Clare County Library
Clare Archaeology
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | OS Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

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
Chapter 45: Tomfinlough Parish


Nat. Grid Ref. R434665; ½” Sheet 17

Photo 1: North, entrance, face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Photo 1: North, entrance, face of Rathlaheen Tower House

R.C. Parish : Newmarket-on-Fergus
Townland : Rathlaheen South
6” O.S. Sheet number : 51 (Co. Clare)
Reference : 14.7 cm North; 14.9 cm East
Height (G.L.) : 100’ O.D.
1” O.S. Sheet number : 133 (Sixmilebridge)

For information on this site refer to: - a) site plan b) site description c) series of photographs d) field sketches.

Plan of Rathlaheen Tower House
Plan of Rathlaheen Tower House


This site has been subjected to a deal of damage, particularly during the nineteenth century when an agricultural commune worked this area. However such damage has continued to the present day as field examination found old agricultural equipment, chemicals, etc. stored in the cellar area. To get at this it has been necessary to replace the window spaces on the east and west walls with wide openings which are both represented on the site plan and in photographs 2 and 6.

When describing the principal features of this late fifteenth century site I propose to use the following procedure: -

  1. Descriptions of site’s four walls, illustrating comment with photographs and field sketches.
  2. Describe the site’s interior using the site plan and photographs.
  3. References to date and articles/books on the site.

North Face: (Photo 1)
This is the entrance area to the Tower House. As Photo 1 shows the lower part of this wall has been damaged, especially in the region of the cut-stone doorway and guardroom window. Such damage largely consists of the removal of the cut-stone outer facing.

This wall has eight windows, six of which are in a good state of preservation. Four of these occur, one above the other, near the site’s north-west corner. These openings, which average 1.15 metres in height and only 8 cm in width, provided light for the stone cut spiral stairway inside. The fifth window, of ogee type, is to the centre east of the wall. It also is c. 1.15 metres high but some 15 cm wide. There is trace of a sixth window directly over this one. However, as Photo 1 shows, it is now largely covered by ivy. A field sketch of this wall, from 1977, shows it as being of a similar height and width as the previous window, though in this case flat topped.

The two windows in the area of the doorway have been badly damaged. The opening to the upper left (east) of the door is some 2 metres high and 1 metre wide. (See Photo 1 and Field sketch 1). Originally, based on field examination, this was probably a long narrow slitted window, perhaps of ogee headed type. This opening is now closed off by timber and mesh.

The final window, on the ground floor, has been completely removed and replaced by a 1.05 metre wide and 90 cm high rectangular opening. This is timber framed and closed with timber and wire mesh. Some concrete filling occurs about this opening, which is only 1.20 metres east of the cut-stone doorway.

One of the most interesting features of this northern wall is the presence of traces of a Bartizan to the site’s north-east corner. The cut limestone support stones of this feature are still quite clearly visible.

A deal of ivy covers the site’s north wall, especially in the top central area. This may be responsible for the collapse of some large cut-stones from the upper part of this wall, now visible by the cut-stone doorway (Photo 1).

(Further reference will be made to the site’s doorway when describing the interior features).

West Face: (Photo 2)
This wall has also suffered a deal of damage, particularly in the ground floor area, and such damage is clearly represented on both Photo 2 and Field sketch 2.

The main area of damage centres on the wide opening in the wall on the ground floor, near the site’s south-west corner. Field examination suggested that originally there was a window there, presumably of the long narrow slitted type with inside recess, but this was not only removed but the Tower House wall actually cut through. Why? So that movement to and from the site’s interior would be easier and that larger agricultural equipment could be stored in the cellar area (Photo 5). A close examination of Photo 2 will show an arch arrangement of red brick over this opening.

Also some of the cut-stone along the ground level area has been removed (Field sketch 2) and used in the construction of some of the many farm buildings and outhouses nearby.

This west wall originally had nine windows, seven of which are in a good state of preservation. The exceptions are the ground floor opening described previously and a 2 metre high by 2.50 metre wide space directly over it. This opening, Photo 2, was probably originally a narrow slitted window, perhaps 1.15 metres high and 15 cm wide. Now, unfortunately, no trace remains of the cut-stone.

There are seven other windows along the wall. Four of these occur in a line, on different levels, near the site’s north-west corner. They average 1.15 metres high and 8 cm wide. These openings provided light for the spiral stairway as did the fifth window which is actually on the site’s north-west corner (Photos 1 and 2; Field sketches 1 and 2). The final two windows are to the south of those just described. The uppermost one is flat topped, some 1.15 metres high and 15 cm wide. The final window of the nine is below that described previously. It is in a good condition, of ogee form, 1.15 metres high and 15 cm wide.

South Wall: (Photo 3)
Much of the original stone facing on the lower part of this wall has been removed, especially towards the site’s south-east and south-west corners.

Though originally this wall had four cut-stone windows all that survives now are four openings in various poor conditions (Photo 3; Field sketch 3).

What presumably was a narrow slitted window, with inside recess, in the cellar (ground floor) area has been replaced by a modern concrete space with two small timber framed windows (Site plan and Photo 3). Directly over this 54 cm high and 1.20 metre wide timber framed area is an arch arrangement of stones, held in place with cement and containing red brick in its composition.

The three former cut-stone upper windows now exist as open spaces. The lower of the three is 2 metres high and 1 metre wide. It contains some red brick. The middle opening is some 5 metres high by 1.50 metres wide while the top space is a maximum 2 metres high and 1 metre wide.

In the ground floor “opening”, inserted in the concrete, is a piece of cut-stone with the letters “O.B.” on it. This may be part of a now destroyed inscription connected with the Tower House.

East Face: (Photo 4)
Of the four walls of this Tower House most damage has been done to this east wall (see: Site plan, Photo 4, and Field sketch 4). Much of the original cut-stone facing has been removed and a doorway cut through the actual wall. This timber-framed door 4.40 metres from the sites south-east corner, is 1.95 metres wide and 2 metres high. Field examination noted that it has concrete sides and is now closed by a timber door which, however, can be quite easily opened giving access to the cellar area (Photo 5).

Beyond this, 1.40 metre distance, is a second opening (see site plan). Field examination suggested that this was originally a narrow slitted window, with inside recess. However it was removed and the wall cut through at some stage, probably in the early nineteenth century. At a later stage much of this 95 cm wide opening was closed up by concrete and red brick (Photo 4) and all that exists now is a 35 cm high opening on top. All cut-stone has been removed from around this area (Field sketch 4).

At a distance of 1.50 metres from this former window area is the guardrobe discharge shaft. Though it has been damaged it is still quite clear along its 1.13 metre width and 46 cm height (see site plan). There are also a number of windows along this eastern wall, most of them in a good condition. Near the site’s north-east corner four windows occur, one above the other, on different floors. The upper three are similar in style – that is, long narrow and flat topped with a height of 1.15 metres and a 15 cm wide opening. The lowermost window is different in that it is of the ogee form and similar to that one already described in the site’s west face.

Three other windows occur, all in the more southern part of this eastern wall. As Photo 4 shows two of these are in a good condition.

The opening near the site’s south-east corner is some 1.50 metres square. Field examination found no trace of cut-stone here though some cement and red brick was observed to the right (north) of the actual opening.

The most interesting feature, I feel, along this eastern wall is the remains of a bartizan at the site’s north-east corner. As previously mentioned in relation to the north wall (Photo 1) only the support corbels of this now survive (Photo 4).

Such are the principal features of the four walls of Rathlaheen Tower House.

Site’s Interior:
Entrance to this Tower House is, as previously stated, via a stone cut pointed doorway to the centre of the north wall, (Photo 1). A close up view of this 2.45 metre high and 1.25 metre wide door shows that part of the cut-stone to the right (west) has been removed.

Positions of the beam shaft are visible in both walls directly inside the cut-stone doorway. Originally the main shaft was to the right (west) which is 10 cm wide by 15 cm high. This west slot was just over 1 metre in length. On the opposite wall (east) the shaft slot was only 30 cm in length.

On passing under this 2.50 metre high doorway one notices trace of a now blocked up murder-hole in the ceiling overhead.

Continuing further in, one is faced by three cut-stone, pointed, doorways. These lead to the cellar (south), stairway (west) and guardroom (east). It is interesting to note that they are of three different heights, the doorway into the cellar being the highest and widest. All three doors are in good condition and show no signs of damage.

Guardroom: The pointed door into this room is 2 metres high and 66 cm wide. Originally this room had one window, facing north, of the narrow slitted type. As stated previously when describing the site’s north wall (Photo 1) all that exists now is a timber framed window 1.05 metres wide and 90 cm high (see site plan). What may have been a shelf in the south wall has been cut through to provide a concrete faced entrance into the cellar. The guardroom was roofed by the wattle technique.

Stairway: This area is also entered via a pointed doorway, in this case 1.25 metres high and 93 cm wide. Field examination noted the following here. The first five steps of the spiral stairway are the original ones while the next eight to the first floor area are modern, being made of concrete. While climbing these thirteen steps one passes two narrow slitted windows which provide light. The lower one is represented on the site plan.

Though one can see some traces of steps leading to higher floors in this tower house it is not possible to climb any further. However it is possible to examine that part of the first floor directly over the entrance area below. This is the murder-hole room.

Entrance into this room is via an arched, cut-stone, door 1.70 metres high and 72 cm wide. The room itself has only one window, facing north. Though originally of the long narrow slitted type this now survives as a 2 metre high by 1.30 metre wide opening, closed by timber and mesh (see Photo 1 and Field sketch 1). The actual murder-hole is now blocked up. However the most interesting feature here is a 1.90 metre high by 90 cm wide doorway in the south wall of the murder-hole room. This is an original feature of the site and was not added at a later period. On going through this doorway one has a choice of three directions – a) straight ahead to the room over the cellar b) to the right (west) which leads back to the cut-stone spiral stairway or c) to the left (east) which leads to an alcove with a window.

  1. Field examination found that the 2 metre high by 1 metre wide arched doorway formerly into the room over the cellar is now closed off by timber. Why? Because the floor of this inner room, or the ceiling of the cellar, has collapsed.
  2. A short journey via a 1.25 metre wide passage leads to the spiral stairway. Originally a cut-stone door led to the actual steps but as some of these are now collapsed this door, 2.10 metres high and 1.20 metres wide, is closed off by timber and corrugated iron.
  3. The passage way to the left (east) is interesting as it leads to an alcove. The actual passage is 1.27 metres in width and some 5 metres in length (east-west). It then turns south, via a 3 metre high by 73 cm wide gap, for a distance of only 1.10 metres. Light in this small alcove area was provided via a narrow slitted window, reference to which has already been made when describing the features of the site’s east wall (Photo 4).

Back on the ground floor one cannot enter the cellar area via the cut-stone doorway in from the main entrance. As the site plan shows this has been closed off. However instead one can go in via the modern gap in the guardroom’s south wall.

On entering the cellar proper one notices the large amount of agricultural equipment stored here (Photo 5). Reference has already been made to the damaged nature of the south, west and east walls. In particular I referred to the wide opening in the west wall through which material could be moved (Field sketch 2). The ceiling of this cellar area has collapsed.
There is no evidence of a fireplace on the ground or first floor. Presuming that such features formerly existed they can only have been on the second or successive floors. However with the spiral stairway collapsed it is now impossible to examine these upper areas, the floors of which have survived (1979).

This tower house, like so many others, was built on outcrop, in a gently undulating craggy field. There is slight suggestion of a bawn or enclosure to the north. This, however, may be a natural outcrop formation.

According to both Westropp (1899) and O’Lionain (c. 1780) this site was built by one Teige MacNamara, in 1490 A.D.

By the 1580 College List the site was in the possession of Donald, son of Sheeda MacNamara (Frost, 1893).

In the 1650’s, according to Westropp (1899), the site had a Cromwellian garrison which, on its withdrawal, may have been responsible for the destruction of the spiral, cut-stone steps. There is no further evidence of actual occupation at this site though certainly it has been used as a store during, at least the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


O.S. Letters (1839), Volume 2, page 79
(Also cites O’Lionain, c. 1780, on page 138)
1893, page 193
1899, pages 351, 352, 357, 361 and 363
O’Brien, 1977, The Other Clare, Volume 1, page 22

Photo 2: West face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Photo 2: West face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Photo 3: South face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Photo 3: South face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Photo 4: East face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Photo 4: East face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Photo 5: Cellar of Rathlaheen Tower House
Photo 5: Cellar of Rathlaheen Tower House

Field Sketch 1: North Face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Field Sketch 1: North Face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Field Sketch 2: West Face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Field Sketch 2: West Face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Field Sketch 3: South Face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Field Sketch 3: South Face of Rathlaheen Tower House

Field Sketch 4: East Face of Rathlaheen Tower House
Field Sketch 4: East Face of Rathlaheen Tower House