Fortress with a story to tell


Sited on a limestone outcrop in the middle of the River Suir, Cahir Castle is one of Ireland's largest and best preserved fortifications. This "splendid pile", to quote Harold Leask (author of Irish Castles, 1941), is the largest of the late medieval structures (though smaller than the earlier Norman castle at Trim, Co Meath) and possesses within its high curtain walls three courtyards, a hall and a massive keep or main tower. Although initially suggesting an aura of power, and with it conquest and settlement rather than romance, the mighty fortress on its rocky island is not without beauty.

It is a dramatic, evocative statement as well as being a complex series of multi-period buildings, ranging from the great towers to a 19th-century house, Cahir Cottage, at the southern end of the outer ward.

There is also the awareness of standing at yet another Butler stronghold, albeit that of a junior branch of the family. A large stone eagle has presided high over the entrance since about 1843. The coat of arms placed in the wall over that entrance to the outer ward testifies to a far earlier union between the houses of Butler (Ormond) and Fitzgerald (Desmond), with the Cahir Butlers also including the de Bermingham arms through a marriage. The visitor's impressions are invariably dominated, however, by the drama of the Siege of Cahir Castle in 1599, which not only signalled the end for the hapless onetime royal favourite, Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, but also introduced artillery warfare to Ireland in the form of two guns, a cannon and a culverin - both dragged by soldiers as there were no draught horses available.

Elizabeth I was unimpressed by Devereux's actions, which she described as "taking an Irish hold from a rabble of rogues". She was far more interested in securing the defeat of her tenacious rival Hugh O'Neill. Although the castle's history is patchily recorded, the 10-day siege is well documented. A manuscript map of the siege survives. A couple of mementos remain permanently on view: two canonballs - one embedded in the wall of the keep, the other firmly buried in the limestone of the north east tower, visible when passing along the Dublin/Cork road - give some sense of the force with which these iron balls hit the castle during the siege.

An excellent permanent exhibition of the siege, designed by Paul O'Connor and Grainne Carr Architects in conjunction with Aighleann O'Shaughnessy, a senior architect with Duchas, is on display at Cahir Castle. It has this week been further enhanced by the arrival of a spectacular model of the castle during the siege, complete with between 800 and 1,000 historically detailed models of the siegers and besieged.

Today, Cahir Castle is a peaceful focal point dominating Cahir, one of the most charming of Ireland's heritage towns. Within 12 miles of the Rock of Cashel, it is a calmly atmospheric place which appears to have benefited from the bypass, opened on Christmas Eve, 1991. Efforts have been made to sustain and maintain the heritage of the town, which benefited from the mid-19th-century vision of Richard, the 13th earl of Cahir, and his architect, William Tinsley (180485). The Baron granted new leases with design specifications during a busy period of building from 1840 to 1846. Their work included the restoration of the castle, most impressively the marvellous great hall in the inner ward. By the 1850s Richard was bankrupt.

Cahir has a population of about 2,500. But whether by day or by night the castle, overlooking the aptly named Castle Street, continues to command attention - and draw about 73,000 visitors a year.

Originally built in the 13th century, it is known to occupy the site of a much earlier cathair or dry-stone fort. Cahir was also one of the royal seats of residence of the Kings of Munster prior to the dawning of Christianity in the 5th century. Brian Boru, one time king of Munster and later high king of Ireland, re-fortified Cathair Dun Iascaigh, the stone fort of the fishery.

The fish motif has not been forgotten. A weather vane featuring what could be a wriggling salmon stands high over the battlements. By the time the Anglo-Normans invaded in 1169, Cahir and its hinterland was ruled by the O'Briens of Thomond, descendants of Brian Boru.

Throughout the 1190s, much of what is now Co Tipperary was systematically taken from the Irish. In 1192, the area around Cahir was granted to Philip of Worcester by John, Lord of Ireland, later King John. Worcester's first fortification was probably the large motte at Knockgraffon about six kilometres north of Cahir, to the east of the Suir. While the earliest surviving parts of the castle - the foundations of the inner ward, the portcullis gateway and probably also sections of the keep dominating the middle ward - date from the 13th century, most of the structure as its now stands dates from the 15th to 17th century, while extensive restoration was carried out during the 1840s. Throughout the complex, the later use of sandstone is juxtaposed against the earlier limestone. Exactly how much of the 13th-century castle is attributable to Philip of Worcester or his nephew and heir William is uncertain.

Following the execution of Sir William de Bermingham in 1332, the town of Cahir, which was burnt by Brian O'Brien, (of the O'Briens of Thomond) reverted to English hands until 1375, when the barony of Cahir was granted to James, third earl of Ormond and head of the great Anglo-Norman family, the Butlers. Tactics rather than generosity dictated this move. English rule in Ireland was weak at the time, and the earls of Ormond were considered the most trustworthy of the dominant Anglo-Irish leaders. On James's death in 1405, Cahir passed to his natural son, James (Seamus Gallda) by Katherine, daughter of the third earl of Desmond. The politically quiet Butlers flourished in their lands - lying conveniently between the territories of the earls of Ormond and Desmond.

In 1543, Henry VIII made Thomas Butler baron of Cahir, guaranteeing succession to all of his heirs, male and female.

Confusion developed when Thomas's son Edmund died in 1560, shortly after his father, leaving Thomas's two daughters with equal rights. More than 20 years later this problem was finally resolved, when Theobald Butler, patron of bardic poets and nephew of Thomas, was made baron of Cahir, and all previous claims to the title were surrendered. His son Thomas succeeded him in 1596.

Though not a great leader, Thomas "junior" - who had supported Hugh O'Neill - enjoyed some status as the owner of Cahir Castle, which Robert Devereux's secretary shrewdly acknowledged as "the only famous castle of Ireland which was thought impregnable and is the bulwark of Munster".

It was no longer impregnable. The garrison of Cahir Castle refused to accept Essex's invitation to surrender. The castle was attacked, and its island site was for once powerless against the new artillery, which breached the walls.

Mary McCormack, one of 300 Duchas guides currently based at 67 heritage service sites, provides a vivid account of the siege (complete with details of hot burning oils and animal fats), while a contemporary view is included in Pacata Hibernia (London, 1633). Thomas was pardoned in 1601 and lived on at Cahir until his death in 1627.

Twenty years later, the castle was taken by Lord Inchiquin. Cromwell retook it in 1650, the garrison having left without a fight. Although surveyed by Sir William Petty, Cahir was not handed over to a Cromwellian leader.

This made it easy to restore it to Butler hands, where it remained through much of the 18th century, the main line of the family dying out in 1788.

When the antiquarian Austin Cooper (1759-1830), the subject of Peter Harbison's recent book, Cooper's Ireland (O'Brien Press in association with the National Library of Ireland), arrived at the castle it had long fallen into "lamentable disrepair". Early in the 19th century, a distant cousin, Richard Butler, became the 12th baron. It was he who had John Nash design the nearby, fairy-tale cottage ornee on a platform overlooking the Suir.

Richard Butler died young, in 1819, and was succeeded by his son Richard, the earl of Glengall and 13th earl of Cahir, mentioned earlier. He died in 1858.

His daughter, Lady Margaret Charteris, and her son, Richard Butler Charteris, "either retained or regained" possession of the castle, and continued to live at Cahir, in the nearby Cahir Lodge. In 1964, a few years after the death of Richard Butler Charteris, Cahir Castle was taken into State care as a national monument. By then, only the great hall was still in use.

Subsequent conservation and restoration has preserved a remarkable survivor with quite a story to tell.

Cahir Castle, a Duchas heritage site, is open all year round. Phone: 052-41011. An excellent illustrated history, published by Duchas, is available.