10 September 2020
The Ormond Castle in
Ireland’s Tudor treasure
As the late summer ‘Road Trip’ continued west from Wexford, across the dramatic new bridge at New Ross, we stopped at Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, to visit Ormond Castle on the banks of the River Suir on the east side of the town.
Ormond Castle is regarded by many as the finest example of an Elizabethan manor house in Ireland. It was built in 1565 by Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, beside an earlier mediaeval riverside castle in honour of his distant cousin Queen Elizabeth I.
The magnificent great hall that stretches almost the whole length of the first floor of the house, is decorated with some of the finest stucco plasterwork in Ireland, with portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her brother Edward VI and many motifs and emblems associated with the Tudor monarchy.
The castle grounds include the ruins of a mediaeval bawn or fortified walled enclosure, with two tall 14th or 15th century towers on the north-east and north-west corners, while the main manor house building dates to the Tudor Period.
The mediaeval castle secured a strategic position on the River Suir, with access to Clonmel, the port of Waterford and the city of Kilkenny. At one time, the River Suir flowed right up to the gate of the castle, bring people and goods to and from the castle.
Edmund Butler acquired the town of Carrickmacgriffin (now Carrick-on-Suir) in 1315 after it was taken from the Wall family. His son, James Butler, became the first Earl of Ormond in 1328.
Thomas Butler (1531-1616), 10th Earl of Ormond, known as ‘Black Tom,’ succeeded to his family titles and estates in 1546 as a young teenager. He was a child in the court of Henry VIII, shared a tutor with the future Edward VI, and he was made a Knight of the Order of Bath at Edward’s coronation in 1546.
When Elizabeth I succeeded as queen in 1558, she appointed Thomas Butler as Lord Treasurer of Ireland, and is said to have referred to him as her ‘Black Husband’ because of his dark rugged looks. They were related through her mother Anne Boleyn, a great-granddaughter of the 7th Earl of Ormond. Elizabeth later made Thomas a Privy Councillor, a Knight of the Garter, and cancelled all his debts.
By then, ‘Black Tom’ had returned from England at the age of 22 and brought with him a taste for Elizabethan-style architecture. It is said Elizabeth promised to visit her cousin one day, and Thomas Butler added the Tudor manor house to the castle in hope and anticipation of that visit.
It was the first Tudor manor house of its kind in Ireland and it remains the best example of an Elizabethan manor house in Ireland.
The U-shape of the manor house surrounds a small courtyard that abuts the north of the castle’s bawn. The manor has two floors and a gabled attic.
The most notable achievement of recent restorations is the 100 ft long gallery on the first floor, where the ceiling had largely collapsed. This room, once hung with tapestries, has two majestic fireplaces. One chimneypiece bears a large stone over-mantel. Above it is the Ormond coat of arms with a Latin inscription proclaiming it was made in 1565, the seventh year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. There are stucco representations of Queen Elizabeth flanked by Equity and Justice.
A plaster frieze runs much of the length of the gallery, depicting allegorical figures with heads of Elizabeth and her brother, Edward VI, and their family coats of arms. The ceiling plasterwork includes the Tudor Rose and other Tudor heraldic devices as well as the queen’s personal arms.
The decoration has less-than-subtle references to the queen in the plasterwork and paintings, and the initials ‘TO’ (Thomas Ormond) and ‘ER’ (Elizabeth Regina).
The visual impact can be compared with the long gallery in the Moat House, Tamworth, decorated in a similar fashion a few decades later to boast of a similarly distant kinship between the Comberford family and their guest the Prince of Wales, later Charles I.
A decorative frieze in the state rooms in Carrick-on-Suir incorporates much original material and comprises alternating panels of the Butler coat of arms, and various cartouche panels. Some carry the motto in old French Plus Pense que é Dére (‘To think more than is said’), a quotation from the French poet, Charles, Duke of Orléans.
There is original plasterwork in the ground-floor parlour too. The remains of a plasterwork frieze feature heraldic beasts, the falcon and the griffin, alternating with a device known as the Ormond or ‘Wake’ knot, sometimes called a Carrick knot.
The manor house has mullioned windows on both floors to the front and oriel windows in the porch in the centre of the façade.
The U-shape of the manor house surrounds a small courtyard that abuts the north of the castle. The manor has two floors and a gabled attic.
Of course, Elizabeth never visited the castle that Thomas Butler had, apparently, so lovingly created for her. Much of his life was taken up with a fierce feud with Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond. The two sides fought a pitched battle in 1565 at the Battle of Affane south of Cappoquin, Co Waterford, one of the stopping points on the first stage of this ‘Road Trip.’
Butler’s victory and his handling the political fallout helped to spark the Desmond Rebellions. This struggle in 1569-1573 and 1579-1583 desolated Munster for decades.
Near the end of his life, Thomas had fallen out of favour. Old and blind, he returned to his house on the Suir, always his favourite home. He lived to the age of 83, surviving Queen Elizabeth, his three wives and all his legitimate male heirs. He died on 22 November 1614 and is buried in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
In the 17th century, the house was a favourite residence of James Butler (1610-1688), 1st Duke of Ormonde. He was a grandson of Black Tom’s nephew, Walter Butler (1559-1633), who had succeeded as 11th Earl of Ormond in 1614. During the Duke of Ormonde’s time, the house then stood in extensive parkland and records show there was a deer park, orchards, gardens, a peach house, and a large stable of horses.
However, the Butler family abandoned the manor at Carrick-on-Suir after the first duke died in 1688, and so began a period during which various tenants came and went.
At first, these tenants were prosperous. A Waterford wine merchant named Galwey rented the castle in the 1780s. Later, Wogan, a solicitor, moved in. But Wogan demolished many of the old buildings from 1816 on. As each tenant was poorer than the last, the rooms were subdivided. What had been a seat of wealth and power become a mere shelter for the hungry. Ormond Castle’s decline was dramatic.
Nevertheless, the home remained in the hands of the Butler family until the mid-20th century. When the house was given to state in 1947, it was derelict though still roofed.
The house has been restored in recent decades of the Office of Public Works (OPW). Central to the restoration work has been the revival of the Renaissance plasterwork, which is some places was so badly damaged it required remoulding made from casts taken of the original.
More than 400 years after it was first built, the manor house remains dignified and elegant. A recent addition is a €270,000 interpretation scheme in the exhibition and audio-visual rooms. Two seven-minute animations tell the story from the perspective of both Black Tom and his first wife Elizabeth Berkley.
There is a persistent tradition that the friendship between Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, and young Elizabeth was more romantic than platonic.
This tradition alleges that Elizabeth had secretly given birth to one of Black Tom’s illegitimate sons, Piers FitzThomas Butler of Duiske Abbey. His eldest son, Sir Edward Butler of Duiske, was given the title of Viscount Galmoye in 1646.
Edmund Butler married Anne Butler, and their daughter Elizabeth married Luke Comerford of Callan. Anne was also a sister of Helen Butler who married her second cousin, Walter Butler, 11th Earl of Ormond, and of Eleanor Butler who married Morgan Kavanagh and was the mother-in-law of John Comerford of Ballybur.
In this way, Luke Comerford of Callan had married a daughter of an alleged grandson of Black Tom and Queen Bess. Indeed, by the early or mid-17th century, all the major branches of the Comerford family were intermarried with the Ormond Butlers. But these are the normal rather than exceptional expectations in Irish genealogy, a point than can be made using the projections in a new book by Adam Rutherford that I bought in Wexford before heading on to Carrick-on-Suir.
But I digress. Perhaps I should explore this further in a separate essay later this evening.