Not all castles in Ireland are ancient, at least by Irish standards. Some are practically brand new, such as Charleville Castle, right in the middle of the country. It was built in 1798, and is considered one of the finest creations of renowned architect Francis Johnston who is famous for creating several landmark Dublin buildings, most notably the GPO in O’Connell street. Yet this new castle was just the first in a line of buildings on the site, going back to the sixth century AD and the first monastic settlements in Ireland.
Saint Colman Elo founded a monastery at Lynally around 590 AD, where Charleville Castle would one day stand. It was a suitably remote location by virtue of the great oak woods around it, and the land was secured for him by his uncle, St Columcille. (link). Colman is famous for writing Apgitir Crábaid, the “Alphabet of Devotion”. This is the earliest known work written in Irish, rather than Latin as was used for sacred texts. The reason for it being in Irish was that it was actually a book of rules for monks who lived at this monastery – dictating the hours of worship as well as regulations that they could only eat vegetables that they grew themselves and so forth. Another monastery was founded next to it a few years later by Saint Mo Chutu mac Fínaill, also known as Saint Carthach, who like Colman also composed his own monastic rule (though this may be the result of scholars confusing him with Colman). Colman died twenty years later, and ten years after that Carthach was expelled by the local prince, apparently at the instigation of rival monasteries. The reason for this is likely due to the “Easter controversy”, a subject of ferocious and sometimes deadly disagreement between early churchmen over the precise formula used to calculate the date of Easter. Carthach moved to the south of Ireland where he was received very well (with the story of his expulsion being recorded in an epic poem entitled Indarba Mo Chutu a r-Raithin) and founded the monastery of Lismore which went on to become one of the major Irish monasteries.
So pervasive was this early monastic settlement that six hundred years later, when the O’Molloys ruled the district, they were known as the Fircall – the Men of Churches. The name O’Molloy came from the founder of their clan, Mael Mhuaidh (which literally means “Proud Chieftain”). The O’Molloys were a relatively typical clan, who did their best to avoid getting drawn into the troubles of the time. This saw the clan survive down the centuries. In 1602 Calvagh O’Molloy, the chief of the clan, is said to have entertain 960 guests in his castle for Christmas, hosting them for the full twelve days of the season – a deed memorialized in a bardic stanza:
“Thrice three hundred and three score
Tale unheard by thee before
Feasted free in Calvagh’s hall
Caring light what might befall.”
This was close to the end of the O’Molloy rule, however, as during this time Offaly was being “planted” with settlers from England, among them a man named Thomas Moore, who in 1577 received a grant of land from Elizabeth I that included the future site of Charleville castle. Thomas was slain in the Nine Year’s War, but his son succeeded him and earned a knighthood from the crown. His son became an MP, and by 1715 the Moore became Baron Moore of Tullamore. The second Baron Moore became an Earl, the Earl of Charleville, but died childless, leaving the estate to his nephew Charles William Bury, who became Viscount Charleville in 1800 and second Earl of Charleville in 1806, in recognition for his service in quelling the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798. It was in celebration of that victory that he raised Charleville Castle.
Charles had been both indirectly and directly responsible for the shape of Tullamore town at this time – directly through having financed the rebuilding and modernisation of the town, and indirectly through the need for that rebuilding having come about when a hot air balloon, part of his 21st birthday celebrations, had crashed in the town and started a fire that burned down 130 houses. Perhaps it was rebuilding these homes that gave him the bug to build his own, and it was with these “sketches on a napkin” that he went to Francis Johnston. In celebration of his military victory, the castle had a distinct air of the idealised military to it, and has been said to owe inspiration to a children’s toy of a tin soldier’s castle.
The castle did owe a portion of its design to another side of Charles William Bury however – the fact that he was a longstanding and devout Freemason. Even today, masonic symbols adorn the lodge and the towers are built to an octagonal configuration, matching the eight-pointed star of the Masons. A Masonic Temple is also on the premises, tucked into the back of the castle chapel. There are even claims that Charles sited the castle based on the convergence of ley lines, although this is impossible to prove. Also impossible to prove, though fun to speculate on, is that Charles may have been one of the Masons present at Doneraile House, nine miles from Charleville, when Elizabeth St Leger (who later married and became Elizabeth Aldworth) accidentally spied on some of the central mysteries of the order. In order to safeguard their secrets they initiated her into the Freemasons, and she has been recorded as the first female initiate of “regular” Freemasonry. On a sadder note, at around the same time Charles’ daughter Harriet is reported to have fallen down the stairs in Charleville and broken her neck. Her ghost is still said to haunt the stairs, playing with any children who visit the castle and seemingly unaware that she is dead.
Charleville Castle became a cultural touchstone of Ireland in the 19th century, with the Bury family spending their time either spending extravagantly, or wildly in debt. It is said the Lord Byron would always stay in the castle when he was in Ireland, and the English artist William Morris was engaged to design the ceiling of the dining room. The prosperity of Tullamore, which was the terminus of the Grand Canal from Dublin, helped to fuel the family fortunes.
In the early days of the 20th century, the castle became the property of Colonel Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury (the earldom having lapsed in the intervening years, as was tradition when no direct male heir could inherit). The Colonel had travelled in his youth, and while posted in India had made a secret illegal journey into the forbidden kingdom of Tibet. After World War I (in which he served in the trenches for the duration, being captured by the Germans in 1918 and escaping from a prisoner of war camp), he was selected to lead the first British expedition to attempt to scale Everest. Though they did not succeed, the surveys they made would prove key to future expeditions.
The Colonel inherited Charleville from his mother in 1931, but left it empty during his lifetime, with only a caretaker in residence. He died in 1963, a lifelong bachelor, and the house was abandoned. In the 1970s it is reported that the roof was deliberately damaged in order to avoid having to pay rates on the property. Around this time a Canadian named Graham Gordon visited the abandoned castle and bought a damaged painting from the owner. The painting eventually turned up, fully restored, in the Beaverbrook museum in Canada. A crowdfunded effort saw a replica made and placed in the castle, where the original had once been.
As you can see in that video, the castle has also been restored. In the late 1970s it became famous as an example of “vanishing Ireland”, and several private individuals took over the lease and made a concerted effort to restore the place. It is now maintained by a charitable trust, who fund the maintenance of the place through guided tours, hosted events (such as AGMs and weddings), the usual host of haunted house tv shows, and even an annual music festival called Castlepalooza. One suspects Lord Byron would approve.