06 October 2017

Fanning’s Castle is
Limerick’s last
surviving tower house

Fanning’s Castle is Limerick’s last surviving tower house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of this morning [Friday 6 October 2017] in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, where I am the canon precentor, being interviewed by Darragh Roche for a feature in next week’s edition of Limerick Life.

I had an opportunity during the morning to visit a number of key sites on King’s Island, including the Tholsel, the site of the mediaeval city gaol, and the remains of the last remaining tower house in Limerick is Fanning’s Castle, on a small site off Mary Street and Creagh Lane on King’s Island.

These ruins are close to many other mediaeval landmarks in the city, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle, which make this a fascinating part of Limerick.

There are no surviving remains of the timber cage-work houses that would have been characteristic of the ‘English Town’ in this part of mediaeval Limerick. By the late 16th century, part of Mary Street, which was then the High Street in this part of Limerick, was lined with four-storey and five-storey battlemented stone houses with gables facing onto the street.

Some of these townhouses, including the one known as Fanning’s Castle, were first planned as tower houses.

Although it is known as Fanning’s Castle, this never was a castle. Rather, it is a late mediaeval, fortified townhouse or tower house. It is said to have been built by Dominic Fanning, a former mayor of Limerick, around 1641, as his personal residence.

Other sources suggest it dates from the 16th or even the 15th century, when the opulent merchant families of Limerick lived on Mary Street, then known as High Street.

The walls of the tower were built of roughly squared limestone blocks of varying sizes. The tower would have had a view of the Abbey river. Few aesthetic flourishes are visible within the ruined building today, consisting of two walls of those square limestone blocks.

Fanning’s Castle was originally five storeys high, with a vaulted undercroft. But, due to the passage of time and building development in this area, the first storey is now almost at ground level.

On the first storey, the most complete and intact wall has a flat-headed window, divided by a mullion.

On the second and third floors, two ogee windows are placed one floor above the other.

The third floor windows being slightly smaller than those on the second floor.

Finally, there is a single round-headed window on the top floor.

The doors on the upper levels suggest that at some point the tower had external balconies or stairs. The tower house would have originally incorporated a turret staircase and battlements and would have been an impressive sight on Mary Street.

Dominick Fanning led the resistance in Limerick against Cromwell. However, when he was caught, he was forced had to give up his residence at Fanning’s Castle, and he was executed by the Cromwellian forces in 1651.

Later, Fanning’s Castle it was known as Whitamore’s Castle, or even as Limerick Castle. The Irish Jacobite general Patrick Sarsfield is said to have stayed here as a guest of Francis Whitamore, then the Mayor of Limerick, during the Williamite siege of Limerick in 1691.

But over time, Fanning’s Castle deteriorated, with drastic consequences for its fabric. Today, it looks out of place, crumbling away in a part of the city where many of the sites appear abandoned or deserted street.

Undeniably, because of its architectural and historical significance, the castle has potential to be one of many tourist attractions in the city. But a fence has been placed around the castle ruins and the surrounding grounds, which seem to be used as a car park, sealed off by an automatic gate, making it part of the hidden Limerick.

Over time, Fanning’s Castle deteriorated, with drastic consequences for its fabric (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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