30 September 2020

Three surviving castles in
Buttevant and the families
and legends linked with them

Buttevant Castle … the stronghold of the Barry family for almost 600 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Many years ago, while staying in Paris and visiting both the French capital and Versailles with other family members, I rose early before everyone to take an early morning exercise.

When I explained one morning I was taking an early daily jog up the butte of Montmartre, my mother joked in a way that I failed at the time to understand about ‘butte avant, Buttevant.’

She was from north Cork and had fluent French, after last week’s visit to Buttevant I know realise she was referring to the supposed origins of the town’s name in the motto of the Barry family, Boutez-en-Avant, ‘Push Forward.’

But the town predates a time when mottoes were adopted with consistency as an integral part of heraldic coats-of-arms.

The modern, structured town of Buttevant was laid out in the rectangular grid-like plan of bastide towns, enclosed by walls, common among important European towns of the time, especially in south-west France. Boutavant means ‘abutment’ in old French, or the front part of a castle, and so the town’s name may come from the French description of the first mediaeval castle built in Buttevant by the de Barry family.

The surviving fortified mediaeval remains of the bastitde grid plan that may be a more likely origin for the name of Buttevant include Buttevant Castle, or Barry’s Castle, on the southern fringes of the town; Lombard’s Castle in the centre of the town; and the Desmond Tower built beside the Franciscan friary and incorporated into Saint Mary’s Church when it was built in the 1830s.

Buttevant Castle, or Barry’s Castle, was built by Philip and William de Barry immediately after their family secured its hold on this part of north Cork in the early 13th century.

Philip de Barry came to Ireland in 1185 and was awarded the lands around Buttevant. The castle was a powerful defensive structure, as it was built on top of a high cliff of sheer rock, where it was probably named boutavant or ‘abutment.’

The swift-flowing Awbeg River below the weir offered a defensive protection for the castle. It guaranteed the water supply for the castle but also acted as a large natural moat, making an attack on the castle walls difficult.

Morrough O’Brien, who overran Munster in the 1400s, captured Buttevant and attacked the castle. But, thanks to its strong walls, the castle held firm.

During the Elizabethan plantation of Munster in the late 16th century, the castle was captured by Lord Deputy Sidney, who laid a successful siege that allowed him to occupy the castle for a time.

A Victorian post-box set into the former demesne walls of Buttevant Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A gargoyle above the front door is said to have watched Buttevant life for 800 years. Some say it is a representation of David Óg Barry, others say it is King John. All it has for company is the drummer boy who, according to local legend, is doomed to eternity to repeat his betrayal of the Barrys.

The boy is said to have betrayed the castle to Sidney. When the castle was taken, the bugler or drummer was executed by the victor, who said ‘Thus may all traitors perish.’ At night, it is said, his head still rolls down the stairs, crying ‘Betrayed, betrayed,’ and a bloodstain on the stairs cannot be washed away.

The Barry family received the titles of Lord Barry (13th century), Viscount Buttevant (1541) and Earl of Barrymore (1628). Richard Barry (1769-1793), 7th Earl of Barrymore, inherited 140,000 acres in Co Cork from his father in 1773. But accumulated gambling debts and financial difficulties forced his brother, Henry Barry (1770-1832), 8th Earl of Barrymore, to sell Buttevant Castle in 1799 to John Anderson of Cork.

Anderson renovated the mediaeval castle, transforming it into a fashionable stately home. But he too suffered financial problems after the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, and the castle was acquired by Hayes St Leger, Viscount Doneraile.

The castle changed hands a number of times after that, and it was lived in as a home until 1920. The last person to live in the castle was a Mrs Guiney, who left after a major fire. Although the castle and its surrounding grounds or demesne are now owned privately, the castle is accessible on a few days each year.

Lombard’s Castle stands on a prominent site on Richmond Street in Buttevant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Lombard’s Castle is a prominent site on Richmond Street, the continuation of Buttevant’s Main Street, with substantial intact remnants. It was the town house of a family of merchants who came to Buttevant from Lucca in Tuscany, south of Lombardy in northern Italy.

The Lombards were merchant adventurers who arrived in Ireland with the Anglo-Normans in the late 12th century. The main focus of the Lombards was the highly lucrative wool trade, and their tower house in Buttevant was conveniently located beside the Market House. Wool merchants like the Lombards became vastly wealthy during the mediaeval period, the monarchs regularly turned to wool merchants to borrow money, and they effectively become bankers and financiers.

The Lombards of Buttevant claimed descent from the Donatti family in Lucca, and the name Lombard was soon found throughout the Buttevant area.

David and James Lombard, merchants of Cork and Buttevant were part of the ‘The Merchants of Staple.’ In the turbulent years of the 14th century, large town walls were built protect Buttevant from raiding and warfare, and a will by James Lombard refers to the walls of Buttevant.

Lombard’s Castle is a 15th or early 16th century urban tower house, but it may stand on the site of an earlier building. It stands at the corner of the precise grid pattern plan of the mediaeval town, which suggests the Lombards were in Buttevant from the early stages of the mediaeval settlement.

A village south-west of Buttevant is called Lombardstown, showing the family’s continued influence in the post-mediaeval period.

Lombard’s Castle in Buttevant was confiscated in the mid-17th century. The tower house was described as Lombard’s Castle in 1690, when it was granted to Colonel John Gifford after the Williamite War, with two acres of gardens behind the castle and an orchard of one acre.

Smith’s History of Cork also described it as Lombard’s Castle in 1750. At the time, it was a free Protestant School established by the Dowager Lady Lanesborough, Lady Frances, a daughter of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset.

It continued as a school until 1818 under the legacy from the Muschamp family, descendants of the family of Lady Lanesborough’s second husband, Denny Muschamp.

A mural on a gable end in Buttevant tells the stories of the Barry and Lombard families (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Desmond Tower is thought to have been built by the Earl of Desmond ca 1400-1430 on the outer perimeter of the grounds of the neighbouring Franciscan friary. Some legends say it was built by the Earl of Desmond to offer protection to the Franciscan Friary. Other legends say he retired here, heartbroken after the death of his wife in childbirth. He had the door to the tower inserted some 10 ft from the ground to ensure his solitude.

It was incorporated into Saint Mary’s Church by the architect Charles Cottrell when the church was built in the 1830s.

However, integrating the Desmond tower, a genuine element of mediaeval architecture, into his new church, posed particular challenges for Cottrell.

On the east side of the new church, Cottrell did not use finely cut ashlar blocks but a more coarse rubble. so that the east gable, transept and east wall of the nave would better resemble the building techniques used in the mediaeval Desmond tower. This contrasts with the south and west elevations, where Cottrell used finely cut blocks laid in regular horizontal courses.
Charles Cottrell incorporated the Desmond Tower into Saint Mary’s Church when it was built in the 1830s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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