Monday, 11 September 2017

The castle in Newcastle West that has
survived wars, fires and name changes

Desmond Castle and Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West dates back to the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The Limerick Leader reported at the weekend that Newcastle West councillors have found themselves bogged down in a debate about name changes and potential name changes.

In her report, Norma Prendiville points out that Desmond Hall in Newcastle West is now to be called the Desmond Castle. But the question of what to call the castle in the middle of the town is creating confusion. Last year, the Office of Public Works started calling the castle complex the Newcastle West Medieval Complex and Desmond Hall.

But the Desmond Hall is just one of a number of buildings on the site, and it is now going to be known as Desmond Castle, Newcastle West – although new signs erected earlier this year point to ‘Desmond Hall.’

The castles and banqueting halls in Askeaton and Newcastle West are among the many great castles and medieval halls that are preserved in this group of parishes and throughout West Limerick.

During a recent working day in Newcastle West, I visited Desmond Hall, or Desmond Castle, which is the principal historical and archaeological feature in Newcastle West. It dominates the southern end of the main square in the town, and includes the site of the former Church of Ireland parish church.

The Desmond Banqueting Hall is an imposing two-storey building once used by the Earls of Desmond for banqueting and entertainment. The Hall, vaulted lower chamber and adjoining tower were all built in the 15th century, with the hall and chamber built on an earlier 13th century building of a similar size.

The Great Hall at the Desmond Castle complex in Newcastle West (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Local folklore claims that at one time the castle was a seat of the Knights Templar, who also had a house in Askeaton. This is doubted by many historians, but castles of both timber and stone have stood on this site by the banks of the River Arra since the 13th century.

By the 1298, this strong castle included curtain walls with defensive towers that surrounded the main buildings, with thatched houses, cattle byres and fishponds within the castle complex.

This is Desmond Hall that was created from a 13th century chapel, and used for banquets and entertainment. It comprises a lower vaulted chamber and an upper hall. It underwent further rebuilding in the 15th century.

Inside the Banqueting Hall at Newcastle West (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The present castle dates from the 15th century. At the end of the following century, the castle was confiscated at the height of the Desmond Rebellions, and was granted in 1591 to Sir William Courtenay, on condition that 80 English colonists were settled in the immediate area.

It was recaptured by the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond in 1598, but was taken back once again in 1599.

The castle was surrendered in 1643 after a four-month siege by the Confederate Catholics, and burnt. The defending soldiers were executed and their bodies were strapped to stakes and left standing to rot.

The castle buildings were attacked again by Cromwell’s forces in 1645, and suffered further damage during the Williamite wars at the end of the 17th century.

The castle was occupied by David Mahony and his son Pierce Mahony in the mid-18th century, while the Earls of Devon lived in a large house in the castle grounds known as Courtenay Castle. But much of what had survived of the Desmond castle through the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries was demolished in the 18th century to make room for Courtenay mansion. Stones from the curtain walls were used to build estate offices and sheds.

A view of Newcastle West from the top of the banqueting hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The banqueting hall was restored in early 19th century, when the ruined battlements were taken down and a new pitch pine roof was put on the building. The original hooded stone fireplace had collapsed and it was replaced by a 17th century replacement from a house in Kilmallock.

By the late 19th century, Charles Curling, the agent of the Devon estate, lived in Courtenay Castle. Later, the complex was bought by the Curling family in 1910. The complex was burned during the Civil War on 8 August 1922, but the castle remained the property of the Curling family until the 1940s.

At one time, the Banqueting Hall was used by a local masonic lodge and more recently it has been used as a general purpose hall by the local community, while the Great Hall was converted into a cinema and eventually burned down in a fire.

A fireplace dated 1638 came from a house in Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The site was taken into State care in 1989, and work on renovation began in 1990. The whole complex has been partly restored in recent years. The restored mediaeval features include an oak musicians’ gallery and a limestone hooded fireplace.

Desmond Hall, or Desmond Castle as it is to be known from now on, is conserved and managed by the Heritage Services of the Office of Public Works. Guided tours are available from May to September.

The complex today includes the Tower, the Banqueting Hall, the vaulted Chamber and the Hálla Mór or Great Hall.

The area in front of the banqueting hall became the site of the Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Thomas’ Church. The church, which stood between the banqueting hall and the Main Square, was built in 1777 at the sole expense of William, 2nd Viscount Courtenay.

However, the church fell into disrepair, and was demolished over half a century ago in 1962. Today, the site of the church is now marked out by low-level walls. Here too is a bronze figure representing Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond.

The site of the former Saint Thomas Church, built in 1777, is marked out by low-level wall between the castle and the square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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