The Mediaeval Houses or Castles of Ireland.

By W. F. Wakeman

[From Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vo. III, No. 16, October 1861]

One result of the attention which has recently been given to the study of the architectural works of the middle ages remaining in these islands, and upon the continent of Europe, is that the buildings of each country, or even large province, have been found to exhibit to a greater or less degree certain national or provincial distinctions, which owe their origin either to local circumstances or to the peculiar habits and genius of the people who designed them.

That the ancient edifices of Ireland, whether lay or ecclesiastical, bear a strong national character, there can be no doubt. An Irish castle or tower house of the thirteenth century, for instance, is as unlike an English edifice of the same period and character, as the mediaeval Celt from the Anglo-Norman settler. At the same time in Ireland, as elsewhere, the work of each century can be distinctly traced in the mouldings and decorations, or other features of the building, whether it be found in the old district of the Pale, or in the remote islands of the western coast. It was the fashion not very long ago, even amongst Irishmen, to ascribe all the rough and clumsy work remaining in the country from old times, to native workmen, while the glorious edifices of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as Jerpoint Abbey, or Knockmoy, though admittedly founded by native princes, must, according to their theory, have been erected by foreign architects and builders.

At Cashel, Cormac's chapel, consecrated a.d. 1134, stands one of the most beautiful churches in the empire. The carvings of the capitals, mouldings, ribs, bases and doorways, and the sculptures in the tympanum are, according to Mr. Parker, (a very high authority,) equal to anything in England or Normandy of the same period. Looking at the circumstance of its erection and consecration, and at its architectural decoration and arrangement, there can be no question of the nationality of this exquisite church. It was built years before the Norman had stood on Irish soil. The general style, no doubt, had travelled to Ireland, as it had done to other parts of Europe, from Italy, where it may be traced, step by step, to the classic architecture of antiquity.

The decorations, particularly the tracery upon the founder's tomb, is characteristically Irish. Had Cormac's chapel, or the almost equally richly ornamented church of Killeshin, near Carlow, been the work of foreign builders, it would be difficult to account for the particularly native character of much of the ornamentation, the style of which is very old, and appears to have flourished chiefly anterior to the ninth century. It is found in greatest force in the MS. gospels of the early Irish church, but it is also constantly found in works of metal, wood and stone.

Mr. Digby Wyatt, in a paper read before the Royal Institute of British Architects, declares, speaking of this elaborate style of ornament: "That in delicacy of handling, and minuteness of faultless execution, the whole range of palaeography offers nothing comparable to the early Irish and British manuscripts. When in Dublin, some years ago, he had had the opportunity of studying very carefully the most marvellous of all, the Book of Kells, some of the ornaments of which he attempted to copy, but broke down in despair. Of this very book Mr. Westwood examined the pages, as he did for hours together, without ever detecting a false line, or an irregular interlacement. In one space of about a quarter of an inch superficial, he counted with a magnifying glass no less than one hundred and fifty-eight interlacements, of a slender ribbon pattern, formed of white lines edged with black ones, and upon a black ground. No wonder that tradition should allege that these unerring lines should have been traced by angels."

Another Irish peculiarity in the door and other openings of the early Irish churches, is the inclined sides which they almost invariably present, a fashion no doubt continued from the cahers and bee-hive houses of a pre-historic age. If, as Dr. Petrie has so well shown in his work upon the Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, our early churches exhibit a distinctly Irish style, the mediaeval tower houses or castles are no less remarkable for a marked national character.

At what time the native Irish in general began to erect fortified dwellings of a plan different from the caher or earthen fort, is not clearly known. Towers and castles, properly speaking, were most likely introduced to Ireland by the Scandinavians, as we find that at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion several cities, then held by the Northmen - Dublin for instance - was defended by walls and towers. The first great impulse to castle building in Ireland, sprang no doubt from the requirements of the great lords, who wished to hold, in some degree of security, the lands which their swords, aided by native treachery, had won from the Gael, during the period of John's lordship of Ireland. The castles of Ardfinnan, Dundrum, Carlingford and Trim, belong to this period, and are of a size and extent which, at the time of their erection, would render them important in any part of Europe.

These castles, and several others of their class, were in fact great military fortresses, capable of sheltering several thousands of men, with stores and provisions for a siege of many months. They stand grim witnesses of Norman power and rapacity, and, notwithstanding their age, would still be formidable, but for the improvements in artillery, against which engineers tell us only walls of mud have a chance of resisting. The twelfth or thirteenth century castle in Ireland, though strictly speaking Norman, not unfrequently exhibits details which are rarely, if ever, found in other countries, from which we may suppose that they had been built in part at least by Irish hands. That the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, in a few generations, became more or less Hibernicised, is very well known. It is possible that, along with the Irish dress and language they adopted the usual Irish way of living in structures of wood, built after the fashion of the country. The answer of an early chieftain of the Ards, a district in the county Down, to some friends who recommended him to erect a castle in his newly-acquired possession, which had been recently snatched from its rightful owner, was, as he pointed to his followers, "A castle of bones is better than a castle of stones."

No doubt, in times of sudden predatory incursion, the great castle would often protect the lives and property, such as it was, of the neighbouring people. That besides being great military strongholds, they were generally used as regular habitations, is proved by many references to sieges they have suffered, and of the "loot" they contained. Holinshed thus speaks of the great castle of Maynooth, after its capture in the time of Henry VIII. "Great and rich was the spoile, such store of beddes, so many goodly hangings, so rich a wardrob, such brave furniture, as truly it was accompted, for householde stuffe and utensils, one of the richest earle [lis?] houses under the crowne of Englande." The Lord Deputy, Sir William Skeffington, in his account of the siege sent to the king, says: "There were within the castle above one hundred able men, whereof above sixty were gunners. Of the garrison sixty were killed in the assault, and thirty-seven taken prisoners, twenty-six of the latter, after a court-martial, were executed in cold blood two days afterward.

The tower house of the lesser nobility or gentry of Ireland, whether native or of Anglo-Norman origin, is very rarely found of earlier date than the middle of the thirteenth century. In the better examples, a regular castle is found with outer and inner court, or baily, barbacan and fosse. The keep or principal tower is usually quadrangular, as at Athenry, or circular, as at Shanet, County Limerick. The circular form was probably suggested by the ecclesiastical towers, of which a very great number must have existed at the close of the twelfth century.

Athenry Castle, County Galway, a very fine example of the lesser castle, or greater house, of about this date. In its capitals, and in the decoration of its doorway, it presents several beautiful examples of the interlacing work so peculiar to this country. We now come to the ordinary keep, used alike by the better class of Irishmen and Englishmen in Ireland, as every-day dwellings, during a period of about four hundred years from the beginning of the thirteenth century. It almost invariably consists of a tall quadrangular tower, with or without outworks and ditch. At first sight, they would seem all to have been built upon the same plan, but, in point of fact, no two are exactly alike. The entrance, which is almost invariably small and pointed, was defended in a very ingenious way. The external doorway leads into a kind of inner porch, generally eight or ten feet broad, by twelve feet long. Right in front stands the true doorway, which has usually been armed with portcullis; on the left, another doorway leading to a small lodge or guard-room, and on the right the doorway giving access to the stairs. All these openings were strongly secured by sliding bars, while over head, in the arched roof, a quadrangular hole, popularly called the "murthuring hole," is usually found the porch. A man knocking at the inner door of the porch could be easily viewed through the "murthuring hole," or through the windows in the porch, or side walls. Should he prove a suspicious character the portcullis could be at once lowered, and the stranger would find himself in a cage, and at the mercy of the guards in the chambers, above and at the sides. The outer doorway was protected by a small turret or bartizan, placed directly over it, generally at the top of the wall, through which molten lead, scalding water or stones, could be poured with deadly effect upon the heads of assailants, while the defenders could not even be seen. Similar bartizans command the doorways of nearly all the modem martello towers.

According to Mr. Parker, who has made the ancient domestic architecture of England and the continent his peculiar study, this arrangement for the defence of the doorway is rarely if ever found out of Ireland. In some instances, as at Lady Island, Co. Wexford, and at Athenry, the doorway is placed at a considerable distance from the ground. The idea was probably taken from the ecclesiastical round towers.

From one side of inner porch, a stair, constructed in the thickness of the wall, usually leads to the first storey, the floor of which is almost invariably supported by a strong semicircular arch of stone. The stone arch would most effectually prevent the spread of fire should an enemy have succeeded in forcing the lowest apartment of the tower, and fired the stores which were usually deposited there. The first floor was generally the chief apartment of the house. A parlour is, in most cases, partitioned off to serve as bed chambers for the master, and perhaps for a few principal guests. A gard-robe is usually found in a passage between the chambers or at the angle of the stairs. The windows of the grand-room are often decorated with banded shafts and beautifully designed capitals, and have stone seats in the jambs, which are sometimes approached by steps. Except in later examples fire places are very rare, and when they do occur they generally exhibit some moulding or other decoration, by which their date is indicated. In towers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the arch of the fire-place is frequently sculptured with the arms of a chief to whom the place belonged, and those of his wife with, their names in full or initialled, generally with a date, as for instance-

Margaret Lynch [Coat of arms here, 1601] Nicholas Darcy

In some instances a lavatory with a drain through the wall is found in the principal room. From old authorities we learn that the floors were anciently covered with rushes instead of carpets, and that the walls, at least of the richer sort of people, were hung with tapestries. From some specimens of the tower-house still inhabited and properly cared for, it will be found that they were not such uncomfortable places to live in, as many might suppose, presuming always that an enemy was not expected, or had not recently lifted a prey or creight from the neighbouring lands.

The second storey, from greater thinness of the walls, is generally somewhat larger than the first. When not the principal room it is frequently partitioned into a number of small apartments. It is approached from below either by a spiral stair in a separate turret, or by a passage in the thickness of the wall, lighted at intervals by a loophole splaying internally. The floor was usually of timber, but the apartment was generally arched like the ground floor with a strong stone vault, by which fire from above was cut off.

In the upper floor of all, a small oblong, dimly-lighted room, to be entered only by a hole, a kind of trap in the arched roof, is generally supposed to have been used as a prison. From the alure or gutter, flights of stone steps lead to two or more towers which rise higher than the rest of the building, and which quite command the roof. The towers and side walls are almost invariably surmounted by a very picturesque parapet, of a kind which might be styled Irish, as it is scarcely known out of Ireland. The parapet is divided by battlements usually pierced for arrows, and with sides cut into the form of a series of steps, the top of which is finished off quite sharp like a roof ridge.

The battlement nearly always projects, and is usually sustained by corbels of a peculiar tongue-shaped pattern, which is quite Irish. The roof, though sometimes of thatch, was generally composed of large slates or flags, many of which are often found at the bottom of the towers where they had fallen.

We have only described the ordinary Irishman's or Englishman's house of the mediaeval ages as found in Ireland. Many examples are surrounded by outworks, defended by towers, and enclosing buildings of a domestic character. At Aughnanure, Co. Galway, for instance, we find the remains of a noble banquetting hall, the windows of which are on the interior richly decorated with flowery interlacing patterns, probably intended to represent the tendrils of the vine. The kitchen is often found detached from the tower, and may generally be identified by the oven formed in the thickness of the wall. Indeed our ancestors, in times of peace at least, seem not to have been unmindful of the creature comforts of this life. The tower house is usually surrounded by land of the richest quality. Generally it is placed upon the edge of a river or lake, and in several instances an arrangement had been made for the trapping of fish, with which our waters during the middle ages, even more than at present, abounded. In many instances tradition points to an apparatus by which the salmon, in passing through a certain trap arranged for the purpose, immediately beneath or beside the wall of the tower, was made to announce his arrival and capture by the ringing of a bell. In the kitchen at Ross Abbey, Co. Galway, a fine stone reservoir, with a pipe connecting it with the neighbouring river, and used, no doubt, for the purpose of keeping fish alive, may still be seen in a perfect state.

That the old chieftains or gentry of the better class, when at home, kept great state, we may infer from many notices in the annals and other authorities. The following is a list of the hereditary offices of O'Flaherty's household as given in an ancient MS. preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. His physicians were O'Canavan and O'Lea; his master of the horse, Mac Gilly-Gannon; his standard-bearer, O'Colgan; his brehon or judge, Lavelle; his historians and poets, the Mackillikellys; his steward, O'Ciahran; and his keeper of the bees, O'Conlaghta. His army was probably quartered like that of Roderick Dhu, in the heath, or in cabins scattered over the territory. A beacon lighted upon the lofty tower of Aughnamore would soon bring the light-footed clansmen together. That the tower-houses of our ancestors were carefully watched against surprise, there can be no doubt. On the ground-floor where windows occur, they are mere loopholes. The doorway was ingeniously guarded, as we have shown, by a portcullis and "murthering" hole; the first was generally fire-proof. The stair was steep, and so narrow, that one resolute man might defend it against a dozen, unless the assailants had time to smoke out the garrison, a mode of proceeding not unfrequently resorted to, as old authors inform us. The stairs and even the roof gained, there was still hope for the defenders, who, from the elevated towers which usually commanded the whole of the roof, might shower down missiles at their foes. In some instances, we read, as a last resource, of the tower battlements being thrown upon the enemy. Indeed, fairly provisioned and defended, these towers must have been all but impregnable before the introduction of artillery. The process of mining, so commonly used by attacking parties during the middle ages, could not have often been undertaken against Irish castles, which usually stand upon solid rock.

The following somewhat curtailed account of the siege and capture of the castle or lower-house of Glin, Co. Limerick, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, will afford our readers an idea of the manner in which such enterprises were carried on in Ireland little more than two and a half centuries ago. The matter will be found at length in the "Pacata Hibernica, or Ireland Appeased and Reduced," under the government of Sir George Carew, some time Lord President of Munster. The story of the siege is illustrated by a very well-executed bird's-eye view, exhibiting the then state of the castle, which consisted of the usual principal tower, with raised turrets at its corners. The tower is enclosed in a courtyard of small size, of a quadrangular form, and with circular flanking towers at two of its angles. The works are further strengthened on the south-western side by a tributary to the Shannon, and on the opposite side by a small but probably deep stream, on which stands the castle mill. We have here a very interesting representation of the tower house or castle of an Irish gentleman (the knight of Glin of the time), as it existed when, such buildings were generally used. Judging from a considerable portion of the castle still remaining, we should say that at the time of its memorable siege the work must have been at least two centuries old. The account is admittedly made by the direction and appointment of Sir George Carew, afterwards Earl of Totness, and was by him reserved, with other matters of history, for his own private information; secondly, for a furtherance of a general history of Ireland, and lastly, out of his "retyred modestie," the rather by him held back from the stage of publication, "lest himself being a principal actor in many of the particulars, might be perhaps thought, under the narration of public proceedings, to give vent and utterance to his private merit and services, howsoever justly memorable."

With the general history of the war in Munster, we shall not now meddle, suffice it to say that on the 5th of July a.d. 1600, the president, who, with a considerable army had been for some time "appeasing," that is, burning and harrying many portions of the country southwest of Limerick, sat down before the castle of Glin, then defended by a constable in the service of the knight of Glin, who was absent. An English vessel of war lay at anchor before the castle, but does not appear to have taken part in the fight. The army was no sooner encamped and entrenched than the ordnance, consisting of one "demy cannon, and one sacre," was planted before the castle without any resistance, or the loss of a single man, "by reason of of a parlie that was purposely to that end entertained, during which the work was performed." The knight having arrived at the camp under safe conduct, desired to confer with the president, but was refused without absolute submission to her Majesty's mercie, "whereunto he would not yield but upon conditions, whereupon he was commanded to depart; he saw the cannon already planted, and his sonne, then a child, in the president's hands, ready at his will to be executed, being by himself formerly put in pledge for his loyaltie; then he desired to speak with the Earl of Thomond again, which was granted, but the Earl found his obstinacie to be such, as he disdained to have any long conference with him; and so being safely conveyed out of the camp, he returned to his fellow traitors, who were on the top of an hill not far from where they might see the success of the castle. When he was gone, the same day towards evening the constable of the castle (who was a Thomond man borne) sent a messenger to the Earl of Thomond, praying his Lordship to get a safe conduct from the president, that he might come and speak with him, which being granted, in his discourse to the Earl; My Lord (said he), in the love I beare you, being your natural follower, I desired to speak with you to the end that you may avoid the peril that you are in; for the Earl of Desmond, and the Connaght men lodge not two miles from this place; they are three thousand strong at least, and the Lord President may be assured, that they will give upon his camp, for so they are resolved; and in all likelihood you will be there put to the sword, or driven into the River of Shenan. The earl deriding these threats, advised him to render up the castle to the president, whereby his life and his fellows might be secure, which he with vain-glorious obstinacie refused, and returned to the castle for a farewell, sent him word that since he had refused the Earl of Thomond's favourable offer, that he was in hope, before two days were spent, to have his head set upon a stake; which proved true (as you shall hear) before the castle was taken."

Next morning, when the besiegers wanted the cannon to play, it was found that the piece was "all cloged," and neither cannonier nor smith could do anything with it. The President thereupon ordered that the muzzle of the gun should he elevated as much as possible, and a fall charge of powder and ball "rouled" into it, and fire given at the mouth. To the great rejoicing of the army, by this means the touch-hole was cleared and the gun planted; the modest president then took the knight's eldest son, a child six years old, and tied him on the top of one of the gabions, sending word to the people in the castle that they should have a fair mark to try their small shot upon. The constable answered that the fear for the boy's life would not make them forbear to direct their volleys against the battery, that the knight might have another son. etc., whereupon the president ordered the poor child to be taken down from his perilous position, knowing that one discharge of the gun would shake his bones asunder.

The battery was presently opened, and so incessant a fire of small arms kept up against the castle, which seems to have possessed no artillery, that none of the defenders dared show themselves until a breach was made in a cellar under the great hall.

"Then was Captaine Flower commanded by the President, with certaine companies assigned unto him, to enter the breach, which he valiantly performed, and gained the hall, and enforced the ward to returne to the castle close adjoining unto it, where from out of a spike, they slewe four of our men; then he ascended a pair of staires to gain two turrets over the hall, in which attempt Captaine Bostock's Ensigne was slaine, by the winning whereof they were in better security than before, and there were our colours placed, and because it was by this time within night, Captaine Slingsby (who was there with the President's companie) was commanded to make it good till the morning, during which time some whiles on either side, small shot played, but little or no harm done. About midnight the constable, seeing no possibilitie to resist long, and no hope of mercy left, thought by the favour of the night in a sally to escape; but the guards were so vigilant, as they slewe him and some others; but nevertheless two escaped, the rest which were unslaine returned to the castle, and the constable's head was (as the President formerly had told him) put on a stake. Early in the morning the ward was gotten into the tower of the castle, whereunto there was no comming unto them but up a narrow stayre, which was so straight as no more than one at once might ascend, and at the stayre foot, a strong wooden door, which being burnt, the smoke in the stairs was such, as for two hours there was no ascending without hazard of stifling; when the extremitie of the smoke was past, one of the rebels presented himself, and said in behalf of himself and fellows, 'That if their lives might be saved, they would render;' but before any answer was made, he voluntarily put himself into our hands. The smoke being vanished, a muskettier, and to his second a halbardier, then Captaine Flower and Captaine Slingsbie, Lieutenant Power, Lieutenant to Sir Henry Power; Ensigne Power, Sir Henry Power's Ensigne; Lieutenant Nevile, Lieutenant to Sir Garratt Harvie, which was afterwards killed in Connoght, seconded by others, ascended the stairs in file, where they found no resistance, nor yet in the upper rooms, for the rebels were all gone to the battlements of the castle with resolution to sell their lives as dear as they could. Our men pursued the way to the battlements, whereunto there was but one door; Captaine Flower entered upon one hand, and Captaine Slingsby upon the other; the gutters were very narrow between the roof of the castle and the battlements. In conclusion, some were slain in the place, and others leaped from the top of the castle into the water underneath it, where our guards killed them. In this service eleven soldiers were slain, whereof one was an ensigne, and one and twenty hurt, of which number the serjeant major (who served admirably well) was one; he received three or four wounds, but none of them mortal; there was also the lieutenants of the Earl of Thomond, and Sir Henry Power hurt; of the enemy (of all sorts) were slain 80 or thereabouts, of which 23 were naturale borne followers of the Knight of the Valley, in whom he reposed greatest confidence."