12 October 2020

Walking around Kilmallock,
searching for the ruins of
the ‘Baalbec of Ireland’

Looking through the arch of King John’s Castle to the Main Street in Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Bagenalstown in Co Clarlow claims it is the ‘Versailles of Ireland.’ The spelling of Valentia Island in Co Kerry is sometimes confused with Valencia in Spain. But Kilmallock in Co Limerick was once known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland.’

The town was known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland’ because of its street were once filled with so many ruined buildings from the past.

Kilmallock, about 8 km from Charleville, is a mediaeval town where parts of the mediaeval walls and fortifications still stand. The mediaeval sites include the ruins of a Dominican Priory, the ruins of a collegiate church, and King’s Castle or King John’s Castle.

An early 19th century visitor wrote, ‘Some sixteen miles from Limerick, in the direction of Cork, the Irish Baalbec claims the attention of the passer by. It is a place to arouse sympathies with departed greatness; to remind the sojourner that earthly fabrics bow to Time. Here is a combination of ancient glory and present debasement – faded grandeur and upstart pretension, not to be rivalled, perhaps, in any other land …’

King John’s Castle was built in Kilmallock in the 15th-century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Although I am confined to Co Limerick during the present phase of the pandemic lockdown, two of us decided to explore the streets and historical buildings of mediaeval Kilmallock at the weekend.

Kilmallock traces its origins to Saint Mocheallóg, who built a church in the area in the sixth or seventh century, and the Irish name Cill Mocheallóg means ‘the Church of [Saint] Mocheallóg.’

The Anglo-Normans may have built a castle here in 1206, but nearby ruins, unearthed in 1986, turned out to be Neolithic houses built by local people over 5,000 years ago.

Kilmallock was of considerable importance by the late mediaeval period and one of the main urban areas in Ireland, second only to Limerick City in the region. The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was built by 1241, and the Dominican Priory in 1291.

The mediaeval town was a creation of the Desmond FitzGeralds and the White Knights. It had a corporation with the power to raise taxes to fund building town walls.

Street art in Kilmallock … an artist’s impression of life on the 16th century High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The town was laid out in a typical medieval form – with a long, wide main street, John’s Street (now Sheares Street) and High Street or Main Street (now Sarsfield Street) from which shorter streets radiated – Crooked Lane and Church Lane (now Orr Street), Fleming Street (which became Ivy Street, now Lord Edward Street), Blapat Street (now Emmet Street), and Water Street (now Wolfe Tone Street).

Kilmallock was fortified in 1375, and five fortified towers protected the entrances to the town. The 15th-century King John’s Castle is a fine example of a Peel Tower, with its wide arched openings prompting speculation that it was originally a town gate.

Over the centuries, the ‘castle’ has had a variety of uses, from a citadel to an arsenal, a school to a blacksmith’s forge, and the venue for meetings of Kilmallock Corporation.

The Blossom Gate on Emmet Street is last surviving town gate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The last surviving town gate, the Blossom Gate, is located on Emmet Street. It was built in the 16th century, possibly as an improved defence for the south-west of the town. The Blossom Gate formed the west entrance to the town.

It was formerly known as Bla or Blath (meaning flower, green, plain, field, enclosure or yellow in Irish) or Blae (meaning garment or sheet in Norse), but it was also known as Mallow and Pigeon Castle.

The Stone Mansion, a merchant’s house surviving on Sarsfield Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As Kilmallock grew in prosperity, so too did the quality of its merchants’ houses. The Stone Mansion is the best surviving example of the medieval merchants’ houses that once lined the streets of Kilmallock. This house was probably built in the 16th century. The house originally had three storeys and is readily identifiable in a painting of Kilmallock by John Mulvany (1766-1838).

In 1571, the town was burned by the rebel Earl of Desmond during the Desmond Rebellions. He surrendered in the Collegiate Church of Kilmallock in 1573.

The Town Walls were rebuilt by Sir John Perrott, who clearly recognised the strategic value of the town and made it a garrison. The town received a new charter in 1584, and in 1585 Kilmallack became a parliamentary borough with its own MP. The importance of the town can also be seen in the Nine Years War (1594-1603) when it was besieged in 1598 by rebels and freed by Norris, Lord President of Munster.

During the Confederate and Cromwellian wars, the Dominican Priory in Kilmallock was attacked and destroyed by a Parliamentary army under Lord Inchiquin in 1648.

The town met further destruction in 1690 at the hands of marauding Jacobites under the command of the Duke of Berwick. Kilmallock continued to lose its key position in the area with the development of Charleville in the later 17th century. These changes had a lasting effect, stifling the growth and prosperity of Kilmallock for almost 200 years.

Kilmallock had lost its strategic importance, and the town’s fortunes were fading. The great walls had been breached, its buildings burned and left to decay and ruin, its wealth purloined, and its population dispersed. For many years after, it was described as ‘an abode of wolves.’

The poet Andrias Mac Craith died in a cottage on Wolfe Tone Street, near the bridge over the River Loobagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The 18th century poet Andrias Mac Craith, better known as An Mangaire Súgach, was born in Kilmallock. His best-known poem, Slán le Máigh, is a song praising the entire Maigue valley at a time when he was temporarily exiled from the locality. The house where he died, Tigh an Fhile (‘The Poet’s House’), is at the bottom of Wolfe Tone Street, near the bridge over the River Loobagh.

Despite becoming known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland,’ many fine shops, commercial premises and houses were built on the streets of Kilmallock as the 19th century unfolded, displaying a confidence in the town’s prospects and future.

A pair of houses with matching shopfronts on Sarsfield Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A pair of houses with matching shopfronts on Sarsfield Street, built ca 1810, display attractive, balanced proportions, despite the loss of some early features and their present apparent neglect. They include well-executed render shopfronts and a decorative render motif that adds artistic interest to the composition.

The Allied Irish Bank building on Lord Edward Street was built as the Munster and Leinster Bank on the site of the Ivy Gate in 1877. It was designed by the Cork architects, Henry and Arthur Hill, and it displays subtle Gothic Revival and Elizabethan style references in its façade.

The AIB Bank on Lord Edward Street stands on the site of the Ivy Gate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Kilmallock was at the centre of bitter fighting in July 1922 during the Irish Civil War. It was held by anti-Treaty forces under Liam Deasy and was eventually taken by Free State troops under Eoin O’Duffy.

As part of a brief but vicious sectarian campaign in July 1935, arsonists burnt the Church of Ireland parish church to the ground, causing extensive damage.

The Dublin-Cork railway line passes by the town, but the station is now closed. The nearest train station is in Charleville, 5 miles south west of Kilmallock.

The Friars’ Gate Theatre, built within the gable walls of Sarsfield House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Today, Kilmallock claims its place as the centre of arts in south-east Limerick. The Friars’ Gate Theatre is described as the centre of arts in south-east Limerick. Built within the gable walls of Sarsfield House, this recently renovated theatre has a seating capacity of 130 and hosts a wide variety of programmes, including from contemporary drama, Celtic-themed plays, and traditional Irish music to cabaret, jazz, comedy and belly dancing.

The Friars Gate Art Gallery holds temporary exhibits by local and other artists, and the Friars’ Gate Theatre is also home to the Ballyhoura Heritage Centre.

Today, Kilmallock has a population of 1,231 and is the fourth largest town in Co Limerick. It is the hub of the Ballyhoura Region, and attracts visitors looking for activity, leisure and cultural breaks.

Baalbec House on the corner of Lord Edward Street and Wolfe Tone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Kilmallock’s reputation in recent centuries as the Baalbec of Ireland is still recalled in the name of Baalbec House, on the corner of Lord Edward Street and Wolfe Tone, This corner house is an important part of the streetscape in Kilmallock, and represents the continued economic prosperity of Kilmallock into the late 19th century.

Baalbec House was built ca 1830, supposedly in imitation and to complement the mediaeval houses that once stood in Kilmallock but have now gone. One façade faces onto Wolfe Tone Street, and the complementary façade faces onto Lord Edward Street.

This is an end-of-terrace, corner house, with two-bay three-storey house with a dormer attic. It is built in dressed limestone, with high quality stone masonry, and decorative details that date from the late 19th century. There is a chamfered entrance bay on the north side with a brick pediment, rendered walls on the ground floor with render pilasters, a canted oriel window on the first floor, and an oculus on the second floor.

The name Baalbec is used with pride by the local GAA teams (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

And the name Baalbec is used with pride by the local GAA teams.

As for Baalbek itself, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Today it is a city of 83,000 people in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, about 67 km north-east of Beirut.

In Greek and Roman times, Baalbek was also known as Heliopolis (Ἡλιούπολις, ‘Sun City’). It is home to the Baalbek temple complex that includes two of the largest and grandest Roman temple ruins: the Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Jupiter.

Two of us had already visited the Roman Catholic parish church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, on a hill on the north side of the town, earlier last year (see HERE). Now we went in search of three other ecclesiastical sites in Kilmallock: the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Dominican Priory of Saint Saviour, and the mid-20th century Church of Ireland parish church, also named Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

A decorative render motif adds artistic interest to two paired houses on Sarsfield Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Two Precentors of Limerick,
two Rectors of Rathkeale,
one bishop and a general

Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick … three Gough brothers were part of the Diocese of Limerick in the 17th century and the Rathkeale family was the ancestral line of Field Marshal Gough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

After a project looking at my predecessors as Precentors of Limerick was postponed last month due to the pandemic limits on public events, I thought it might still be interesting to look at past precentors in a number of blog postings.

Last week, I recalled some previous precentors who had been accused of ‘dissolute living’ or being a ‘notorious fornicator’ (Awly O Lonysigh), or who were killed in battle (Thomas Purcell). There were those who became bishops or archbishops: Denis O’Dea (Ossory), Richard Purcell (Ferns) and John Long (Armagh).

There was the tragic story too of Robert Grave, who became Bishop of Ferns while remaining Precentor of Limerick, but – only weeks after his consecration – drowned with all his family in Dublin Bay as they made their way by sea to their new home in Wexford (read more HERE).

In the 17th century, two members of the Gough family were also appointed Precentors of Limerick. In all, three brothers in this family were priests in the Church of Ireland and two were priests in the Church of England, and the Rathkeale branch of the family was the ancestral line of one of Ireland’s most famous generals.

The Gough family was descended from John Gough (ca 1525-ca 1562), who lived in Wiltshire in the mid-16th century. His son, the Revd Hugh Gough (ca 1562-1635), was the Rector of All Cannings, near Devizes, Wiltshire, in the Diocese of Salisbury, and was the father of at least seven sons, including five sons who were ordained as Anglican priests.

Two of these sons – the Revd Edward Gough and the Revd John Gough – remained in England and became vicars of parishes in Dorset and Hampshire. But three sons – Robert, Francis and Hugh – moved to Co Limerick, and these brothers helped each other to acquire prominent positions in the diocese.

The eldest of the three Gough brothers to move from Wiltshire to Limerick was the Venerable Robert Gough (1584-1641). He was educated at Baliol College, Oxford (BA 1606), and was ordained deacon in 1608 and priest in 1608. He was appointed Precentor of Limerick in 1614, and was appointed Archdeacon of Ardfert in 1628 by his younger brother, Bishop Francis Gough.

Robert Gough remained Precentor of Limerick and Archdeacon of Ardfert until he died in 1641.

His younger brother, Francis Gough (1594-1634), the fifth son of the Revd Hugh Gough, followed Robert to Limerick in 1618. when Francis was educated at Saint Edmund Hall, Oxford (BA 1615; MA 1618). He was a priest at New College, Oxford, in 1618 when he moved to Ireland at the age of 24 and was appointed Vicar of Rathkeale, Rector of Kilscannel and Chancellor of Limerick (1618-1626). Six years later, he also became Vicar of Ballingarry (1624-1626).

At the age of 31 or 32, Francis Gough was appointed Bishop of Limerick and Ardfert on 18 April 1626, and was consecrated bishop in Cashel on 17 September 1626. He died on 29 August 1634, still Bishop of Limerick, at the age of 39 or 40.

The window in the tower in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale … for most of the 17th century, Rathkeale had only two rectors, both of them members of the Gough family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The third Gough brother to move from Wiltshire to Limerick was Canon Hugh Gough (1599-1682), who was Rector of Rathkeale for 54 years. He seems to have been ordained in 1619, when was barely 20, and priest. At the age of 23 or 24, he became Prebendary of Donaghmore (1623-1626) in Limerick, and when his brother Francis became Bishop of Limerick, he succeeded him as Rector of Rathkeale and Kilscannel, Vicar of Clonelty and Chancellor of Limerick (1626).

Canon Hugh Gough held these church positions for the rest of his life, and also became Rector of Kildimo (1639) and Rector and Vicar of Mahoonagh, south of Rathkeale and Newcastle West. He married Eleanor Bolton, continued to live in Rathkeale, survived the disturbances of the Cromwellian era, and was 82 or 83 when he died in office in 1682.

So, for most of the 17th century, from 1618 to 1683, for 65 years spanning eight decades, the parish of Rathkeale in Co Limerick, had only two rectors, both of them members of the Gough family, Bishop Francis Gough and his brother Canon Hugh Gough.

Canon Hugh Gough was the ancestor of the main branch of the Gough family in Co Limerick. His son, George Gough, who was living in Rathkeale in 1682, married Anne Robert, and was the father of the second Precentor of Limerick from this family, yet another Canon Hugh Gough (ca 1661/1662-1730).

This second Canon Hugh Gough was born in Rathkeale ca 1661/1662, when his grandfather, Canon Hugh Gough, was still Rector of Rathkeale. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin (BA 1684, MA 1688), and was ordained around 1686.

He was the Precentor of Limerick for over 40 years. His church appointments included Vicar of Duagh, between Listowel and Castleisland, Co Kerry, in the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe (1686-1703), Vicar of Mungret, Limerick (1687-1730), Precentor of Limerick (1689-1730) and Vicar of Ballingarry and Corcomohide (1692-1730); he was also a Vicar Choral of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (1693).

By the end of the 18th century, the principal Gough family home was at Woodstown, near Annacotty, Co Limerick, when it was the home of the grandson of the second Canon Hugh Gough, Captain George Gough of Woodstown (1722-1783).

His son, Colonel George Gough (1750-1836) of Woodstown, married Letitia Bunbury of Lisnavagh House, Co Carlow, in 1775. He was Deputy Governor of the City of Limerick, and during the 1798 Rising fought with the militia at Edenderry and the Battle of Colooney.

Their six children included the Very Revd Thomas Bunbury Gough (1777-1860), who continued the family’s clerical tradition, becoming Chancellor of Ardfert (1811-1815) and later Dean of Derry (1820-1860).

Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan, and the Gough family tombs seen from the parish centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But their most famous son was Field Marshal Sir Hugh Gough (1779-1869), 1st Viscount Gough, a famous 19th century general who fought in the Peninsular War, the Opium War, various wars in India, and was the commander-in-chief in China and in India.

Lord Gough was born at Woodstown, Co Limerick, and once lived at Saint Helen’s, on the Stillorgan Road, Booterstown – now the Radisson Hotel – which he bought in 1851. When Gough died at Saint Helen’s in 1869, he was buried in Saint Brigid’s Churchyard, Stillorgan.

The graves in the churchyard also include those of his son, George Gough (1815-1895), 2nd Viscount Gough, and Hugh Gough (1849-1919), 3rd Viscount Gough.

Lord Gough’s nephew, George Gough, still owned 2,398 acres in Co Limerick in the 1870s. But by then the house at Woodstown had long been ‘in ruins.’ Another house was later built by the Bannatyne family and was the home of the Goodbody family in the early 20th century. The house is now part of the Saint Vincent’s Centre run by the Sisters of Charity for people with intellectual disabilities.

The Gough family graves in Saint Brigid’s Churchyard, Stillorgan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)