11 September 2018
On the journey from west Limerick to Dublin yesterday, I stopped in Golden, a village on the banks of the River Suir and between the towns of Tipperary and Cashel in Co Tipperary.
The valley of the River Suir is fertile agricultural land and is part of an area known as ‘the Golden Vale.’ But the name of Golden comes from the Irish An Gabhailín, referring to a fork in the River Suir. The bridge at Golden straddles an island in the River Suir, and in the past, this village was also known as Goldenbridge.
The road from Cashel in Co Tipperary to the coast at Ardmore, Co Waterford, passes through Golden and was a route taken in the past by many key figures, from Saint Patrick to King Henry II.
The River Suir, said to be the second longest river in Ireland, brought early settlers, the Vikings and the Normans, deep into the rich farmland of the Golden Vale.
The Annals of the Four Masters refers to the Battle of Maol Ceannaigh on the hill overlooking Golden to the north-east in 1043. In that battle, Carthach, ancestor of the MacCarthys, defeated the forces of Ossory and Ormond.
The mediaeval castle at Golden is now in a ruinous state, and all that remains of it is a mediaeval tower that stands on an island beside the bridge crossing the River Suir.
Golden Castle was built in the late 15th century by the Butlers of Ormond to defend the river crossing and to protect river traffic. The castle is said to have sheltered 120 men, women and children for 11 weeks during the 1641 rebellion. A well close to the castle is known as Cromwell’s Well.
The army of William III (William of Orange) camped to the north-east of Golden on their way to lay siege to Limerick in 1690. While he was at Golden, King William renewed by letter, in his own hand, the Royal Charter of Cashel in gratitude to the people of Cashel for the hospitality his followers received.
Golden’s most famous person was Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), who was born nearby at Thomastown Castle, the home of the Mathew family, Earls of Llandaff. Father Mathew was known as the ‘Apostle of Temperance.’
There are other castle ruins and sites around Golden. Castlepark House, near the entrance to Golden, was the seat of the Alleyn family in 1786. By the early 19th century it was the home of the Creagh family. Richard Creagh was living there in 1814 and 1837, and Lawrence Creagh held the property from Kingsmill Pennefather at the time of Griffith's Valuation.
It was later bought by the Scully family, when it became known as Mantle Hill. The house is no longer standing.
Goldenville near Golden was the residence of Thomas Judkin Fitzgerald, High Sheriff of Co Tipperary in 1798 and known as ‘Flogging Fitzgerald.’
When he died in 1810, an obituary described his excessive use of the cat o’ nine tails 1798, and said, ‘The history of his life and loyalty is written in legible characters on the backs of his fellow countrymen.’
The White family lived at Goldenville for a time, and in 1837, Lewis describes Golden Hills as the ‘castellated residence of H[enry] White.’
By 1858, Sir Thomas Judkin Fitzgerald (1820-1864), 3rd Baronet, was living at Golden Hills or Golden Lodge, near Golden. He was facing financial problems when he drowned himself in the River Suir on the night of 26 and 27 April 1878. It was reported later that he died from ‘temporary insanity.’
Golden Hills was advertised for sale in 1878, when it was described as a ‘large castellated building’ with a drawing room opening into a conservatory, dining room and morning room, eight bedrooms and a servants’ hall.
Most of the house had disappeared by the early 1940s, or was incorporated into a modern farmyard.
The tower of Golden Castle is now as part of a park that surrounds the bridge area and offers picturesque views of the River Suir.
A memorial in the castle ruins commemorates Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916), a Tipperary-born poet and one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. But while one of his collections of poetry was published as The Golden Joy (1910), he seems to have had no connections with Golden.
I must return to Golden to see the ruins of the Augustinian Priory at Athassel, 2 km south of the village. The abbey was founded by William FitzAdelm de Burgo in the last decades of the 12th century. It was once the largest abbey in Ireland and was surrounded by Athassel, a small town that was burned twice, in 1319 by Lord Maurice Fitzthomas and in 1419 by Bryan O’Brien.
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.