A Discussion of the History of Crowley Castle

The O'Crowleys established themselves on the lands of Killshallow (from "Coill tSealbhaig" or "O'Shellys Wood"). They have been in West Cork since the thirteenth century at least and in the sixteenth century they held thirty two ploughlands from the MacCarthy Reaghs in Killshallow with their base here in O'Crowley Castle in Aghakeera (from "Ath an Cire" - or "Ford of the Cocks Comb" probably named from a crossing of the stream and a rock formation nearby).

We do not know how long their stronghold was located here. It is said they had other castles. The O'Crowley name is associated with some place names such as Curraghcrowley in the parish of Ballymooney, and Cahir in Kinnagh - known in the 1600's as Cahir O'Chruadhlaoich. It is also possible that as mercenary soldiers they may have guarded castles for other clans over the centuries.

There probably were many changes down through the years with warfare and movement of people. Clan lands changed as a result over the centuries.

We do not know when this castle was built at Aghakeera. What we can do in this regard is trace the history of castle building in Ireland, and fit it into that context and narrow down its possible construction date as much as possible

What is a Castle?

A castle is defined as "a stone built fortification capable of being defended by a smaller force against attack by a larger force". Leask observes that - "the castle is essentially a product of the feudal system in which the few might overawe and hold the many in subjugation". The era of great castles was before the advent of guns and gunpowder, which were able to render stone to rubble very easily. The classical castle had a strong central "Keep" or "Donjon", surrounded by a strong wall and moat, with defensive towers.

There were two castle building periods in Ireland. James N. Healy maintains that castles as such were not built in Ireland before the Normans came. The Normans were great castle builders, and over a 140 year period from 1180 to 1320 A.D. built all their major castles in Ireland (e.g. Liscarroll castle in North Cork). They had strong keeps and surrounding walls with towers etc. The Irish clans at that time did not build castles, having neither the resources or the social organization necessary for such undertakings.

The Normans used their castles for the classical purposes of domination and control of the lands they had taken and many medieval towns grew up around them. This era of building came to an end with the Bruce invasion, followed by the Black Death., and the Wars of the Roses in England, which weakened the Normans in Ireland and led to the Irish resurgance of the early 1400's.

At this period the Irish clans had come to terms with the Normans, had regained some of their old territories and grown strong and wealthy themselves. From about 1400 onwards they were to embark on castle and monastery building on a large scale. The period 1440 to 1465 saw Irish clans founding Franciscan monasteries at Kilcrea, Muckross, Bantry and Sherkin Island. Hand in hand with this went the building of strong residences to defend clan territory and enhance clan status.

The castles built in this era consisted of a tower house with a high wall surrounding it and a bawn in which outhouses for stock and storage as well as quarters for clan servants were located. They were not as massive as earlier castles but were suitable to withstand the local raids and forays of their times, and became the standard residence type of the Irish and Anglo-Irish gentry. They were very comfortable to live in compared to anything else at the time.

The fashion of building tower houses is said to have originated with a grant from Henry IV in 1429 of a subsidy, that the wording of which is as follows:

"It is agreed and asserted that every leige-man of our Lord the King of the said counties (viz. Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Louth), who choose to build a castle or tower sufficiently fortified, within the next ten years, to wit, twenty feet in length, sixteen feet in width, and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower, ten pounds by way of subsidy".

This gave rise in recent years to tower houses being referred to as "ten pound houses"!

From 1450 to 1600 tower houses were built all over the place, more of them being erected on areas of good land than elsewhere.

  • County Limerick had 400 castles
  • County Cork had 325 castles
  • County Tipperary had 253 castles
  • County Clare had 120 castles

It is into this era that the O'Crowley Castle fits. Allowing that the head men of the MacCarthys would be the first in the field, followed by lesser members of the clan and then smaller clans, it is reasonable to assume that Castle Crowley was not built before 1500. The O'Hurley castle at Ballinacarriga was not built until the late 1500's.

Around 1547 O'Crowley was reputed to be able to muster 80 horsemen, and 60 Kern or foot soldiers, so with that strength he may well have risen to the dignity of his own castle. We are not certain when the castle was demolished or abandoned. O'Murchadha maintains it must have been destroyed in the Elizabethan wars. In 1601, after the Battle of Kinsale, the English forces were "burning O'Crowley's country". An archaeological dig may be the only means of finding the date of building and demolishing the castle.

After 1601, the O'Crowley chief of the day is recorded as being of Kennagh, so we can assume the castle was no longer habitable. We also have the tradition of it being called, "Cabhlach O'Chruadhlaoich", or "O'Crowley's ruined house", hopefully applied after it had been destroyed!!

There was a skirmish in this locality in 1600 when the O'Learys of Muskerry came raiding for cattle. The MacCarthy Reaghs and the O'Crowleys met them here and the O'Learys suffered heavy losses.

There is no record of O'Crowley castle in the intervening years until 1924 when Cork Antiquarians visited the area. They reported the north wall being 45 feet high, with parts of the east and west walls still to be seen. They were informed by locals that the south wall and most of the east and west walls were taken down in 1880. There was a skeagh bush in the middle in 1924, and the remnant walls were ivy clad.

The question arises as to how extensive were the buildings here. They probably reflected the general trend of a tower house with a walled bawn extending out from it. Looking at the ground, there certainly appears to be a level area to the south-east with regular limits which suggest buildings once stood there.

Another point of interest is the location of what is described as a castle in a low hollow, with high ground on three sides. We can only assume it fulfilled the clans needs for a respectable residence. The Clans main defences probably lay in the woods and mountains around, while a tower said to be on high ground to the west enabled a lookout to be kept. We must envisage the country around without fences, etc., while the stream nearby supplied water.

To conclude, this was probably the clan headquarters from c. 1500 to 1580 A.D. at the most, a relatively short period in historical terms.

Remarks by Seamus Crowley, delivered at
Crowley Castle, September, 1995