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 Johnstone 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.

Anonymous 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!

Michael Crowther said...

My wife and I stayed one night at Castle Matrix during our honeymoon in October, 1991. We had purchased a bed-and-breakfast voucher in advance to stay there, but when we arrived the property was deserted except for some ponies and Jacob's sheep. We walked around the grounds for a while, and eventually Liz O'Driscoll drove up in an old Land Rover. She seemed genuinely shocked to see us, and told us that Sean had died not long before and she had given up on the idea of opening the castle for lodging. Nevertheless, she told us they had finished one room, and that's where we spent the night. Liz gave us a great tour and told us spooky tales about the spiders that were "sacred" to the castle. It made for great stories about the beginning of our marriage!

Unknown said...

Hello. David Johnstone here. My grandfather Malcolm Johnstone grew up in Castle Matrix. He moved to Sandymount with his wife Daisy in the mid nineteen twenties, where they spent the rest of their lives in less than salubrious circumstances. It was a case of riches to rags. My late father, Frank, who was a sports journalist, grew up there.

Unknown said...

In 1999 we were married at Rathkeal and had our reception at the Castle.
In 2019 after a stay at Glin Castle we dropped in to see how things were, unfortunately we did not see Liz, and even though its now in a bad state I'm sure she is still living there.
Desmond Fitzgerald of Glin Castle (now deceased) I believe kept an eye on Liz and the Castle.
It's all a very sad story and really someone needs to help her.
Any ideas call me 07815905303 UK.

Melissa said...

I lived at the Castle Matrix when I was a 17 year old girl. I came from Vermont, United States.
The idea was that I would stay with Liz, her son Kieran and her father Tony in exchange for room and board.
It was a completely magical time in my life and I will remember it fondly, but I was also waaaay out of my element. Liz was very nutty and the dogs, mess and lack of attention to daily matters was very trying.
I ended up staying for awhile and then left my belongings at the neighbors ( who I had befriended ),and traveled around Ireland with two guys from Switzerland that I had met.
The castle is indeed haunted! I was both scared out of my mind there and also felt a very magical feeling....eventually getting brave enough to climb the tower at night to lay on the rood top under the stars,

Anonymous said...

I just purchased several hand forged chandeliers that were said to have graced the castle Matrix. I would love to know more about the history, see more interior photos and see if I can find the pieces that I have obtained. The history is fascinating and I hope one day to return and see the castle again. Thank you for hosting this, it's been a pleasure reading the history and fun comments about the happenings and owner's of the castle.

Warm regards, Rachel from California

Unknown said...

My son Jeremy and I visited Castle Matrix in 1997 or 1998 when we saw it in a guidebook. We were given a wonderful tour by the father of Sean O'Driscoll's wife. He loved every inch of the castle and explained a lot of history and how Sean had restored it so beautifully. He also showed us the library, and told us that the movie actor James Stewart was his good friend from the Air Force who visited Castle Matrix on occasion. I remember his widow (Liz?) and was sad she did not seem to share her father's or her late husband's love for this incredible treasure and was not welcoming at all. I recall her father told us that Sean's Last Will and Testament only left his wife and son life estates in the property, so that after their deaths it will revert to the Republic of Ireland. In other words, the wife and son can live there throughout their lives, but cannot sell or transfer title or ownership of the property to anyone else. I don't have any personal knowledge of the Will, but it seems to explain why she is treating it like a tenant not an owner. I will never forget the wonder of Castle Matrix even if I can never return. Marya from Washington, D.C.

Anonymous said...

In the mid-1990s, my husband and I were drawn to stay at Castle Matrix after reading about it in our friend Diane Duane's book "A Wizard Abroad." We stayed overnight, and it was everything we imagined. Stone walls, wrought iron chandeliers, a long spiral stone staircase leading up to an amazing view, black-and-white sheep in the fields, old leather books in the library. The bedroom was quite chilly, but i wasn't sure if that was due to the cold walls or the sense of history wafting everywhere through the castle. Liz O'Driscoll gave us a wonderful, if somewhat eccentric, tour, and we left the next morning, fortified with some good Irish tea, in search of local stone circles. It's a shame that the castle has fallen into such disrepair. I would love to return for a night or two.

Anonymous said...

I met Liz in 2006 and she gave me her phone and email but I fear its outdated. She suffered a tragic loss of her father and son.

Anonymous said...

I had all her info but fearcits outdated.

Martha S said...

Sir Thomas Southwell was my 10th great grandfather……I would love to come visit the castle and surrounding area where my ancestors are from. I live in the United States.

Jim Mayher said...

My wife and I are coming to the area (we're staying in Limerick) this fall and I am an 8th generation descendant from the Southwells and Browns.
Anyone have any current / local info on who might know more / show us around - and/or know who might live there now, or if we could see it?
Thank you.

Jim Mayher said...

I am an 8th generation descendant of the Southwells / Browns and we will be visiting this fall.
Anyone know who I might connect with locally (we're staying in Limerick for this reason) to find out and see more?
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I lived there for a while with my parents when I was a baby, around 1997 ❤️

Jim Mayher said...

We found it his week ... it is located perhaps .25 miles off N21, about 1-2 km from Rathkeale and about 12 km from Newcastle West. Heading southwest on N21, you will cross the River Deel. Once you do, you’ll see a Greenway (what we’d call a greenbelt in the US) on the right. Slow down and take your first right (L1242). From there, walk back up the greenway toward the river 100 yards and you will see the old, overgrown road on your left.
The castle and outbuilding (part of the flour mill or the stable, perhaps; or possibly housing for the Palatines - I'm not sure) is perhaps .25 miles into the woods, directly on the river.
I scaled the wall, as the gate is padlocked, but as I walked around, I realized that I could have cut right toward the out-building, just before th gate and walked directly in.

Anonymous said...

Nice to hear about Castle Matrix, I was introduced to Seán O’Driscoll in 1978 when I was doing a UNESCO lead workcamp in Rathskeller. As it happened was a friend of my father (who had passed away by then). Sean and I became great friends, I had the pleasure to stay at Castle Matrix numerous times, we also met regularly while he was visiting Paris. I had to unique privilege to access at will his fantastic Library which since has been sold , his unique weapon collection dispersed. Sean became a very close friend, a mentor. It is under his mentorship that I acquired and restored ballinderry castle. Liz and his father came in later on, Tony was also a great character (also a WWII veterans officer in the engineers corps) he was found of music hall for which reason he performed for the Queen in WWII). He was still a great singer. Sean, was a unique person, a hero of the war (he saved his bomber crew while in flame returning to England), of unsurpassed culture, warm memories of evenings in front of the blazing fireplace just the two of us. He had great storie from the times of 1929 depression (he was from bronklyn) to his war, his work at NATO and how he got to get castle matrix at the instigation of Eoun O’Mahony (pope o’mahony). As to the origin of the name Sean maintained that the site was an old Celtic deity site to fertility (matrice) with its male pendant on the hill across with a standing which had been concrete out with a cross.

Jacqueline said...

My Father was a good Friend of Sean O‘Driscoll,we visited Castle Matrix 1974 and stayed there. I still have Fotos I took then, the Castle was in a glorious shape he had Restored it perfekt. He cocked for his Guests. Now after 49 Years I will take a trip to Ireland Juli 2023 and also visit Castle Matrix. Those anybody know if the Widow Liz O Driscoll still lives there and if you can go Inside. You can contact me under krabu@burberg.de ,

Anonymous said...

My Uncle Jack was Colonel Driscoll, I'm also looking to get in touch with Liz. Did not know that this happened?

Janice Clark said...

My first husband and I stayed at Castle Matrix during our honeymoon in 1985. Sean O'Driscoll and his wife were very entertaining and I remember they cooked ? lamb in the great fire in the hall. They also took us on a walk to a stone circle on the property. There were ancient breed of sheep they kept and his wife was a poet as I recall.