21 April 2018

Tall tales of pirates, monks
and murder holes at
Ballinskelligs Castle

Ballinskelligs Castle … at the end of an isthmus on the western shoreline of Ballinskelligs Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sigerson’s Bar is the only remaining pub in Dungeagan. There I listened to stories from Rosie, who gives her name to Tig Rosie, and from some of the customers at the bar about old Ballinskelligs.

They recalled the teenagers and the teachers who came to the Irish College year by year in the 1960s, John Joe and his biscuit boxes, and the old tales told by Seán Mhártain Uí Shúilleabháin (1890-1975), who was the sheanchaí at Coláiste Mhichíl for many years.

As teenagers, we had heard stories of the ‘murder hole’ at Ballinskelligs Castle, pirates and the bodies of dead monks. So, late on Thursday afternoon, after visiting the ruins of Ballinskelligs Abbey, I continued out along the isthmus that stretches out into Ballinskelligs Bay on its western shoreline to visit Ballinskelligs Castle.

The McCarthy Tower at the end of this isthmus is known locally as Ballinskelligs Castle. It was reputedly a McCarthy stronghold and was probably built in the 16th century by the McCarthy family, powerful chieftains in Cork and Kerry at the time.

A more romantic version of the story says the castle was built much earlier in the l2th and 13th century. This was a time when battles were taking place between the McCarthy Mór, the Gaelic Kings of Desmond who ruled South Kerry, and the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, who ruled North Kerry.

Other stories say Ballinskelligs Castle was built to defend the bay from pirates. Some credibility is given to these stories by the geographical location of the castle, as well as architectural evidence, including defensive elements such as a battered base, narrow window openings and a ‘murder hole.’

A view of the beach from Ballinskelligs Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ballinskelligs Castle also had some associations with the nearby priory, known Ballinskelligs Abbey, which was survived until 1538 and the dissolution of the monastic houses during the reign of Henry VIII. It is possible that the Priory was in McCarthy Mór hands in the mid-16th century and it may have housed a garrison.

Local lore says that after a storm, a hole opened up at a point between the priory and the McCarthy Tower and skeletons and skulls were exposed. Each skull was cut in the front as if by a sword or axe, and the skeletons were said to be the those of the monks of the abbey.

The castle was also the manor held by the Sigerson family in the early 17th century, and in 1620 the abbey came into the possession of Christopher Sigerson.

Later in the 17th century, the castle was used as a pilchard-curing station as part of the fisheries set up by Sir William Petty.

Ballinskelligs Castle … looking out at the sea through the ‘murder hole’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Following the erosion of a large area of land at the south and east sides of the castle, John Sheehan and Anne O’Sullivan carried out excavations at the castle in 1988-1991. They uncovered the original ground floor, formed of large paving slabs, beneath a build-up of storm material.

The entrance on the south-east or seaward side features a doorway of punch dressed sandstone. A hole runs through from the doorway to a mural chamber on the north-east side to allow for a chain to operate the grille. There is also a space for a draw bar on the inside of the door. Above the door is what is said to be a murder-hole.

The castle was originally a three-storey tower, and the corbels for these floors still exist. We climbed the mural stairway in the south corner to the first-floor level, and the stairway does not seem to have gone any further than the second floor, and in the past a ladder was probably used to reach the roof.

Excavations on the south side have indicated traces of two lean-to structures, both dating from after the primary period of occupation of the castle, and most of the finds on the site are from a post-mediaeval date.

We walked back along the isthmus to the priory and crossed a narrow footbridge across fens and marshland to the long sandy beach again.

The story telling continued that evening in Sigerson’s Bar in Dungeagan.

Ballinkskellings Castle was the centre of the Sigerson manor in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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