04 June 2012
Visiting a ‘trulie virtuous ladie’ in Portumna Castle
My visit to the banks of the River Shannon at the end of last week, brought me to a number of monastic and early church sites, including Saint Brendan’s in Clonfert, the monastery at Clonmacnoise, and the ruins of the mediaeval friary in Portumna.
In Portumna, I spent a quiet hour or two in the sunshine on the northern edge of Lough Derg, where the lawns on the south side of Portumna Castle sweep down to shores of the lake and Portumna Harbour, and when I visited the castle I was reminded of a centuries old link between Portumna, Lichfield Cathedral and the Comberford family.
I had been in Lichfield Cathedral the previous Sunday for the Eucharist on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel that morning was read by the cathedral curate, the Revd Nest Bateman, using the Lichfield Gospels or Saint Chad’s Gospels, which is used in processions on great occasions in the cathedral.
The Lichfield Gospels is an eighth century Gospel Book dating from 730, making it older than the Book of Kells yet a little younger that the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The opening folio contains a faded signature, Wynsige presul, which may refer to Wynsige, Bishop of Lichfield from around 963 to ca 975, and folio four refers to Leofric, Bishop of Lichfield from 1020 to 1026.
The book was in Lichfield Cathedral until 1646, when the cathedral was sacked during the English Civil War and the cathedral library was looted. Later, the book was recovered and was returned to the cathedral by Lady Frances Devereux (1590-1674), Duchess of Somerset. The Gospels have been on public display in 1982, and the Bishops of Lichfield still swear allegiance on the Lichfield Gospels.
The former Lady Frances Devereux was a sister of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and the youngest child of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lord of the Manor of Lichfield. In 1616, she married William Seymour (1587-1660), later Duke of Somerset. As the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, she also held properties in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth. When she died on 24 April 1674, she left her collection of 1,000 books to Lichfield Cathedral, including the Saint Chad’s Gospels and a book of pedigrees given to her by her close friend, Colonel William Comberford.
William Comberford had been the Royalist High Sheriff of Staffordshire and took an active role in the siege of Lichfield. When he died in 1656, he left a book of pedigrees of the Nevilles, Earls of Warwick to his friend, Frances, Marchioness of Hertford, later the Duchess of Somerset, saying: “The book of pedigrees of the Earles of Warwick, I give and devise to the Right Honorable and trulie virtuous ladie, the Marchioness of Hertford, for whose sake … I bought the same.”
His affectionate words and the terms of the bequest reveal a close and intimate friendship with the woman who restored the Lichfield Gospels to Lichfield Cathedral. Her donation of books to the cathedral included this book William Comberford had bought for her.
Portumna Castle was built between 1610 and 1618 by Lady Frances Devereux’s mother and step-father. Her father, Robert Devereux, had once been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, but he fell out of favour and was executed in 1601. Two years later, in 1603, her widowed mother, Frances (Walsingham), married Richard Burke (1572-1635), 4th Earl of Clanricarde, who built Portumna Castle.
Frances Devereux’s half-brother, the 5th Earl of Clanricarde, took up residence at Portumna Castle, and lived there throughout the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s, while she was living in Lichfield. The castle remained the main seat of the Clanricarde Burkes for generations, and after recent conservation and restoration work, the ground floor of the castle is now open to the public, while conservation work continues on other parts of the castle.
Portumna is on the borders of Connaught and Munster, of Co Galway and Co Tipperary, on the banks of the Shannon and at the point where the river enters Lough Derg.
Richard Burke spent £10,000 on building Portumna Castle, and when it was completed it was unequalled in Ireland for elegance, style and grandeur, outshining other castles at Rathfarnham, Kanturk, Carrickfergus, Charlemont and Burncourt. This was one of the first castles in Ireland to incorporate Renaissance refinements already found in Italy and France, giving the mansion a continental air. The Renaissance features include the doorcase at the front entrance and the Tuscan gateway of the innermost courtyard.
Even the layout of the castle is an expression of Renaissance ideas. The plan is that of a compact double-pile house, which is two rooms deep. The building is symmetrical in shape and consists of three storeys over a semi-basement with square projecting corner towers. It measures 29.7 metres by 21.2 metres and the corner towers are 6.5 metres square topped with gunports. A central corridor, 3 metres wide, runs from top to bottom, supported by stone walls with numerous recesses and fireplaces.
The approach from the north is elaborate with gardens, avenues and three impressive gateways – the Gothic Gates, built after a design by Richard Morrison; the Middle Gateway, which now houses the information office; and the Tuscan Gate – an elegant if perhaps inaccurate interpretation of Italian architectural motifs.
The castle itself was burned down accidentally in 1826, and the family moved into nearby stables. At the death of Hubert George de Burgh-Canning, the 2nd and last Marquess and 15th Earl of Clanricarde, in 1916, Portumna Castle passed to his nephew Henry Lascelles, later the 6th Earl of Harewood. The Portumna estate was bought by the Irish Government in 1948, along with the 1,500 acre demesne.
Portumna Castle remained in ruins until the Office of Public Works began restoration work in 1968. In recent years, the house, the gardens and the gates have been restored faithfully.
Inside the house, the shell and the internal walls have been restored, as well as the roof and chimneys which protect the castle from the weather. The windows, fireplaces, flooring joists and basement have been restored and extensive archaeological work is continuing.
At the Middle Gate, which serves as the reception office, there is a cannon and gun carriage from the Battle of Aughrim, reputedly left behind by Patrick Sarsfield on his way from the Battle of Aughrim to the Siege of Limerick.
the formal, geometrical gardens to the north of the castle were first laid out in the 17th century Sir John Danvers of Chelsea and these were the first Italian or Renaissance gardens in Ireland. The restored 17th century walled kitchen garden has been organically planted with fruit trees, flowers, herbs and vegetables.
The ruins of Portumna Priory lie close to the castle, to the south-east on the way to the lakeside. The priory was founded ca 1254 as a Cistercian house attached to Dunbrody Abbey, Co Wexford, but it passed to the Dominicans ca 1426 on the suggestion of the Pope.
The priory was once dominated by a tower that is now only half its original height. The remains of the lengthy church has fine traceried windows in the east wall and south transept. There is also an unusual west doorway, surmounted by a window.
To the north of the church is an attractive cloister, partially restored in 1954. The friary was dissolved at the Reformation, and passed into the possession of the Clanricarde Burkes in 1577, although it was revived briefly in 1640. Patrick Sarsfield and Honora de Burgo were married in the church in 1689, 18 months before the Battle of the Boyne.
Later the Priory served as the Church of Ireland parish church in Portumna until a new church at the end of the castle drive was built in 1832.
After lingering a little longer on the northern shores of Lough Derg, we left Portumna and crossed the Shannon where it is divided into two channels by Hayes Island. The channel on the Co Galway side is about 73 metres wide; the channel on the Tipperary side about 79 metres wide. Across the river, the five-span bridge, which was built in 1911, has a central section resting on the Island that divides the river.
From the Tipperary side of the Shannon, we turned north to Clonmacnoise, where we spent the rest of the evening.