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History of Carrigafoyle Castle and Lislaughlin Abbey

Updated on July 20, 2012

Carrigofoyle Castle and the O Connors

Carrigafoyle Castle at dusk
Carrigafoyle Castle at dusk
Carrigafoyle Castle at Carrig Island
Carrigafoyle Castle at Carrig Island
Upstairs at Carrigafoyle Castle
Upstairs at Carrigafoyle Castle
Spiral staircase in the castle
Spiral staircase in the castle
Limescale walls in Carrigafoyle Castle
Limescale walls in Carrigafoyle Castle
Carrigafoyle church across the road from the castle
Carrigafoyle church across the road from the castle
Lislaughlin Abbey also built by the O Connor Clan
Lislaughlin Abbey also built by the O Connor Clan
Castle View Guest house at Carrig Island
Castle View Guest house at Carrig Island
Carrig castle as it is today
Carrig castle as it is today
Sir William Pelham who attacked the castle 1580
Sir William Pelham who attacked the castle 1580
Youtube video in Carrigafoyle castle
Youtube video in Carrigafoyle castle | Source

Carrig Castle and the O Connor Chieftains

Carrigafoyle castle on the banks of the river Shannon has stood as a testament to the O Connor Kerry’s clan’s history for more than 425 years. In its heyday it was the stronghold of this clan and their Kingdom consisted of most of North Kerry. The O’Connor’s have had a very turbulent history and always fought valiantly to possession of their kingdom

In the 13th Century the MacCarthys, kings ofSouth Munster granted much of the O’Connor’s territory to Thomas Fitzgerald, the first Lord Kerry. The O’Connor’s were then pushed back into the extreme north of the county.

Today the remains of their stronghold still stands proudly and is now a stark reminder of the O Connor Kerrys turbulent past. In recent years Carrigafoyle castle has been given somewhat of a makeover and it is now open to the public from June to September. Carrigafoyle castle was originally built in 1490 and the castle we see today is on the site of an earlier castle.

From the peak of this majestic castle the view is magnificent and it is also possible to look out over Carrig island and to see Scattery island which is another very popular tourist attraction in the area. This island is only inhabited by a huge colony of rabbits now but is also home to many impressive architectural monuments which include the ruins of seven churches all of which were built by the O’Connor Kerry family.

The strategic position of Carrigafoyle castle and its prime vantage point were definite advantages to its success in staving off attack. It is located on a rock between the

high and low water marks on the shore of the Shannon Estuary. Observing the castle now in its picturesque and peaceful surroundings it is hard to believe the bloodshed and ferocious battles that are part of its turbulent history.

It is recorded that the castles tower was originally seventy feet high. If you look closely at the stonework it is still possible to just about see the intricate stonework that adorns its walls. It was completely constructed with thin pieces of limestone which now appear almost like bricks.

At the height of the O’Connor Kerry’s reign the tower was protected on the landward side by two square bawns. There was an inner one with rounded turrets and an outer one with square towers at the corners. These bawns extended into the water and enclosed a small dock, making it possible for boats to sail directly up to the castle.

The O’Connor Kerry’s ruled this part of the riverShannon. They regularly intercepted cargo ships which sailed past their castle on their way towards the docks in Limerick city. It was common practice to board these ships and demand a percentage of their cargo before these ships were allowed to continue on their journey.

Archived among England’s state papers in 1580 is a map and comments about Carrigafoyle castle. Queen Elizabeth was concerned about the level of power the O’Connors and other Clans still held in Ireland. Her policy at the time was to confiscate such lands and to redistribute it to her favoured English gentry.

The Earl of Desmond was very unhappy with theQueenspolicies. The Queen knew he was a powerful chieftain who would be a hindrance to her plans for Ireland. The Earl also had strong associations with many of the Irish Clan’s and they had all promised allegiance to him.

So the English decided they needed to destroy the Earl of Desmond’s power and Carrigafoyle castle was deemed to be the strongest of his castles. So the Elizabethan forces wanted possession of the castle very badly. They were sure that if they successfully brought down this castle then the others would be easy to take.

So two days before Palm Sunday in 1580 the Elizabethan forces sailed up the Shannon until they reached Carrig Island. Then they docked and they waited. Soon after this a powerful army joined them on foot. Now there were two separate armies; one was commanded by Sir William Pelham the Lord Chief justice inIrelandtime and the second was commanded by the Earl of Ormond who had a long standing grudge against the Earl of Desmond. Now the castle was now totally surrounded by land and sea.

Until this moment it had always been said that Carrigafoyle castle was impenetrable. This was because of its advantageous location and the thickness of its limestone walls. Now though the English had artillery fire-power. The English had brought five of their strongest canons. They were all fired from a position directly across from the castle in the grounds of Carrigafoyle church.

The castle was under the supervision of an Italian Engineer at the time known as Captain Julio. There was also one English man present along with sixteen spaniards and fifty Irish including women and children. There was also another twist to the tail because among the castle’s inhabitants there was a traitor i.e. a young servant girl who had fallen in love with of one of the English Officers. This soldier knew they needed to concentrate all their firepower on the weakest point of the castle walls if they were ever going to manage to penetrate the strong fortress. So he had persuaded this young servant girl to place a light in the window where the wall was at its weakest. This act subsequently cost this girl her life as she was also killed along with all the other Irish inhabitants of Carrigafoyle castle.

For two days the roar of the canons resounded throughout theKingdomofKerry. Then eventually the western wall of the castle was bombarded repeatedly and eventually it began to weaken. It crumbled from its very tip to its foundations. Many of the people within were crushed to death by the collapsing wall.

Through the breach in its walls the army entered the castle. Initially almost everyone in the castle was put to death. A couple of the garrison along with Captain Julio were not immediately executed. Records show that Captain Julio was initially spared. ‘Captain Julio was preserved for two or three days for certain considerations’, ..’then not complying with the Lord Chief Justices expectations, he was hanged’. The Earl of Desmond’s plate was also taken from the castle and sent to the jubilant Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of the victory.

When Carrigafoyle castle was secured the English forces marched onwards through the village of Ballylongford towards Lislaughlin Abbey. This is another local monument of historical significance. It was constructed in 1470 by the then chieftain John O’Connor.

Nearly all of the monks had already fled by the time the army got there for those that remained it was a gruesome end. They were all hung in front of their alter. The Abbey was then looted and burned.

Lislaughlin Abbey is still open to visitors today. The remains of the Abbey include the fine east window which still remains intact. The walls of the Abbey are also still standing and it is claimed that two of the O’Connor Kerry chieftains are buried in the graveyard. The impressive Lislaughlin cross was recovered years later in a nearby field and is now on view in Dublin at the National museum.

The O’Connor Clan were almost destroyed by this defeat but they were still determined to recover from it. In 1600 Sean O’Connor surrendered what remained of the O’Connor Kerry Kingdom although he did later manage to regain some of his former territory, including Carrigafoyle castle.

However the O’Connor’s lost this territory again during the 17th century when a changing political scene marked the final end for all ofIreland’s former Chieftains.

Today the O’Connor name is still very prevalent inIrelandand my own grandmother was a direct descendant of the O’Connor’s of Carrigafoyle. Today many O’Connor’s have dispersed throughout the world. By all accounts though, the modern O’Connor’s are still a resounding force. In today’s world many O’Connor’s have succeeded in the Arts, Literature and politics. The O Connor Kerry Kingdom may be gone but their powerful presence and scholarly origins still assures their prominent place in the modern era.


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    • chrisnstar profile image


      6 years ago

      Fascinating story. I love Irish history. Unfortunately, the Brits are still wielding their power over the island. The scum!

    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks very much. Please keep reading.

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 

      6 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Mary Kelly Godley – writer for hire in County Kerry, Ireland . . .Amazing article. I was captivated, held still, lifeless as my imagination ran hither and fro. Not one, more, almost countless stories conjured while reading this awesome hub. Written boldly and serenely offering much to the reader. Highly recommended, a must read for the inquiring mind of Ireland backed by facts and not fiction.



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