Thursday, 6 September 2018

Ballyragget Castle,
a ‘sleeping giant’
with hidden potential

Ballyragget Castle, once the principal residence of the Mountgarret branch of the Butler dynasty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Ballyragget Castle stands beside the village, close to the SuperValu supermarket, and just 100 metres rfom the banks of the River Nore. It is a ruined square tower house, with a defensive wall with corner towers, but it once provided excellent views of river traffic and the surrounding countryside and was strategically important for the Ormond Butlers along the northern lines of defence of Kilkenny Castle.

Ballyragget is about 18 km from Kilkenny, on the N77 road to Durrow, and two of us stopped to see the castle and parish church late last week on our way from Kilkenny to Askeaton.

Ballyragget is said to take its name from Richard le Ragget, a local Anglo-Norman leader who owned the land in the 13th century.

However, the castle is of a much later date. Popular stories in the area say it was built about 1485 by Lady Margaret FitzGerald, who that year married Pierce ‘Ruadh’ Butler (1467-1539), 8th Earl of Ormond.

A stone bench at the top of the castle is called ‘Lady Margaret’s Chair’ and is also known as the ‘Wishing Chair.’ The older people in Ballyragget said that if you sat in the chair your wish would be granted.

Enda Houlihan, in his BEd thesis, ‘Ballyragget Castle, Co Kilkenny, a history and comparative analysis,’ argues that this tower house was not an addition to an earlier castle but is original construction from the late 15th century when it became an important strategically because of the prevailing, fragile political situation between the Earls of Kildare and Piers Ruadh Butler, whose wife was a daughter of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare.

Lady Margaret is said to have made Ballyragget Castle her favourite residence, and one account says ‘she often indulged in the turbulent and freebooting practices more suitable to an unprincipled Amazon than to a lady and often issued from the castle, at the head of her retainers, and plundered the cattle and other property of neighbouring families whom she was pleased to view as not belonging to the circle of her friends.’

The second son of Piers Ruadh and Margaret, Richard Butler (1550-1571), was the Keeper of the Castle of Ferns, Co Wexford, and became the 1st Viscount Mountgarret in 1550.

He inherited Ballyragget Castle, and for more than two centuries this castle was the principal residence of the Mountgarret branch of the Butler family.

A secret orchard seen through a breach in a wall in the grounds of Ballygarret Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ballyragget Castle is basically 44 ft by 31 ft in size, according to Canon William Carrigan’s history of the Diocese of Ossory. The walls are about 7.5 ft thick and all the doors are of cut stone, probably limestone.

This five-storey castle consists of a large tower-house complete with crenellations and surrounded by a substantial bawn. It once had handsome cut stone windows, the four round towers that defend it are looped in order to command the surrounding lands, a look-out turret rises above the parapet in the north-east corner of the keep.

The fine arched entrance in the west wall is now blocked up but was protected by a machicolation. There is a machicolation in the middle of the south wall and the south-west corner tower was turned into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The flanker at the south-east corner has a squinch containing a latrine chute. Local people say a dungeon stretches from the castle to the river.

According to Enda Houlihan, Ballyragget Castle ‘was a formidable and imposing structure, militarily and politically.’ From the 16th century on, Ballyragget Castle gained in military importance and in prestige, and it was the main defensive structure and fortified keep north of Kilkenny Castle.

An urban centre grew up around the walled fortifications. This became a prosperous town and gave the Butlers a military presence in an area previously unmarshalled. In this way, the castle and the people who lived in and around it were firmly tied to the shire of Kilkenny.

The castle became the seat of the Mountgarret branch of the Butlers of Ormonde, who used it as a defence and to raid the adjoining territory of the MacGiollapadraig or FitzPatrick family.

Richard Butler (1550-1571), 1st Viscount Mountgarret, was succeeded in 1571 by his eldest son, Edmund Butler (1562-1602), 2nd Viscount Mountgarret, who also inherited Ballyragget Castle He remodelled the state room, which was fitted with a massive cut-stone chimney piece, inscribed with his initials and the date: ‘EM 1591.’

But the castle also became the base for revolt in the late 16th century when Edmund Butler’s sons revolted against the crown and supported the Ulster rebels. Ballyragget was attacked and captured on three separate occasions, and Sir George Carew garrisoned the castle in 1600 against the Mountgarrets.

Edmund’s fifth daughter, the Hon Eleanor Butler, married Morgan (Murrough) Mac Bryan Kavanagh, of Borris, Co Carlow, and their daughter Grany (Graine) married John Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny.

Edmund’s eldest son and successor, Richard Butler (1578-1651), 3rd Viscount Mountgarret, married Lady Margaret O’Neill, daughter of High O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone.

A blocked up window in Ballyragget Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ballyragget Castle seems to have been abandoned, at least temporarily, by the Mountgarrett Butlers in the early 17th century. But the third viscount returned to Ballyragget Castle, and King James I granted him a charter in 1619, making Ballyragget a manor, with two annual fairs.

Edmund Mountgarret was the President of the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642-1648). After his death, Colonel Daniel Axtell held the castle during the Cromwellian era. Local lore says Axtell had one of the Butlers of the castle tortured and killed for not disclosing where the Mountgarret treasure was buried, and that he hung Catholic and Protestant royalists on the Fair Green in Ballyragget while laughing on from the castle.

Edmund Butler (1595-1679), 4th Lord Mountgarret, was restored to his lands after the Caroline Restoration in 1660. Bishop Carrigan noted that two sets of corbels in the same wall as the east entrance and other marks on the wall indicate a very large house or mansion was built against it but has since been demolished.

The Battle of Ballyragget took place in the shadow of the castle in 1775, involving the largest ever assembly of Whiteboys in Kilkenny, including 300 horsemen and 200 on foot.

However, the Mountgarret branch of the Butler family continued to live in the castle until 1788, when Edmund Butler (1745-1793), 11th Viscount Mountgarret, moved to Ballyragget Hall, a house close by. His son, Edmund Butler (1771-1846), 12th Viscount Mountgarret, later became Earl of Kilkenny.

The present owners of Ballyragget Castle have planted beautiful alder trees along the avenue leading up to the castle which is just about visible if one peeks through the corrugated iron gates.

The castle is a listed building in the 2014 County Development Plan, but it is not a national monument. The castle is blocked up, stands on private land beside a farmyard and is not open to the public, and entrance to the bawn is not permitted. However, the heavy metal gate was open when two of us arrived early on Friday afternoon, and we had a brief and rare opportunity to photograph the castle and walk around the bawn.

With imagination and the right grants, Ballygarret Castle could easily be put to good use become a tourist attraction. But the castle remains a sleeping giant, an untapped resource full of potential.

Ballygarret Castle could be put to good use, but remains a sleeping giant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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