Situated on a flat plain to north end of Nenagh in North Tipperary, stands a rather impressive round shaped Tower, which dates back to the early thirteenth century. This was once part of the magnificent fortress that was Nenagh Castle. Nenagh is located in the Barony of Ormond Lower which was the traditional territory of the O’Kennedy clans prior to the Norman invasion of Ireland. With the construction of the Castle which became the Normans administrative center in North Tipperary, Nenagh became quite a popular market town, as its original Gaelic name ‘Aonach Urmhumhan’ suggests, which translates to ‘The Fair of Ormond’. To this day the circular keep still commands a strong presence over the town and aside from the nearby Franciscan Friary; it remains by far the oldest structure within the town. My first visit to Nenagh Castle was about two years ago, but my explorations were cut short as the site was closed at the time. So last weekend with some family and close friends, we had a surprise 30th birthday party for my wife Hazel. Despite the fact that I forgotten to pack my camera gear I was determined to have good look around this fine Castle. And the opportunity arose when despite numerous sore heads from the previous nights festivities, the group decided to leave our hotel and head up into the town for a bit of a walkabout. After a good feed the girls went about their usual window shopping and I seized my chance to explore the castle. You will have to forgive the quality of the images, they were all taken on a camera phone and don’t match my usual standard. Nenagh Castle started construction in 1216 after King John had made a grant to Theobald FitzWalter le Boteler, 1st Baron Butler. Theobald was eventually appointed Chief Butler of Ireland. After his early death, his son Theobald le Botiller, also known as Theobald Boteler or Theobald Butler, 2nd Baron Butler, completed the castle in 1220.The lands granted to Theobald FitzWalter le Boteler’s were said to have included seven and a half Túatha! A Túath was an early Gaelic measure of land similar to a kingdom only not as big. Each Túath would have its own Chieftain and would contain a population of between seven – nine thousand people. Nenagh would remain the Butlers family seat until 1391 when they moved to Gowran in Kilkenny, after been driven from Nenagh by the native O’Kennedy clan. The Butlers as they became known eventually went on to acquire Kilkenny Castle, in which they would remain for over five hundred years.
The original town of Nenagh was a walled town and its Castle was no different. It consisted of the circular keep which still stands today. A plan I was shown by the Castles attendant showed that it was built with five sides. The Keep was flanked by towers to the east and west. There was a large twin towered gatehouse to the south and this was all enclosed with a curtain wall. Sadly not much of the remaining Castle has survived. There are only scant remains of the east tower and partial evidence of the curtain wall. With what remains of the east tower, there is evidence to suggest that there may have been sallyport or postern gate present, due to a trace find of a springing arch of a gateway. The Keep was built using uncoursed rubble limestone and stands four stories high. In addition there was a Victorian era addition in the second half of the 19th century but more about that later. Today the main enterance is on the ground floor which was originally the basement area. In its heyday the main enterance was on the south-east side of the first floor, this was a round headed doorway which is now blocked up but you can still make out its location in between the remaining section of the curtain wall and a short stretch of wall protruding from the keep. The current main entrance leads into a lobby area where you can if required organise a tour of the Castle, and a number of info boards on the history of the Castle. The upper floors can be accessed from here via a spiral staircase. It medieval times the ground floor or basement would have been accessed from the first floor via either a trapdoor in the floor or a wooden staircase. The first floor is lit by two long arrow loops with sandstone surrounds. From here on access to the upper levels is via the original spiral stone stairs. Not many people realize this, but the stairs of a Castle were one of its most important defensive features. If you think about it, most of these stairs were fashioned in a tight winding spiral which went up anticlockwise. So just imagine you are back in medieval times and soldiers are racing up the stairs to capture its inhabitants. The majority of people are right handed, so for a person to draw their sword or even swing it would be near impossible in such a confined space. Yet if you were descending these stairs, in an attempt to defend your home it would be extremely easy to both draw your sword and indeed cut your opponent down. Pretty cool isn’t it?
As with so many of these Irish Keeps, the second floor was more than likely the public hall of the castle, it would be here where certain administration tasks would have been carried out or even the entertainment of visitors. It was entered via a chevron decorated arch and may well have been lit by a pointed window set in the wall, similar to that of the one on the third floor? The second floor also contains a badly damaged fireplace to the west which is believed to have had a sloping stone fire-hood in a manner similar to Roscrea castle. To the north of the fireplace there is a round arched window embrasure. Interestingly, there is a doorway in the west splay of this window which leads to a round arched doorway. It was from this doorway that you would have accessed the wall walk of the curtain wall. The hall on the second floor was lit by more long marrow arrow loops which were set into large round arched embrasures in the north, north-east and south walls. Opposing double corbels would have provided support for what may have been a decorated timber ceiling. Moving on up the winding stone staircase to the third floor begins to get tricky. The stairs seem to narrow here, with the steps getting smaller. There are also typical signs of leaking, in the old stone, with the steps becoming slippy. This third floor was most likely the private residence of the Lord. Alike the second floor, it also has a partially destroyed fireplace in the west and contains sandstone columns and decorated capitals which supported a sloping stone fire-hood. The room is lit by five large windows whilst the rear arch of the SW window embrasure is decorated with a triple roll sandstone moulding. The other window embrasures are flat-headed, segmental and shouldered. The later seems to date back to the late 13th century. The W splay of the NW window embrasure contains a doorway which gives access to a box machicolation which helped protect the curtain wall where it joins onto the keep. The gatehouse at the south is said to have consisted of a two-storey central rectangular block with two D-shaped flanking towers of which only the E tower survives. It would appear that the gatehouse was built in two phases with a fine two-storey hall added to the rear of the twin-towered gatehouse in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The gatehouse was entered through a large round-headed archway with evidence of a portcullis slot and was accessed by a drawbridge, the two-slot pit of which was unearthed during the recent excavations. The excavation revealed that the ground floor entrance to the W flanking tower is concealed behind blocking. The ground floor chambers of the hall were divided by a central passage, possibly barrel vaulted. A coin, minted between 1205 and 1218, was discovered in the base of the foundation of the gatehouse which suggests that it was built during the time of Theobold II, who succeeded Theobold I. No evidence of an external moat was uncovered although it is very likely that the castle was externally defended by a moat at some stage. The walls at the base of the castle are “splayed”, which protected the base from canon fire, and the subsequent curvature of the walls allowed missiles dropped from above to ricochet outwards upon the assailants.
As regards the History of Nenagh Castle, it has obviously seen its fair share of turmoil. In 1332 prisoners from within the castle, overran the castle, burning the gates during their escape, however they were later recaptured and returned to the Castle, it is not mentioned if they were punished for this. Then in 1336, there was a peace treaty signed between James, the 1st Earl of Ormond, and a representative of the O’Kennedy clan. This treaty included terms of peace and grants of lands to the native Gaelic clan. Unfortunately for the Earl this treaty did not last long because in 1347 the O’Kennedy clan, aided by the O’Brien and O’Carroll clans unsuccessfully attacked the Castle, but they did manage to burn the town of Nenagh. Over 600 years later the original treaty was presented as a gift to John F. Kennedy the 35th president of the U.S.A., during a state to Ireland. It can now be viewed in the J.F.K Library in Massachusetts. In 1338 is the castle was described as ‘A castle surrounded with five towers, a hall, a house beyond the gate, a kitchen with stone walls roofed with shingles. In 1550 the town was again burned along with the friary at Nenagh by the O’Carroll’s. During 1533 Nenagh once again fell into the hands of the Butlers under Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory. The castle was seized on three separate occasions, during the Confederate and Cromwellian wars. In 1641 the town was captured by Owen Roe O’Neill, but he did not hold it for long as it was soon recapture by Earl Inchiquin. Then in 1651, the castle came under heavy fire from the high grounds to the East, forcing the garrison to surrender to Oliver Cromwell‘s Parliamentary deputy Henry Ireton. Ireton is said to have had the castles Governor to be hung out of the top window of the Keep. As was the norm during the Cromwellian war, most garrisons who surrendered were soon put to the sword along with much of the civilian population too. And some people wonder why Cromwell is still hated in Ireland. A Col. Daniel Abbot, then came to hold the castle along with extensive lands, in lieu of pay from Cromwell. After the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 the Butlers yet again regained the Castle. Notably Charles II had Henry Ireton’s corpse exhumed and publically mutilated, along with the bodies of Cromwell and John Bradshaw, in retribution for the signing of his father’s death warrant, Charles I. Serves them bloody right for what they did in Ireland as far as I’m concerned.
The Castle was again put to the flame in 1688 by Patrick Sarsfield during the Cogadh an Dá Rí. Anthony O’Carroll took the Castle from James, the 2nd Duke, who supported William, but it was retaken in August 1690Two years later William ordered its demolition so that it would be “rendered indefensible in ill hands”. The keep, however was only partly damaged. Moving on Nenagh remained relatively peaceful until the eighteenth century, when in 1750 a local Puritan farmer known as Solomon Newsome, became annoyed not only with the fact that the Tower was depriving his cabbages from sunlight, but it has also been reported that a group of unsavoury birds whom were nesting within the Tower, regularly conspired to deprive Solomon of his barley crop. So in an effort to resolve these issues, our not so bright farmer attempted to do something that not even history was able to accomplish. Yes his plan was to bring the Tower to the ground along with those pesky birds. In a failed attempt to undermine the castle Solomon used a barrel of gunpowder which after exploding was only able to make a hole in the Keeps 19ft thick wall. This very same hole is now the main enterance into the Keep. After this encounter all became quite for over 100 years, until in 1860 Bishop Michael Flannery purchased lands at Nenagh Castle, with a view to constructing a Cathedral, with the tower being an integral part of its plan. Unfortunately this project never became a reality as he was relying heavily of American money to fund the construction. So with the outbreak of the American Civil war in 1861, the money dried up and the cathedral was never built. However Bishop Flannery’s plans did see the top of the existing tower being raised and finished of with a new parapet wall. This addition included a series of clerestory windows, beneath a corbelled parapet wall, with traditional stepped merlons or defensive battlements being added for good measure. This takes us to the present day, where in 1985 the field around the Castle was developed into a small town park. Nenagh Castle is now under state care and is regularly maintained. Visits are free of charge and I would highly recommend a visit if you are in the area. In fact aside from Reginalds Tower in Waterford, I haven’t come across anything quite like this.