14 July 2021

Why Kanturk Castle has
stood unfinished and
empty for 400 years

Kanturk Castle has stood unfinished for over 400 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The ‘road trip’ or staycation in West Cork and Kerry was such a success last month, that two of us soon took to the road again, and one of the first places to visit was Kanturk with its ruined and unfinished castle.

Kanturk in north Co Cork stands where the River Allow and the River Dallow meet, before flowing into the River Blackwater. It is about 50 km from Cork, Blarney and Limerick, and lies just north of the N72, 15 km from Mallow and about 40 km from Killarney.

The name Kanturk comes from the Irish Céann Tuirc, meaning ‘boar’s head’. I wonder whether this, in turn, was derived from the white boar, the emblem of the Yorkist King Richard III, who chose it as his heraldic symbol before becoming Duke of Gloucester, ca 1469.

But what inspired Richard III’s choice is hard to say. One theory says that in mediaeval times the word ‘boar’ was spelt ‘bore,’ making it an anagram of ‘Ebor,’ the Roman name of York.

Kanturk Castle, also known locally as ‘Old Court,’ is an impressive, ruined mansion about 1.5km south of the town. It only dates from ca 1609, when it was built for Dermot MacDonagh MacCarthy, Lord of Duhallow, as a defence against English settlers. He had recently been pardoned by the government, after his capture in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

This was a Tudor-style mansion four storeys high, 28 metres in length and 11 metres wide. Each tower had five storeys and rose to a height of 29 metres. It was built of limestone rubble from a quarry just north of the castle.

It is said the castle was never completed as the news of it being built reached the Privy Council in England. MacDonagh MacCarthy was ordered to stop building in case his castle became a fortress to use in attacking English forces.

Dressed limestone was used around the mullioned windows, and the cornice and corbel stones. The entrance doors, internal doors, and fireplaces are made from carved limestone.

Local lore says the seven stone masons who worked on Kanturk Castle were all named John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Local lore says the seven stone masons who worked on the castle were all named John, giving the castle the name of Carrig-na-Shane-Saor, meaning ‘he Rock of John the Mason.’

Another legend says there is blood in the mortar. This has been taken to mean that many died in the building of the castle. Some say that passers-by were recruited to work on the castle and once the slave labourers had dropped dead of exhaustion their bodies were disposed of within the castle walls.

Despite the dramatic and terrifying images these tales conjure, it is possible that ‘blood in the mortar’ may refer to a tradition of strengthening lime with the addition of animal blood.

According to legend, MacDonagh MacCarthy was so angry at being ordered to stop building Kanturk Castle that he smashed all the blue ceramic tiles for the roof and threw them into a nearby stream. The stream became known as the Bluepool Stream because of the reflection of the tiles in the water. However, other accounts say MacCarthy ran out of finances.

The main entrance is Renaissance in style but the steps to the doorway are missing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In either case, the castle has remained a roofless shell for centuries. Some of the fireplaces were removed and reused nearby in Lohort Castle. The main entrance is Renaissance in style and located on the west side of the castle, but the steps to the doorway are now missing. There is another entrance on the east side in Irish castellated style.

The flat ‘Burgundian’ arch is a feature of the ground-floor windows, while the windows on the upper storey are Tudor in style, with two or three mullions. The castle also has a remarkable number of well-preserved fireplaces.

This building is an interesting combination of the traditional Irish tower-house architecture with pointed arches and the new Tudor architecture with Renaissance doorways and mullioned windows.

Dermot MacCarthy mortgaged Kanturk Castle in 1641 to Sir Philip Perceval (1605–1647), who obtained 101,000 acres in all of forfeited lands, mainly in Co Cork.

After the Caroline restoration in 1660, the MacCarthy family was unable to redeem the old mortgages. Instead, the Lordship of Duhallow and the Manor of Kanturk was awarded to Sir Philip Percival (1656-1680).

The Percival family removed many of the fixtures from Kanturk Castle, including the fireplaces (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Percival family removed many of the fixtures from Kanturk Castle, including the fireplaces, to use in other properties, including Lohort Castle.

Sir John Perceval (1683-1748), the fifth baronet, became Baron Perceval of Burton, Co Cork, in 1715, Viscount Perceval of Kanturk, in 1722 and Earl of Egmont in 1733. Although Kanturk Castle appears in the background of a portrait of the second earl and his wife painted ca 1759 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the family lived mainly at Lohort Castle.

Other Perceval estates included Liscarroll Castle, near Buttevant, Co Cork, once reputed to be the third largest castle in Ireland but now in ruins.

The second earl’s son, Spencer Perceval, was Prime Minister when he was assassinated by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons, in 1812 – the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

Kanturk Castle was donated to the National Trust on 8 May 1900 by Lucy (née King), Countess of Egmont and widow of Charles Perceval (1845-1897), 7th Earl of Egmont. Before he died, her husband had sold off most of the Perceval estates in Co Cork, totalling 62,500 acres, to the tenants under the Ashbourne Land Act in 1895.

Lady Egmont donated Kanturk Castle to the National Trust on condition that the castle was kept in the same condition as it was when handed over – in other words, it was to remain a ruin.

The castle was only the ninth property acquired by the National Trust and was declared inalienable under legislation in 1907. For much of the 20th century, the castle was the National Trust’s only property in the Republic of Ireland. In September 1951, it handed over Kanturk Castle to An Taisce on a 1,000-year lease, with an annual rent of one shilling … if demanded.

After legislation was amended in Westminster, Kanturk Castle was handed over by the National Trust to President McAleese on behalf of An Taisce, 21 years ago today, on 14 July 2000. It is a designated National Monument.

The east side of Kanturk Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
46, Saint Colman’s Church, Gort

Saint Colman’s Church in Gort, Co Galway, served as the ‘de facto’ cathedral of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh for much of the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, my photographs are from seven cathedrals or former cathedrals in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. Earlier in this series, I have looked at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert. My photographs this week are from Aghadoe, Ardfert, Emly, Gort, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh and Roscrea.

Inside Saint Colman’s Church in Gort stands on a site donated by the Prendergast family and their descendant, Lord Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Since my appointment as Precentor of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert in 2017, I have tried to visit all the cathedrals and former cathedrals in the diocese. This morning (14 July 2021), my photographs are from Saint Colman’s Church in Gort, Co Galway, served as the ‘de facto’ cathedral of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh for much of the 19th century.

Gort is a pretty market town between Galway City and Ennis, and has been designated a heritage town, with its traditional street-plan and shopfronts. It is ideally located for exploring the Burren, south Galway and north Clare. Sites nearby include Coole Park, once the home of Lady Gregory and cradle of the Irish literary revival; Thoor Ballylee, once the home of WB Yeats; as well as Kilmacduagh Cathedral, the monastic site and the round tower.

Gort (Gort Inse Guaire or An Gort) is just north of the border with Co Clare on the Galway-Limerick road. It is in the former territory of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne also known as Maigh Aidhne (‘the plain of Aidhne’), which was coextensive with the Diocese of Kilmacduagh.

The name means the meadow on the island of Guaire, referring to Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, the sixth century King of Connacht and patron of Saint Colman MacDuagh of Kilmacduagh.

During the Middle Ages the chiefs of Cenél Áeda na hEchtge, the O’Shaughnessys (Ó Seachnasaigh) clan, had their principal stronghold in Gort, on a site that later became a cavalry barracks. The O’Shaughnessy lands were confiscated at the end of the 17th century, and granted to Sir Thomas Prendergast (1660-1709).

His son, Sir Thomas Prendergast (1702-1760), MP for Clonmel, presented 294 acres in the Gort area to the Very Revd Joseph Bradshaw, Dean of Kilmacduagh, in 1738. Two years later, the first Church of Ireland parish church in the town, with a wooden spire, was built in 1740.

Prendergast also donated a house and farm to the Very Revd William Nethercote, Dean of Kilmacduagh, in 1749, along with 53 acres of land near Gort known as Horse Park.

The sites for the two parish churches in Gort, the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic parish churches in the town, both named Saint Colman’s, were donated by Prendergast’s son, John Prendergast-Smyth (1742-1817), 1st Lord Gort. Before being made a peer in 1810, Lord Gort was MP for Carlow (1776-1783) and Limerick (1785-1798); his paternal grandfather was Thomas Smyth, Bishop of Limerick, and his uncles included Arthur Smyth, Archbishop of Dublin.

The Deanery House on Church Street was built as the rectory in 1812, and a new Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Colman’s, was built in 1814.

This church is attributed to the Limerick-based architect, James Pain (1779-1877), who also designed the neghbouring Roman Catholic parish church in Gort, also known as Saint Colman’s (see HERE).

Saint Colman’s Church in Gort was built with a loan of £1,400 by the Board of First Fruits, and it was repaired in 1828 with a further loan of £600. Queen Street was laid out in Gort after this church was built, to allow it to be viewed to its best advantage from the east.

Fine craftsmanship can be seen throughout this building, particularly in the stone carving at the pinnacles, the crenellations and string courses.

This church has a two-bay nave, a three-stage tower at the west gable, full-height transepts, and a lower chancel at the east end. There is a crenellated canted porch at the north re-entrant corner of the chancel and the nave, and a similar annex at the south.

There is a pointed arch stained-glass three-light window in the east gable with a cut limestone block-and-start surround. This remaining stained-glass window is the work of Sibthorpe of Dublin and was a gift from a Mrs Lahiff.

There are pointed arch windows in the rest of the church, with replacement windows. The pointed arch door openings at the porch and the south side of the tower have chamfered limestone block-and-start surrounds. There are timber battened doors with cut limestone steps.

The gallery in the north transept of the church was allocated to the Gregory family of Coole Park, and the gallery in the south transept was reserved for the family of Viscount Gort.

The church has pitched slate roofs with cut-stone copings, and a tower with a spire and crenellations. There are crenellations also at the porch and annex, cut-stone finials and cross finials at the gables, and corner pinnacles.

The dressed walls have stepped corner buttresses, and there are cut-stone string courses on the tower. The top stage of the tower has pointed arch louvered openings.

Sir William Henry Gregory (1817-1892) of Coole Park, near Gort, was MP for Dublin (1842-1847) and Co Galway (1857-1872), and Governor of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka (1872-1877). He also paid for the restoration and recapping of the Round Tower nearby at Kilmacduagh, the tallest round tower in Ireland.

Gregory was also an advocate of the cause of Greece and sympathetic to the Philhellenes. In a speech deliverd on 18 March 1864, he called for the restoration of the Ionian Islands and Crete to the modern Greek state.

‘If there was one spot,’ he said, ‘in all Europe where the name of England was cherished before, it was in these Ionian Islands. Now there are few places where it is regarded with greater distrust and dislike. Had these islands belonged to us, and had we ceded them, or parted company with them in any way, it would have been an evil thing to destroy their fortifications; but we are actually blowing up now that which never belonged to us, and against the destruction of which the owners protest.

‘These islands were always independent, even when under our protection. The rights of the lonians to their fortresses were recognised in the sixth article of the Congress of Vienna.

‘When Lord Malmesbury made a proposal on 16 April 1863 that these islands should be neutralised, and their fortresses destroyed, Lord Russell reprimanded him, saying that the Ionian Islands were independent states, and that if they were united to Greece it would be for them to decide whether the fortresses of Corfu were to be kept up.

‘They have kept up these fortresses by heavy taxation since 1825, though I am quite ready to admit that they have not paid up the full amount of necessary contributions. The lonians were altogether ignorant of the terms of the treaty of 1863, by which their fortresses were to be destroyed. The whole affair arose from Austrian misgivings lest these islands should be seized by the Italians, and used as a basis of hostile operations; but, if so, let Austria take on herself the discredit of this act. Why should we be execrated, and our good faith impugned, to allay Austria’s apprehensions.’

Gregory spoke of ‘the lighting up of hope in the breasts of the oppressed at the deliverance of their brethren.’

His widow, the former Augusta Persse (1852-1932), is remembered as Lady Gregory, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, a founder of the Abbey Theatre, and the patron of William Butler Yeats, who often went to church in Gort.

Sir William Gregory lost much of his inherited fortune in gambling on the racetrack. It is no surprise, then, that he gives his name to the inspector in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel Silver Blaze (1892). The story is based on the disappearance of a racehorse on the eve of a major race. Gregory was at Harrow with Sir Robert Peel and Anthony Trollope, and he may have been the model for Phineas Finn in Trollope’s Palliser novels.

Saint Colman’s Church is set in its own grounds, and the graveyard on the south side of the church, which is still in use, incorporates the former orchard of a neighbouring convent.

The church closed in 1970 and was handed over on behalf of the diocese to the people of Gort on 5 April 1972, when Bishop Edwin Owen of Killaloe presented the keys to Bishop Michael Browne of Galway.

Since then, the church has become the Town Library in Gort.

The former sanctuary of Saint Colman’s Church, now the town library in Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 11: 25-27 (NRSVA):

25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

The East Window is the work of Sibthorpe of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (14 July 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for youth leaders across the world church. May they feel supported by their fellow Christians and valued as contributors to the life of the Church.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The gallery in the north transept was once allocated to the Gregory family of Coole Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Colman’s Church is set in its own grounds and is now the town library in Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)