Killahara Castle is a fine example of a restored 16th century Gaelic tower castle, one whose fascinating history of ownership (see below) mirrors greatly the great power struggles of Ireland’s most politically turbulent centuries.
The accommodation is self catering, and the entire castle is for rent, for weekends and full weeks only. You may have to forgo some modern comforts here but, unlike a lot of overly modernized castle hotel type accommodation, Killahara reeks of authenticity and offers a unique sensation of travelling back hundreds of years in time.
The location is wonderfully unassuming, and very much off the beaten track; arriving at the castle means driving down a series of country lanes in the heart of rural Tipperary until it appears, towering on a hilltop over the lovely, deep green, Irish countryside.
Up through the ancient spiral staircase you have five floors at your disposal; a spacious lounge/living room, a large kitchen, four bathrooms and a total of seven bedrooms; five doubles and two singles. Two additional camp beds can also be supplied for extra guests, bringing the total occupancy up to 12 guests.
On the ground floor the large kitchen and dining room has a dining table big enough to sit 12 people comfortably. You’ll find the kitchen very well equipped for cooking too, with pretty much all the modern conveniences you might have in your own home.
Thus it is ideal for dinner parties but if cooking for a large group sounds too much work you can also have catering delivered from restaurants in the nearby town of Thurles, just contact the helpful castle owners to arrange.
Moving up the narrow spiral staircase to the first floor there is a large living room area with plenty of seating all centered around a wonderfully atmospheric old open hearth fireplace.
Here you will find plenty of books and board games to pass the time with, but, in keeping with the ambience, no TV or music systems etc. You won’t have to forgo all modernity though; facilities at the castle also include good central heating via cast iron radiators, WiFi and a separate laundry room.
On the first floor is the first of the bedrooms; Chief O’Fogartie’s Suite, a large, bright room with vaulted ceilings, a king size bed and an en-suite bathroom.
It rivals the penthouse Purcell Suite for nicest room in the castle but the Purcell gets the prize for its extra space, its romantic, claw foot bathtub, its stunning views and its outdoor roof patio from where to enjoy the views even more from.
The other rooms are Lady Trant’s Room; a smaller room with a single bed and a camp bed for extra guests if needed. Black Jack’s Room; a larger double room, the Cormack Room with two twin single beds which can also be used as a double bed, the Ellis Room, another double and the Murder Room, so called because of the two defensive holes in the floor that lead to the outside and from where boiling liquid could be (and was on numerous occasions presumably) be poured on any attackers below.
Though the setting appears isolated and remote, the castle is only five minutes drive from the busy town of Thurles, Tipperary, which has a number of good restaurants and shops, and a total of 45 pubs.
If staying at Killahara Castle whets your appetite for history you can take a look at another interesting place from an even earlier time; Farney Castle, in nearby Holycross, one of the earliest Norman fortifications in the region with a history spanning over 800 years.
There is also the famous Holycross Abbey to admired in the area and the even more famous, though a bit farther away, Rock of Cashel, a spectacular sight that generally features on any list of places not to miss in Ireland.
The castle is convenient to three of Ireland’s main airports; Dublin, Shannon and Cork, with Shannon in Co.Clare, which has direct flights to the USA being the nearest.
The castle was first built in 1450 by Donagh O’Fogartie, high chief of the O’Fogarties (Fogarty), one of the most powerful Gaelic clans in the north Munster of the time. His main motivation for building such a sturdy structure being some persistent attacks on his lands by the Burkes from Connaught.
Despite this though, like most chieftains in those days, he didn’t get to enjoy a peaceful retirement in his new castle, being killed in battle by the Burkes just a few later, though despite this the castle itself would still remain in the hands of the O’Fogartie Clan.
It is worth noting that the O’Fogarties were a Gaelic clan, as opposed to Anglo-Norman, and Catholic as opposed to Protestant, and in medieval Ireland these were very important distinctions. In the centuries that followed the original Anglo-Norman conquest of the late 12th century the O’Fogarties had managed to preserve their power when most of the old Gaelic order had lost theirs.
As time went on though the distinction between Norman and Gaelic was to become blurred in Ireland, intermarriage became common, and Killahara Castle itself would pass from the O’Fogarties to the Norman origin family of Purcell not long after the death of Donagh, as it was believed, though the details are hazy, that he was married to an Ellen Purcell at the time of his death.
In the old Gaelic Brehon Law, which the O’Fogarties would have abided by, the castle and lands would be expected to have been passed on to the closest surviving O’Fogartie relative. Under Brehon Law in fact, the clan wasn’t even allowed to sell it or give it away; it was theirs until they lost it by force.
But as this was not the case and the property became the Purcell’s, it displayed an interesting break in, or a hint of the coming end to, the old order, where now what they termed ‘English Law’ applied, meaning the estate could be passed on to the widow of the clan chieftain, and her family after her death.
Moving on, there came in to play the second important distinction of the time; religion. From the 16th century on, most of the old Gaelic and Norman families remained defiantly Catholic while most of their nominal overlords, the English, had converted to Protestantism. This would soon become a sore point for the English powers that be; for it was a very blatant sign of disloyalty.
And so began many military invasions and campaigns from England to dominate Ireland politically and in doing so to unseat from any position of power those Irish who were seen to be disloyal.
Both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I launched bloody invasions but the most notorious of all came later, by the English Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell who, in the late 1640s and in the middle of the English Civil War, launched an onslaught on Ireland, one which had the aim of subduing not only the opposition of the Catholics but also that of the pro-Royalist Protestants.
The Purcell’s originally Norman ancestry would have meant nothing at that stage, being now to the English just as any other Irish Catholics and on that note Killahara was seized by Cromwell’s forces and handed around to various loyalist cohorts it seems.
It somehow ended up back with the Purcells though just for a time under the more benign rule of King Charles II and before the Penal Laws when the Trants, a family from Co. Kerry who had previously converted to Protestantism, were granted ownership.
The Trants would keep the castle and its lands for the next few hundred years during which time it became common for Anglo land owners like them to rent out small plots of land to Irish Catholic peasants.
In very much a twist of fate, a local family, the Fogartys, direct descendants of the original castle builder and owner Donagh O’Fogartie, would also find themselves renting out a plot and a cottage on the land that was once theirs in its entirety.
Evictions for non payment were commonplace in those days, most of the Fogartys were evicted in 1819, with a man known as Black Jack Fogarty the last to go in 1850 after being made destitute by the Great Famine.
Business went on for the Trants and in 1852 they would embark on a restoration project for the castle, the creation of the village of Dovea as well as the building of a new Anglican church, St. Michael’s Church (now a private house).
Among the notable people buried in the graveyard of the former church is a man named Jack Ellis, originally from Scotland, he was employed as a land agent/rent collector by the Trants and quickly developed a bad reputation among the tenants. So much so that in 1858 he was murdered with two of the tenants, the Cormack brothers, being hanged for the crime.
The Trants hung on through various boycotts during the so called land wars and Gladstone’s land reforms of the 1880s but by the turn of the century were no longer using the castle as a residence and were under financial pressure with their, now quite unprofitable, estate.
During the War of Independence though the vacant castle, being reputed to be a secret meeting place for the IRA, was burned out by the Black and Tans., and was then left as something of a stone shell for the next few decades, though local people would still find use for it as a place for informal dances and parties.
The absent Trants were still officially owners of the castle, and the lands surrounding it though, and up until the 1930s estate was overseen by a Laurence Trant, someone who was seen as a fair man and one who held much respect in the area.
With the advent of the new Irish Republic though the era of the Anglo large land owners had very much ended and he sold the Killahara Estate on to a local farmer’s co-operative.
The castle itself would remain empty for decades though, until it was sold by the Co-op to Noel Ryan and the Heritage Construction company who, in 2008, completed the delicate task of restoring the building, and converting it into into the unique and special place we see today.
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- Killahara Castle