman conquest, the appellation of Strongbow, borne by the well-known Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, Chepstow, or Strigul, furnishes an example; and, while the other noble patronymics of his family are forgotten, the assumed name of Strongbow is to this day universally and familiarly repeated. So also the son of Raymond le Gros was called William Fitz Raymond le Gros, or le Gras, or Crassus, which names, their meaning being similar, are used indiscriminately by our historians and antiquaries, by Cambrensis, Hanmer, Stanihurst, and others, and Grace has now become the family name of his descendants.

History scarcely presents a more striking instance of that first and powerful proof of greatness, which lies in an ascendancy over other men's minds, than was exhibited by Raymond le Gros. The soldiers who, without him, were nothing, with him were every thing; and Earl Strongbow, says Hollinshed, constrained him to become joint viceroy with himself. Giraldus Cambrensis calls him the "notable and chiefest pillar of Ireland." With heroism so elevated, magnanimity so unsullied, wisdom so profound, and exploits so unrivalled as their unvarnished tale unfolds, Raymond le Gras wanted only a Homer or a Tasso to have been an Achilles or a Rinaldo. In fact, though Strongbow was the head, Raymond was the very soul of the Anglo-Norman enterprise in Ireland. Upon his secession in anger, when Strongbow deferred consenting to his marriage with his sister Basilia de Clare, the war either stood still, or what was worse went back. The repentance of Strongbow was immediate, and his concession complete.

It will be remembered that on the death of Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster, in 1171, his extensive territory became the property of Earl Strongbow, really by force of arms, though nominally, by virtue of his marriage with Eva, that prince's only legitimate child.

The lands of England were not more liberally distributed on the Norman conquest, than were those of Ireland on the success of the Anglo-Norman enterprise. What the Duke of Normandy was in 1066, such was the Earl of Pembroke in 1170, and his followers as largely participated in the success of his adventure, as did those who attended the Duke of Normandy into England. The possession of extensive districts rewarded these military chieftains, and from such splendid acquisitions the services of their own subordinate adherents were also largely recompensed. Among these princely grants was that of Grace's country to Raymond le Gros. This consisted of a vast tract of land, comprehending, it is said, the barony of Cranagh, and extending northwards by the liberties of Kilkenny and the river Nore, to the borders of the Queen's County; and thence southwards along the borders of Tipperary and the Munster river to the liberties of Callan : forming a district between eleven and twelve miles in length, and between five and six in breadth. The central situation of Tullaroan, in the district of Grace's country, naturally occasioned the selection of that place for the chief castle of the territorial lords ; some of whom we find styled Baron of Tullaroan, as well as Baron Grace and Baron of Courtstown.

Raymond le Gros first landed in Ireland the 11th of May, 1170, but he returned to Wales in 1173, to take possession of the lands that devolved to him on his father's death; whence he shortly after hastened back to Ireland with 30 leaders of his own kindred, 100 horsemen, and 300 archers, to the assistance of Strongbow, whose sister he at this time married at Wexford, and obtained a great portion of land with her in dowry, as well as the distinguished civil and military offices of constable and standard-bearer of Leinster. On the demise of Earl Strongbow, 22 Henry II. (1176) he was appointed sole governor of Ireland. When Basilia wrote to inform her husband that her brother was dead, she, fearing lest her letter might be intercepted, used this expression, "the great tooth which has been so long ailing has at length fallen out!"

We have been unable to ascertain on what authority 1184, is stated as the period of this distinguished chieftain's death, but an entry in the archives of the Abbey of St. Thomas, in Dublin, distinctly proves it to have been previous to 1201. His eldest son, William Fitz Raymond, as we have before mentioned, retained the patronymic of le Gros, the usual mark of primogeniture at this period, and succeeded to all the lands Raymond had inherited in Wales and England, as well as to those he had acquired in Leinster.

The English conquerors necessarily maintained their dominion by the iron hand of coercion ; and the protection of their domains, and the subjugation of the natives, equally obliged them to erect strongly fortified castles. The situation of Grace's country, continually exposed to the attacks of its restless neighbours the Fitzpatricks, the O'Mores, and the Mac Murroughs, justified, on the principle of self-defence, the many frontier castles of its military chieftains, though indeed this legitimate object was often abandoned for motives of predatory warfare, and feudal aggression. Though we are unable to fix a precise date to the building of this castle of Tullaroan, or Courtstown, we may be allowed to conjecture that it was nearly coeval with Grace's castle, in Kilkenny, erected by William le Gras, before the 11th of John, (1210); it is however obvious, from the architecture, that different parts of the building have been the work of different periods. A tradition prevails, that the castles of Tullaroan and Courtstown were distinct structures, and that the former having been destroyed in a hostile irruption of the Irish, the latter was erected on a different site.

The ruins of this edifice evinced considerable grandeur, as well as great strength. They exhibited the spirit of a powerful chieftain, and the taste of a feudal age. Courtstown Castle consisted of an outward ballium or envelope, having a round tower at each angle, and also at each side of an embattled entrance to the south, which was further defended by a portcullis. Within this area, or outward court, comprehending about an acre of ground, stood the body of the castle, enclosing an inner court of an oblong form. A massive quadrangular tower or keep, projected from the centre of the south front, directly opposite to the embattled entrance of the exterior area above-mentioned. The walls of this tower were of considerable thickness, and the rests and fire-places within showed it to have originally admitted five floors. From the sides of this great square tower, two wings extended, which terminated on the east and west with round towers.

The east front consequently exhibited on its southern angle, one of these round towers, and further northwards stood a similar tower, flanking a portal which led into the inner court, formerly furnished with a portcullis. Between this and the last flanking round tower and a square tower at the northern angle, was a spacious room or hall, of an oblong shape, occupying the entire space. The north front consisted of a high embattled wall, connecting two square towers, and enclosing the inner area on that side. The western front externally corresponded with the eastern. There is said to have been a communication round the buildings of the inner court, by a gallery, and in the centre of it the traces of a draw well are still visible, as are also the vestiges, beyond the outside walls, of the bowling-green, cock-pit, fish-ponds, &c. Some mounds of earth to the south of the castle, called bow-butts, are likewise visible, and are reported by tradition to have been the place where the followers were exercised in the practice of archery.

Though deprived of the "pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war," Courtstown Castle long continued to possess great dignity of appearance, from the extent of its area, the height and massive thickness of its walls, the picturesque and skilful disposition of its towers, the embattled gateway, and works of circumvallation by which it was defended. Such were the characteristic features of this baronial edifice about the year 1760, and after abundantly supplying, for above a century, materials for all the neighbouring structures, and for repairing the roads, &c. its foundations are now beginning to be rooted up, and

"Broke by the share of every rustic plough;
So perish monuments of mortal birth,
So perish all in turn, save well-recorded worth."

The fate of the Grace family has been but little less unfortunate than that of their ancient fortress—but we must reserve their history to a future number.