A decade of hard work and persistence on the part of a talented team of craftsmen and a dedicated owner has restored a 100-year-old fortification to its former glory.
PITY THE poor lord of the manor who found himself out of favour several centuries ago. Destruction of his “crenellation”, or castle battlements, was the favoured punishment – the equivalent now perhaps to having one’s Mercedes SLS or Lexus being repossessed. So when the final stone was laid recently in the restored battlements of Claregalway Castle, it was a moving occasion for Galway-based eye surgeon Eamonn O’Donoghue.
O’Donoghue spent the past decade returning the 600-year-old fortification to its former glory. In doing so, he has overcome successive planning challenges and some serious flooding, when the Clare River burst its banks last winter. And last weekend, he let down an imaginary portcullis, when the tower house opened its gates to the first Galway Garden Festival.
Lesser men would have wilted, according to members of restoration team. However, O’Donoghue’s affinity for the de Burgo structure dates back to childhood, when his parents took the family for picnics in the ruins.
The castle had one large tree growing up through it, and much of an upper floor was hanging on by a thread, O’Donoghue says. His captivation never quite left him, and it was always in his mind’s eye during many trips he made abroad on volunteer work in developing countries.
“After I acquired it almost 10 years ago, the first three years were spent consolidating what was there,” he says. His brother, Nioclás, became project manager, and David Johnson was engaged as architect.
Mike Herwood, who O’Donoghue describes as a “very versatile, ingenious builder”, led the construction team, which also included woodwright Paul Price and builder Martin Cunningham.
“Herwood brought out the best in people like Jean-Baptiste Mauduit, who has worked with the French guild of stonemasons, and Sebastian Osuch, along with Paul Price and Martin Cunningham,” O’Donoghue says. The limestone for restoration came from Ballinasloe, east Galway, and the green oak for the extensive woodwork from Mountbellew. Timber fastenings were used instead of metal or steel.
However, the fact that the former owners maintained an anachronistic central hearth in the main hall led to a protracted challenge. A fumeral or medieval chimney was installed, allowing smoke to escape through a series of timbered louvres in the elevations. This was not part of the original planning approval.
Galway County Council was “very supportive, with judicious engagement”, O’Donoghue says, but the Department of the Environment had difficulties as it believed there was no historical precedent for the fumeral construction. The project was referred to An Bord Pleanála.
“Let’s say that we got caught in an esoteric exchange of detail,” O’Donoghue explains. The fumeral scale was reduced and its visual impact “improved”, to the extent that the appeals board ruled that it would be in keeping with the tower house’s character and integrity.
So when the Clare burst its banks during the extensive flooding in the west last year, O’Donoghue wasn’t phased. “It was not our biggest problem!” he laughs.
The team is particularly proud of the battlements, which offer a stunning view across four compass points and which were designed after an “enormous” amount of research into same in the west, Leinster and parts of Ulster.
Claregalway tower house dates from the early 15th century, when it was inhabited by the de Burgos, the Anglo-Norman adventurers who arrived as conquering mercenaries several centuries before.
King Henry II granted the province of Connacht to William de Burgo, and it was “regranted” to his son Richard in 1215, who established 11 towns or boroughs in what is now Co Galway. As a feudal lord, Richard generally tried to impose a bit of order in what both he and his father had regarded as troublesome territory, securing and developing what was then Galway town and seaport.
When the de Burgo influence began to wane in the town, Claregalway’s tower house provided a lucrative income as a border post, O’Donoghue says.
“They ran it a bit like the Berlin Wall, ensuring that this one and only access point to the north of the county controlled all movements and yielded valuable dues,” he says. Neighbours were the Franciscans, who had established a friary close by in the mid-13th century, while nuns ran a hospital for lepers.
Recent carbon dating of samplings of wickerwork found in the vaults dates the tower house construction to between 1408 and 1430. It played a central place in the historic battle of Knockdoe with the Earl of Kildare forces in 1504. It eventually fell into the hands of Confederates, who took it by surprise in 1643 “through the contrivance of Jonakin Lynch . . . the carelessness of waders, and the management of a Franciscan friar”, according to Galway historian Seán Spellissy.
Cromwellian forces seized the tower house in 1651, and used it as a garrison during the 1651-2 siege of Galway – the last city held by Irish Catholic forces during Cromwell’s conquest.
By 1837, a contemporary account noted that the remains were in good order and that it must have been a “fortress of great strength”.
“We feel we have done a rare thing and we’ve opened up a landscape,” O’Donoghue says. “A lot of people think of tower houses as solitary structures but that was because surrounding walls were knocked, and then the wider settlements disappeared.
“During our research, with the assistance of NUI Galway, we have found a rich seam of history and archaeology extending from here right across to Knockdoe. The Clare barony once had 33 castles in this rather small area, and 26 of them remain.”
The project is almost finished, but the team is still working on the grounds and outlying buildings. O’Donoghue planned to celebrate the restoration next year with a garden festival, but several months ago decided to bring that date forward to last weekend’s inaugural Galway Garden Festival
“I was working as a volunteer with victims of river blindness in Burundi several months ago when it struck me that a wonderful non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Christian Blind Mission, deserved some help. As an NGO, it takes an empowering approach, building up local organisations to the stage where it can then withdraw. Certain eye conditions like river blindness and glaucoma can be treated so easily with early intervention and funding. A little can go a very long way.”
All profits from last weekend’s festival went to the Christian Blind Mission.