Ballybur Castle and the Scot who saved what the Comerford’s built

WORDS fail trying to describe, appreciate, explain the captivating force of the loveliest castle in the land with a past reflecting the history of Kilkenny and Ireland, starting with the Tudors, Cromwell, the Wild Geese, the Confederation of Kilkenny, plantations and the enduring link with a surname synonymous with Kilkenny.

WORDS fail trying to describe, appreciate, explain the captivating force of the loveliest castle in the land with a past reflecting the history of Kilkenny and Ireland, starting with the Tudors, Cromwell, the Wild Geese, the Confederation of Kilkenny, plantations and the enduring link with a surname synonymous with Kilkenny.

This most secret of hidden gems has been saved from ruin by a canny, Scot with a love of heritage and Kilkenny who has painstakingly restored this important landmark built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 and now returned to its former glory in the jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II .

Ballybur Castle is quite simply, breathtaking. Just a half mile off the Callan road, a little bit past Cuffesgrange it is five stories high with a sentry look-out, a keep, a murder hole, a priest’s room and all the important features of a Tudor castle but it has something else. It has an authenticity that is unparalleled in Ireland and unlike Kilkenny Castle which is a mish-mash of various periods, Ballybur is a plain, dignified yet interiorly exquisite castle dating from 1588.

It was from here that the leader of one of Kilkenny’s most prominent families was sent to Connaught during the Cromwell conquest. The Comerfords suffered for their Catholicism and their lack of guile with the Duke of Ormonde who was actually related to them. They became the quintessential Wild Geese and although, other prominent Catholic families from Kilkenny managed to return from Connaught, the Comerford family of Ballybur never did and in the decades after leaving their estates measuring thousands of acres they had not enough to eat. we learn from the Ormonde papers.

Maybe they paid a heavier price than most for their involvement in the failed Jacobite rebellion. The fact that Archbishop Rinuccini stayed at Ballybur Castle in 1645 on his way to Kilkenny for the hugely important Confederation of Kilkenny may have militated against them later when Cromwell arrived. We really don’t know. Back to the present

The Gray family have carried out magnificent work but they are only the latest keepers of the flame of Ballybur. Frank bought it off the Marnell family in 1979 and the last three people to live there Margaret, Tommy and Eileen Marnell are remembered fondly in the locality and thanked by Frank for their work in ensuring that it did not collapse.

Frank bought it from the late Nicholas Marnell, who died a decade ago and is believed to have been the last person to be born in the castle. The allure of Ballybur is encapsulated in a stained glass window of what looks like Adam in the Garden of Eden at the very top of the castle in the main room, under the roof. The grey figure in a blue background with an orange sky is visible from the courtyard below. The significance of the piece is that it stands as a testament to Nicholas Marnell and his promise to his forbearers that he would hand it over to someone who would show it the love it needed to be brilliant again. The artist is Shane Grincell, Tommy’s grandson. What a connection and what a piece of art that would do justice to anything that the late Harry Clarke produced.

However what makes Ballybur famous is the Comerford link to the time when Kilkenny was considered the capital of Ireland and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini stayed in Ballybur Castle on his way to Kilkenny for the Confederation in the city on November 112, 1645. A rosary beads was presented to the owner of the castle, John Comerford. by Rinnucinni. They are kept in Rothe House and were presented to the Kilkenny Archaeological society by a descendant of John Comerford, Fr Langton-Comerford who was based in the US. They are in glass case on the second floor of the second house.

When Cromwell came and de-roofed the castle (more on that later with the inimitable Frank Gray), he sent the Comerfords to Clare-Galway and the castle and its 390 acres plus was given to a Bryan Manseragh, a direct descendant of the former Fianna Fail junior minister and advisor to Charlie Haughey, Dr Martin Manseragh who has visited the castle on a number of occasions.

But this is really the story of a young man from the area of Dunfermline in Scotland (which is very similar in terms of heritage to Kilkenny) and his wife coming to Kilkenny to start a new life in 1978 and seeing the ad in Seamus Callanan’s window on High Street for a castle. There is a report of the sale of the castle in the Kilkenny People from 1979.

Their arrival in Kilkenny was not an accident. Frank’s wife Aifric is a daughter of the great Irish scholar, Colm O’Lochlainn, a volunteer in the 1916 Rising, who was from Kilkenny. So for the artist Aifric it was a kind of homecoming and you will see from the photo on this page from 1980 that she was not afraid of manual labour or heights. There was no roof back then and they worked on the parapet to ensure the remaining masonry didn’t fall.

I don’t know the details but the castle passed from the Manseraghs to the Deigans to the Marnells who were the last people to live there and the last of those passed away in mid 1970s when it was put up for sale.

Frank’s son, Ruan tells us that there is little known about the period between 1655 until 1841 when it is stated that Thomas Deigan was the occupier of Ballybur. Locally it is known that the Marnell sisters married into the Deigan family. And it was the Marnells who occupied Ballybur until Frank and Aifric Gray bought it in 1979.

Everyone thought Frank Gray was mad to pay £20,000 for what he was told was essentially, a load of stones. But as well as being a civil engineer, frank had another skill, sorry love. He was and is a gifted with stone and he always yearned to be a full-time stone mason but circumstances did not allow that. He has worked with Kilkenny Corporation and Kilkenny County Council for the last 34 years.

He spent many hours working on the castle, first the interior and later the exterior. He was lucky in some respects, although you wouldn’t think so to look at what he had purchased, The roof had been removed we are told by Cromwell and afterwards it was capped at an angle to allow the water to run off through a gulley, ensuring that it was essentially sealed and that the four remaining stories underneath were dry. The other thing that helped was the bricking up of the windows.

Paradoxically, Frank has never slept a night in the castle and said that he had no real mind to do so because of all the early mornings he spent in it working on the interior.

He did all the work himself and enlisted the help of experts when needed. He and Aifric were constantly sourcing materials and storing them. There were only two contracts, both carried out by the Cantwells of Kilkenny, Ignatius, Mark and Pat and he is delighted with the quality of the work.

The ground floor was originally used to store goods, people and livestock in times of danger. Now it has a fully fitted kitchen. Going through the back door, you enter a secluded south facing patio area with a large fireplace.

The first floor consists of an immense bedroom with a four poster bed and niches in the walls for sleeping. There is also a smaller double room and a very elegant bathroom, containing the largest Victorian bath I’ve ever seen.

On the second floor you enter a substantial room with more deep niches in the walls for sleeping. During the daytime these niches were covered by hanging tapestries and the room was used as a living space. Now this floor is a huge double height dining room, complete with chandelier.

The room has a medieval stone fireplace, a long dining table with church pews seating up to 12 people. Off this room is a comfortable bedroom containing two beds and windows overlooking the castle grounds, there is also a small kitchen to prepare light meals as well as a very elegant shower room with a toilet, shower and hand basin.

The third floor, with it’s vaulted ceiling, is now a bedroom. It was once the family chapel. This floor also has a shower room with toilet and sink. From a little hallway you can peep through a narrow doorway onto the dining room.

The fourth and top floor, once the state apartment is now a magnificent baronial style drawing room. The room has an oak beamed ceiling (left exposed), a stone fireplace and a giant chandelier, all help to maintain a traditional feel. There are several lounge seats, a table and chairs, plus a beautifully hand crafted swing in one of the alcoves.

Heavy curtains make the room very cosy in the evenings. The four windows, each facing the cardinal points offer magnificent views. There is also a secret room, once used as a priests’ hole or to keep prisoners. Stairs lead up to the ramparts, where on a fine day you can see Mount Leinster and Slievenamon

Ballybur is bewitching and the cantilever stairs made for righted handed people to defend the castle from the intruders coming up the stairs is wonderful and the Grays have been totally true to the hidden gem using the original materials and this involved a lot of work. For instance the oak used was bought off Coillte in the late 1970s and kept in Kilmoganny until 20 years later when Frank had it cut by Brett’s of the Sion Road.

He used the black, Kilkenny marble produced by Feely Stone in Kellymount, Goresbridge where those Comerfords, who were not banished to Connaught by Cromwell, ended up.

Aifric and Frank have spent years finding suitable pieces for the rooms and the hunt continues.

A castle like this is never completely finished and there are always jobs to do, It has to be whitewashed every 18 months and there is the odd drop of rain still getting in.

Frank, who is known for his placid nature said he never worried that he would not complete the job and said he is dogged when he starts a project and said he would finish it or die in the attempt. We’re glad he survived and is able to share the place with so many visitors who rent it out. This helps to pay for the upkeep.

During our visit, photographer Eoin Hennessy and I, met the Mealoys from Sacramento, USA. Lisa is the executive director of the famous Shutter Fort and she along with her husband Patrick, daughter Catherine and son Colm loved every minute of their stay in Ballybur and yes they did come across a ghost but we can’t mention that.

Note: We are as always indebted to Kilkenny Archaeological Society and particularly Caitriona Dowling for all her help. Patrick Comerford writing in the Old Kilkenny Review of 1994 provided a wonderful insight into the life of the Comerfords after they left Ballybur and as always, Canon Carrigan’s history of the diocese was invaluable.