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|A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan|
Part 1: Commentary: Castles and Tower Houses: Features of tower houses
I now propose to deal, in general terms, with some of the main features of Tower Houses. However, from the start it must be emphasised that while some variations may exist between the sites the following features are common in most of the Bunratty Lower examples. In Site catalogue 3. each site is dealt with in detail and any variations from the norm are both mentioned and described.
To aid one in this site description I include plans showing the various floors of a so-called “typical” Tower House (Leask, 1941). The following descriptions are based on these.
GROUND FLOOR PLAN:
Behind some of these doorways traces of the beam slots, used for closing the timber doors, were noted (especially at Clenagh and Cratloemoyle Tower Houses). These sites also yielded evidence of metal bolts being used in association with the timber beams, for added security.
After passing in under the doorway most sites had a small overhead defensive opening known as a “murder-hole” (see first floor site plan). This added to the security of a site, as even when the main door was broken down the defenders could continue, via the murder hole, directing attacks against the besiegers below. This feature is well represented in Tower Houses throughout the Barony, with good examples to be seen at Clenagh, Kilkishen and Rathlaheen.
Beyond the “murder-hole” one was faced with three further doors, most of them of the round or pointed cutstone type mentioned previously. Generally speaking the cutstone doorway to the right led to a spiral stairway (as at Drumline, Cratloekeel, Kilkishen, Rosroe and Rathlaheen Tower Houses), though in some cases the entrance to the spiral stairway was to the left of the main entrance (e.g. at Rossmanagher, Ballycullen, Clenagh and Granaghan More Tower Houses). Opposite the entrance to the spiral stairway, in all sites, was a small guardroom. This survives in a good condition at a number of sites, notably Kilkishen, Clenagh and Ballycullen Tower Houses.
Beyond the guardroom and the entrance to the spiral stairway one entered the largest room of the ground floor, the cellar. Fieldwork suggested that in most cases this must have been used as a store because of the very limited light available through the three slitted windows. However in a few examples, notably Clenagh, Cratloemoyle, Rosroe and Rossmanagher Tower Houses, the presence of cutstone fireplaces and wider windows suggests the cellar may have been used for habitation, probably by the servants of the Lord of the Tower House.
FIRST FLOOR PLAN:
Care must be taken when referring to the first floor plan of a Tower House because in reality one is only speaking of half a floor. Due to the height of the vaulted ceiling in the cellar (ground floor) there is no space in the back two-thirds of the first floor for a room corresponding to the cellar below. Thus the actual first floor area is restricted to the site’s front part. It consists of a short passage-way from the spiral staircase into the small room containing the “murder-hole”, reference to which has already been made. This room usually had two cutstone windows, though in cases three were noted.
SECOND FLOOR PLAN:
A second long narrow passage, from the staircase, led to a guardrobe which has survived in a good condition at a number of sites. It is particularly well preserved at Rossmanagher, Cratloemoyle and Ballycullen Tower Houses, while evidence as to its former existence has been noted at Mooghaun and Rathlaheen Tower Houses.
However most of the second floor area consisted of a large room containing a fireplace and wider windows. This was the private quarters of the Lord of the Tower House and it may be examined at a few sites, particularly Ballycullen and Cratloemoyle Tower Houses. In most sites, however, the floor of this room has collapsed (e.g. at Kilkishen, Rathlaheen, Granaghan More and Drumline Tower Houses).
THIRD FLOOR PLAN:
With the exception of two restored Tower Houses (i.e. Mooghaun and Mountcashel) it was not possible to examine this floor in the many Tower Houses throughout the Barony due to a combination of collapsed floors and damaged spiral staircases.
Secondly a number of late seventeenth century sketches by Dineley show structures about the Tower House proper. The now levelled site at Stonehall originally had an outwork, or bawn, surrounded by high walls (Site catalogue 3, page 3.74). Ballyarrila or Mount Ievers Tower House was similarly represented, though this also had steps leading up to the site (page 3.76). At Rosroe there is a suggestion of associated outbuildings (page 3.191).
This evidence suggests that most, if not all, sites originally had some associated buildings.
OTHER INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL FEATURES OF TOWER HOUSES:
Reference has already been made to the presence of vaulted ceilings in the ground floor cellars. How was this achieved? The above diagram, (Leask, 1941), shows one the procedure involved.
The first step was to lay long wooden beams on stone corbels against the side walls (A) and cross beams were placed on them at intervals of a few feet (B). On each of these cross beams timber frames of approximately the shape of the ceiling were constructed (C). Over these a large wicker-work mat was placed (E) on top of which a layer of mortar was laid, onto which the stones were placed (F). When the arch had set the timbers were removed leaving the wicker-work in the ceiling. Field examination found that in many Tower Houses traces of this wicker-work mat can still be clearly seen, especially at Rossmanagher and Rosroe.
CONTEMPORARY DESCRIPTIONS OF TOWER HOUSES:
One of the earliest descriptions by Cuillar dates to 1588 and states: “…The
Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes,
wet with rain and stiff with frost…”
A more detailed description comes from the pen of Luke Gernon (1620): “…The
castles are built very strong with narrow stayres, for security. The
hall is the uppermost room, lett us go up, you shall not come down agayne
till tomorrow… The lady of the house meets you with her trayne… Salutations
paste, you shall be presented with all the drinkes in the house…you
must not refuse it. The fyre is prepared in the middle of the hall, where
you may sollace yourselfe till supper time, you shall not wante sacke
and tobacco. By this time the table is spread and plentifully furnished
with variety of meates, but ill cooked and without sauce… Supper
being ended it is at your liberty to sitt up, or depart to your lodgeing… When
you come to your chamber do not expect canopy and curtaynes. It is very
well if your bedd content you…Breakfast is but the repetition of
supper. When you are disposing of yourself to depart they call for a
dogh a dores, that is, to drink at the doore, there you are presented
agayne with all the drinkes of the house…”
The third contemporary description comes from a French traveller, M. de la Bouillaye le Gouz, 1644:
“The castles of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely
high and thatched with straw but to tell the truth, they are nothing
but square towers without windows or at least having such small apertures
as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and
cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in Summer
and straw in Winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and
on their windows and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches”.
In dealing with the actual defensive-type sites in the Barony of Bunratty Lower (site catalogue 3) the following procedure is followed for each:-
The defensive-type sites are dealt with under their respective Civil Parish. These Parishes are, in turn, dealt with in alphabetical order.