03 March 2017

Searching for an ancient fort and
a mediaeval castle in Rathkeale

The abandoned gas works building in Rathkeale … is this the site of the mediaeval castle by the river? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Rathkeale this week, I went in search of both and Mount Southwell, which takes its name from the Southwell family, who once owned vast tracts of land in the town and the surrounding countryside.

Although Castle Matrix to the west of Rathkeale is well known, the location of the original castle in Rathkeale has puzzled historians for some time.

The name of Rathkeale is probably derived from Rathguala or Rath Caola, which is referred to in The Book of Rights in 902 AD. This name translates as ‘The fort of Caola.’ And it has been suggested that Caola was a local king.

Local tradition suggests that the fort was located to the side of the house on Church Street known as Mount Southwell.

On the other hand, the Urban Archaeological Survey of Ireland designated the area around Deel Hall and the former Rathkeale Gas World as the most likely location of medieval settlement in Rathkeale.

In the early 20th century, the noted Limerick antiquarian TJ Westropp recorded the structural remains of the Castle of Rathkeale as ‘near the River.’

A full archaeological assessment, including testing, was carried out at this location in recent years in advance of a submission for planning permission. The site is located within the zone of archaeological potential for the urban area of Rathkeale.

However, previous archaeological work in this vicinity did not uncover any vestiges of a mediaeval settlement, and testing did not uncover any material or strata of archaeological origin.

In the 19th century, the Deel Hall site was occupied by the gas works for the town. The site was heavily altered and disturbed from the latter 19th century with the inauguration of the gas works and subsequently the electricity company.

This site was again subject to considerable change in the 20th century, with the spreading of waste associated with producing gas and supplying electricity. It is estimated that this material raised the ground level on the site by as much as 3 metres on the bank of the river.

Previous archaeological work here has not uncovered any vestiges of mediaeval settlement, nor did testing uncover any material or strata of archaeological origin.

The gable end of the former Rathkeale Gas Works faces directly onto Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

All that remains on the site, which fronts onto Church Street, is the abandoned former Rathkeale Gas Works, built ca 1820. This detached, three-bay, two-storey building remains a landmark despite its abandoned state.

This group of former gas works buildings is of architectural and industrial interest. The buildings are sited with the gable of the house facing directly onto Church Street and the outbuildings occupying a prominent site by the river and on the vista from the bridge to the north.

The buildings retain much of their original form, along with early materials such as the red brick construction and detailing to the outbuildings and the timber sash windows to the house.

Mount Southwell on Church Street, Rathkeale, is said in local tradition to stand on the site of the fort of ‘Rathguala’ or ‘Rath Caola’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

If archaeological excavations at the Deel Hall site in 2006 did not reveal any evidence of the site of Castle of Rathkeale ‘near the River,’ then I had to look at nearby Mount Southwell, also Church Street.

During the Plantation of Munster, the lands of Rathkeale and Kilfinny were granted in 1582 to Edward Billingsley, who decided to centre his estate on the village of Kilfinny, which he renamed Knockbillingsley. The estate was sold on to the Dowdall family, and eventually passed to Southwell family, who had their principal residence in the area at Castle Matrix.

Thomas Southwell, whose family inherited much of the Billingsley and Dowdall estates, invited the Palatine refugee families to Co Limerick in 1709. In all, about 120 families were introduced to local townlands, including Courtmatrix, Killeheen, Ballingrane and Pallaskenry.

Archdeacon John Brown was Rector of Rathkeale and Chancellor of Limerick from 1740 to 1746. Members of his family become agents for the Southwell estate and the Brown family built a number of significant houses in the area, including Danesfort, Mount Brown, Wilton and Brownville.

Mount Southwell is said in local tradition to stand on the site of the fort of Rathguala or Rath Caola.

This is a detached, five-bay, two-storey house, built ca 1800, with a central breakfront. There are square-headed openings with timber sliding sash windows, and a Wyatt style window above the central doorway. There is an elliptical-headed door opening with a door-case and fanlight, approached by a flight of steps.

There are rendered sweep walls to the entrance of the house with render coping, and rendered square-profile piers with rendered pyramid caps, and a flanking gate of more recent date.

Mount Southwell, which was the property of the Brown family while they were agents of the Southwell family, is an important house in the town of Rathkeale, both architecturally and historically.

Whether this is the site of the ancient fort or the mediaeval castle, I do not know. But there are many other interesting Georgian and Regency houses and premises throughout the town that also caught my imagination this week.


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Jorgen Hartogs said...

NUI Galway actually places Mount Southwell in the townland of Enniscoush

Mount Southwell House: Situated near the town of Rathkeale this house was the residence of Francis Brown in 1837 and was still in his possession in the early 1850s but leased to Edward John Collins. It was valued at £24. This house passed to the Hill family of Graig through marriage.

Russell Thomas said...

The building behind the blue painted building is the former retort house of the gasworks where the gas was manufactured. It is one of the very few buildings of this type and scale that survives in Ireland.