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 north-east 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 supposed to have been involved in the death of Dermot Mor 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 and later 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 Braose:

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.  In 1332, apparently in league with the prisoners in Limerick, the hostages within Nenagh castle seized the fortress and burned part of it.  Regardless, the revolt failed and the hostages were reimprisoned.

The grandson of the last Theobald (d.1285) 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'Kennedys of Cashel in 1347.  The O'Brians then took over the fortress in the late fourteenth century.  In 1533, Piers Butler, who was later earl of Ormond, recovered the castle, only to have it burnt by the O'Carrolls in 1548.

In the Civil War Nenagh was captured by Eoghan Rua O'Neill in 1648, retaken by Murrough O'Brian and then finally taken by Ireton for parliament in 1650 after a short siege.  The O'Carrolls seized the castle again in 1689, but it was retaken by forces loyal to William III after a one day siege and then slighted.

The castle had a shield shaped plan with a twin towered gatehouse at the point which lay to the south-west.  Two drum towers lay on the east and west enceinte peripheries, while a keep stood to the north-east.  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' high to the wallwalk.  Unfortunately this was heightened to being 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.  Much of this plinth has been added, but the original batter can be seen under the rebuilt first floor entrance.  The keep was originally entered via this doorway via a now destroyed forebuilding.  Inside was a circular chamber with window embrasures to north and east and a fireplace to the west.  From the first floor a spiral stair rose to a hall above which was the tallest room in the building at some 25' high against the 15' high entrance chamber and 12' high basement.  At the summit of the tower was a probable solar some 18' high.  Both upper rooms have fine early fireplaces.  From the second floor hall to east and west, embrasures led to dog-legged passages leading onto the wallwalk of the destroyed curtains via Romanesque doorways.  On the floor above a similar arrangement leads to a fine corbelled out garderobe to the west.  Some crossbow loops survive on the first and second floors.  They are long and narrow.  To the north at second floor level a Romanesque style window has been inserted in the top portion of one of the deeply plunging crossbow loops.  The current spiral stair was finished in 1999.

The gatehouse and other towers were all about 33' in diameter, while a batter has been excavated around the external portion of the remaining gatetower.  Within the gatepassageway a pit has been uncovered for a counterweight drawbridge and an English short cross penny of 1205-17 was uncovered in a gatehouse foundation trench.  This suggests that the twin-towered gatehouse and associated curtain walls date to the first quarter of the thirteenth century  The one remaining side of the portcullis groove shows that this was towards the rear of the gatepassageway.  The 2 surviving embrasures in the gatetower had plunging loops similar to those found in the curtain at Dunamase.  It is also apparent that there was no ground floor access to the west tower of the gatehouse.  This has led to the suggestion that it was a prison, similar to the south-east tower at Ferns.  The later hall grafted onto the back of the gatehouse is an unusual idea, but is also found in Ireland at Greencastle in Donegal and Castleroche.  Presumably this was done due to the limited space with the small castle bailey as well as due to the smallness and relative inaccessibility of the keep hall.  Judging from the 3 surviving window embrasures to the north the ground floor room of the hall was also utilised.  Surprisingly there is a doorway on the first floor towards the east side.  The corner of the building also had a wall running off here parallel to the curtain to make a narrow building of some description.  How the doorway worked with the window beneath is uncertain.  There was a postern south of the east tower at the end of this narrow range.

Old prints show that parts of the curtain were still standing and a 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