Some castles in Ireland are famous, and some are forgotten. Some live on only through the names of the places where they once stood, and one such is Castletroy. Nowadays, Castletroy is a suburb on the edge of Limerick. It is notable for a large number of resident students, studying at the nearby University of Limerick. In 1990 it made some headlines when the local Jewish graveyard was renovated and reopened, having been abandoned since 1904 when a local priest named John Creagh drove a mob into a frenzy and led them on an attack on local Jewish businesses. As a result, many families headed to Cork to emigrate to the USA, but the people of Cork were so sympathetic to them that most wound up settling there instead. Still, old troubles aside, Castletroy is a quiet, leafy suburb where the biggest news story at the moment is worries over “traffic chaos” from a new school. But it was not always so. As they walk along the river, where the Shannon meets the Mulcair, students may pass the ruins of an old castle, mute testimony to the time when Castletroy was a vital link in the defensive chain around Limerick – and evidence of how the chain was finally and irrevocably broken.
Castle Troy, as it is nowadays known, was built sometime in the 13th century by the O’Briens. The name of Castle Troy probably actually predated the castle itself. It has had many Irish names, but is nowadays rendered as Caladh an Treoigh, or Troy’s Landing. This may be due to the O’Turrain clan (who were no longer in the area by the time the castle was built) having used it as a safe harbour for navigating the river. Regardless, the name stuck to the castle that the O’Briens built to guard the border of their territory with the English, who had built King John’s Castle in Limerick several years before. The castle passed into the hands of the MacKeogh clan, though whether it was taken from the O’Briens by force or granted as part of a treaty is unknown. As with the O’Briens, the MacKeoghs claimed royal descent, this time from Fergus Mac Roich, the former King of Ulster who conspired with Medbh of Connaught in the Tain. It was his ghost that would relate the lost tale-cycle to Senchan Torpeist after he was shamed out of Dunguaire Castle. The MacKeoghs would have a legend of their own during their time in Castle Troy, though a far more tragic one. In his book Lays and Legends of Thomond, the Limerick poet Michael Hogan has a poem called The Beauties of Plassy. He describes how the daughter of the MacKeogh chieftain was kidnapped by another chieftain whose marriage proposal she had declined. The MacKeoghs gave pursuit and in Hogan’s words:
MacKeogh has defeated the brigands, with slaughter,
But a spear has been thrust thro’ the breast of his daughter.
Local fishermen still tell stories of hearing her scream echo down the river on quiet nights.
The MacKeoghs continued to hold land in Castletroy, but at some point before the reign of Elizabeth the castle was taken over by their overlord, the Earl of Desmond. Unlike the O’Briens, the FitzGeralds of Desmond had always held English titles since the 14th century. They had always valued their independence, however, and Gerald FitzGerald was no exception. In 1574 he rebelled against the English monarchy, and remained at war with them until 1582, when he was killed by the Moriarty clan of Castledrum who wished to claim the bounty the English had put on his head. He was attainted and his lands were forfeit, and though his nephew would attempt to claim the Earldom that would only lead to his own eventual death in the Tower of London. The FitzGerald lands were divided up and parcelled out to English nobles, and Castle Troy became the property of Sir John Bourke of Brittas.
Sir John Bourke came from a prominent English family in Limerick, which was to be his undoing. He was related to the Baron Bourkes of Castleconnell, and it was only this noble connection that preserved him in the dangerous world of Elizabethan politics, as he was a notorious Catholic sympathiser. When the persecution of Catholics was temporarily rescinded he was one of those who openly attended mass in St Mary’s Cathedral, and when the persecution resumed he was arrested, but his father-in-law Sir George Thornton managed to secure his release. Still, it was an open secret that he harboured priests fleeing persecution, and his unscrupulous cousin Theobald saw a chance to gain advantage in this. Theobald was a man of strong ambition, having previously attempted to gain the Barony of Castleconnell by claiming that his nephew Edmund was illegitimate. This had failed, and so he looked further afield. In October 1607 he led a detachment of horse soldiers to Brittas Castle to arrest the priests saying mass there. When Sir John refused to give them up the castle was besieged. Sir John managed to escape, but was captured before he could manage to make it to Spain and safety. The penalty for his crime was to be hung, drawn and quartered but his popularity made them fear for civil unrest if this was carried out. Instead he was simply hanged, and his property, including Castle Troy, was given to Theobald.
Theobald was given the title of Baron Brittas, and would live on until 1654, longer than Castle Troy would last. In 1649 Cromwell landed in Ireland with his New Model Army, determined to crush the Irish Catholic Confederation. In 1650 his general Henry Ireton led an army on Limerick, but was forced to call off his siege due to oncoming winter. The next year he returned, and Castle Troy was directly in his crosshairs. It was ideally positioned to defend the city against forces moving down the River Shannon, and so he had to do something about it. And do something he did, battering the castle with his cannon. Thus would Hogan later write:
Lo ! gray Castle-Troy, by war, tide and time batter’d,f
Stands, like an old chief with his armour all shatter’ d,
As if musing, in gloomy and gaunt desolation,
On the red, feudal days when Green Eire was a Nation.
There the warlike MacKeoghs, in their power, ruled and revell’d,
And often in fight were their sounding spears levell’d
‘Till Cromwell the fiend, with his tower- cleaving cannon,
Plough’d their strong Castle-walls on the brink of the Shannon.
That was not the end of Castle Troy, but it left its days numbered. In 1690, Limerick held off a siege by the Williamite forces, and in 1691 it was only conquered after Patrick Sarsfield managed to get the Williamites to sign the Treaty of Limerick, which gave him and his men safe passage out of Ireland (as well as promising the equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland, a clause violated before the ink was even dry). Determined to end Limerick’s position as a stronghold, the Williamites systematically destroyed all the old defences, and one such casualty was Castle Troy. It was blown up and burnt down, and the land on which it sat became the property of the Hollow Sword Blade Company (who, as I have previously written, had little to do with swords and lots to do with war profiteering). Nowadays only the hollow shell of the castle remains. It had stood guard at the edge of Limerick, first against it and now for it, but now it sits derelict, abandoned and graffiti-covered. A sad fate for an old soldier, left behind and forgotten.
Photos of the castle on this page where uncredited are via the Irish Antiquities page.