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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 4: Castles and
tower houses c.1500
Nat. Grid Ref. R384661; ½” Sheet 17
For information on this interesting two-period structure refer to: a) site plan b) field sketches c) series of photographs d) series of photographs.
When dealing with this two-period structure I propose to use the following procedure:
Urlanmore Castle – General Description
Field examination of this site over a number of days suggested the following. Entrance was from the north up sloping land to the natural outcrop where the site was built (Photo 1). A number of interesting field features occur along this entrance area but more about these later.
As both the site plan and Photo 2 show the entrance area is now in a very poor condition. However careful examination of the eastern surviving wall does yield evidence relating to the site’s former spiral stairway. Here one notices the traces of cut-stone spiral steps which lead to the various (probably two) but now collapsed floors over the northern part of the site. If the stairway was to the east in all probability there was a guardroom to the west. However, as Photo 2 shows, any trace of this has been buried beneath collapse, some of it 2 metres in depth.
On entering further one notices a small rectangular window opening to the east, above ground level, averaging 60 - 80 cm in width (see site plan). Field observation suggested that this opening was originally a narrow slitted window, some 1.20 metres high by only 8 - 10 cm wide. However no trace now survives of this cut-stone feature (Field sketch 1). Further along this eastern wall is a second but much wider and higher opening (see Field sketch 1). Unlike the previous opening this actually occurs on the ground level. The steep nature of the sloping ground immediately outside this opening (Photo 1) put an end to any suggestion that this may have been an entrance area. On the outside this opening is almost 3 metres high by 2.10 metres wide. The inner measurements are somewhat less, centring on 1.85 metres wide by 2 metres high. I suggest that originally there was a stone cut window here, no trace of which now survives. The wide nature of the opening should not be taken to suggest that the original window was wide, perhaps with a central shaft. As it was close to the ground level it must have been of the long narrow slitted stone cut type, perhaps some 1.25 metres high by 8 cm wide. While it was being removed, perhaps in the early nineteenth century, some of the cut-stone about it was also carted away while more collapsed.
Such are the main features of the 12 metre high eastern wall. What of the west wall? As the site plan shows there is no surviving evidence of this feature. Presumably the foundation blocks, at least, would be visible if some of the collapse in the area was cleared (Photo 2).
We now deal with the main features of the more southern part of the site. As both Photo 1 and Field sketch 1 show this area is quite different in many respects to the already described northern area. Such differences are not clear from the site plan alone.
Particular attention is going to be paid to this southern (tower house) part of the site in the later section when the question of two-period structure is dealt with. Here, however, I will just describe the main features of this area of Urlanmore Castle. It largely, as the site plan shows, consists of a rectangular room. It has no features of particular interest on the ground floor. The window in the west wall is in quite a good state of preservation. While averaging 1.08 metres in width on the inside the outer measurement is only 12 cm. The height centres on 1 metre. In the south-east corner of the small room is a small shelf, represented on the site plan. This starts 15 cm above present ground level, is 60 cm high, 55 cm wide and 60 cm deep. The 1.50 metre opening in the actual south wall may originally have been a doorway, later altered to a window. However this feature will be dealt with in greater detail at a later stage (Photo 4). What of the upper floors of this southern part of the site? These appear, from the ground floor, to be in a good condition. Unfortunately all trace of the stairway which led here originally is gone so that it is now impossible to examine such floors (Photo 3). This is unfortunate as in 1936 a Sergeant Long from Newmarket-on-Fergus noted “drawings” (murals) on the walls of the first floor area. These, depicting a hunting scene and the Virgin and child, were then fortunately copied and at the end of this section on Urlanmore Castle I reproduce a copy of these drawings plus other general information relating to them (see pages after photographs showing aspects of this site). In recent years a local climbed to the upper part of this southern area to re-examine such drawings. Unfortunately by then they had become less clear, with no trace of some parts of the 1936 copied murals.
Field sketches 1, 2 and 3 give some information, along with photographs 1 and 4, as to the present condition of the walls of this site. Reference will be made to these also when discussing the notion of a two-period structure.
Reference has already been made to the fact that the original entrance area was to the north, via sloping land. However field examination found that such an area was of special interest and deserved more detailed treatment. Photograph 5 shows some of the main features I propose to describe. However as is understandable, livestock moving over such features as well as the effect of rain over the centuries, has meant that while these features are fairly clear on the ground it is difficult to capture them on film. What are these special “features” leading up to the actual (presumably) cut-stone door into Urlanmore Castle?
In front of the original door was a rectangular enclosure, trace of which is still to be clearly seen in the field (Photo 5). This is now defined by a low bank some ½ metre high and 1 metre wide on average. The greatest lengths of this bawn or enclosure are north-south and centre on 19 metres. Originally it was protected by some type of gateway which survives as a 1.50 metre wide gap in a 14 metre long east-west “wall”. At present a low earthen type bank defines this enclosure. However excavation may yield traces of stone foundations. My view is that this bawn was protected by a stone wall, perhaps 2 metres in height. Horses and livestock generally could be brought in here at night or during times of trouble. The enclosure acted as a first line of defence to the castle as one could not approach the main (north) entrance unless one got through the 1.50 metre entrance into and up through the bawn. In front (i.e. north) of this enclosure the ground gently sloped up towards the site proper. Further field examination here suggested a type of roadway, 12 metres wide and defined by a low bank, leading from the level surrounding ground towards the bawn. To the west of this “roadway” were a number of clearly visible rectangular enclosures, defined by low mounds. These, I argue, are house-sites built just outside the site proper, to the north/north-west. They may have been the quarters of soldiers or tradesmen though could also represent part of a village. Such a site would be very suitable as in times of danger one could flee to the castle for safety.
The lord and people of the castle and village certainly required food which for safety purposes should be available locally. Presumably cattle and sheep were kept, and some crops grown, near the site. A very interesting series of large rectangular enclosures occur to the east of the castle, across a dry valley (Photo 6). The purpose of these is not fully clear – were they used for livestock or crop growth? It is difficult to be certain, though such enclosures were without doubt connected with Urlanmore Castle.
Urlanmore Castle, Two-Period Structure?
The descriptions of this site over the previous pages, the three field sketches and the series of photographs all show this site as being quite different in plan and appearance from the many tower houses in the area. However, at the same time, the southern area does have features in common with many tower houses (Photos 1 and 4).
What therefore can we say about this site which requires so much further examination? Here I quote what Westropp has to say – in fact his only brief reference to the castle in any of his articles: “…Lemeneagh and Urlanmore have large Elizabethan houses attached to the older turrets…” (1899, p. 355).
His view, therefore, is that a tower house existed on this site (probably dating to c. 1490 A.D.) but at a later period, perhaps 1590 A.D., an addition was added. This is very important and if Westropp should be correct, as I feel he is, here we have the only pre eighteenth century site in the Barony of Bunratty Lower with two distinct parts – one late fifteenth century (to south of site) and the other probably late sixteenth century (northern part of site).
What evidence exists to support this view of two-period structure? My theory is as follows. The original entrance into the tower house area was from the south. What evidence is there to support this view? An examination of the southern wall (Field sketch 2; Photo 4) shows a machicoulis, in a very good condition, in the upper central part of the wall. The purpose of this feature in a tower house was to defend the doorway beneath (e.g. at Mooghaun Tower House). However, as stated previously, when describing the site’s inner features the only opening in this wall, on the ground floor, is a 1.50 metres high by 1.45 metres wide possible window space. This is certainly too small for a doorway. However, I feel, when the site was being altered in the late sixteenth century the original doorway may have been removed for use in the more (new) northern wall. A space therefore existed in the south wall. Rather than leave a probable 2.50 metre high opening it was then decided to largely block it up and leave (?) a narrow slitted window with inside recess. (At a later period this cut-stone feature was also removed and the wall about it damaged – hence the present wide opening). This, I feel, accounts for the presence of a machicoulis in the south tower house area of the site.
During the course of section 3 of the thesis, relating to Castles and Tower Houses in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, reference will frequently be made or has been made to the two distinct parts of a tower house. You have the actual entrance area and rooms overhead, especially the murder-hole room. Back from this area is the large cellar and overhead living rooms which correspond in size and features (arched roof, fireplace, etc.). In the case of Urlanmore “Castle” my theory is as follows: In the late sixteenth century it was decided to enlarge, and thereby alter, Urlanmore Tower House. It was decided at the site to keep the entrance area but to level the cellar section. In the place of the latter the Elizabethan section was added (Photo 1).
Thus at Urlanmore today, 1979, the southern part consists of the surviving entrance area of the old later altered tower house. The more northern section, represented by the east wall, bawn, roadway, village site(?) and enclosures dates to the Elizabethan period. (Photo 7 shows where both “structures” meet, on the east wall).
MURALS AT URLANMORE CASTLE
“In 1936, when residing at Newmarket-on-Fergus, I learned that some “drawings” had been seen on a wall of Urlan Castle. The late Tom Ryan and his son Martin, of Urlan, procured a ladder and helped me to get to the second floor in the square tower. On the western wall I traced the outlines of a hunting scene – two hounds attacking a deer, one attacking from front. The plaster was missing where the head and antlers should have been. (See sketch).
On the southern wall, over a window, I found the picture of the Virgin and Child. On the left of the window were remains of a panel showing a three inch deep hem of a gown and superimposed on this were many legs of animals suggesting St. Francis. On the right of the window were the remains of another panel. In this also was shown the hem of a garment, and a long slender staff surmounted with a cross. No further details of the last mentioned panels were available, as the plaster had all fallen away. (See sketch).
The drawings were made by a smooth blunt instrument pressing into the plaster, and in the sunken lines black paint was used to indicate the outlines. The body was then filled by painting with reddish brown paint. There was a third colour – a yellow – in part of the Virgin’s gown.”
The above statement by Sergeant Long, in 1974, describes the finding of the two murals. It appeared, along with the sketches, in:-