Ballyragget Castle - The forgotten jewel of Kilkenny

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Ballyragget Castle - The forgotten jewel of Kilkenny
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Very few people have ever had the opportunity to sit in "Margaret's chair" in Ballyragget, Sean Keane reports.

I am referring to the stone seat, still intact, on top of Ballyragget Castle which affords the best views of the town named after the family who owned the land around it for generations, the Raggets.

It is understandable that this fantastic castle is not open to members of the pubic for safety reasons.

However if it was to be opened to the public or placed in public trust it could form a focal point for the town which grew around it.

It is hard to beleive that this forgotten gem was absolutely central to the defence of Kilkenny in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been the backdrop for incredible events and the scene of much bloodshed and bitterness.

During the late 16th century and all through the 17th and 18th century it played a huge role in the military and political life of the county and the region, being the main defensive structure and fortified keep to the north of Kilkenny Castle. It also became a prized possession for the English, the Irish and the various squabbling branches of the Ormonde dynasty.

We know this and much more from the seminal work on the castle by Enda Houlihan through his thesis for his Bachelor of Education degree. It should be compulsive reading for anyone with a smidgeon of interest in their local place.

Back to the chair on the top right hand corner of this page.

It is also known as the “Wishing Chair” and the older people in Ballyragget believed that if you sat in the chair your wish would be granted.

It is also said but not recorded anywhere in print, that Lady Margaret Butler who was one of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare, would sit here and look out at the lands and that on occasion, servants, or others who did her a “disservice” would be hung from the castle.

The same story is told about another of her favourite haunts, Grannagh Castle while there is also a Margaret's chair at Clomantagh Castle, outside Freshford.

And just to demonstrate how important Ballyragget Castle was, a number of castles which were built later in the 16th century were modeled on it, including Tybroughney Castle, Piltown.

A very unsavoury character who held the castle was one of Cromwell's most deprived officers, Col Daniel Axtell who had one of the Butlers of the castle tortured and killed for not disclosing where the Mountgarret treasure was buried. He hung Catholic and Protestant royalists on the Fair Green, Ballyragget while laughing on from the castle.

The same treatment is supposed to have pertained to another of Lady Margaret's castles at Grannagh, Kilmacow

Curse

Lady Margaret and her fondness for Ballyragget gives the place an extra special significance and along with the curse on the Mountgarrets (that eventually came through in the late 18th century when they finally left the castle), the murderous goings on, the secret tunnel and the greatest collection of Whiteboys ever seen in Kilkenny, Ballyragget Castle with its four intact towers, one now used as a Marian shrine, should be celebrated and enjoyed by locals and visitors to marvel at its size and beauty.

In some ways it's similar to the French chateaus. Many of these have walled fortifications around which an urban centre grew much as it did in Ballyragget and didn't around others like Balleen Castle which was preferred by one of the Mountgarrets over Ballyragget.

While the castle features on the crest of the Ballyragget GAA club jerseys and the local girls primary school, none of the players or the students have, to my knowledge been inside the castle.

This is to be expected and the owners have done a great job in keeping it in good condition and for that and for much more they should be congratulated.

In other areas, these type of medieval castles have disappeared and many archaeologists and others would argue that we have too many castles and that it is difficult to know what to do with them all.

It is an excellent point and one which Kilkenny with over 200 medieval installations in varying degrees of upkeep will have to address sooner rather then later.

Yet Ballyragget Castle dominated the town and was responsible for its foundation.

And even though some would argue that the modern town turned its back on the castle, literally; it remains a sleeping giant, an untapped resource full of potential that should really be explored.

The castle itself is still imposing and Pat Moore's photo captures that very well.

And at dusk, the crows fly to and from it, like something straight out of a Disney film.

The castle which still has a roof and is intact if probably dangerous to explore and is also good reason to keep it closed. Wouldn't it make a great place to film Game Of Thrones.

Castle features

Ballyragget Castle is basically 44 feet by 31 feet in size, according to the bible of Kilkenny archaeology and history, Canon Carrigan's opus on the Diocese of Ossory.

The walls are around seven and a half feet thick and all the doors, are of cut stone, probably limestone.

The main entrance-door on the east side is Gothic, in appearance and is close to the girls primary school.

It would be quite easy to make an entrance from the school side, making it accessible without too much hassle.

However, there is potentially, an even better entrance available if it was opened up.

This is where the owners have set beautiful alder trees along the avenue up to the Castle which is just about visible if you peek in through the corrugated iron gates, down from Super Valu.

Bishop Carrigan noted that two sets of corbels (a stone jutting out from a wall to carry a beam, a type of heavy duty bracket) in the same wall as the east entrance and other marks on the wall indicate a very large house or mansion now demolished that was built against it.

And this is in keeping with folklore which claimed a huge thatch house was situated next to it with one of its gables part of the Castle wall.

And it would seem that the “lost house” probably replaced the thatch house.

Down from the east side entrance is a cattle shed, still intact after hundreds of years and still being used and I for one think that is terrific.

What good are old buildings dotted around the countryside unless they are used. Otherwise they will fall down.

State room

A few years before the end of the 16th century, the state room, where banquets were held, was remodeled and fitted up with a massive cut stone chimney piece, inscribed with the initials of Edmund, second viscount Mountgarrett and the date of the inscription;

E. M. 1591

According to the 2014 County Development Plan the Tower House at the castle is a listed building.

It is not a national monument according to the Office of Public Works (OPW) and that seems to be because it is in private ownership.

The four round towers that defend it are looped so as to command what is outside of the walls. The Keep is five stories high with the look-out turret that rises above the parapet in the north east corner of the keep.

Abandoned

During the half century that followed, Ballyragget Castle seems to have been abandoned, at least temporarily by the Mountgarrett family. And we know this because, Richard, the third Viscount was described in a contemporary document from that time, as residing in Balleen Castle in 1610.

Manor with annual fairs

In the year 1619, King James I constituted the place a manor, with a grant of two annual fairs, in favour of Richard third Viscount Mountgarrett, the proprietor of the estate.

History project

The Ballyragget Convent School did a folklore project some years ago and came up with the following:

"There is a big stone chair in it and it is said if anyone wished while sitting in it they would get their wish.

“It has a dungeon which stretches from it to the river," Maisie Baird told the project.

“The castle itself is fairly well preserved and seems to be withstanding the ravages of time well. As a matter of fact it provides no mean living accommodation for a workman, his wife and family. The upper storeys are not so safe but he first and second storeys are very stable and the present resident considers it a very safe abode.’ (J. Kelly, Ballyragget as part of the folklore project.

Battle of Ballyragget

The Battle of Ballyragget took place in the shadow of the castle in 1775.

It was the largest assembly of Whiteboys ever in Kilkenny, 300 horsemen and 200 on foot.

Whiteboys were a secret agrarian organisation in the 18th-century which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming.

They were led by a Moore man from Higginstown, Clara and the family are still there.

Walls

The castle and the surrounding stone walls support a wide variety of plants. Aubrietia, (an ornamental non‐native plant) is abundant, with ivy, maidenhair spleenwort, common polypody, white stonecrop, pellitory, germander speedwell and various mosses and lichens all frequent, according to a LAP Habitat Assessment by Mary Tubridy & Associates.

Elder and sycamore are also present, with dead lime trees along the south‐western wall. Alder have been planted on the avenue to the castle.

The castle provides suitable habitat for bat species, but no bat survey of the castle has been undertaken.

The castle also provides habitat for common birds, with jackdaw, blackbird, song thrush, robin, blue tit, house sparrow, chaffinch and swallow recorded in and around the castle grounds in 2010.

The stone wall surrounding the castle supports rich flora, including ivy and aubrieta. Dry meadow and grassy verge habitat is present around the grounds of the castle. Cock’s‐foot, nettle, cleaver, ribwort plantain, creeping buttercup and docks are abundant. Adjacent to the south wall of the castle grounds, there is a small area of scattered trees and parkland, with mature oak, beech and cherry. Shrubs include lilac, elder and ivy.

Ground flora features dandelion, lesser celandine, lesser periwinkle, violet, creeping cinquefoil, daisy and lords‐and‐ladies.

Borders with non‐native species of shrub have been planted nearer to the road.

Sources

Canon Carrigan's History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory; The Old Kilkenny Review article; Ballyragget and District by T Lyng; PM Egan's History of Kilkenny; Kilkenny county Council's Local Area Plans (LAP) for Ballyragget; Scoil Chiaráin Naofa Primary School folklore school project; Lewis Topographical Dictionary (1837)

Enda Houlihan's work; Enda Houlihan B.A.: Ballyragget Castle, Co. Kilkenny.A history and comparative analysis.

The aim of the dissertation was to analyse Ballyragget castle, Co. Kilkenny and compare it on three levels to its baronial, and in turn its shire contemporaries in Co. Kilkenny.

The thrust of the dissertation came in three ways. The first was to attain an understanding of the castle's history throughout its perceived lifetime and assess its implicationsfor the castle's level of prestige within its barony and in turn the implications it had for the castle's importance to the Earldom of Ormond.

The second aim was to assess the geographical location of the castle, and in turn its strategic positioning, in terms of it being a castle structure but also in terms of it being a Butler fortress and military structure.

The third was to assess the castle's military and defensive strengths archaeologically and in turn compare this to the other premier castles in the castle's relevant barony, and in turn against others along the Kilkenny northern borderlands. In turn these three investigated areas, and their relevant conclusions, allowed Houlihan to draw a conclusion on the castle's standing as a formidable military structure and a acutely strategically sited building within the barony. of Fassadinin.

Enda Houlihan

We are indebted to Enda Houlihan for his work on Ballyragget Castle entitled, A History and Comparative analysis, which formed the basis for his Bachelor of Education thesis.

He argued that the Tower House of Ballyragget was not an addition but an original construction from the late 15th century when it became an important strategically because of the prevailing, fragile political situation between the Earls of Kildare and Pierse Ruadh Butler whose feisty wife was daughter of the Earl of Kildare. It created a prosperous town and more importantly from the Butlers point of view, gave them a military presence in a previously unmarshaled area and it also meant that the castle and the people who lived in and around it were firmly tied to the shire of Kilkenny.

It became the premier crossing point of the River Nore for the upper Nore valley.

The castle continued to be of military importance up until the 18th century, when the British army placed a garrison there during the 1798 rebellion in Wexford.

From the 16th century on, Ballyragget Castle gained in prestige, becoming the seat of residence of the Mountgarrets (a branch of the Ormonde family).

It became of huge military importance and Mountgarrets used it as a defence and to raid the adjoining MacGiollapadraig territory.

However, it became the base for revolt in the late 16th century when Edmund, the 2nd viscount Mountgarret decided to revolt against the crown and support the Ulster rebels. Ballyragget became a prized possession during the war that followed and was attacked and captured on three separate occasions. And it speaks volumes that it was used as a base by the Cromwellians, according to Enda Houlihan's seminal work on Ballyragget Castle: "It was a formidable and imposing structure, militarily and politically.”

the fact that it was upgraded on a number of occasions and considered the main defence to quell those on their way to take down the seat of the Ormondes, Kilkenny Castle, Ballyragget was the biggest defensive structure it had to the north.