11 September 2018
Roscrea Castle and Damer House
have survived through the centuries
Apart from the extensive church and monastic sites throughout Roscrea, the most impressive historical site in the Co Tipperary market town is Roscrea Castle, with Damer House inside the castle wall, and the walled gardens, all forming the Roscrea Heritage Centre.
The south-east tower is sometimes known as King John’s Castle as it is said to have been built in the early 13th century by King John. Although the castle was built after his death, there is evidence that King John ordered a motam et bretagium (‘motte and tower’) to be built on the site in 1213 as part of his efforts to solidify his conquest of Ireland, particularly the midlands and southern counties.
At the time the castle was built, the land was owned by the Bishop of Killaloe. The building work was overseen by the Justiciar of Ireland, Henry de Loundres, Archbishop of Dublin.
The original wooden castle was destroyed in the late 13th century and was replaced with a stone structure built in 1274-1295 by John de Lydyard. The castle was originally surrounded by a river to the east and a moat on the other sides.
In 1315, the castle was granted to the Butlers of Ormond, who held it until the 18th century, and the castle we see today was built from 1332. It includes a gate tower and two D-shaped corner towers that were originally joined by a curtain wall. A drawbridge provided access to the courtyard and castle through the rectangular gate tower.
During the wars that culminated in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, Roscrea Castle and the town were stormed in 1646 by Owen Roe O’Neill at the head of 1,200 men, reportedly killing every man, woman and child in Roscrea.
The only survivor was Lady Hamilton, wife of the town’s governor and a sister of the Earl of Ormond. Three years later, she was forced to play host to O’Neill in the castle once again in 1649. He and his men refused to bring their visit to a peaceful end without being paid £7. They then left the castle in peace, carrying ‘saddles, pots, pans, gridirons, brandirons (and) ploughirons.’ They even took ‘women’s gowns and petticoats’ from the castle.
Roscrea Castle fell to Cromwell in 1650 and for a short period was used by Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton.
The current structure consists of a 40-metre-wide courtyard enclosed by curtain walls and a ditch. The walls are up to 2.5 metres thick in parts. Although the castle does not have a keep, the main residence is a three-storey rectangular gate building to the north, complemented by two three-quarter round towers, one at the south-west and one at the south-east.
The south-west tower, known as the Ormond Tower, contains a first floor room with a fireplace on the north wall and a 17th-century plasterwork coat of arms.
The south-east tower is known as King John’s Castle.
The gate building is about 27 metres high and originally included a bascule bridge and portcullis. The entrance has a barrel vault ceiling. A basement prison below the gate tower was accessible by a trapdoor.
In the 17th century, a second floor living area was added to the building, including a pointed groined vault, three bays, lancet windows, a garderobe, a chimney stack, a large hooded dog-tooth capital fireplace on the south wall, and crow-stepped gables. The drawbridge was operated from this floor.
A spiral staircase in the east corner of the building gives access to the upper floors.
After the Williamite wars in the 1690s, William III he ordered the demolition of Roscrea Castle, as ‘it would be dangerous for the peace and safety of the Kingdom if it fell into enemy hands.’ The castle gained a reprieve, however, as it was deemed to provide a vital haven for the settlers and their animals against ‘pilfering thieves in the night.’
Roscrea Castle was sold to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, by the Duke of Ormond in 1703. It was bought by local merchant John Damer in 1722 and was later inherited by the Dawson and Dawson-Damer family who held the title of Earl of Portarlington.
The castle was used as a barracks from 1798, housing 350 soldiers. It was used later as a school, a library, and a tuberculosis sanatorium. Roscrea Castle fell into disrepair in the 19th century, and when the roof collapsed extensive repairs were needed in the 1850s. It was named a national monument in 1892.
Damer House forms part of a complex with Roscrea Castle. John Damer, who bought Roscrea Castle, built Damer House, a large house on the grounds of the castle, in 1728. The house is an example of pre-Palladian architecture. It was designed in the Queen Anne style, and is a three-storey-over-basement house with nine bay windows.
Inside is one of only two Queen Anne style staircases in Ireland, and one of the rooms is furnished in period style.
Damer House was used as a barracks in the 19th century and fell into poor repair. It was due to be demolished in the 1960s, with plans to build a swimming pool or a bacon factory on the site. It was eventually saved after a campaign by Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, which took a lease in 1973.
Damer House was restored by the Irish Georgian Society in 1980-1983 and opened to the public. The lease was then transferred to the Roscrea Heritage Society. Restoration was completed in the 1990s by the national heritage service, Dúchas, with additional funding from Bord Fáilte and the Government Policy for Architecture.
More than £1.3 million was spent on the project, allowing many original period features to be maintained. Damer House is now owned by Tipperary County Council and managed with Roscrea Heritage Society.
The grounds include impressive gardens with a fountain, a restored mill and the original Saint Cronan’s high cross and pillar stone.