28 December 1999

An Irishman’s Diary: Kilcash

Patrick Comerford

Cad a dheanfaimid feasta gan adhmad …
“what shall do from now on without trees …”

The lament for the destruction of the trees on the historic estate of Kilcash must be the best-known and best-loved poem in the Irish language. For generations, Cill Chaise or Kilcash was a staple of the Irish syllabus and the poem is etched in our memories. But the story of Kilcash in south Tipperary is often forgotten.

Traditionally, Kilcash was attributed to Father John Lane of Carrick-on-Suir who died in 1776. Now, two natives of Kilcash, John Flood of the School of English at Trinity College Dublin and the local historian Phil Flood have come to surprising conclusions about its authorship. They tell the story of Kilcash – the poem, the castle, and the parish, with its church, graveyard and traditions – in their new book, Kilcash 1190-1801. The work is of literary, historical and archaeological importance for anyone interested in the castle and parish on the southern slopes of Slievenamon.

Monastic foundation

Folklore says the story of Kilcash could date back to a monastic foundation by Colman Mac Erc around the year 550, but its history begins at the end of the 12th century. Soon after, Kilcash passed to the de Vale or Wall family, one of whose most celebrated (or infamous) members was the second wife of Sir Richard de Vale, Dame Alice de Kytler, tried for heresy and witchcraft in 1324. The Floods display their ironic sense of humour as they described Dame Alice’s main accusers, her children and step-children, insisting her wealth was derived from defrauding the heirs of her four husbands while claiming at the same time that throughout her life she had regular intercourse with a demon.

Kilcash passed to the Butlers around 1540, and the tower house was erected by the last of the de Vales or the first Butlers. Over the generations, the Butlers acquired a number of curious relics, including the arm of Archbishop Oliver Plunket, which later passed to the Dominican Convent in Cabra, and a supposed portion of the True Cross, now preserved at Holy Cross Abbey.

The Floods also link the story of Kilcash with Cromwell, Charles II, the arrival of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna in 1683, Patrick Sarsfield, James II and his illegitimate progeny, and the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. Lady Eleanor’s brother John was known as “Jack o’ the Castle”, but he was a Jack of two castles, inheriting both Kilcash and Kilkenny Castle in 1766. The Ormonde titles were in legal limbo since the death of the Jacobite rebel 2nd Duke in Avignon in 1745 and Jack set to reclaiming them, becoming the 17th Earl of Ormonde.

Jack was dismissed by Wolfe Tone as “a drunken beast, without a character of any kind but that of a blockhead”, and his move to Kilkenny Castle spelt disaster for Kilcash. His son Walter, in need of hard cash to support an extravagant lifestyle, sold off the famous trees in two lots in 1797 and 1801 as well as the materials of the castle. In 1811, he even sold the family's hereditary right to the prisage of wines – the office that gave the very name Butler to the family – to the crown for £216,000.

Sale of timber

The Floods doubt that John Lane was the author of the poem, and point out that he was long dead before the sale of the timber began in 1797. They suggest the poem was composed in the early 19th century after the sale of the remaining timber and the ruination of the castle, and point out that the earliest reference to a written copy of the song is in February 1843.

Nevertheless, Kilcash has an authentic link with the Gaelic poets dating back to the Song for Lady Iveagh, written after the death of Col Thomas Butler's widow, Lady Margaret, in 1744. The marriage of her daughter Honora and Valentine Browne of Kenmare was celebrated in two poems by Aogan O Rathaille – Epithalamium for Lord Kenmare and The Good Omen – in which he celebrated an alliance between the “Prince of Kilcash” and the “King of Kilarney”. The return of Jack o’ the Castle from France in 1761 was celebrated by the Gaelic poet Liam O Meachair in his Song for Young John Butler.

Despite the poetry, the laments and the prosperity of the Butlers, Kilcash Castle lay neglected if not forgotten for generations. The hand-over of the castle was first suggested by the Ormonde Estate in the 1970s, but the negotiations took 25 years. Eventually, the castle was bought for the nominal sum of £500, but as soon as it passed into public ownership in 1998 the public was denied access and its gates were locked because of the hazardous state of the buildings. While the Floods were writing, the gable of one outbuilding collapsed in a storm. The site is in danger of further deterioration, an archaeological survey remains to be carried out, and repairs are a matter of great urgency.

Kilcash Church stands nearby, forlorn and forgotten. The east gable is almost completely destroyed, and the chancel arch is missing. But this is a church of archaeological significance. The chancel dates from the 10th to the early 12th century. There lie three graves of members of the Comerford family, including the oldest remaining tomb in the church, that of James Comerford who died in 1691. The Romanesque doorway on the south wall is an unusual position, drawing comparisons with the Romanesque doorways at nearby Kilsheelin and Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel.

New edition

Cill Chaise exists in several hundred versions and has been translated by Michael Cavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and Frank O'Connor. Now, Prof Daiti O hOgain of UCD has produced a new edition of the Irish text which may become the definitive version. His text is accompanied by a new English translation, and the poet Eilean Ní Chuilleanain of TCD has written a poetic translation based on Prof O hOgain’s Irish text.

This feature was published as the column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on 28 December 1999.

No comments: