Saturday, 6 October 2018

‘Grey Castletroy, by war, tide
and time batter’d,’ stands as
a landmark ruin in Limerick

‘Grey Castletroy, by war, tide and time batter’d, / Stands, like an old chief with his armour all shatter’d’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Castletroy is a busy and bustling suburb on the edges of Limerick. The University of Limerick is nearby, so there is a large number of students there. But Castletroy includes hotels, a cinema, shopping centres, a golf club, schools, the former Church of Ireland parish church in Kilmurry, now the home of Kilmurry Church Arts and Cultural Project, and Limerick’s restored Jewish cemetery.

Nearby, there are walks along the banks of the River Shannon and the River Mulcair.

But one of the landmarks that most people notice as they travel through Castletroy on the road into Limerick are the ruins of a castle, sometimes known as Castle Troy or the Black Castle, built in the 13th century by the O’Brien family.

I was in Castletroy earlier this week for a number of church committee meetings and lunch, and was surprised to realise that Castletroy does not take its name from this castle. The original name in Irish is Caladh an Treoigh, meaning Troy’s Landing or Troy’s Quay.

Nor does the name have any connection with Homer’s Troy or with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Instead it is suggested that name originates with the O Turrain clan. They may have used the area as a safe harbour for navigating the river, but they had no connections with the area by the time the castle was built.

The castle at Castletroy, sometimes known as Black Castle, was first built by the O’Brien family to guard the border of their territory with the Anglo-Normans, who had built King John’s Castle in Limerick.

The castle passed the MacKeogh clan, who claimed descent from Fergus Mac Roich, former King of Ulster who conspired with Maedbh of Connacht in the Tain. But it is not clear whether they acquired the castle from the O’Briens through marriage or alliance, purchase or war.

In his Lays and Legends of Thomond, the Limerick poet Michael Hogan, known as the ‘Bard of Thomond,’ tells how the daughter of the MacKeogh chieftain was kidnapped by another chieftain whose marriage proposal she had declined. The MacKeoghs gave pursuit and in the ballad ‘The Beauties of Plassy,’ Hogan recalls:

MacKeogh has defeated the brigands, with slaughter,
But a spear has been thrust thro’ the breast of his daughter.



Later, the MacKeogh castle was taken by the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond. When Gerald FitzGerald was killed in 1582 during the Desmond Wars, his lands were divided and Castle Troy became the property of Sir John Bourke (1550-1607) of Brittas Castle, about 15 km south-east of Limerick.

Bourke was a Catholic sympathiser and openly attended Mass. When he was arrested, his release was secured by his father-in-law, Sir George Thornton managed to secure his release. Eventually, he was hanged at Gallows Green in Limerick on 20 December 1607.

His property, including Castle Troy, was handed to his rival kinsman Theobald Burke of Castleconnell, who became 1st Baron Brittas in 1618.

The Cromwellian general Henry Ireton besieged Limerick in 1650, but was forced to call off his siege with the onset of winter. He returned the next year, and realising that Castle Troy was in an ideal positioned to defend the city against forces moving down the River Shannon, he destroyed the castle in 1651 with cannon set up on Harty’s Hill.

Theobald Bourke of Brittas lived on until 1654. But the Bourke estates were given in 1666 to James Duke of York, brother of Charles II and later James II.

If the castle was ever restored, it was certainly put beyond repair during the Williamite wars in 1690. After the last siege of Limerick, the castle was dismantled and blown up, along with other castles that defended the passes to the city, the Bourkes lost their Brittas and Castleconnell titles, and the land on which the Black Castle sat was later bought up by the Hollow Sword Blade Company.

Michael Hogan, the ‘Bard of Thomond,’ later wrote in later wrote in Lays and Legends of Thomond:

Lo ! grey Castletroy, by war, tide and time batter’d,
Stands, like an old chief with his armour all shatter’d,
As if musing, in gloomy and gaunt desolation,
On the red, feudal days when Green Eire was a Nation.

There the warlike MacKeoghs, in their power, ruled and revell’d,
And often in fight were their sounding spears levell’d
’Till Cromwell the fiend, with his tower- cleaving cannon,
Plough’d their strong castle walls on the brink of the Shannon.


‘Cromwell the fiend, with his tower- cleaving cannon, / Plough’d their strong castle walls on the brink of the Shannon’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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