Office of Public Work sites in Munster: Counties Clare and Limerick

Munster’s counties are Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

I have noticed that an inordinate amount of OPW sites are closed ever since Covid restrictions, if not even before that (as in Emo, which seems to be perpetually closed) [these sites are marked in orange here]. I must write to our Minister for Culture and Heritage to complain.

Clare:

1. Ennis Friary, County Clare

2. Scattery Island, County Clare

Limerick:

3. Askeaton Castle, County Limerick

4. Desmond Castle, Adare, County Limerick – currently closed

5. Desmond Banqueting Hall, Newcastlewest, County Limerick

6. Lough Gur, County Limerick

Clare:

1. Ennis Friary, Abbey Street, Ennis, County Clare:

Ennis Friary, photograph from Ireland’s Content Pool, Photograph by Eamon Ward 2020 for Failte Ireland. [1]

General Enquiries: 065 682 9100, ennisfriary@opw.ie

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/ennis-friary/:

The O’Briens of Thomond, who once ruled much of north Munster, founded this medieval Franciscan friary. It grew quickly into a huge foundation, with 350 friars and a famed school of 600 pupils by 1375. It was the very last school of Catholic theology to survive the Reformation.

The building contains an exceptional wealth of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculptures carved in the local hard limestone, including one of St Francis himself displaying the stigmata. An arch between the nave and transept bears a remarkable image of Christ with his hands bound.

Don’t forget to visit the sacristy, an impressive structure with a ribbed, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Take especial note of the beautiful east window, with its five lancets, as it lights up the chancel.” [2]

Ennis Friary, photograph from Ireland’s Content Pool, Photograph by Eamon Ward 2020 for Failte Ireland. [see 1]

2. Scattery Island, County Clare:

Scattery Island, lies just off Kilrush, on the Shannon Estuary, in County Clare. It is the site of an early Christian settlement founded by St Senan, who built his monastery in the early sixth century. A short boat trip from Kilrush will take you to the island, where you can explore its multi-layered, 1,500-year history including its round tower and six ruined churches. Photograph from Ireland’s Content Pool, by Airswing Media for Failte Ireland. [see 1]

General Information: 087 995 8427, scatteryisland@opw.ie

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/scattery-island-centre/:

Off the northern bank of the Shannon Estuary lies Scattery Island, the site of an early Christian settlement founded by an extraordinary man.

St Senan, who was born in the area, built his monastery in the early sixth century. It included a mighty round tower, which at 36 metres is one of the tallest in Ireland.

There are six ruined churches on the site too. The Church of the Hill stands on a high spot, the very place where, legend has it, an angel placed Senan so that he could find – and then banish – the terrible sea-monster called the Cathach. It is believed that Senan is buried beside another of the medieval churches.

Scattery was invaded many times over the centuries. The Vikings in particular believed that the monastery held many riches and returned several times to ravage it.

A short boat trip will take you to the island, where you can explore its multi-layered, 1,500-year history.

Limerick:

3. Askeaton Castle, County Limerick:

General information: 087 113 9670, askeatoncastle@opw.ie

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/askeaton-castle/:

“In the very heart of this County Limerick town stand the impressive remains of a medieval fortress. Askeaton Castle dates from 1199, when William de Burgo built it on a rock in the River Deel.

Over the centuries, the castle proved itself key to the history of Munster. It was the power base of the earls of Desmond after 1348. In 1579 it held out against the English general Sir Nicholas Malby, an incident that helped spark the second Desmond Rebellion.

The banqueting hall is one of the finest medieval secular buildings in Ireland. The tower is partly ruined, but some fine windows and an exquisite medieval fireplace have remained.

The early eighteenth-century building nearby was used as a Hellfire Club. These clubs were rumoured to be dens of excess in which wealthy gentlemen indulged in drink, mock ritual and other nefarious activities.

The Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, held the castle for over 200 years and ruled Munster from it.

4. Desmond Castle, Adare, County Limerick:

General information: 061 396666, info@adareheritagecentre.ie

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/desmond-castle-adare/:

Desmond Castle Adare epitomises the medieval fortified castle in Ireland. It is strategically situated on the banks of the River Maigue, from where its lords could control any traffic heading to or from the Shannon Estuary.

The castle was built for strength and security. A formidable square keep forms its core; the keep stands within a walled ward surrounded by a moat.

Desmond Castle Adare changed hands several times before becoming a key bastion of the earls of Desmond in the sixteenth century. During the Second Desmond Rebellion, however, it fell to the English after a bloody siege. Cromwellian forces laid waste to the building in 1657, although restorers have since helped to recall its former glory.

Guided tours are now available for anyone who wants to walk in the footsteps of the FitzGeralds and experience their courageous spirit.

This castle belonged to the Earls of Kildare for nearly 300 years until the rebellion in 1536, when it was forfeited and granted to the Earls of Desmond who gave the castle its present name.

5. Desmond Banqueting Hall, Newcastlewest, County Limerick:

General information: 069 77408, desmondhall@opw.ie

Desmond Hall, north facade. Most of what we see today dates from the 15th century. The Desmond Hall consists of a two storey hall over a vault, with tower. It fell into disrepair and was renovated in the 19th century.

An inquisition of lands in 1298 describes the manor of Newcastle as containing the New Castle with buildings inside and outside the walls and the mill of Newcastle.

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/desmond-castle-newcastlewest/:

Many of Ireland’s surviving medieval halls are in west Limerick. The Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West is one of the most impressive among them.

It was begun in the thirteenth century by Thomas ‘the Ape’ FitzGerald, so named because of the story that an ape took him from his cradle to the top of Tralee Castle – and delivered him safely back again.

However, most of the spacious, imposing structure was created in the fifteenth century, at the height of the Desmond earls’ power, and used as a venue for frequent and lavish banquets.

The oak gallery, from which musicians would provide a raucous soundtrack for the revelry below, has been fully restored.

The prefix “Fitz” is taken from the Norman-French “fiz” son of. Early members of the family were known by their father’s name, ie. Fitzmaurice or Fitzthomas, but eventually the name settled to be Fitzgerald.

Desmond Hall, south facade.

The Fitzgeralds were Anglo-Norman and came to Ireland at the time of King Henry II in 1169. After the initial colonisation of Ireland in the southwest and east, the Fitzgeralds and some others pushed into the southwest, the information boards tell us.It was only after the death of Donal Mór Ó Brien, King of Thomond, in 1194 that the Fitzgeralds and other Normans took over most of Limerick. By 1215 they held the towns of Cork, Limerick and Waterford and had built a castle in Dungarvan.

An information board at Desmond Hall with a picture of what the Castle would have looked like in about 1450.

The surviving buildings are Desmond Hall and Halla Mór. This is possibly the site of the earliest castle foundations and remnants of the early walls are found underground today. The Desmond hall shows more than one phase of development. Embedded in the exterior of the south wall are vestiges of four early thirteenth century sandstone lancet windows. The fifteenth century development of the hall by the 7th Earl of Desmond introduced many changes including the addition of a projecting tower with small chambers and a stairwell to the Northwest corner.

The Desmond hall shows more than one phase of development. Embedded in the exterior of the south wall are vestiges of four early thirteenth century sandstone lancet windows.

The lower level of the banqueting hall has an excellent display of boards telling us more about the history of the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond. An old fireplace is set in one wall, it seems to be from 1638.

The visitor centre lies in a building across the courtyard, and another building is being refurbished.

The visitor centre, behind the barn-style doors. This was a coach house and probably built in the time of the tenure by the Courtenay family after 1670s. It was in ruinous condition when it came into care of the state and has been renovated.
Information about the buildings at Newcastle West.
The lower level of the Desmond Hall.
The 1638 Kilmallock fireplace. It has been removed from its original location and placed here in the vaulted chamber.

The first claim to the land of Desmond was obtained by the Fitzgeralds when John Fitzthomas married the co-heiress Margery FitzAnthony and was granted in 1251 a share in her father’s lands described as “all the lands of Decies and Desmond and custody of the castle of Dungarvan.” This land was added to the Fitzgerald landholdings in Limerick and North Kerry. In 1292 King Edward I (d. 1307) granted Thomas Fitzmorice (Fitzgerald) and his wife Margaret Berkeley, who was a cousin of the king, “joint custody of Decies and Desmond.” It’s interesting that the wife was given joint custody, and that daughters could be heirs, which as we know was not always the case.

A leaflet from the castle tells us that by 1298, a strong stone castle stood overlooking the Arra River in Newcastle West. Curtain walls with defensive towers surrounding the main buildings, a variety of simple thatched houses and byres for cattle as well as fishponds. The Normans immediately began to consolidate their position by negotiating with the local Gaelic families, while driving the poorer Gaelic peasants into the mountains. By the time of Maurice Fitzthomas Fitzgerald (abt. 1293-1356), the O’Briens to the north had become firm allies of the Fitzgeralds. In 1329, Maurice was created 1st Earl of Desmond, the term “Desmond” being derived from the Irish Deas mnumhain meaning south Munster. By this time the Fitzgeralds were using the Irish language in their daily lives and had taken on many of the values and habits of the Irish culture.

Information board about the Desmonds in the fourteenth century.

The 1st Earl plotted against the King of England, and allied himself with the Gaelic lords. They pillaged many settlements in the south of Ireland. He is said to have written to the Pope to say that King Edward III of England had no right to the lordship of Ireland. It is also claimed that he wrote to the kings of France and Scotland to form an alliance. During a campaign against him he lost his castles at Askeaton and Castleisland. However, the King pardoned him and made him Chief Justiciar of Ireland in 1355.

Gearóid Iarla (c. 1338-1398) became the 3rd Earl of Desmond in 1356. He was an expert mathematician and apparently, the leaflet tells us, a magician! He was also a poet and introduced the idea of courtly love into Gaelic poetry. He also served as Justiciar. He married Alianore, or Eleanor, Butler, daughter of James 2nd Earl of Ormond.

Information board and the Desmonds versus the Ormonds.

Despite the marriage alliance between the Desmonds and the Ormonds, they still battled. A fifteen day conference at Clonmel in 1384 led to a treaty between the families.

Thomas the 8th Earl of Desmond (c. 1426-1468) was made Lord Deputy of Ireland 1464-67. During his time the Desmonds fought again with the Ormonds, including during the War of the Roses when they took opposing sides. The Ormonds supported the victorious Lancasters.

The 8th Earl was however thought to side with the Irish still and was executed by the next Lord Deputy.

The information boards give us more history about Desmond family. The Earls of Desmond fell out of favour after the 8th Earl was executed in 1468.

After the execution of the 8th Earl of Desmond in 1468, the later Earls withdrew from contact with England. The leaflet from the site tells us that the arrival of new settlers in Munster as well as Catholic mistrust of the Protestant state set off risings by the Earls in 1567-73 and 1579-83. Earl Gerald (15th Earl) was declared an outlaw and Munster was laid waste by Crown forces. The rebellion was a failure and Gerald was captured and killed during a cattle raid. The Desmond lands were taken and distributed to English settlers.

This takes us up to the fifteenth century and the time when the Hall would have been used, as we see it today. The information board tells us that the Hall was where the Lord held court, and that this has two meanings: it was the court of judgement as well as the court of entertainment and dining.

Information board about Halls in Irish castles.
James Fitzgerald the 7th Earl of Desmond is credited with making extensive repairs to the castle complex between 1440 and 1460, including converting what was probably the 13th century chapel into the large and elaborate banqueting hall we see today.

The Banqueting Hall was restored in the early 19th century, the ruined battlements were taken down and a new pitch pine roof was put on. The original hooded stone fireplace had collapsed and a seventeenth century replacement, the one we now see in the lower vault, was installed, taken from a house in Kilmallock. The Banqueting Hall was used as a Masonic lodge and later as a general purpose hall for the community.

The leaflet tells us that when the 17th century fireplace was taken down for repair and cleaning, enough of the original hooded fireplace remained that it could be reconstructed with reasonable accuracy.

There was evidence for a timber screen at the west end of the hall, and this has been replaced by a musician’s gallery made of oak.

The restored oak gallery.

I was surprised to hear that the windows facing the village would have had glass in the fifteenth century. The other side, away from public view, would not have had this expensive luxury.

The Lord would have sat on a raised stage, for viewing and to look impressive.
These are the sorts of eating vessels that would have been used, our guided told us. I love the little decorative head on the jug.
The Halla Mór.
Information board about the Halla Mór.

The later history of Desmond Hall is after the lands of Gerald the 15th Earl of Desmond were seized.

After the Earls of Desmond has lost their land, it was given to some prominent and wealthy Englishmen who would develop the Munster Plantation. These men, called “Undertakers,” would undertake to establish English families on the land they were given. Sir William Courtenay (or Courtney) (1553-1630), 3rd Earl of Devon, was granted 10,000 acres at Newcastle. He was originally from Devon in England, and he was given land on condition that eighty English colonists would be housed on his property.

Newcastle passed to William Courtenay’s son George Courtenay (d. 1644), who in 1621 became 1st Baronet Courtenay of Newcastle, County Limerick. The sign boards tell us that in 1641 English settlers crowded into the protection of the walled castle, but after a long seige it fell to General Purcell of the Confederate forces. The Confederates where an amalgamation of Gaelic Ulster families and Anglo-Norman families who were dissatisfied with assurances given to them by King Charles I about their freedom to practice their Catholic faither, and they feared the militant intolerance of the English Parliament.

The Courteney’s built an mansion to replace the destroyed castle. George’s son Francis inherited, but as he had no offspring, Newcastle passed to his cousin, William Courtenay (1628-1702) 5th Earl of Devon and 1st Baronet Courtenay. The property remained in the family but they did not live there, and finally it was sold in 1910.

In 1777 William 2nd Viscount Courtenay (1742-1788) built a Church of Ireland church between the Banqueting Hall and the main square of the town. It was demolished in 1962 as it had fallen into disrepair. The 2nd Viscount was 8th Earl of Devon and 4th Baronet Courtenay.

In 1922 the main building, then known as Devon Castle, burnt, and was replaced by a house nearby. The Desmond Hall was sold to the Nash family, and finally the Land Commisson took over the land. Desmond Hall was used for town social events and the Halla Mór as a cinema. The Hall became a National Monument in 1981. Restoration began in 1989.

6. Lough Gur, County Limerick:

Lough Gur, photograph from Ireland’s Content pool, by Ken Williams 2021 for Failte Ireland. [see 1]

The Irish Homes and Gardens website tells us that Ireland’s first settlers arrived around 8000BC. The introduction of farming in 4000BC saw a move to a more settled lifestyle and the building of farmsteads, with both circular and rectangular house styles being used. The first rectangular house and the largest concentration of Neolithic structures were found in Lough Gur dating back to 3500BC.

Although none of these houses remain, the lasting legacy from this period on the Irish landscape is the megalithic tomb: the Dolmen or Portal tomb with its huge capstone or lintel, balanced on smaller stones and the Passage tombs, with their dry-stone passages leading to corbelled ceilings (circular layers of flattish stones closed with a single stone at the top). [ https://www.irishhomesandgardens.ie/irish-architecture-history-part-1/ ]

From the OPW website https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/lough-gur/:

Lough Gur is a site of international significance due to the area’s rich archaeology and environment. It is home to Ireland’s oldest and largest stone circle and the only natural lake of significance in South East Limerick. Lough Gur also has an abundance of ancient monuments in State care with a reported 2,000 archaeological monuments in a 5km radius. Visitors to Lough Gur Lakeshore Park will find a hillside visitor centre where you can take part in a guided or self guided tour of the exhibition. There is also an option to take a full outdoor guided tour of the archaeological monuments. Tours are tailor made and can range from 30 minutes to 3 hours. The Lakeshore Park and tours are run by Lough Gur Development Group.

Lough Gur Visitor Centre, photograph from Ireland’s Content pool, by Keith Wiseman 2013 for Failte Ireland. [see 1]
Lough Gur Visitor Centre, photograph from Ireland’s Content pool, by Keith Wiseman 2013 for Failte Ireland. [see 1]

[1] https://www.irelandscontentpool.com/en

[2] https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/

6 thoughts on “Office of Public Work sites in Munster: Counties Clare and Limerick

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