By H.J. Leask
The foundation of Liscarroll castle, like that of many other anglo-norman fortresses in ireland, has been attributed to king john, but with even less justification than exists in the cases of some of the better known structures. Since reliable records are not available, probabilities only can be advanced and the suggestion that the fortress was erected by the de Barrys has the greatest claim to consideration.
Philip de Barry, who came to ireland with his uncle, Robert fitzstephen, seized extensive lands in munster and erected on them castles, which, we may believe, were pallisaded earthworks of the usual early norman pattern. His son, William, had a grant of his father’s lands confirmed to him by king john in 1206 and became lord of Castlelyons, Barryscourt and Buttevant, which is but five miles from Liscarroll . His son, Robert, and his grandson, david oge, were both founders of monasteries in the second quarter of the 13th century at ballybeg, buttevant and Cork. It was possibly david oge de Barry who built the castle, but it is more probable since the structure is of a plan more characteristic of the later quarters of that century that its erection is to be ascribed to one of his nearer descendants.
Sir Philip Perceval, who acquired Liscarroll by foreclosure and confiscation in 1625, lost it in 1642 but regained possession after the cromwellian re-conquest and it remained the property of his descendants, the earls of egmont, up to recent times.
In 1920 an unsuccessful attempt was made to overthrow the west curtain wall which, nevertheless remained in an unstable state. In 1936 the castle was taken into the guardianship of the Commissioners of Public Works as a national monument with the ready approval of the occupier, Mr P O’Brien. Considerable repairs were carried out shortly afterwards under the direction of the author and the plans and illustrations which are from the official survey made at that time, and are published with consent of the Commissioners.
An exact description of Liscarroll castle, the most important military erection of the 13th century as yet noted in county Cork and the third largest castle of the period in ireland, only exceeded in area by Trim, Ballintubber ﾖ has hitherto been published in detail in the Cork historical and archaeological journal by jh leask (which forms the basis of his document and has been updated where relevant).
The building is founded upon an outcrop of rock which projects into swampy ground lying immediately north of the village of Liscarroll . The walls enclose a quadrangular but not perfectly rectangular area measuring 204 ft from north to south. At the north side it is some 6 ft. Wider while along the south wall it measures 6 ft. Less than the average dimension.
The curtain walls ﾖ which now stand to an average internal height of 25 ft are between 5 ft. And 5 ft 6 ins in thickness at the interior ground line but have strong batters below this level at the base, extending at 2 ft. Outwards on the rock foundation which is exposed in a number of places. Externally the average height of the walls from this rock surface is about 28 ft, but the quarried rock itself has faces from 3 ft. To 8 ft. High in several places giving the walls a greater apparent elevation.
Three of the four cylindrical towers which projet at each of the angles of the castle remain in a fairly complete state, but of the s.w. Tower little more than a part of the foundation is now in position; and according to a letter to sir philip percival of the 13th dec 1641, the castle well was housed in this tower.
Parts of the remains of the well tower are now part of a garage built on the original base of which part is still intact inside the garage. This and the other southern tower were of similar dimensions: 25 ft. In external diameter above the base-batter with walls 8 ft. Thick. The n.w. Tower is a ft. Greater in diameter but its walls are only 7 ft. In thickness, while the 4th tower, that at the n.e. Angle, measures but 22 ft overall and has wall 5 ft. Thick. All of these towers had a basement of two upper storeys, with the main entrances on the first floor levels, the floors being of timber. Circular stairways rose from these entrances to the upper floors and the wall-walk or allure which appears to have been about the same level as the present wall tops. Each of the remaining towers has three narrow loops set in wide internal embrasures at the main floor level and the presence of corbels near the top of the s.w. Tower externally indicates that the walls were once crowned by parapets projecting in places. This tower was roofed between four gables within the allure and all the towers rose a storey in height over the curtains.
There are two other towers, both of rectangular form. The smaller pfojects outwards from the centre of the n. Curtain and its walls, which are very thick surround a rectangular well-like space locally called the ‘hangmans hole’. This curious feature is difficult to account for, since we cannot say with certainty whether there was a doorway to it at the ground level where now only a ragged gap remains. If there was such an entrance the space may have been used for hoisting up munitions to the wall-walk level, but if it were absent, then the space was, in all probability, a dungeon, entered only from the top. The upper part of the tower contains a single barrel-vaulted room and a mural stairs leading to the roof platform over the vault; its walls are from 3 to 4 ft. Thick and their masonry is certainly later in date than that of the tower below. Doorways in the east and west sides lead to the wall-walks of the curtains.
The largest and morst improtant tower is the gate-building in the centre of the south curtain. It measures 40 ft. From north to south by 23 ft. In width, and projects about 7 ft. Southwards from the curtains east and west of it. The said curtains are not in line with one another, a fact which may indicate that they were built subsequently to the gate-tower, the obliquity being possibly due to the practical difficulty of laying out walls truly in line on each side of an existing structure. However this may be, the lower part of the gate-building, though altered in some respects, is typical of the similar rectangular erections belonging to the first half of the 13th century ,before the wide twin-towered gate-houses came into fashion. The entrance is by way of a vaulted passage rather less than 9 ft. In width for the greater part of its length. It appears to have had an external gate set in the deep outer recess and was certainly provided with a portcullis at a point 22 ft. 6 ins. Inwards from the exterior face. 6 ft. Behind the portcullis was a second strong gate, opening inwards, one hinge stone of which remains. It is not now possible to say, on account of modern alterations, if there was a counter-balance draw-bridge but it seems not improbable that there was an apparatus of the kind between the outer gate and the portcullis. A heavy barrel-vault covers the main passage but the inner and outer vaults are segmental and rise to a higher level, doubtless to afford space for the tops of wooden gates when they were opened back and outwards. Two ‘murdering holes’ pierce the main vault just in rear of the outer gate.
While the lower part of the gate-building is ancient, the blocking wall of the inner archway and the whole upper part of the structure appears to be not earlier than about 1500. It is carried up a tower of two storeys in front over the outer gate, the first storey being covered by a barrel vault and the highest apartment by a timber roof which was gabled, behind the parapets, to the east and west. This room , which contains an angle fireplace of interesting form with a stone hood or breast, has a small chamber off it at a slightly higher level and communicates with the floor below by a stairs, partly circular and partly straight, ingeniously contrived in the west wall. This stairs gives access to a garderobe chamber and a wall-walk surrounding the lower part of the gate-building. This is occupied by a large apartment, perhaps the castle hall, 29 ft. In length and nearly 13ft. Wide, which forms the whole first-floor section of the building. A circular stairs in a turret at the n.e. Corner connects the room with the ground while a mural stair, rising from the embrasure of its north window, leads to a small turret chamber over the stairs. The three remaining windows of this hall have wide embrasures and ogee headed lights, single on the n. Side and double towards the e. And s. The rear-arches of the embrasures of the two first named windows are semi-circular but that of the south window and the doorways to east and west are semi-elliptical form; lintels rather than arches. The other window openings in the upper part of the building are narrow lights which have ogee or square heads. There are some small traces of buildings in the s. Curtains on each side of the gateway and it is evident that the external walls were raised here to gain an extra storey. These structures were apparently in existence in 1750 but there is no record of any other buildings against the curtains. It would appear that some did exist however; the fact that the main doorways to the four angle towers are at a higher level and that the tower staircases began their ascent at the same point indicates that there must have been raised timber galleries at least, if more permanent buildings, all round the interior. No traces of these now remain except rough beam-holes in the walls but the small garderobe turret near the n. End of the w. Curtain- affords another indication of existence of internal buildings.
Apart from the window dressings, etc., there are no carved features except two much weathered heads (in sandstone) which are inserted in the south face of the gate-tower above the outer archway on each side of the central window.
In the course of the works a fine bronze harp-peg was found in a hole in the upper part of the s.w.tower and is now deposited in the national museum.
The works carried out in 1936 by the national monuments staff were mainly of remedial character and included, besides removal of ivy, etc., the building of supports in the extensive gaps of the west wall and the securing of all loose and defective masonry.