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History of Listowel Castle and the Ballybunion Lords of Kerry
History of Listowel Castle
Listowel is a town steeped in literary and historical significance. It is well renowned for being the home of many innovative writers and its people have always been natural lovers of traditional music and dance. Visible at the heart of the town resting on the elevated north bank of the Feale river are the remains of the once great Fitzmaurice stronghold which became the last remaining Irish bastion in the Kingdom of Kerry.
It was only after 1600 when Listowel castle had been all but destroyed that a village began to emerge from the rubble and people slowly began to set up new homes near the abandoned stronghold.
In recent years great progress has been made to restore Listowel castle to some of its former glory. The Office of Public Works gained possession of the castle in 1923 and in 2005 it was officially re-opened to the public who can now avail of guided tours during the summer months.
Records seem to suggest that there was probably originally a castle built on the present site during the 12th Century. However the remains that we can view today are believed to be from a later castle built on the same site during the late 15th or early 16th century. Theories abound as to who the original builder of the castle was. The Fitzmaurices were the Lords of Kerry-Clanmaurice and many believe that they built it.
Locally it is thought that Listowel Castle was most likely built by the MacElligott family. Others though sometimes suggest it was built by William Fitz Elias of Galey, whose daughter Elena was married to Maurice Fitzthomas or that it could have been Maurice himself that built it.
Whatever the true origins of the castle were it is well documented that it came into the possession of the Fitzmaurice family during the thirteenth century. The Lords of Kerry as they became known showed themselves to be consistently disloyal to the crown during the Desmond and the O Neill wars. However due to their political prowess and intermarriage with other families they always seemed to survive. Their principal seats were at Ardfert and Lixnaw but they always considered Listowel to be of particular military importance because of its strategic position on the Feale river. From this ideal vantage point the Fitzmaurice’s were then able to control the movement of their enemies by fording the river and thus preventing attack.
The Lords of Kerry seemed to continually have many grievances with their neighbors. To the north they fought with the O Connor Kerry Clan who had been pushed back into Iraghticonnor by the Fitzmaurice’s arrival. To the East were the Knights of Glin and across the Shannon river there was a constant threat from the O Briens of Thomond who had their sights set on the Fitzmaurice’s coastal territories. Then south of the River Maine lay the Barony of Desmond.
The Lords of Kerry also fought regularly with the Earl’s of Desmond who were the overlords of all the territories within the barony of Desmond including Clanmaurice. The Fitzmaurice’s consistently refused to accept the Earl’s authority and this led to much unrest between them. Of course there was also the impending threat from the English.
Originally Listowel castle consisted of two large square towers which were built approximately 15.3 metres high. The towers were connected by a wall of similar height. They were linked by an arch which could be the remains of a gate house from the older castle. Between, the arch and the wall is a space through which boiling water, stones and other weapons were thrown on any assailants of the castle.
The square doorway on the south side was constructed of chiseled limestone. The walls were built two metres thick. The castle itself was constructed of limestone, lime and grouted sand mortar.
The length of both towers including the wall between them, from east to west, was 57 feet outside and from north to south was 18 feet. All windows were quite small some of the lower ones pointed and the others square. They were constructed with quoin and limestone. The castle was built approximately 50 feet high.
There are two documented architectural features of the castle. The first being the two joined turrets. Originally there were four joined turrets, the castle was square and it stretched down to the river. Originally it would have been similar in appearance to Bunratty castle in Clare.
The other unusual feature was a protruding rock with a sculpture of what was thought to be a human’s head but it resembled an ape. It has been speculated to be the head of MacElligott the architect of the castle. However there is also a legend that depicts the sculpture as being Tomas an Apa. He was so named because he was reputed to have been cared for by an ape who was a household pet and it has been suggested that the sculpture was in honor of him.
In 2001 extensive repairs were carried out on the castle at Listowel which included the construction of a new external staircase allowing access to the upper floors. The limestone exterior was cleaned and re-pointed. Repairs were also carried out to the external doors and windows and the chambers and passageways were re-roofed. The work also included the rebuilding of the rear boundary wall and the erection of a replica of the original railing.
Although the castle was bombarded and all but destroyed in 1600 it had already been partially destroyed in 1582 when the Lord’s of Kerry themselves demolished some of it to prevent its use by the enemy. They still continued to maintain possession of it until 1600.
It was on the 5th of November of 1600 that the castle was to be involved in a final conflict. It was Sir Charles Wilmott who ordered the attack against the castle. The Elizabethan forces had already wreaked a trail of destruction throughout Kerry before setting their sights firmly on the last remaining pocket of resistance. The Fitzmaurice castle overlooking the tranquil Feale river.
Details of the siege were recorded in the Pacata Hibernia. It is recorded that after three weeks of attack on the castle Wilmott was aware of the fact that the English forces were running short of ammunition and artillery. Therefore he decided that the digging of tunnels and the planting of mines was the most efficient was to undermine the foundations of the castle and thus enter it and flush out its occupants.
A tunnel was dug but due to a spring it became flooded. They dug a second tunnel and reached a vault and it was from here that they were able to gain entry to the castle In 1986 service pumps were being constructed near the castle for drainage purposes. The workmen came across a tunnel which ended near the foundations of the castle and underneath the vaulted chamber the tunnel bypassed an underground water course. It was speculated that this may have been the tunnel used by Wilmott’s forces.
When the foundations had been undermined the garrison within the castle knew they had no choice left but to surrender. They pleaded for their lives but Wilmott told them that if they left the castle before it was blown up their faith would be at his discretion.
Nine of the castle’s occupants were hanged immediately this equaling the number of English soldiers killed during the siege. The women and children were allowed to go free and later the remaining members of the garrison were executed. After the women and children were released it was brought to the attention of Wilmot that Thomas Fitzmaurice’s son and heir Patrick aged about five, had been smuggled out on the back of an old woman. Wilmot ordered a search and interrogated the prisoners as to his whereabouts.
A priest named Dermot Mac Brodie had given the old woman directions for the hiding of the child until he could be brought to his father. He was interrogated and revealed that the child was hidden in a cave about six miles from Listowel. In return for the information Brodie’s life and the child’s were spared. Patrick was sent to England as a hostage.
In 1604 Thomas Fitzmaurice, 18th Lord of Kerry ‘made submission,’ to King James for offences against the crown and was subsequently pardoned. He surrendered his estates and had them conferred on him by letters patent on the 1st July 1612. After this the Fitzmaurice’s remained loyal to the crown.
After being associated with the castle for six centuries the Fitzmaurice’s sold the manorial rights of the castle to Lord Listowel who subsequently sold them to Richard Hare in 1783. In 1923 the castle was acquired by the Office of Public Works and in 2000 they began the extensive repair work that has also resulted in the Seanchai - Literary and Cultural Centre and a Writer’s Museum which is situated in the forecourt of the castle and houses an exhibition to Kerry’s finest and best loved writers along with a book shop and a Restaurant.
The castle is also famous for being the birthplace of Earl Kitchener who was the face on the World War I posters that proclaimed your country needs you, which was widely used to recruit soldiers during the, first world war.