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The Hidden Towers: The Old Ground, Ennistymon and Donogrogue Tower Houses
by Risteárd Ua Cróinín & Martin Breen

Photographs: Martin Breen
Plans and Illustrations: Risteárd Ua Cróinín

[This article was first published in The Other Clare, vol. 16 (1992), pp. 5-15. Clare County Library is grateful to Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Martin Breen for permission to reproduce this article.]

In this article we intend to take a look at three tower houses in Co. Clare which have been incorporated into later structures. Two are popular today, while the third is a large farmhouse. From the exteriors these buildings show little or no indication of their illustrious past, but closer examination reveals that all three were begun in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. As far as we are aware, to date, these are the only tower houses in the county contained in later buildings but if any reader suspects the presence of another we would be grateful for such information.

The Old Ground Hotel, Ennis

The present Old Ground Hotel is a mixture of many buildings, constructed at different periods from the early sixteenth century to the present day. It comprises the county jail or later town hall and cinema, an early eighteenth century mansion, an old tower house, two large extensions built in the present [20th] century and perhaps even part of an old town gate. Although this article is mainly concerned with the tower house section, we must refer also to the other buildings.

The Old Ground Hotel – formerly the Town Hall
The Old Ground Hotel – formerly the Town Hall

The evidence for a town gate with its arch over the street is quite strong when we consider certain historical references, while the site of the county jail is well documented. Although the tower house appears self-contained today it is likely that it was part of a greater complex of buildings as there is no evidence for even a staircase at present, so the upper stories must have been reached through another structure which has since been taken down. The walls of the tower house are between four and five feet thick at the base but there are other walls of equal thickness radiating from it. The ground floor of the tower house at present contains the staff dining hall of the hotel and a narrow corridor from the kitchen to the stores. Most of the renovations took place in the nineteen sixties when the old town hall was purchased by the hotel. During this work a cellar was discovered underneath the floor and among items scattered on the flag floor were chains, iron window bars, parts of an old flintlock gun with a Dublin Castle and crown stamp on it, and a coin dated 1743 or 8.[1] Also found were oyster shells and the bones of kid goats, while a water channel could be clearly heard flowing underneath.[2]

In the sixteen eighties Ennis was visited by Thomas Dineley whose sketches, though often inaccurate, are sometimes the only pictorial records we have before the advent of photography. In his sketch of Ennis which includes the Old Abbey and the hall of assizes there is a small representation of a castellated building on its eastern side. Although the buildings are obscured by little hills in the drawing it is possible that this is Dineley’s impression of the Old Ground tower house.[3]

Rear view of Old Ground Hotel
Rear view of Old Ground Hotel.
The central building (with chimney) is the Towerhouse

In 1703 Thomas Moland made a series of maps for the earl of Thomond in which he represented towns by elevated sketches. In his sketch of Ennis he shows what appears to be a town gate in the style of those of Youghal, Drogheda and Kilmallock. It is the first building to be seen when approaching the town from the Clarecastle side and may indeed have been the southern or back gate described by Mr. Brian Ó Dalaigh.[4] If, as has often been supposed, a stream runs under the tower house, this gate may have been erected to protect the town at the only bridge onto the island from the eastern approach and the Old Ground Tower House may have been part of its defences.

According to Michael G. Considine in 1873 “The original gaol at Ennis was in Jail Street (now O’Connell Street) not far from the town hall and as there was no provision made for the support of the prisoners, they were forced often to live on public charity, and bags were hung out of the windows to receive alms from the public who passed under the arch of the gaol, which spanned the street.”[5] Frost tells us, in his History and Topography of the County of Clare (Dublin 1893), p.251, “The English established a jail at Ennis, and appointed one Patrick Morgan, jailer, in 1591.”

We can’t tell exactly when the tower house or town gate was built but it is likely that it was in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century during a period when over two hundred such towers were built in Co. Clare. The Four Masters tell us that Donough, the second earl of Thomond fled to a tower in the town (Ennis) when Clonroad Castle was attacked by his kinsmen,[6] while in 1570 the Earl of Ormond captured the Earl of Thomond’s castles of “Clonerawade” and “the Inche”.[7] In 1574 the Earl of Thomond was named as the owner of the castles of Clonrawde, Clare and Inish.[8]

John Cooper (husband of Máire Rua) leased “a small castle or turret in Ennis, part of the late Abbey of Ennis with a small piece of land adjoining … the usual slip or place for a boat reserved.”[9] It is unlikely that the Old Ground tower house is the one mentioned above, as the stream at this point would hardly have been suitable for boating, judging by its present width behind Ennis Shopping Centre, but drainage conditions in the town may have been very different in the seventeenth century. Up to recently water had to be pumped out of the underground pump house of the hotel at high tide.[10] By the middle of the seventeenth century the buildings must have been in particularly bad condition and in need of repair when we read that four friars arrested at Rooskagh near Inagh were released on bail because the jail was in such a ruinous condition.[11]

Stairway leading to banquet hall showing exposed stonework of towerhouse wall
Stairway leading to banquet hall showing exposed stonework of towerhouse wall

In 1708 the grand jury of Ennis ordered that “the new overseers of the high roads in and about the liberties of Ennis do effectually make up the arch of Cloughanagour leading towards the gaol of Ennis.”[12] No doubt repairs were carried out on the old gaol because in 1689 young male Protestants were imprisoned in Ennis jail or the house of Pierce Creagh, a Catholic merchant, as their loyalty to James II was in doubt.[13] The same year Colonel Daniel O’Brien wrote to Sir Donough O’Brien at Dromoland for permission to stay the execution of certain prisoners in Ennis jail as serviceable men might later be needed by Lord Clare.[14]

The cellars discovered in 1965 may well have been part of the old gaol, particularly, considering the iron bars and chains found there, as it seems that “it was common practice to bolt (manacle) the prisoners in Ennis gaol.”[15]

The old jail was closed about 1830 and prisoners were transferred to the new county jail in Jail Road (Station Road). The old jail was again renovated and turned into a police barracks. However, it had to be reopened in 1847 and 1848 to accommodate the huge increase in petty crime during the famine years. Much of this crime was committed in order to procure a place in the county jail where food was provided.[16]

Under the present banquet hall are the stores of the hotel. They are lit by large arched windows onto O’Connell Street, one of which was a bow way between the original hotel and the Town Hall. It was during excavations for a new sewer in 1965 that the cellar was discovered under this bow. It has been brought to our attention that other cellars and tunnels possibly, were discovered later when the present staff toilets were being installed.[17] Many of the walls of the stores and cold rooms are very ancient and may be part of the old jail. At the bottom of the backstairs from the banquet hall is an old doorcase made of large square limestone jambs under a heavy horizontal lintel. Outside the door can be seen five curved limestone corbels supporting the floor overhead.

The old tower house has two fireplaces. One, which is now blocked up, was on the ground floor, while the fireplace in the Lemeneagh Hall was replaced by a large limestone mediaeval fireplace from Lemeneagh Castle which had been taken to Dromoland in the last century and was presented to the Old Ground in the nineteen sixties. During its re-erection, a letter signed by Mr. Brendan O’Regan, Mr. Jack Donnelly, (the hotel manager) and Mr. Gerard McDonogh of Dromoland Castle was sealed in a bottle and placed under the stone on the top right hand corner of the fireplace. The letter stated that if Lemenagh Castle was ever restored the fireplace should be returned to its original site.[18]

The Lemanagh hall, showing the Lemanagh fireplace, barrel vaulted ceiling and window
The Lemanagh hall, showing the Lemanagh fireplace, barrel vaulted ceiling and window

The original Old Ground Hotel which was opened in 1896 by Jane McNamara[19] can be seen on the left hand side as one enters the main gate of the hotel. It is an early eighteenth-century three storey mansion with a simple classical doorway in the centre. The house was built by Harry Upton and John Dwyer who leased it to Charles Mahon for “three lives”. His son Charles Jnr. took over the lease in 1822 and in 1863 it passed to his nephew John Mahon. It was later acquired by a John Petty and by 1886 was the home of William Hynes, M.D. The hotel was purchased in 1927 by James O’Regan and was extended in 1946 with the advent of transatlantic air travel. In 1963 the O’Regan family exchanged their house in Bindon Street with Ennis Urban District Council and so acquired the old town hall. It was during renovations to this building that the old cellar was discovered.[20]

The hotel is no doubt one of the more interesting buildings in Ennis and is worthy of further study.

The Falls Hotel, Ennistymon

It has been long known that the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon was built on the site of Ennistymon Castle the home of an illustrious branch of the O’Brien family. However, detailed examination and a measured survey has revealed that quite a lot of the late mediaeval castle complex was incorporated into the eighteenth century mansion that comprises most of the present hotel.

The Falls Hotel
The Falls Hotel

Varying thicknesses in the walls of the house reveal that at least parts of two tower house structures were retained when the house was built in 1764 (the date is carved on a storm-tie in the roof), while it is likely that the walls of the old tower house exist to almost forty feet high on the Northern gable.

Date carved on storm-tie in roof
Date carved on storm-tie in roof.
Some words are also etched on this storm-tie, possibly “carpenter”

The present games room on the ground floor has a barrel-vaulted ceiling though the floor of this room may be six to ten feet above the original. A long narrow slit on the north wall of the first floor may be a loop-hole of the old castle but it has been built up, on the inside. A deep aumbrey or alcove in the north lounge very likely gave access to another loop or narrow window but so much is now covered by plaster that it is difficult to be certain.

North wall of Falls Hotel showing possible loop-hole type window
North wall of Falls Hotel showing possible loop-hole type window (centre of photograph)

The south wall of the old house is thicker than the others and may have been part of a bawn or courtyard wall in the castle. A typical fifteenth or early sixteenth century corbel can be seen above the wall of the kitchen but serves no functional purpose in the present structure.

Three stone-built, cross-ribbed vaults over the east kitchen and wine cellar have been pointed out to us as being ancient but it is more likely that these were struck in the mid-eighteenth century to support the house, as this type of vaulting is not found in tower houses and is typical of later building.

The Falls Hotel

The roof of the house is of particular interest. It is roofed with Liscannor flagstone slates and dates from the period of building i.e. 1764. The joists and jack rafters are adzed rather than sawn and are housed using half-inch wooden dowels while the underside of the rafters are left in the rough. They are cut from six to eight inch wide trees, sawn in half, through their length. This roof is worthy of further investigation. It contains much information on vernacular carpentry techniques used over a long period in West Clare.

The Falls Hotel

The castle of Inis Díomáin[21] (the Island or peninsula of Diomain) is traditionally thought to have been built c.1560 by Domhnall O’Brien[22] of Dubhach Castle (on Lahinch golf links), who had been elected King of Thomond according to the old Brehon law.[23] This date would be late for the building of a castle or tower house in this county but other than that we have no reason to disbelieve it. Domhnall was later deposed by his nephew Conor who was proclaimed 3rd Earl of Thomond by the English Lord Deputy, Sussex.[24] However, one earlier reference to Ennistymon castle is to be found in Edward White’s list of 1574.[25] The castle which was situated in the territory of the O’Connors and appears as “Inysdyman” which was held by O’Connor under Sir Domhnall O’Brien, Knight.

In 1571 Sir Turlough O’Brien, son of Domhnall of Ennistymon became high sheriff of Co. Clare while his brother Domhnall was later protestant bishop of Killaloe.[26] Sir Turlough was made owner of over 2,000 acres of land in North West Clare and the castles of Ennistymon, Ballynalacken and Liscannor.[27] By 1583 he owned the lately dissolved abbey of Quin and its lands.[28] He was knighted by Elizabeth in this year also.[29]

Domhnall O’Brien was made governor of Clare in 1576 by the Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney.[30] He attempted to impress his loyalty on the English by hanging many malefactors and rebels.[31] In 1585 Sir Turlough was named one of three representatives of County Clare at a parliament convened in Dublin.[32] It seems that English interests in the county were well served by both father and son. This was further strengthened in 1588 when Sir Turlough was given permission to arrest all Spaniards found on the coast, after some ships of the great Armada attempted to land. He was advised by the Lord Deputy to use torture if necessary to gain information.

Turlough’s son, Tadhg did not inherit his father’s obedience to English rule and decided to become a rebel. In 1599 he joined Red Hugh O’Donnell on one of his raids into County Clare without his father’s consent. They plundered the county as far south as Ballyalla and Clonroad. The MacNamaras of Clan Culein gathered a force in order to retrieve their cattle, and Tadhg was mortally wounded in the fight that ensued. O’Donnell’s people buried his body in Loughrea on their return Northwards. He was again disinterred and reburied in Athenry within one week.[33]

By 1619 the Earl of Thomond held “the castle, town and three quarters (c.360 acres) called Innisdyman.”[34]

During the Confederate Wars, in 1645, Sir Daniel O’Brien of Ennistymon and Daniel MacNamara were appointed by the Confederation of Kilkenny to effect an exchange of prisoners with the commanders of English troops in Connacht.

After the war, the Earl of Thomond decided to let most of the castles to English protestants and so Neptune Blood became the leaseholder by 1656.[35] Three years later it was let to an Edward Fitzgerald.

In 1712 Henry, the eight Earl of Thomond granted the farm of Inishtymond to John O’Brien of Dublin, who according to Ivar O’Brien was probably acting on behalf of his Catholic kinsman, Christopher. According to the lease, the tenant was required … “for the preservation of the public peace and protestant interest … to find, set out, and maintain a man of the Protestant religion, sufficiently fitted and furnished with a horse, sword and case of pistols … .”[36]

By 1764 it had been decided to knock most of the old castle of Ennistymon and replace it with a modern dwelling more in keeping with an enlightened and more settled time. This was the work of Edward O’Brien, a descendant of Domhnall, the original builder.

The house has changed little since it was built and still contains fine stuccoed ceilings, old family portraits and a marble fireplace attributed to Bossi. The later history of the house and hotel is well documented and does not concern us here. Suffice it to say that the house passed in 1792 to Anne O’Brien and her husband, Matthias Finucane, barrister, and later to the McNamara’s of Doolin. In 1946 Ennistymon Castle became the Falls Hotel and we are indebted to the present proprietors Dan and Eileen McCarthy for their indulgence while we were researching this article.

Donogrogue Castle; Dun na nGeabhroga (Fort of the Seagulls)[37]

Front view of Donogrogue Castle
Front view of Donogrogue Castle

Visitors to Donogrogue Castle today are impressed to see this fine two-storey four-bay eighteenth century farm house overlooking the Shannon Estuary at Killimer. However closer inspection reveals that over two thirds of the present house comprise the walls of an old McMahon tower house of the early sixteenth century.

The bases of the walls in the west wing are battered from a height of ten feet to 1:10 and a narrow loop-hole can be seen beside the west door. The whole house is built on an outcrop of limestone rising some fifteen feet above ground level on the north side. This platform is shored by a stone wall of varying heights and parts of this may be of the old bawn or courtyard wall shown in Dineley’s sketch of 1680.

Rear view of Donogrogue Castle
Rear view of Donogrogue Castle

However the real surprise comes when one enters the front door of the house. The wall on the west side of the entrance hall is battered like the exterior walls. In the centre of this looms a great gothic doorway surmounted by a carved coat of arms. This doorway leads into the ground floor of the original tower house which today houses a sitting room, kitchen and utility area. The exterior walls here are five feet thick, almost double the thickness of the eighteenth century walls on the east side of the house. The coat of arms over the doorway is that of the Hodges family who inhabited Donogrogue Castle before 1837.[38]

Original doorway of castle inside present house
Original doorway of castle inside present house

According to Mrs. McInerney, the present owner, the old stone circular stairs was taken down in the nineteen forties and replaced by a straight wooden stairs cut into the north wall. There are still vestiges of the old stairs to be seen in the attic. There is also an almost complete loop-hole in the East gable of the old attic which has been blocked up with stone.

It seems likely that two or three stories were taken down in the eighteenth century and the stone used to complete the present house.

Donogrogue Castle

The castle was probably built early in the sixteenth century by the McMahons of Clonderlaw but the first historical reference to the place does not appear until 1574, when Edward White noted that it was owned by Tadhg, son of Muircheartach Cam (the stooped) McMahon.[39] Tadhg’s name is anglicised to Thomas in an inquisition document of 1626 which records Muircheartach’s death in 1593.[40] Tadhg was still owner in 1580 according to the Trinity College List. In 1585, Muircheartach Cam of Doonagurroge served on a jury at Ennis to examine the political divisions of Co. Clare,[41] and in the same year his son, Tadhg signed the composition deed of Sir John Perrott, the Lord Deputy. Tadhg was now chief of the McMahon Clan of Clonderlaw and was simply styled “The McMahon.” In 1620 the castle of “Doneygrock” was included in the Earl of Thomond’s patent and by 1641 was leased to William Brigdale.

Donogrogue Castle

During the Cromwellian period, Mr. Walter Hickman was placed in the castle, and afterwards obtained a lease of ninety years on the place from the Earl of Thomond on condition that he would “supply a Protestant horseman, with good horse, sword, case of pistols, and other necessaries for a month; to plant 100 apple trees, and to cover the castle with a roof, with slate or shingle, and also to erect a house, one and a half stories 40 ft. by 18 ft.”[42]

The Hickmans, it may be noted, were not Cromwellian newcomers; they had been living in Co. Clare for many years previously. A Gregory Hickman had been a tenant of the Earl of Thomond as early as 1611. In 1656 Walter Hickman was paying £5.5.10 annually for the lands of Dunagurrog and Kilteilie.[43]

Donogrogue Castle

In 1675 Walter Hickman of Doonagrogue, held Clarecastle for the Commonwealth. In the same year he served as high sheriff for the county, and married Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry Hart, the Commissioner General. He was made justice of the peace in 1678.[44]

In 1680 Thomas Dineley visited Donogrogue where he made a sketch of the castle and surrounding area. In his diary he mentioned “from the hill marked with the letter “R” about 300 paces from the castle is the loudest and plainest echo that I ever heard; it resounds rather louder than the voice or noyse you utter.”[45]

Donogrogue Castle c.1680 after Dineley, from the S.W.Donogrogue Castle c.1680 after Dineley, from the S.W.

During the period of the “Patriot” Parliament in Ireland 1689-91, Henry Hickman of Doonagurrogue and George Hickman of Ballykett fled the country[46] but returned after the Treaty of Limerick as Walter Hickman is again named as tenant in 1693.[47]

It seems that the value of land rose quite sharply since the Cromwellian period because by 1712 the annual rent paid by Poole Hickman to the Earl of Thomond was now thirty seven pounds. The Hickmans gave long and loyal service to the crown and no fewer than twelve members of the family served as justices of the peace between 1678 and 1862.[48]

It is likely that the present house was built by the Hickmans but by 1799 it had passed to William Monsell who was in favour of the legislative Union of Ireland and Great Britain. By 1837 it was inhabited by G. Crowe Hodges Esq. (whose coat of arms is now above the old castle door). George Hodges lived in the castle in 1855 and farmed the estate of two hundred and eight acres. About 1856, the Talty family purchased the lease from the Hickmans.[49] Mr. Thomas Talty was a director of the West Clare Railway Company and had many other business interests throughout the county. His daughter Mrs. McInerney is the present owner of Donogrogue Castle.

The authors wish to take this opportunity to express their gratitude to the following people for their assistance in researching this article:

Mr. Brian Ó Dalaigh, Mr. Sean Ó Murchadha, Miss Mary Moroney, Mr. Tom Murphy, Mr. Jack Donnelly, Dr. Ciaran Ó Murchadha, Mr and Mrs. McCarthy of The Falls Hotel, the Management and Staff of the Old Ground Hotel and Mrs. McInerney of Donogrogue Castle.

Notes and References

1. Evening Press, 4 February 1965.
2. Telephone conversation with Mr. Jack Donnelly, who was manager of the Old Ground Hotel at the time (1965).
3. Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, Vol. VI (1867), p.184.
4. Brian Ó Dalaigh, ‘Thomas Moland’s Survey of Ennis’, in The Other Clare, vol. xi (1987), p.13.
5. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. xxxi (1901), p.217.
6. The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters sub anno 1553 A.D.
7. John Bradley, Urban Archaeological Survey (Ennis), Co. Library.
8. ‘Edward White’s Description of Thomond in 1574’in North Munster Antiquarian Journal, vol. 1 (1909-11), pp.75-78.
9. John Ainsworth (ed), The Inchiquin Manuscripts (Dublin, 1961) no. 1143.
10. Mr. Tom Murphy, maintenance engineer, Old Ground Hotel (retired).
11. Brian Ó Dalaigh (ed.), Corporation Book of Ennis (Ennis, 1990), p.20.
12. Ibid., p.88
13. Ibid., p.23
14. I.M., no. 51.
15. Ibid., nos. 812, 826
16. Tim Kelly, ‘Ennis County Jail,’ in N.M.A.J., vol. xvi (1973/74) p.68.
17. Mr. Tom Murphy, maintenance engineer, Old Ground Hotel (retired).
18. Telephone conversation with Mr. Jack Donnelly, who was manager of the Old Ground Hotel at the time (1965).
19. Clare Journal, 19 March, 1896, p.2.
20. Fact Sheet on the Old Ground Hotel (Clare County Library).
21. It has been mentioned to us that Inis Diomain may not be the original name, although it is used by the Four Masters. A member of the North Clare Historical Society has suggested the name Inis Tigh Mean (The Peninsula of the middle house/castle/fort) as a more likely version of the personal name Dioman has not previously or since occurred in Gaelic literature or history.
22. Rev. P. White, History of Clare and the Dalcassian Clans (Dublin, 1893), p.185.
23. James Frost, The History and Topography of the County of Clare (Dublin, 1893), p.239.
24. Ibid., p.240.
25. Edward White, op. cit
26. White, op. cit, p.202.
27. Ibid., p. 204.
28. Ibid., p.194, note, 3.
29. A.F.M. sub anno, 1583.
30. White, op. cit., p.192.
31. Frost, op. cit., p.246.
32. Ibid., 247.
33. A.F.M. sub anno, 1601.
34. I.M., no. 1101.
35. Ivar O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond (Chichester, 1986), p.185.
36. Ibid.
37. Joyce’s Place Names.
38. Hugh Weir, Houses of Clare (Whitegate, 1986), pp.107, 108.
39. Edward White, op. cit.
40. Frost, op. cit., p.75.
41. Ibid., pp.267.
42. J.K.A.S., vol. vi. (1867), p.184.
43. I.M., no. 1538.
44. J.R.S.A.I., vol. xxxi (1901), p.217.
45. J.K.A.S., vol. vi (1867), p.187.
46. N.J. Mulqueen, The Vandeleur Evictions in Kilrush (Kilrush, 1988), p.9.
47. I.M.
48. Frost, op. cit., p.615.
49. Weir, op. cit., p.108.

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