Driving through Labasheeda in Co Clare, I thought that I could continue along the coast road and ignored the right turn-off for Killimer. A couple of miles later, I found myself confronted by the Shannon, with no way across or around it.
In order to get directions, I walked up to the little cottage nearby. The man who answered my knock on his door told me that I was at Battery Point, Kilkerrin – a dead end – and he pointed me back to the main road. I turned away to leave when he surprised me by asking, “Would you like to see my castle?”
I hesitated for a couple of seconds, looked at his beaming face, and sure what could I say only, “Yes. Yes, please.” He introduced himself as Barney and said that he was busy saving hay and had no time to show me around but gave me a large key and pointed to the stone roof just showing above a grassy hill.
Great wooden door
Following his instructions I walked the shoreline for a short distance, crossed a style and went up through a sloping grassy field. The drawbridge was down and the key turned easily in the lock of the great wooden door. It creaked open. I entered into the gloom and felt my way around the wall until my eyes became accustomed to the darkness.
I discovered a stone stairway and climbed up and out onto the battlements to command a magnificent view of Clonderlaw Bay and the broad Shannon Estuary all the way down to Carrigaholt. The ferry from Killimer chugged across, disturbing a school of dolphin leaping along the Tarbert Strait. And all the while the glorious scent of new-mown hay mingled with the turf smoke hanging on the Co Clare air.
I supposed Barney’s Castle could be called a Martello tower because it was built as a defence against a possible invasion by Napoleon; but it’s not a tower, it is a fort – a battery fort.
The battery section is a semi-circular wall with star points where guns were once fitted, and the whole arrangement is surrounded by a dry moat. In the centre of the moat is a blockhouse about 50ft long that has solid stone walls six or seven feet thick.
I wanted to see more but I was pressed for time as the Killimer cousins were expecting me for dinner and I had to leave Barney’s Castle that day.
However, he was at home on my return journey and he proudly explained to me how the fort was constructed from limestone that was ferried all the way down the river from Limerick. The main floors are of blue flagstone quarried at Carradotia beside Moneypoint, on my cousins’ land, a little farther down the coast. The building is held together with a mortar mixture of ground granite, lime, ash, hot wax and ox-blood. Up on the flat roof are a couple of depressed circles each about two metres across, with an axle in the centre where high-calibre howitzers once sat.
The fort was completed, armed and had a garrison of 20 in 1814, by which time Napoleon had met his Waterloo. The guns were never fired at an enemy, but during a training session one of the howitzers was loaded and fired and the whole building shook with the force of the shot .
A crack formed in one wall and a steel cable had to be fitted around the entire building to support the wall, as well as to act as a lightning conductor. There are storerooms in the basement and a magazine cell for storing gunpowder and rifles. Supplies were delivered by boat and winched up to the battery – part of an old iron winch remains on the shore today.
The soldiers planted vegetables in the fields surrounding the fort and they were known to join the locals for a pint up the road in Labasheeda. In fact, céilí dances became a feature at the fort and the garrison occasionally invited their counterparts of a similar fort across on the Tarbert side of the river.
The invitations were delivered by flag-semaphore. Both the battery forts were occupied until the end of 19th century. The one at Tarbert was removed to make way for the ESB power station, and so solidly was it built that it took 11blasts of explosives to destroy it.
In 1973 the government sold the Kilkerrin Battery Fort and its nine acres to its closest neighbour, Barney. Thus he became the King of Kilkerrin Castle. Alas, Barney passed away some time after I met him and no doubt he was given a right royal burial in his part of west Clare.