Nenagh Castle, County of Tipperary

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 38, March 16, 1833

Nenagh Castle

The above is a correct view of the Castle of Nenagh, as seen from the north-west, from an original drawing. This very fine monument of Norman military architecture has, we believe, never before been engraved; and it is rather surprising that the illustrators of the scenery and antiquities of Ireland should have passed over, as unworthy of notice, the largest of all the towers in the inland, or perhaps in Great Britain. Tradition assigns the erection of the fortress to King John; and it certainly bears all the characteristics of a structure of that period, when circular fortifications were almost exclusively used. And the commanding height and massive solidity of its donjon or keep, the wide circuit of its ballium, its well built curtain walls, strengthened by four other circular towers, its lofty and portcullised gate, approachable by a high and well-flanked causeway; all prove that royal power and royal wealth were required to erect a fortress, which, were it now standing in the fulness of its original design, might stand a comparison with some of the finest border castles of Scotland or Wales.

And certainly the Normans, who were not only valiant but wise in their generation, formed a good estimate of what was worth conquering and keeping, when they determined at the outset of their power in Ireland, to secure, by such a castle, the country it commands. Perhaps in the whole south of Ireland there is not a more beautiful or valuable district than the baronies of Ormond, in the centre of which Nenagh stands, surrounded on all sides by mountains of grand and varied forms--some of which are highly metalliferous--bounded on the west by a broad and truly picturesque part of the Shannon--a most productive territory, equally good for tillage or pasture, abounding in woods, waters, and game. Never did foot of hound or hoof of horse sweep over a finer sporting country than what its dry and healthy champaign affords. Well might the Milesian O'Kennedys and the O'Mearas, and the M'Egans sigh when they surrendered to the Norman Butlers, and Graces, and Morrises, these fine fields; and well might they, in their turn, according to the fate of war, retire in sorrow before its present Cromwellian possessors.

The fields of Ireland, indeed, were there not a written annal in existence, would almost present a monumental book of conquests; and the moat of the Tuatha Danaan, the stone circle of the Druid, the rath of the Dane, the cairn of the Milesian, the massive circular stronghold of the Norman, the castle and bawn of the Elizabethan English, the square, lofty, and unseemly fortalice of the Cromwellian--all bespeak different races of men, with their different objects, habits, and powers.

Nenagh Castle, though admirably contrived by engineers who knew no other arms of attack than the arrow, the arbalist, or the battering ram, ceased, when gunpowder changed the art of war, to be the stronghold that the Norman power intended it to be : for placed on the slope of a hill for the sake of securing a supply of water within the fort, it has been obliged to surrender to every commander who could drag ordnance to the heights above it. In the war of 1641, it was seized by the Irish under Owen Roe O'Neil, and again it was torn from his grasp by Lord Inchiquin. The terrible Ireton, when Cromwell left him as his deputy in Ireland, on his way to the siege of Limerick in 1651, battered it from the high ground to the east, and the garrison, finding it untenable, surrendered at discretion, when, as local tradition has it, Ireton caused its governor to be hung out of the topmost window of the keep. Though greatly dismantled, it remained garrisoned, as one of the Duke of Ormond's castles, until the war of 1688, when it fell into the hands of Long Anthony Carrol, the descendant of that ancient sept that once ruled over the district north of Ormiond called Ely O'Carrol.

Long Anthony was one of the most enterprising and successful partizans of that period, when Ireland was overrun with guerillas, such as the Protestant Eniskilleners and the Roman Catholic Rapparees. Anthony, in many instances, had been very successful ; he had done Sarsfield no small service at the first siege of Limerick, in hanging on the English army, and intercepting its supplies ; and on one occasion he dexterously led a large detachment of the garrison of Birr into an ambuscade, when he took them all prisoners, with Colonel Palisser, their commander. Nenagh Castle was the centre of Carrol's operations; and though the curtain walls were battered down, the inferior towers almost levelled, and the keep unroofed, still he held it, to the great annoyance of the English, until it was found necessary to detach a brigade against it, under General Leveson, upon whose approach Carrol evacuated it, after burning down the town. There is reason to believe that after the war of the revolution was over, Nenagh Castle was still retained as a place of arms ; and tradition speaks of a Sir William Hamilton, who as its last seneschal, held it under the Ormond family.

Like every monument of ecclesiastical or military antiquity in Ireland, this extensive ruin has suffered more from the work of man than the impression of ages. Indeed, the tower, from the massiveness of its structure, and the durability of its material, seems almost to defy the tooth of time. But certainly the townsmen have done their worst in dilapidating, disfiguring, and rendering the present approaches to it as disagreeable as they are difficult. One Solomon Newsome, a stern old Puritan, some seventy years ago, annoyed at the sparrows that assembled in the ivy, conspiring against his barley field, and moreover desirous that the tower should no longer deprive his cabbage garden of its sunlight, attempted to undermine it; but failing in this, he tried the effect of a barrel of gunpowder, which exploded to the no small astonishment of his townsmen, and actually made a huge chasm in the tower ; but no other damage was done. At another time the ivy, that with its rich and picturesque mantle had clothed the keep for a century, was set fire to, and in a few hours its rich and verdant hue was turned into an aspect grim and grey. The writer of this notice remembers admiring in his childhood the feat of a soldier, who used for his amusement to ascend the spiral stairs that then were climbable, though with no small difficulty, and there run as fast as he could round its rough and cannon-torn top. But at last the spectacle was put an end to, by the fellow's falling (whether through drunkenness or inadvertence was not known) to the ground, when to the surprise of all, he was found to have sustained no other injury than a slightly broken leg.

Nenagh town, situated as it is, in the centre of a populous and well-cultivated district, which enjoys perhaps a larger portion of resident gentry than any other of the same extent in Ireland, is as thriving as any place can be, where there is little trade and no manufacture. In the year 1200, an hospital was founded here, for canons following the rule of Augustine, who were obliged at all times to admit the sick and infirm. This useful institution, so creditable to the pious charity of our ancestors, was called Teacheon, or St. John's House. Theobald Walter, the first Butler of Ireland, granted large possessions to this hospital, and it would appear that Irish physicians in those days thought that good fare was no bad remedy for diseased persons ; for it was the rule of this hospitable hospital, that each sick person should have a daily allowance of a good loaf, a plentiful bowl of ale from the cellar, and a dish of meat from the kitchen. There was also a great Franciscan convent here, the ruins of which are still standing, founded, as some say, by one of the Butlers, but as others say, by one of the O'Kennedys. This was said to be the richest house belonging to the order in Ireland. In 1344, a provincial chapter was held here, and one of its learned friars completed an historical work of high character, which is often quoted, called the Annals of Nenagh.

In 1370, Brien Oge Menevy O'Brien, in conjunction with the English under the Earl of Desmond, gained a sanguinary victory over his uncle Turlough, and his name is recorded amongst his countrymen, as Brien catha an Aonig—Brien of the Battle of Nenagh. 

R. Y.