Monday, 19 February 2018

A year later, I get to find
and visit Castle Matrix

Castle Matrix was first built by the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, near Rathkeale, Co Limerick, in the mid-15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Castle Matrix on the outskirts of Rathkeale is difficult to find. Although I have been living in the Rathkeale Group of Parishes for more than I year, I have searched in vain for the entrance to the castle, time and again.

That is, until this morning.

I have spoken and lectured a number of times about the history of the Southwell family, who lived in Castle Matrix, to both the Irish Palatine Association and Rathkeale and District Historical Society.

I knew where the castle is located, but there are no signs, and although I had seen it in the distance, I had failed to find the entrance.

However, as I walked along the banks of the River Deel this morning after speaking at the school assembly, I caught a glimpse of the castle through trees still bare after winter. I decided to act on my instincts and go in search of the pathway leading up to the castle.

This was once a welcoming place, offering hospitality, entertainment, banquets and unusual bed and breakfast. But the path leading up the castle is now overgrown, and a padlocked gate bars any entrance to the land immediately in front of the castle.

The name of Castle Matrix may be derived from the Irish ‘Caisleán Bhun Tráisce’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The name of Castle Matrix may be derived from the Irish Caisleán Bhun Tráisce, although the one sign I could find gives no explanation for the meaning of the Irish name, nor does it indicate that this is the difficult-to-find Castle Matrix.

Castle Matrix was built as a tower house in the 15th century by the FitzGeralds, Earl of Desmond.

James FitzThomas FitzGerald (1459-1487), 8th Earl of Desmond, owned Castle Matrix in 1487. He was unpopular with his servants, so they decided to get rid of their employer by murdering him. He was murdered at Rathkeale on 7 December 1487 at the age of 28, by John Murtagh, one of his servants, at the instigation of his younger brother John.

James was buried at Youghal, Co Cork,and his brother, Maurice FitzThomas FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Desmond, avenged his death by executing every servant the FitzGeralds had in Rathkeale.

The explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1552/1554-1618) was living at Castle Matrix in 1580, and the visitors to Castle Matrix in the Elizabethan era included his contemporary, the poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). When Edmund Spenser met Walter Raleigh here, their meeting inspired the poet to write The Faerie Queen.

In the early 1600s, Castle Matrix was granted to the Southwell family, as ‘resident undertakers.’ The Southwell family converted the castle into their manor house and added a wing in 1610. Walter Raleigh presented some Virginia Tubers to Edmund Southwell, who planted these potatoes in the land around the castle and later distributed them throughout Munster.

During the rebellions and wars of the mid-17th century, Castle Matrix captured by the Irish of Rathkeale in 1641, and fell to Cromwellian forces in 1651, when the tower was damaged by the Roundhead artillery.

But Castle Matrix was soon regained by the Southwell family, and at the Restoration King Charles II gave the title of baronet to Sir Thomas Southwell, who extended his estates in the Rathkeale area.

He died in 1680, and his son Sir Thomas Southwell (1665-1720), the second baronet, was a key figure in bringing the Palatine refugees to live in Ireland at the beginning of the 18th century. He was living in Castle Matrix when he settled 100 families on his estate at Rathkeale in 1709. Shortly before his death, he was given the additional title of Baron Southwell in 1717.

The main tower is four storeys, although there may have been another floor, and the east wall has six floors with small rooms. The looking battlements were added in the 19th century and all the windows were enlarged at this point, making the castle a comfortable house.

The surviving outbuildings at Castle Matric may include a 200-year-old mill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Samuel Lewis writes in 1837 that the flour mill at Castle Matrix ‘has been fitted up by the proprietor J Southwell Brown esq in the most complete manner,’ and that the Elizabethan square castle was being repaired.

The Ordnance Survey Field Name Book records Castlematrix as a large two-storey house, with a new castle six storeys high adjoining. John S Brown was Lord Southwell’s tenant in Castle Matrix. In the mid-19th century, the buildings including the flour mills, valued at £90.

When the rental of the castle was being sold in 1853, Castle Matrix was described as having nine bedrooms, ‘besides dressing closets, bathrooms, water closets, a large dining room, drawing room and library with extensive suites of servants’ apartments, and the entire fitted up in elegant and substantial style.’ The sale included a lithograph in which the castle is described as having been repaired and added to ‘regardless of expense.’

Castle Matrix was finally sold by the Southwell family in the early 20th century, and was bought by the Johnson family, who continued to operate the mill and who lived in the castle for some decades.

Castle Matrix gimpsed through the trees, north of Rathkeale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

However, in the 1930s, the roof, doors and windows were removed to reduce taxes, and the castle was abandoned. By the 1960s, the castle had fallen into disrepair when it was bought by Colonel Sean O’Driscoll, an American architect who restored it to its former glory.

In April 1971, to great fanfare and publicity, the castle opened for mediaeval banquets, similar to those in Bunratty Castle, serving meat from Castle Matrix livestock and fresh vegetables and fruit from the castle gardens and orchards, and offering entertainment included an ‘Elizabethan open-air theatre’ and music on piano and harp by candlelight.

For some decades, the 12,000-volume castle library held a collection of original documents relating to the Wild Geese, and the tower led to an old chapel with a bell.

Until 1991, Castle Matrix was open for tours and the headquarters of the International Institute of Military History and of the Heraldry Society of Ireland.

Today, however, the castle looks forlorn once again, in a sad and lonely state, hidden behind a cluster of trees at the end of an unmarked track.

The unmarked drive leading to Castle Matrix (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


Anonymous said...

did you learn anything of the owner/propietor Liz O'Driscoll in your visit?
-Danny Trippett

Anonymous said...

We just visited Castle Matrix. The current owner widdow of Sean O'Driscoll kindly invited us to a short tour through the tower. She told us she intends to renovate the Building.

Anonymous said...

She's been planning on doing that for a long time now, I fear it will never happen as she doesn't have the money to do so

Lynda Ross said...

My family lived opposite the Castle, my father also rented the land from the Colonel and supplied pigs for roasting on the spit for banquets. I used to work there as a teenager waiting on tables during these events. One time during the 70's the German magazine called 'Stern' arrived to write an article about the Palatines that still live in the area to this day and the Colonel introduced my family to them (both my parents were descended from Palatines) whereupon they photographed us holding a basket of potatoes with the Castle in the background. I was down that way about 2 years ago and I couldn't believe the job I had to try and locate the entrance to the Castle. There used to be an old railway bridge between my parents and Castle Matrix so all looked very different. I still have a small souvenir ornament of the Castle which was made by the Zaar family in Dromcollogher Dresden factory. I remember Colonel mentioning he was Charles Lindbergh's aide. He was certainly an interesting character.

James McLaughlin said...

I stayed there for one evening and night.
There was a resident staff who also played music: Harp and Bazouki I think...
An absolutely lovely elderly couple ran the place.
(Was that the colonel ?)

We got a tour the next morning. An amazing library!
I remember on the top of the high tower looking over the trees to the fields beyond, we speculated that the potatoes we ate during the meal may be related to the very ones that Walter Releigh brought from America.
Apparently, this action meant that Ireland held patent over the potatoes as the first place in Europe to get the potatoes.
There then followed an anti-potato campaign Europe-wide because it would threaten the bread makers.
Eventually Walter lost his head (after Elizebeth died) and the potato going to Ireland rather than England was thought to have been a huge factor in this.

Anyway, I have happy memories of the place.
Would love to be able to return someday.

Anonymous said...

I have just discovered that I am descended from the Palatines of Rathkeale. My searches show that my great great grandfather worked as a butler. Which leads to believe he may well have served at the castle itself, probably from about 1860 to the turn of the century.

Are there any records surviving that show detail of the servants and staff?

June McGaugh said...

Mu lineage shows David Creighton married Lady Catherine Southwell who was born in Castle Matrix in 1675. Any further info would be appreciated.

Unknown said...

Do you have any way to contact Elizabeth O'Driscoll? Have you been back to the castle in 2019?

Unknown said...

I'm also descended from the Palatines and would like to visit all related areas in 2021.

sloeff said...

I am trying to make contact with the widow that owns castle matrix. Her husband was a close family friend and worked with my father at NATO. Do you have any contact information for John O'Driscoll widow, or how I can reach her?

kaycee said...

Hi there,

If anyone gets in touch with the lady who owns the lovely castle would they please let me know. My father is from just past Rathkeale and my brothers attended school there so we have a lot of connections to the area. I am studying Heritage Studies in and I am fascinated by the castle's history both past and present. Myself and my mother have called to the castle today but it appears no one seems to live there. I have been researching it online and I know it would be amazing to take some of my family members there to see the (hidden) history of the town we know and love!

Unknown said...

Hello my name is John MacRae I am the eldest son of Susan Mary Southwell who was the daughter of Robert Arthur William Joseph Southwell he was the sixth viscount of Castle Matrix, we came to England in 2016 and went to the castle it looked abandoned then it was very difficult to find back then all overgrown, Robert Southwell was my grand father, by the sounds of it they would have been the last Southwells to own it, can you tell me any more information about what is going to happen to it now.

Céline said...

I stayed there early ninetees for a couple of nights. I was about 16 or something and the castle left a deep impression. Magestic as it was! And that library <3
A U2 concert was taking place in Cork about the same time and I remember being escorted by two guys living nearby, Sean and Thomas. Wonderfull memories :) I wonder what became of them and of the castle owners.

Margaret said...

I stopped by the castle in 2019 and there was some renovations/gutting going on. The tower had been emptied out and things looked to be in a bad state. Lots of cat damage. I'm not certain who's behind all the work, but there's a LOT to do. The owner of nearby Switzer Cottage seems to keep an eye on the goings on there, as he is also a Palatine descendant. I sure hope they can get things cleaned up there, it's a very cool place!