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Portumna, Co. Galway

Portumna Castle

It's Story and a Story of Ireland

The Normans ~ The Vikings ~ St. Patrick ~ Portumna Priory ~ Portumna Castle ~ Gardens ~ Summer of 1690

As we journey around Ireland, we cannot help but notice the ruins of many hundreds of castles, tower houses, abbeys, priories and similar buildings scattered throughout the landscape. Some are in the middle of fields, whilst others are in villages, towns and cities. Only a handful of these have been fully restored, such as Dublin, Malahide and Kilkenny Castles and Holycross Abbey. Most are National Monuments. Each tell a story, and if we could combine all these stories together, perhaps we could comprehend the story of Ireland over the centuries. I will weave various stories throughout, and perhaps it will help explain the complex nature of Irish history. The bibliography at the end recommends further readings.

The Normans

A history need not necessarily begin at the beginning. Let us begin at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. This was one of the most famous Viking victories. These Vikings were called Normans (‘northmen‘) who had originated in Scandinavia, conquering most countries in Europe from 800-900 AD. They had been given Normandy, by the King of France, to persuade them to stop their raids on his country. Their dress, language and customs became French with the passage of time, but they retained their Viking spirit of advenure and battle. In this battle, William the Conqueror defeated the English King Harold, and on Christmas Day of that year he was crowned William I of England at Westminster Abbey. They quickly overran England. Norman noblemen replaced the Anglo-Saxon on the land, and soon they became the new nobility, taking over all power and control from the Anglo-Saxon English. William introduced the feudal system into England, and built a string of castles across the country to maintain this system.

The Vikings

Meanwhile back in Ireland Brian Boru had defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, and this victory meant the end of Viking dominance in Ireland. But the Irish chieftains continued to fight amongst themselves, and in 1166 one of the Irish Kings, Dermot MacMurrough, was banished by the high king, Rory O’Connor. The Normans agreed to help him regain his territory. Strongbow arrived from England and quickly recaptured all of Leinster. He married Dermot’s daughter and at his death in 1170 became King of Leinster. Many of the Norman barons intermarried with the Irish and became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Henry II considered that they were getting too powerful, so he came over himself to establish his authority. Later on, Strongbow and the other Irish Kings vowed loyalty to King Henry II making it possible for him to build castles in Ireland. Norman rule, however, continued to spread throughout Ireland, and in 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed forbidding this trend. A society with three divisions became gradually established: English, Old English and Irish.

St. Patrick

It was St Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland in 432. We need to constantly remind and renew within ourselves the fact, in this new modern era of European integration, that Irish missionaries during the Dark Ages re-Christianised and re-educated Europe. Irish Christianity was a major force in keeping the Christian Culture alive during the chaotic period of the barbaric invasions. Before the end of the sixth century, Ireland had become the chief centre of Latin learning, and from here spread the Christian revival to Britain and Europe. In Ireland may be seen their monasteries and round towers at Glendalough, Clonmacnoise and Monasterboise. St.Columba founded Iona. St. Columbanus founded in Burgundy and Italy. St. Kilian in Saxony, St. Fiachra and St. Fursa in Gaul, and St. Livinius in the Netherlands. The Book of Kells is to be seen at Trinity College, Dublin. We must never forget also that, during the penal times, France, Spain, Belgium and Italy were very good to Ireland. They educated our priests and scholars and founded monasteries for them at Paris, Rome, Louvain and Salamanca. They were then smuggled back to Ireland to keep the faith alive, and to begin the process again of spreading it throughout Europe.

Portumna Priory

Portumna PrioryPortumna Priory was a Cistercian chapel attached to the monastery of Dunbrody, Co Wexford. It was built c 1254 but was taken over by the Dominicans c 1426 when a papal indulgence was granted for its completion. The Priory was suppressed during the Reformation but was revived again in 1640. It came into the ownership of the Earl of Clanricarde in 1577. It was abandoned by the Friars in c 1712 and transferred to Boula. Patrick Sarsfield and Honora de Burgo were married at Portumna Priory on 9-1-1689. The Priory was used as a Protestant Church in 1762 until the completion of the existing Church in 1832. The Priory contains the tomb of the Earl of Clanricarde and his wife - but no details are available. The ruins are now a national monument, and are in very good condition indeed. It is situated beside Portumna Castle.

Portumna Castle

Portumna Castle, built near the shore of the northern extremity of Lough Derg on the river Shannon in the reign of James I, was without equal in Ireland at the time in style, grandeur and distinction - outshining castles at Rathfarnham, Kanturk, Carrickfergus, Charlemont and Burncourt. The elegance of Portumna can be attributed to the taste, experience and wealth of its builder, Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde, Lord President of Connacht, of the famous de Burgo family of Norman extraction. It was built between 1610 and 1618 at a cost of £10,000, and the earl also built a mansion at Somerhill, Tonbridge Wells in Kent.

Portumna was one of the first, if not the first, building in the country to admit some of the Renaissance refinements already common in Italy and France for over a century, but which took so long to filter through to Ireland. The shell of this great mansion conveys an impression of alien splendour, and the overall effect is unique and has a curiously continental air. The Renaissance features of the exterior of Portumna are - strictly speaking - limited to the fine doorcase of the front entrance and the Tuscan gateway of the innermost courtyard, but the very layout is an expression of Renaissance ideas. The castle is symmetrical in shape and consists of three stories over a basement with square corner projecting towers. It measures 29.7m by 21.2m and the corner towers are 6.5m square with gunports. A central corridor, 3m wide runs longitudinally from top to bottom, supported by stone walls, which contain numerous recesses and fireplaces. The approach is elaborate from the north with gardens, avenues and three gates.

The Gardens

The formal gardens of Portumna Castle were laid out in the 17th century and were the first Italian or Renaissance gardens to be introduced to Ireland. Sir John Danvers of Chelsea, was the first person in England to introduce Italian Gardens in the early 17th century, as recorded by John Aubrey in his manuscript A Natural History of Wiltshire, which also gave a detailed account of Sir John Danvers house and garden in Chelsea. The fourth Earl of Clanricarde was a friend of Sir John Danvers and shared his great love of gardens. It is reputed that the 4th Earl copied the style of Sir John’s garden for his castle at Portumna. The stately gardens of the 17th century contained formal walks, arbours, parterres, and hedges, as well as jets d’eau, or fountains, artificial cascades, columns, statues, grottoes and similar puerilities. A Sidney Maskell was reputedly the landscape gardener that created the gardens at Portumna, front and rear.

The inner courtyard, known as the Grianan, was the ladies pleasure ground. It contained shrubs, seats, pathways and lawns, where the ladies of the castle congregated, did their embroidery, and discussed womanly affairs. The Princess O’Madden from Derryhiney, whose father was chief of the O’Madden Clan, often came to visit and was attended by the second son of the Marquis, Lord Richard de Burgh. The Grianan was a happy place for their courtship and they were subsequently married.

Portumna Castle GardensThe castle is in the town of Portumna, and is approached from Abbey Street or Castle Avenue, entering through the Castle gates. The axial approach to the castle is via the Adam gates, Gothic gate and finally the Tuscan gate. The gardens in front have been faithfully restored by the State, and the gates mentioned are also faithfully restored. The Gothic gate now serves as the reception office and it contains a cannon and gun carriage from the Battle of Aughrim, reputedly belonging to the Williamites. Nine such cannon were found in the gardens during restoration works. It is said that Patrick Sarsfield left these cannon behind on his way from Aughrim to Limerick.

Fifteen Earls owned Portumna from 1543-1916. In the latter year, the last Earl, Hubert George de Burgh-Canning died. He was a noted eccentric and miser, and on his death the estate at Portumna passed to his nephew, Henry Viscount Lascelles, afterwards sixth Earl of Harewood. In 1928, Princess Mary and her husband, the same Lord Lascelles, visited Portumna, and by all accounts received a great welcome. They mixed with all the people and visited all the formal schools and institutions in town as well as attending various meetings. The Portumna estate was acquired by the Irish Government in 1948, with the castle being allocated to the then Office of Public Works, the 1500 acre demesne to the Forestry Commission and land being given for a Golf Course and a GAA pitch. The Castle itself was burned down accidentally in 1826, and remained as a ruin until work commenced on its restoration by the OPW in 1968. It contained some beautiful furniture, a fine library, ancient and valuable paintings and family portraits. It was richly decorated with plasterwork friezes, carved armorial bearings and handsome panelling. To date, the shell and the internal walls have been faithfully restored, and the roof and chimneys which are in place protect the castle from the elements. The windows, fireplaces and flooring joists and basement have been restored and elaborate archeological work has been carried out on the outside. Once the main staircase and internal floors have been installed, the most difficult of the restoration work will have been achieved.

As mentioned above the de Burgh’s or de Burgo’s were of Norman extraction. The name reputedly is derived from John, being general of the French King’s forces and governor of his chief towns in Normandy. He was called John de Burgh (in Latin, de Burgo; in Irish, de Burca) or "John of the Towns", an appellation that aptly described his places of residence. In Ireland, the name is now commonly known as Burke in Galway or Bourke in Mayo. The Earldom of Clanricarde was conferred in 1543 on the first Earl Ulick under Henry VIII’s policy of Surrender and Regrant. In 1634 the unpopular Lord Deputy Strafford requisitioned Portumna in order to hold an inquisition into the titles to lands in Connacht and the rights of the Crown to them.

The Earl was very annoyed at this development and it hastened his death, which occurred the next year. His son the 5th Earl took up residence at Portumna, remaining there throughout the troubled period of the 1641 Rising and its aftermath. The Cromwellian General Ludlow besieged and took the Castle, which with the rest of the vast Clanricarde estates, was forfeited and granted to Henry Cromwell, the Protectors son. At the Restoration the Earl's widow was reinstated and returned to Portumna. In 1690 the title was held by the 8th Earl, who conformed to the Established Church but remained loyal to James II. In that year the Jacobite garrison at Portumna was besieged by the Williamite forces. In the following year the Williamites also attacked the Jacobites at Portumna, who surrendered and were allowed to march out without arms or baggage towards the Irish army. The 9th Earl persevered in the Jacobite cause and fought at Aughrim. Consequently he was attainted, and the castle and estate were forfeited, again to be subsequently restored to the family, who continued in residence, until the fire of 1826.

Summer of 1690

So what was Portumna Castle like in bygone days? Come back with me in time to the Summer of 1690. Our carriage and four horses collect us at our hostelry down town, in what is today known as Dominic Street and Abbey Street. We drive in style up the Old Main St and enter via the Castle Gates and proceed down to the Adam Gates. Then we take the avenue to the Gothic archway, and into the outer courtyard. As per custom, we alight from our carriage at the Tuscan Gates, and walk the short distance through the inner courtyard and up the steps into the Great Hall. It was in this Hall that the Inquisition was held in 1634.

Off this Hall is an eating parlour and we notice that the table has been set for dinner. We take the oak stairway to the first floor, which is the main bedroom area. Here there is a room reserved for the Duke of Berwick and the state room is reserved for Patrick Sarsfield and his wife. Across the corridor there are more state rooms. The next floor is the library, which is well stocked in the classical library style, and contains all the masterpieces, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Bacon etc. There are ample reading rooms attached. The third floor is the servants sleeping area, and there is a balcony alongside. Lingering here for a while we enjoy the beauty of our surroundings. Looking across the lake, we admire the mountains in the distance. We notice people walking in the very beautiful Renaissance gardens underneath us. We recognise the fine figure of Patrick Sarsfield, accompanied by his young wife, Honora, and by the Duke of Berwick. We turn and admire the sunset on Galway Bay.

Returning downstairs once again, we notice that the guests are arriving for dinner. We recognise Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell and Lord Deputy of Ireland; Count Lauzun, Commander of the French army in Ireland; John Wauchope, Major-General of the Irish army; Dominic Maguire, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Patrick Sarsfield, Honora, the Duke of Berwick and the Earl and Countess also join the dinner party. We eavesdrop for a while on their conversation. They are discussing the recent Battle of the Boyne, and how their army was so easily defeated, and the sudden departure of King James II to France.

The next move seems to be the defence of Limerick. Talbot and Lauzun are not in favour of defending it, stating that it could be taken with roasted apples. Sarsfield, Berwick and Wauchope are in favour of putting up a fight. We leave them to their deliberations and return to our carriage. On our way back, we reflect that they will pursue their destinies in their own individual way, and with them the destiny of Ireland.

Talbot, Lauzun, and the French will desert Limerick, and march to Galway, for embarkation to France. Limerick will be successfully defended by Sarsfield and Berwick, but eventually the Jacobite army will surrender at Limerick in 1691. Sarsfield and Archbishop Maguire will negotiate the Treaty of Limerick, and Sarsfield will lead the Wild Geese out of Ireland in the following few months. He will be killed in battle and be buried in Huy in Belgium in 1693. Berwick will become a leading soldier and general in Europe, and will eventually be killed in battle in 1734, and be buried in Paris. John Wauchope will serve with Sarsfield and join the French Army, where he will be killed in battle in 1693. Richard Talbot will become a hated figure in Ireland and will be eventually poisoned. Lauzun will pursue his career in France. Honora will accompany her husband to France, and will be with him when he dies. With her infant son, she will stay close by his grave for two years in abject poverty. The young Duke of Berwick will come along and they will be married in Paris soon afterwards. She will die of consumption in 1698, and be buried in an English convent in Pontoise, outside Paris. Archbishop Dominic Maguire will officiate at her funeral mass, with all the highest dignatories from Ireland, England and France in attendance.

The Treaty of Limerick will not be honoured, and for the next 100 years, a Protestant Ascendancy will rule Ireland. The Penal Laws will be enforced with maximum severity, and the Catholic population will struggle for life, land, liberty and religion. Because of man’s eternal struggle for freedom there will be many uprisings, such as 1798 and 1916, and many heroes and leaders will emerge - Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, Silken Thomas, Daniel O'Connell, Charles S. Parnell and Padraic Pearse to name but a few. The Great Famine of 1845-47 will never be forgotten. One million people will die, one million will emigrate to America and a quarter of a million to England during these three years. From 1845 to 1914 the population of Ireland will be reduced from eight to three million, mainly through emigration and starvation. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" - so aptly put by Emma Lazarus in her inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

But Ireland recovered, and today it is a modern state, and holds its place equally with all the nations of the earth. Its economy is excellent and there is full employment. It is green and beautiful and there is no pollution. Its people are friendly and hospitable, and always good company. Please come to visit us sometime, and relax in a country that is very old, and also very new.


Jacobite Ireland, J.G Simms.
A Short History of Ireland, J.C. Beckett.
A Visit To Portumna, Portumna Junior Chamber of Commerce.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill.
Various Articles: Dr P.K. Egan, Stephen Nevin, O.E. Moeran, M. Craig, H.A. Wheeler, John Bilson, Louisa Beaufort, Duchas.

Copyright ©2000, Sean Ryan

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