In the year 1655, Grennan Castle, Thomastown was described as a faire castle with many outhouses, stables. Large orchards, fishing ponds, a water corm mill in good repair with a courtyard wall inside which we imagine, there was a vegetable garden and other treats. It had its own forge, bakery, and was self sufficient and as well being situated on one of the best and most beautiful pieces of land in the country, it was teaming with wildlife and situated as it was on a mound, it was a fantastic fortification and was easily twice the size of the ordinary keeps that later passed for castles. This was a prize, only bested by in the region by Kilkenny Castle and was much sought after over the centuries with countless quarrels, fights and legal disputes about who owned it.
It had a fosse, water filled which was part of the original earthworks built by Thomas Fitz Anthony (c. 1210A.D.) as a motte and bailey and probably finished by his son-in-law after his death.
Of Course the Nore gave it life and archaeologist Ben Murtagh described the river, a hundred yards from the castle, in the middle ages as a bit like the M50 such was the volume of traffic on it. Today, there is not even a plaque on this once proud place, to give it protection and to let those casual passers-by, walking from the town to know of its importance and history. Is there a saviour for Grennan Castle out there? Even today, it has a draw which is almost hypnotic and from the top of the castle, you can hear the river water on the bend more clearly than you can at ground level. The mini-valley that is Grennan is like a natural theatre with everything echoing even the clamour of the crows and the drudgery of the traffic on the Thomastown-Inistioge Road, which overlooks the castle on the far side of the river, reverberates, it seems, with increased volume below. Time and man have not been kind to the place and although its walls are nine feet thick at the base, the damage inside is of enormous magnitude. It started life as an earthwork fortress, motte and bailey, and is one of the few examples in the South East of a Norman Keep. The inside is in near total collapse. So sad to see what could be a monument to rival Kilkenny Castle in such a state. You can’t blame long since deceased landowners for wanting to find somewhere to house their cattle but can it now please be shown some tender, loving care.
At sub-groundfloor level there was a wine cellar and most of the vino came up the river Nore by boat. Above there are three arched chambers (barrel vaulted with stone) which were themselves once two stories. They are now converted barns with the walls knocked out to help the cattle to get in and out without difficulty. The arched ceilings are still in place but for how much longer? Directly above was the 50 foot long state room and above that were another two stories supported by corbels (pieces of masonry jutting out of a wall to carry any extra weight.)
The entrance was at the river side and was several feet up off the ground and that is very unusual. It was impossible to get through until gunpowder came along. At the south east corner of the state room what would appear to have been a chapel. There were two more stories above the state room but thankfully, the stairway remains in the north east corner.
The summit of the castle, 65 feet off the ground has views of Jerpoint, Boherduff, Carrickmourne (home to Dixie Doyle) back into the Salmon Pool and over the bridge to the town itself with the parish church dominating. You can also make out the ruins of Grennan Church from here.
So the next time you visit Thomastown GAA club or you drive from Thomastown to Inistioge, pause and take in the view of Grennan Castle. It was in its day as imminent as Kilkenny Castle and has a history so rich and varied that it could form the basis of another Tudors like television series. This was no ordinary keep but a castle of real substance of five stories a 50 foot long State room and a story which has passed down through Thomastown folklore.
At one time in the medieval period, there was a rope attached to a bell in the castle that went down to the River Nore and into a little wooden frame where salmon were caught and the rope was tightened and the bell rang. What a life. There was a vast estate here on the bend of the Nore and it was the centre of Thomastown when it was built by the founder of the town, Thomas Fitz Anthony.
The Denns have been closely associated with Grennan which translates as palace and not as I thought to do with the sun.
In his captivating book, History of Thomastown and District, W.J. Pilsworth puts flesh on a legend that has never been discounted. The Denns with such names as Fulk and Baron of Kayer were too put it mildly, a law on to themselves and the self-styled masers of Thomastown and surroundings. King Richard II of England visited Thomastown twice in 1395 and 1399 and it is said that he was livid with the Denn man who occupied Grennan and the lands surrounding it for not paying him taxes. He swore that he would have his head on a platter. So he made his way by boat to tidal Inistioge from New Ross and from there set out on horseback for Grennan. After mile or so, we are told that the first of numerous casks of good French red wine were left along the side of the road of which he and his men took part. By the time he got to Grennan he was we assume, a little inebriated where he was welcomed by the woman of the house, a good looking wench with no sign of Den. After pleasantries and more drink, he was led to the tip of the state room for a banquet. A cart with a covered platter was wheeled up the centre of the aisle and when the cover was lifted, there was the head of Den covered in blood. At this point, King Richard, is supposed to have said: As grace be mine
I’m sorry for the good knight’s wine,
I’d give a dozen of my men,
For thy one life, my outlaw Den.
Denn jumped up from underneath and of course he was pardoned.
According to Pilsworth, the account is most probably true. And this is borne out by Pilsworth who noted that there had been a dispute over succession of the lands and castle at this time.
The words outlaw came back to haunt the Dens many centuries later when one of the Denns, removed by Cromwell and not happy to go to Clare with the rest of the family became a raparee and used Tory Hill in Mullinavat as his secret hideaway and later still the hill was used by Freney The Robber whose family, also at one stage laid legal claim to Grennan.
Grennan Castle is now in a sad state and we quote Pilsworth on the subject of its decline since the 18th century. “And so today it stands, shorn if its beauties, a monument to man’s ignorance and avarice,; and the castle which was once a fitting residence for the highest in the land now gives shelter to the beasts of the land.”
His words are echoed by Canon Carrigan in his history of the Diocese of Ossory. “Down to about 1830 the castle was still surrounded by a strong and high courtyard wall together with a great many ruins and minor appendages. Vandalism then stepped in and played havoc, fast and free with the noble ruin.”
We learn from Ben Murtagh, archaeologist that many of the most valuable stones on the castle were all removed including the window and door frames. But among them were Dundry stones from near Bristol which were the most expensive building material of the time and brought up the Nore by boat. Is there any Dundry limestone left in the area?
And we earn from Canon Carrigan that there was a row over the land in 1613 when Richard Archdeacon, otherwise known as McOdy heirs (some of these became Cody) of Thomas Denn and not the Archer Fitz Walters were entitled to the land. I wonder if it was few acres of bog in North Kerry if there would have been as much commotion about this piece of land.
The Denns are synonymous with Grennan and Healy’s History and Antiquities of Kilkenny published in 1884 we learn that in 1641 Thomas Denn had 386 acres at Grennan and that his relations, the Archdeacons (McOdys) had 58 acres there. While the Denns had also a share in 335 acres at Smithstown in Thomastown.
They seemed to turn on each other every second generation or so and this is true over lands in Lavistown with the Fulk Denn taking on his brothers William and Richard over lands they held belonging to the Ormondes and he received a decree to do what was needed, we presume repossession by force in a decree issued on April 19, 1479. A Thomas Denn, Lord of Grennan kept “Papish priests” in hiding at the castle in 1610-11. By 1638, the Denns were at the height of their power with thousand of acres and through various positions of sherriff over placers all over the South East but it was short-lived.
however it all came crumbling down in December 1653 when they were banished to Connaught, in fact Clare
Later, a Theobald Denn, later to be known far and wide as Tobias Denn, the raparee of Tory Hill got an order allowing him to retrieve what lands he could but it obviously didn’t work and he was later sentenced to death in his absence. He went on the run after the Battle of The Boyne and his name is still spoke of with great warmth in South Kilkenny.
The other great Denn was Sir Reginald who was one of the greatest knights of his time between 1299 and 1304 when he died .
Thanks to Mary Flood of Rothe House for her kindness and to Damien Brett for his help at the local studies section of Kilkenny library. Ben Murtagh, archaeologist is renowned for his work in places like Kilkenny Castle and he is wonderful communicator.