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LATER THIS SUMMER (2013), in June or July (the exact date has not as yet been settled), the refurbished Castledonovan near Drimoleague in west Cork will be accessible to the public again—after so many years. The Office of Public Works has been doing restoration work on the place for what must be two decades, at least—it is no exaggeration to say that there are people driving vehicles on the roadways now—and doing so legally—who have never seen what’s behind all that scaffolding!

In and around Drimoleague locals say that it took longer (and cost more) to repair/restore the castle than it did to first build it, which is probably true.

David Ross

David Ross

Anyway, now that the netting and tarpaulin covers are coming off and the complex of scaffolding dismantled, a few of the locals have been invited within for viewings and, as a result, are starting to give air to very a different tune. Yesterday I met David Ross, a farmer who lives nearby, and he told me that the OPW have done a really excellent job—and David Ross is someone I take seriously, an intelligent man with good taste and good judgement. So I’m looking forward to walking north that way at some point in the coming months and taking it all in for myself.

Castledonovan is to be found in the hills west of Dunmanway—about 18 kilometres west of Dunmanway and about 6 or 7 kilometers north of Drimoleague. (Those hills, by the way, give rise to three rivers which frame the territory of west Cork—the Bandon which flows eastwards through the towns of Dunmanway and Bandon to the sea at Kinsale, the Mealagh river which runs westwards to the sea at Dunamark (or Donemark) near Bantry, and then the Ilen river, flowing right by Castledonovan, which runs southwards to Skibbereen and from there on to the sea at Baltimore. All three flows originate in gullies coming down from Nowen Hill—sometimes also rendered as ‘Mount Owen’.) Castledonovan nestles at the foot of Nowen, southwest of it.

It was built, apparently, in the 1560s, just in time for the advent of reliable gunpowder and really effective canon technology, as the descendants of the people who built it were soon to find out.

Originally, the O’Donovans were from what is now county Limerick, where they had settlements on the banks of the Maigue river at Croom and Bruree just south of Adare. (And also in and around Kilmallock, near Charleville, apparently.) However, upheavals resulting from the Anglo-Norman conquests of the 12th and 13th centuries, meant that these peoples were dispossessed (by the FitzGeralds), so they headed elsewhere, southwards where they dispossessed others—same as with the O’Sullivans, for example, who lost their footing in the rich lands of Tipperary (also as a result of the Norman conquest) and relocated amid the bogs and the rocks and the smelly shell-fish of the Beara peninsula, pushing out the incumbent O’Mahonys.


The Ilen river; this photo was taken somewhere between Castledonovan and the village of Drimoleague (one of the Drimoleague walkways follows the Ilen for a little while, and a very pleasant walk it is too; this photo was taken in winter)

Anyway, the O’Donovans resettled themselves in the Drimoleague area, along the banks of the Ilen river, eventually expanding their territory to occupy a sizable stretch of countryside down as far as present-day Skibbereen and eastwards towards Dunmanway and Rosscarbery.

In so doing—in relocating themselves in west Cork—the former Limerick-men may have been occupying what was virtually no-man’s land—forest and swampland and russet-coloured mountainsides—however, this is unlikely to be how indigenous folk saw it. There was, I would imagine, generation after generation, running conflicts with the O’Driscolls to the south, O’Crowley people to the east, and the O’Sullivans and the O’Mahonys to the west, and no doubt with others. However the overlords in this new territory were the MacCarthys and it seems that Crom O’Donovan and his descendants established a new domain for themselves with the blessing of MacCarthy Reagh over at Kilbrittain—“Prince of the Carberies”—and Crom and his men had the strength to defend what they were sanctioned to take and so they survived.

The ruins of Raheen (or Rahine) overlooking Castletownshend harbor, once an O'Donovan fortification in West Cork

The ruins of Raheen (or Rahine) overlooking Castletownshend harbor, once an O’Donovan fortification in West Cork

And prospered, evidently: by the 1500s the O’Donovans had generated several sub-divisions—Clancahill O’Donovans, the senior branch (the crew that built Castledonovan), the Clan Lochlainns, the Clan Aineislis, and many other lesser branches, the Bwees, the Bawns, the Donns, and of course the O’Donovan Rossas, and so on and on, developing strongholds all across the territory. There was once a substantial place over in Glandore, in Myross there was Castle Ivor, and, also in Myross, Rahine (or Raheen) on the shoreline of Castlehaven. And at the top of the Castlehaven inlet there was another place, Bawnlaghan (or Bawnlahane), which is where the family of John O’Donovan the nineteenth century historian/antiquarian originated.

Like the O’Sullivans and the O’Driscolls and the O’Mahonys—and indeed the MacCarthys too—the O’Donovans were undone in the 17th century, never missing an opportunity to take the wrong side in the great conflicts of the day: in the Nine Years War they mustered for Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell against the Elizabethan authorities, in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 50s they marshalled themselves against Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliamentary forces, and finally in the 1680s and 90s, in the conflict between the Catholic King James and William, Prince of Orange, again they managed to identify the loser and commit themselves whole-heartedly thereunto.

Four+Masters+stampBy the 18th century the O’Donovans—most of them anyway—were either dead or unhorsed or, like the family of the antiquarian John O’Donovan, driven off to some other place altogether where they had to eek out an existence for themselves as something other than yahooing, cattle-rustling, blood-sucking, bandit-warriors.

Castledonovan has remained an unoccupied ruin since that tumultuous and blood-drenched century, which came to an end with the age of Swift and Berkeley and Cox and Captain Nash.

In Sketches in Carbery (1876), Daniel Donovan has the following on how castle walls such as those at Castledonovan were mortared originally:

“In ancient times a system of masonry called grouting, was adopted in the building of castles and fortified places. Instead of laying alternate layers of mortar between the stones, a fluid mortar of sand and lime, mixed with blood, chopped horse hair, and sometimes fine gravel, was poured into holes in the wall, and this fluid mortar finding its way into every crevice, when it cooled bound the parts together in so complete and solid a manner as if the building was hewn out of a rock. In this way we can account for why it is that the buildings of olden times can resist the effects of time and exposure to weather better than the more elaborate, but also more lath-and-plaster edifices of modern construction.”

The photograph of Castledonovan at the top of this post is from around 1900. In the photo you can see where the building is cracked; afterwards a whole corner of the structure collapsed, from top to bottom, such that only three walls were left standing (although you could still go up the winding stone staircase to the upper levels). I do not know how much restoration the OPW have done—whether they have simply preserved the remains or rebuilt the whole section that collapsed—I will be eager to see for myself very soon.

pod for star

The aforementioned David Ross, by the way, is the man behind the Drimoleague Walkways network of walks, one of which goes up past Castledonovan, along the banks of the Ilen river, a lovely walk which I thoroughly recommend. David owns a farm just north of the village of Drimoleague (go up the road by the Catholic church in Drimoleague), a place called Top o’ the Rock (‘Ard na Carrig’ in Gaelic). And there in a field overlooking the Ilen river valley he’s developing a sort of a walkers’ or pilgrims’ holiday-village, using these little huts or pods, which are (intentionally) like what one might have found in monastic settlements in the medieval era—very organic and eco-friendly-looking (for the website for David’s place see below). From there a person can do some serious walking—north to the National Park at Gougane Barra, west to link up with the Sheeps Head Way, or northwest to get out onto the Beara Way. All these walks are almost all off-road, and are very well laid out (without being over-processed).

As I know from experience, one could do much worse with a cluster of summer or autumn days. For the website for David’s place visit: http://topoftherock.ie/