Antiquities Near Miltown Malbay

Thomas Johnson Westropp
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Clare County Library

Tromra Castle (O.S. Map 38)

This conspicuous peel tower is a well-marked object in all wide views of the low central coast of Clare. It stands out, a sharp dark speck, whether we look from the open sea, from the summits of Moher, Callan or Kinnard, or stand on the high ground at the fort of Cahermurphy. This is the more remarkable because the tower lies on very low ground and hardly deserves Canon Dwyer’s description?“Tromra castle lifts its lofty, lonely head” [16]. It is neither lofty nor lonely, but of heavy proportion, and in a centre of human habitation, surrounded by the white cottages, shining as they only can shine in the clear air of the coast, and with the great coast-guard station between it and the sea.

The same writer derives its name from “Tra mor-roe,” the great red strand, but the sand is not red, nor is the name, save in modern corruptions, other than Tromra, perhaps from the fort topped low ridge beside it [17].

It is a plain “peel tower” of that small very neat masonry that prevails in the district where the rocks are flagstones, as thin and regular as planks. Rarely are there ornamental architectural features in such castles, and Tromra has suffered not a little from the defacers, the coign stones being in many cases entirely removed. The ragged gap to the south, once an entrance doorway, leads into a little vaulted room, once the store room, now, much of the vault has fallen in. A broken stairway runs from the porch up the wall to the right and turning at the south-east angle enters the rooms on the second story. The eastern part of the tower forms, as usual, a separate wing, with several small rooms, and (to the north) a broken spiral stair. The latter leads up to the battlements and to a small turret at the angle. The rest of the building is devoted to the larger rooms. Two remain under the upper vaulting, which is also broken in the middle, and another over the vault which had a wooden roof and a trefoil-headed window looking seaward. In other respects the existing features have no mouldings or ornaments. No trace remains of the side building from which the tower was attacked in 1642.

Though the castle is evidently a late fifteenth century building, the place appears in the records from a far earlier period. In 1215 the Norman government (which had then no power in Thomond) granted to the Archibishop of Cashel, Dunmugyda (Dough or Dunmore) inver, or creek-readers will remember that O’Huidhrin in 1420 calls Ibrickan “the land of the two invers” [18] - Idulculchy, Fumaneyn, Ydoonmal, Treanmanagh, Tromrach, two islands in the sea named Iniskereth (Iniscaoragh or Mutton Island) and Inismatail (Mattle Isalnd) as formerly granted by Donchad Cairbreach O’Brien [19].

When we next hear of the place it was the residence of the hospitable Teige aluinn O’Brien, and with him in 1276 King Torlough mór O’Brien sought a night’s shelter as he fled down the coast to seek aid from the MacMahons, when his deposed uncle, Brian O’Brien, was restored by the power of the Normans de Clares. It is probable that Teige’s residence was in the large stone-faced rath not far from the castle.

Teige’s descendants held the isles of Aran where the lofty battlements of their castle of Inishere rise over the prehistoric dry stone walls of an early two-ringed fort. The clan was descended from Teige Glae, son of Dermot O’Brien, King of Munster in 1120. They founded a Franciscan convent on the holy ground among the churches of Killeany on the great Isle of Aran about 1460. The clan Teige might, like the O’Mailleys, their neighbours, have taken the motto “terra marique potens.” They were expert seamen, and the citizens of Galway were glad to pay the friendly power, entrenched across their bay, twelve tuns of wine yearly for protecting their harbour from pirates. The alliance lasted unbrokenly from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, then the most dreaded enemy of the city overcame its friends. “From the merciless O’Flahertys, good Lord deliver us,” ran the Galway merchant’s litany, and the fierce tribe invaded Aran late in the reign of Elizabeth, expelled clan Teige and seized on the Islands. Too late the “City of the Tribes” appealed to the Queen’s government to reinstate their friends and protectors. The Corporation, on March 30th, 1588, petitioned the Queen on behalf of the O’Briens. They recalled how from the time of Dermot More O’Brien, grandson of Teige aluinn, down to that of Murrough, son of Torlough, the chief still living, the clan had protected the city and harbour of Galway. The time was unpropitious, the great war cloud of the Armada was on the point of bursting on England, and the government had other plans to carry out with “abundant scarcity” of men and arms without enraging the O’Flahertys. Then came the terrible end, when the worn, sick Spaniards, with injured ships, poisonous water and provisions, and more deadly disallusionment, were the sport of the storms and the victims of the Irish coast and its tribes. The “Zuniga,” one of the finest of the Spanish ships, barely escaped the coast of Clare; two of her companions perished there, one at Dunbeg, the second on the reef between Mutton Island and Tromra castle.

The foundation of the castle must have taken place from 1460 to about 1490 to judge from the remains. It is not, however (to our knowledge), recorded even in the far from reliable “Castle Founders’ List”?unless it be the tower erroneously called “Inniskeeragh,” or Mutton Island [20]. No castle remains or is elsewhere mentioned as on that Island, and Tromra seems to be the nearest tower which might be called after it. “Inniskeeragh” was founded by Torlough (or Shane) MacCon, his identity is uncertain, but the castle is given after Doonmore and Dunbeg, and before Liscannor and Doonagore castles, so is very probably Tromra.

The only episode of any interest in the later history of the tower took place in 1642. Edmond O’Flaherty, a man of good family, was called by the “Titular” Archbishop of Tuam and Francis Blake, of Galway, to serve against the fort of that city. When he was free to go home, he and a number of companions went to Aran, then in the hands of his family, but finding that he wore out his welcome with the Islanders, and having become, like so many others, unsettled for a peaceful life, he began to search for some more warlike career. In an evil moment for himself and others he heard that “a castle named Tromroe was possessed by one Mr. Ward, whom he heard was an honest gentleman and never heard of him before, nor knew of what religion or nation he was of;” but the latter seems hard to believe. Accordingly O’Flaherty got his friends and ships ready and set sail across the bay for Tromra.

It was the spring of the year in the last half of April, or the opening days of May, when they sailed. They reached Tromra, not unperceived, at “the beginning of the night.” The garrison fired on them and inflicted some wounds. From Sunday night to Wednesday morning the Galway men assailed the tower from a “hall” which adjoined it. The daring act had meanwhile stirred up some of the Clare men. There had been but little violence used towards the English settlers up to this time. The Earl of Thomond and Daniel O’Brien of Dough, had done their best to keep the peace. Now, however, Teige and Donough O’Brien, the Macdermotts of Tromra, Fitzpatrick, the Earl of Thomond’s seneschal in Ibrickan, and others joined forces with the O’Flaherties. Evidently plunder was the only intention of the assailants, for O’Flaherty ordered his men to spare the lives of the Wards, however it was hard to keep in check fierce men rapidly getting “out of hand” in those lawless times, who were impatient and getting exasperated by the resistance of the Wards. John, one of the sons of Peter Ward, saw that resistance was hopeless and urged his father to surrender, having taken on himself to open negotiations with O’Flaherty. Ward only replied: “I will not surrender to Belliaw and Sruell (sic.)” [21]. The Irish let out on the Tuesday Peter Ward’s two younger sons and two daughters and an Englishman and his wife and let them go in safety. Ward, his wife and one son however held out in the tower. O’Flaherty ordered his men to spare them but to keep them constantly harassed, keeping Peter Ward awake till he chose to surrender. On the Tuesday the eldest son, George Ward, tried to come out, but he was set upon by Sorrell Folone and fell mortally wounded with eighteen gashes, he lingered to the 20th of April and then died. On Wednesday morning as Mrs. Alson Ward looked out of a window loop she was shot and died in the room where her husband had held out for twenty-four hours after the rest of the tower was in the enemy’s hands. Ward, in his agony and despair, opened the door and struck at the men outside, one of which caught him by the arm and slew him. The seven other inmates of the castle were brought in safety to Richard White, of Kilmurry, and eventually reached Dublin without further molestation. The bodies of Peter, Alson and George Ward were buried beside the castle.

Daniel O’Brien, of Dough, who had failed to save the family, now arrived at Tromra; he removed the bodies and buried them in Kilmurry church, from which once more they were removed to the graveyard by “D. MacScanlan MacGorman, of Dunsalla, the priest of Kilmurry.”

Nemesis commenced soon after the capture. The plunder was being divided among O’Flaherty’s adherents when a quarrel arose. A certain John Browne, who had been “commandeered” as drummer by O’Flaherty, demanded a certain silver cup and was refused; he laid the slight to heart and waited his opportunity for eleven years. Under a new government Browne came forward and swore informations against O’Flaherty. Troops were sent out to search for the latter in the wild country near Renvyle. They searched in vain, and were returning wearied and disheartened when they heard an unusual croaking of ravens in a small, dark wood. They searched and dragged out from the shelter of a shelf of rock two ragged, spectral beings nearly starved to death, they were O’Flaherty and his wife, the daughter of Sir Christopher Garvie, of Lehinch, Co. Mayo. O’Flaherty was brought to Galway, tried and executed, holding to the last that his act was one of legitimate warfare. Indeed it is evident that he only sinned in open assault, tried to spare all, and saved seven, of the hapless residents of Tromra castle.

The castle had been confirmed to the Earl of Thomond in 1652 by the commonwealth, and again (under the Act of Settlement) to him, Col. Carey Dillion and Robert Dixon. It was afterwards held by Samuel Burton, and in 1712 was granted in fee farm to Mrs. Alice Burton by Henry, Earl of Thomond.

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