Nenagh Castle

The land was apparently granted to Hervey Walter, the brother in law of the English Justiciar, Ranulf Glanville (d.1190), by King Henry II, presumably in the 1170s.  Hervey's son, Theobald Walter (d.1206), the brother of Archbishop Hubert Walter of Canterbury (d.1205), was apparently granted the title of Butler of Ireland by Prince John around 1192.  He was also allegedly granted a large area of the NE part of Limerick.  This became the modern baronies of Tullough in Clare, Clonlisk and Ballybritt in Offaly, Eliogarty, Upper and Lower Ormond, Owney and Arra in Tipperary, Owneybeg, Clanwilliam and Coonagh in Limerick.  As Nenagh is virtually at the junction of Upper and Lower Ormond and Owney and Arra, it is to be presumed that Theobald built Nenagh castle to consolidate his control of this district at the end of the twelfth century.  Excavation under the gatehouse has shown that there was no earlier castle under the current remains, so the masonry castle currently standing is what Theobald built, assuming that he built the first castle and not one of his descendants.  The granting of the land had probably happened before 1185 when Theobald's men were involved in the death of Donal Mor na Corra MacCarthy near Cork in that year.  In 1194 Theobald campaigned for King Richard I against Prince John in Lancashire.  As a consequence the king made him sheriff of the county.  In early 1200 King John deprived Theobald of all his lands and offices apparently because of irregularities that had occurred when he was sheriff of Lancaster, but more likely through personal animosity at Theobald's actions in 1194.  In Ireland his lands appear to have been given to King John's favourite, William Braose Senior of Brecon and Radnor (d.1211), for in January 1202 a charter was made by William Broase:

to Theobald Butler of the burgh of Kildelon, the cantref of Elykaruel, Eligarty, Ormond, Ara and Oiney....

This probably refers to Killaloe, Ely O'Carroll (Clonlisk and Ballybritt), Eliogarty, both Ormonds and Owney and Arra.  Quite obviously this included Nenagh castle and marked the return of these lands to the family.  Theobald's lands were inherited by his son, who chose to call himself Theobald le Botiller.  He was therefore the first of three generations to be called Theobald Butler.  They died in 1230, 1248 and 1285.  The grandson of the last Theobald was James Butler (d.1338) who became the first earl of Ormond.  It was one of the subsequent earls who lost the castle to the O'Briens in the late fourteenth cenury.  In 1533, Piers Butler, who was later earl, recovered the castle, only to have it burnt by the O'Carrolls in 1548.

The castle has a shield shaped plan with a twin towered gatehouse at the point.  Two drum towers lay on the E&W enceinte peripheries, while a keep stood to the NE.  Apart from one drum tower of the gatehouse, the keep, fragments of the other gatetower attached to a later hall-like structure and fragments of the east tower little else survives.

The round keep is the joy of the castle, originally rising some 72' to its battlements.  Unfortunately this was heightened to make it 100' high by the addition of an ugly folly in the mid nineteenth century.  The tower is 52' in diameter with walls up to 15' thick at the sloping plinthed base.  The keep was originally entered at second floor level and was 4 storeys high.  From the second floor a spiral stair rose to a hall above and a probable solar at the summit.  Both upper rooms have fine early fireplaces.  From the hall to E&W embrasures led to dog-legged passages leading onto the wallwalks of the destroyed curtains via Romanesque doorways.  On the floor above a similar arrangement leads to a fine corbelled out garderobe, similar to the one of the keep at Longtown and the garrison tower at Usk.  The loops are long and narrow, reminiscent of those at Chepstow and Usk in Wales.  These two were both Clare and then Marshall castles and they have no known link with the Butlers.  Again this shows some of the problem with linking building styles to people or families.  Other round keeps are discussed under Dundrum castle.

The gatehouse and other towers were all about 33' in diameter and there was a postern south of the east tower.  Old prints show that parts of the curtain were still standing and there was a ditch around the castle in the nineteenth century.  Terryglass castle, also in Tipperary, has 4 round towers in a rectangular ward.

If you would like to visit this and other great castles of Ireland I am leading a tour there in October.  Please feel free to look over the details by clicking here.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry