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Kanturk Castle

Jean J. MacCarthy, M.Sc., Ph.D.

(Updated Nov. 2000)

This article is webpublished with the permission of the author.

Kanturk Castle

Kanturk Castle, also known as The Old Court, is situated one mile south of Kanturk town, the capital of the ancient Barony of Duhallow.  The Castle was built for MacDonogh MacCarthy, Lord of Duhallow.  The MacCarthys of Duhallow descended from Dermod, the third son of Cormac Fionn MacCarthy Mór (1170-1242), King of Desmond.  The MacDonogh MacCarthys were overlords of Duhallow.  There were three sub-chiefs to MacDonogh.  These were The MacAuliffe, The O'Callaghan, and The O'Keeffe.

The Castle was probably started at the end of the sixteenth century.  On the Map of Ireland made by John Norden between 1609 and 1611, there is a castle shown at "Cantork" (Kanturk) which is almost six English miles west of "Castle Magnere" and 10 English miles south-west of Liscarroll Castle.  Kanturk Castle combines a number of different architectural styles, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific date for its construction.  However, it was normal for a major work such as this to span several years, and the date of completion/suspension of work was probably close to 1618.

The rectangular semi-fortified Tudor style mansion is four storeys high, and 28 metres long by 11 metres wide.  There are four towers at each corner.  Each tower has five stories and rises to a height of 29 metres.  The Castle is constructed of rubble limestone from the quarry which lies just north of the Castle and on the Brogeen River.  Limestone from another source, hewn and dressed, was used in the mullioned and transomed windows, and the hoods, cornices, quoins and corbel stones.  The entrance doors, the internal doors, and the many fireplaces on each floor were also made of finely carved limestone.  In the past some of the fireplaces were removed from the building and placed in nearby Lohort Castle.  This was probably done by the Earls of Egmont when they restored Lohort Castle.  The main entrance is on the western side, and is of Jacobean design.  The steps which led up to this doorway are missing.  The other entrance door is on the eastern side.  This is of Irish castellated design.  There is a pistol look on the left side, and a slide-hole for a strong, square sliding-bolt in the right-hand jamb of the door.  The Castle is reputed to have never been roofed or finished inside.  However, the presence of fireplaces with cut stone mantelpieces is at odds with this assumption.  Whether or not the Castle was ever completed is difficult to ascertain, as documentary evidence is meagre, and much opinion is based on legend, hearsay and myth.  Nothing is known about the builders or master builders of the Castle, and neither plans nor drawings have so far been discovered.  One of the many legends pertaining to the Castle states that it was built by seven stone-masons each one named John!  Thus at one time the Castle was known as "Carrig-na-Shane-Saor" i.e. The Rock of John the Mason.  English settlers on the forfeited lands of the Geraldines objected to the structure as being too fortified for a Gaelic leader.  As the battlements were about to be raised, the English Privy Council ordered that work be stopped.  This fulfilled the prophecy of MacAuliffe, as seer and step-brother of MacDonogh, who, according to yet another legend, predicted that the Castle would never be completed, and that it would provide "too fine a home for crows"!  MacDonogh MacCarthy, so another legend goes, furious at being prevented from completing his Castle, ordered that the blue ceremic roof tiles be smashed and cast into a nearby stream.  The Bluepool stream is reputed to have derived its name from these broken tiles!

From about 1585, rival MacDonogh MacCarthy cousins were in dispute over ownership of the title and lands of the Lordship of Duhallow.  This dispute went on for a number of years.  In 1589, Donogh MacCormac MacCarthy was considered to be Lord of Duhallow.  Dermot MacOwen MacCarthy, the other contender for the Lordship was married to Amy the daughter of Morice, Lord Roche.  Donogh MacCormac MacCarthy was married to a daughter of The White Knight, Edmund Fitzgibbon.  Tradition holds that Donogh MacCormac was the buider of Kanturk Castle, though some historians attribute this tor Dermot MacOwen.

King Donal IX, MacCarthy Mór and the last King of Desmond, died in 1596 leaving only a daughter, the Lady Elena, as his only legitimate heir.  Although under the law of Tanistry some other clan members were eligible to succeed to the title, only three candidates made claim.  These were Donal, "base" son of Donal IX, Florence MacCarthy husband of Lady Elena, and Dermot MacOwen MacCarthy, Lord of Duhallow.  Dermot MacOwen made his claim to the title of MacCarthy Mór in 1598.  This claim was based on Cronnelly's thesis that the Duhallow MacCarthys descended from Cormac Fionn MacCarthy Mór's eldest son rather than from his third son, Dermot.  On October 19, 1598, Dermot MacOwen, claiming to be the MacCarthy Mór, joined forces with his enemy Donogh MacCormac, now known as MacDonogh of Duhallow, to attack Castle Hyde.  Arthur Hyde, an English settler with 6000 acres of confiscated lands, wrote that he had been attacked in force "by the newly-proclaimed Earl of Desmond, Darbey MacOwen, son-in-law of Lord Roche, and now called Earl of Clancarthy, Donogh MacCormac, son-in-law of the White Knight, called MacDonogh of Duallo, and Piers Lacy, newly made Seneschal of Imokilly."  These were joined by the Chief leaders of Ulster, including Owen MacRory O'Moragh.  The force of 4000 men burnt the town and took Castle Hyde after three days siege.

Kanturk Castle

Donogh MacCormac was killed in 1601, in an ambush in Clare-Galway.  According to Don Philip O'Sullivan Bear in his account published in Lisbon in 1621, Donogh had been travelling south with a force of 1000 men provided by O'Neill and O'Donnell, the Ulster rebels, to renew the war in Munster against the forces of the English Crown.  He left a son, Cormac.

O'Sullivan Mór, despite the great support for Dermot MacOwen in his claim to be MacCarthy Mór, refused to inaugurate Dermot at Lisbanagher, the traditional site for receiving the white sceptre of office.  In this instance, the paramount chief (MacCarthy Mór) was inaugurated by his chief vassal (O'Sullivan Mór), who thus had power of veto.  In all other cases, the paramount chief inaugurated the lesser chiefs.  Dermot MacOwen, thus vetoed in his claim to become MacCarthy Mór, eventually obtained the Lordship of Duhallow in 1614 by submitting to the Crown policy of Surrender and Regrant.  According to the Pacata Hibernia he was "a man for wit and courage nothing inferior to any of the Munster rebels."  He died in 1625.  His son Dermot Oge was married to Julia, daughter of Donal O'Sullivan Bear, and widow of Sir Nicholas Browne.  He sided with O'Neill in The Insurrection of 1641.  Dermot Oge and his son both died at the Battle of Knockniclashy in 1652, near the end of the Cromwellian War.  He was leading a charge of a squadron of horsemen against the forces of Lord Broghill.

Earlier, in 1632, as the family was in financial difficulty arising from its involvement in various rebellions and the expenditures on Kanturk Castle, Dermot Oge entered into a mortgage with Sir Philip Percival.  On February 1, 1666, because of Dermot Oge's rebellion, the English Court of Claims denied his successor the Equity of Redemption on the mortgage.  Ownership of the Lordship of Duhallow and the manor of Kanturk was awarded to "Sir Philip Percival, baronet, minor, grandson and heir of the said Sir Philip the Elder".  Thus for the final figure owing on the mortgage, the sum of £2,500 for several thousand acres of land (the Castle being valued at £500), the ancient Lordship of Duhallow and the Castle of Kanturk passed out of the MacDonogh MacCarthy family forever.  In the words of the bard O'Gnimh:

From the Boyne to the Linn
Has the mandate been given
That the childern of Finn
From their country be driven

We starve by the board
And we thirst amid wassail-
For the guest is the lord
And the host is the vassal.

The Percivals became the Earls of Egmont and retained ownership of the Castle until 1900.  The Castle was preserved by them and appears in the background of a protrait of the family by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  In the early nineteenth century, in accordance with the fashion of the time, the Percivals planted trees around the Castle.  This enhances the aspect of the Castle as seen approaching from Kanturk.  In 1750 the Earl of Egmont restored the tower of Lohort Castle, which had been a stronghold of MacDonogh MacCarthy.  This Castle had been bombarded by the Cromwellian Sir Hardress Waller in 1650.  In May, 1900, Lucy, Countess of Egmont, handed Kanturk Castle to the National Trust of England on condition that it be maintained in the condition in which it was received.  The National Trust had been founded five years earlier by Octavia Hill.  In September 1951, the National Trust gave the Castle to An Taisce on a 1000 year lease and at a rent of one shilling per year, if so demanded.  The National Trust also gave the sum of £500 towards upkeep.  Kanturk man Michael Bowman, who was National Secretary of An Taisce, had played a large part in obtaining this concession.  About thirty years ago, An Taisce passed the Castle to the Office of Public Works (OPW) under a Deed of Guardianship.  Subsequently, the OPW carried out renovations to the Castle.

In September 1992, The MacCarthy Clan Society of Duhallow, with financial assistance from IRD commissioned a feasibility study on Kanturk Castle.  Kanturk Castle Development Feasibility Study was produced by Michael Dillon, architect, in April 1994.  A specially bound copy was presented to Michael D. Higgins, T.D., Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, by the MacCarthy Clan Society at Kanturk Castle on October 16, 1994.

The Feasibility Study lists four options for development at the Castle:
Option No. 1 - Reroofing and restoring the Castle.
Option No. 2 - New roof to the Castle; ground floor converted to a museum; building a small cafe/ticket office nearby.
Option No. 3 - Preserving the Castle in the existing state and building a Visitor's Centre nearby.
Option No. 4 - Reroofing with partial restoration.  A good example and precedent for this is Parkes Castle, Co. Leitrim.

Up until 1998 Kanturk Castle was the only property owned by the English National Trust in Ireland.  In 1992, as Chairman of the locally based MacCarthy Clan Society, I had contacted The National Trust of England and requested that Kanturk Castle be returned as a gift to the Irish people.  Since 1992, The MacCarthy Clan Society had been in constant communication with The National Trust of England on this matter.  Finally, in February 1998, The English National Trust transferred the title deeds of Kanturk Castle to An Taisce (its Irish equivalent), in trust for the people of Ireland.  The effect of this transfer of ownership of Kanturk Castle was to extinguish the terms of the 1000 year lease.  This lease had prohibited any development in or adjacent to Kanturk Castle.  Her Excellency, President Mary MacAleese attended and accepted freehold of the Castle on behalf of the Irish people (An Taisce Press Release, July 14, 2000).  Her Excellency was preceded into the Castle grounds by lone piper Margaret Houlihan of the Cullen Pipe Band.  Margaret is World Champion Piper, a title won in Edinburgh.  On this occasion, Margaret played "MacAlistrum's March".  This is a Munster march composed to honour Sir Alexander MacDonnell of Antrim who had fought alongside The MacDonogh MacCarthy at the Battle of Knocknanuss in 1647.  My own ancestors also came from Kerry to assist the MacDonogh MacCarthys in this battle for their ancestral territory.  The battle, which took place in MacDonogh MacCarthy territory not far from Kanturk Castle, was fought against the Cromwellians under Lord Inchiquin.  The MacDonnells of Antrim were encamped around Kanturk Castle before the battle.  Sir Alexander MacDonnell was slain after the battle while a prisoner-of-war.


  • Description of Ireland in 1598 by Edmund Hogan, S.J.  From a manuscript in Clongowes-Wood College.  Published by M.H. Gill, Dublin, 1878.
  • From Cashel to Carberry - Gleanings from MacCarthy History by Patrick O'Sullivan.  Published by Kanturk Printers for The MacCarthy Clan Society, 1992.
  • Ireland Observed by Maurice Craig and the Knight of Glin.  Published by The Mercier Press, Cork, 1970.  Reprinted 1972, 1980.
  • Gleanings From Irish History by W.F.T. Butler.  Published by Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1925.
  • Ireland Under Elizabeth by Don Philip O'Sullivan Bear ; Translated from the original Latin by Matthew J. Byrne.  Published by Sealy, Bryers and Walker, Dublin, 1903.
  • Kanturk Castle Development Feasibility Study by Michael Dillon, Dipl. Arch., B. Arch. Sc., M.A. (Urb. Des.), R.I.A.I.  For The MacCarthy Clan Society, April 1994.
  • Life and Letters of Florence MacCarthy Mor by Daniel MacCarthy Glas.  Published by Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London, 1867.
  • The MacCarthys of Munster by Samuel Trant McCarthy.  Published by The Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1922.
  • The Shell Guide to Ireland by Lord Killanin and Michael V. Duignan ; Revised and updated by Peter Harbison.  Published by Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, 1995.

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