Ballinderry Castle, Athenry, Co. Galway

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Ballinderry Castle

By Michael-Patrick Crowley

Since 1992 I have had the pleasure, but also the stress, of restoring an Irish castle. Ballinderry castle is in County Galway, in the barony of Clare, five miles south of Tuam, which the O'Connors made the capital of Ireland in the 13th century. The Normands de Burgos built Ballinderry between 1450 and 1500. They were said to be « more Irish than the Irish » and adopted Irish laws, dress, language and architecture.

Ballinderry was a moated castle on the shores of a lough that has since disappeared. The castle consisted of a keep with an inner ward and an outer ward that had a garden. At least two corner turrets at opposite angles strengthened the bawn of the outer ward that included a number of buildings. Access was through a gatehouse from the medieval road.

The castle was typical Irish architecture made of limestone with a mortar of lime, cattle hair and blood. The stone vaults were made with wickerwork supports of baskets forming the vault on which the stones were set in place with mortar. In many places the wickerwork, more then 500 years old, remain in place. The roof was covered with slates. Slate and cobble were on the ground floor. The walls were six foot thick supporting the 60-foot high building.

The ground floor was storage. The floor over it was the guards' quarters. The third floor was the kitchen that retains its massive six by three foot fireplace. The next floor was a suite of two rooms, the larger having a fireplace. The upper floor was the largest room, lighted by large windows. It also had a fireplace. This room was the living quarter of the master who had banquets there. The medieval toilets were at two different levels and retain the French name garde robe. Here clothes were stored preserved thanks to ammonia.

Defense was carried out from the battlements at the top, from the machiculation galleries at mid height and from numerous loopholes. On the ground floor all doors interlock themselves. The main door was strengthened on the outside by a yet and on the inside by a portcullis. If an attacker got into the lobby he was attacked from a murder hole in the ceiling and confronted by fire from a loophole facing inside. He would then have to climb the spiral staircase, which is clockwise giving an advantage to the defender manning the sword with his right hand. Communication between the floors was insured through chimney flues, which connect each other for that purpose.

Ballinderry was taken by O'Donnell took Ballinderry in 1592, in the same year taken again by Lord Grey for the crown, who actually wrote a letter while he was there. Crowmwell's army also took the castle. The castle would be manned by at least 60 men. In 1659 Ballinderry was given to the Nolan family who had lost their 20,000 acres in Galway and in exchange received Ballinderry and adjoining lands. In the 19th Century they erected a manor and left the castle. Captain Nolan was a strong sympathizer to the nationalist cause and invited Parnell who stayed in the castle. The last military use of Ballinderry was as a British outpost during the troubles.

Today Ballinderry echoes the old Irish songs of the banquets. However, questions remain. What is the significance of the stone carvings, including the sheila na gig over the entrance door? Why were oyster shells used in some of the window settings? Ballinderry is 20 miles from the sea. Did the de Burgos enjoy oysters that much? Maybe their ghosts will tell me.

(This article first appeared in the July 2005 edition of the Crowley Clan Newsletter)

Peter Crowley