Dunguaire Castle – Celtic Legends and Celtic Revival


On the southern shore of Galway Bay sits the lonely shape of Dunguaire Castle. It was built in 1520 on the site of the palace of the legendary King Guaire’s palace, for which it was named. The castle (barely large enough to be worthy of the name) was built by the Hynes clan, who were fighting fiercely against the encroachment of the Normans and English. Little is known of its construction, indeed even the name of the Hynes chieftain who built it is forgotten. History is written by the victors, and a hundred years after it was built the English took the castle and gifted it to a local man, Oliver Martyn, who had shown his loyalty to the crown. Little is known of the time that the Hynes clan owned the castle, but it is they who gave it its name, a name that hearkened back to an earlier time before the “Sassenach” had come to these shores. So let us begin with King Guaire.

The restored banquet hall within the castle.

The restored banquet hall within the castle.

Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin was king of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, a kingdom in southern Galway that included the Ó hEidhin clan, who would become the Hynes. He succeeded to the throne in 622AD, and ruled for over 40 years, also becoming the over-king of Connacht. Many legends are told of King Guaire, and he is often held up as a pinnacle of Irish generosity. A road leading from his castle into the mountains was known as “Bohar na Mias”, or “the road of dishes”, after the various cups and depressions formed into it. Several legends attempt to explain this, the most popular of which states that Saint Mocua, a brother of the king, was keeping Lenten fast with a fellow monk in the mountains. At the conclusion of the fast on Easter Sunday the other monk was nearly dead with hunger, and Saint Mocua prayed, causing the food on the King’s table for his Easter feast to rise up into the air. When the King and his men followed it, they found the dishes laid out before the two monks. The saint prayed again, and the hooves of the horses and feet of the men were seized by the stones, causing the holes in the road. After the two monks had eaten, the King was released, and asked the saint’s forgiveness for leaving him to go hungry while he had feasted. The king and his men then ate the remainder of the food with the monks, before returning to the castle. It was this, says the story, that prompted the king’s legendary generosity thereafter – there is even a tale that when a beggar visited the king’s grave to lament that he could not receive his help, the king’s skeletal hand came up out of the ground holding a gold coin.


Perhaps it was this reputation that led the Ollamh Érenn, the chief bard of Ireland, and his entourage to come to the castle. The bard’s name was Seanchán Torpéist, and he brought with him the entire bardic association of Ireland, a hundred and fifty strong, plus their wives, families and so on. The king was at first honoured to receive them, but as the story states, after they had been there “a year, a quarter and a month” he was somewhat less pleased. He hatched a ploy to get them to leave, and sent a messenger to the bard asking if any of his company could recite the entire saga of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great story of Cuchulainn. However at this time no one bard knew the whole of the work, so Seanchán was forced to leave the castle, singing praises of the king’s generosity while promising (in a vaguely threatening tone) to return and visit again. As a result of this, the legend continues, he gathered together all the poets of Ireland to reconstruct all the fragments of the Táin  known by each of them, only to find it incomplete. He and his son Murgen then went out in search of the epic, which Murgen eventually gained by speaking with the ghost of Fergus mac Róich, one of the characters from the story. It is definitely thought to be around this time that the Táin Bó Cúailnge was first committed to paper. Another story of Seanchán even makes its way into Shakespeare, where a mention of Irish poets “rhyming rats to death” is based on a story of how, when he found his food nibbled by rats he pronounced the satire:

“Rats have sharp snouts
Yet are poor fighters…”

This was powerful enough to kill ten of them dead on the spot. A version of this story, along with a heavily altered story of his stay with King Guaire, appears in Lady Wilde’s “Seanchan the Bard and the King of the Cats”, which is collected in WB Yeats’ Irish Fairy Tales.

Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar's mother, was a renowned Irish folklorist and poet under the pen-name

Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar’s mother, was a renowned Irish folklorist and poet under the pen-name “Speranza”.

There is a dark side to the tales of King Guiare, however, beyond the legendary generosity. It is said that before Guaire the over-king of Connaught was Eoghan Beul, and his son Ceallach was, after being tutored by St Kieran of Clonmacnoise, a monk. Eoghan was wounded in battle with the armies of Tyr Connaill, and died of his wounds, at which point Guaire put forward his claim to the over-kingship, as Eoghan’s other son, Muireadach, was net yet old enough to rule. Eoghan did not wish to see his line lose the over-kingship and sent messengers to ask Ceallach to renounce the monastic life and become king, which he did against the wishes of St Kieran. The saint pronounced a dire prophecy for Ceallach as he rode off, and it was not long until this came to pass. Ceallach became king, but Guaire soon revolted against his rule. It is even said that he called a peace conference at his castle, but then ambushed Ceallach when he attended, killing many of his guards. Shaken by this, Ceallach decided to renounce the crown and return to the monastic life, leaving the over-kingship to Guaire. Guaire, however, could not forget Ceallach as he rose up within the church hierarchy, up to the rank of Bishop. When the Bishop passed a house where Guaire was without stopping, the snup was the final straw. He thought that Ceallach conspired with Muireadach to regain the over-kingship, and so he sent assassins to kill him in Killala in County Mayo, where he had gone into hiding. The story says that the assassins fell miraculously asleep and Ceallach could have escaped but he accept his fate as a martyr and died at their hands. His body was taken to a church, and when his brother came to view it the priests there refused him entry, as they were afraid of Guaire. Muireadach left, but as he rode away “fire descended from heaven, consuming the church utterly”. Muireadach is then said to have captured and hung the murderers, and then hounded Guaire from the over-kingship. Other sources claim that Muireadach was the one who had Ceallach murdered, in order to shore up his own kingship. Even if it was simply anti-Guaire propaganda, however, the themes of the story are powerful enough to have made it a popular subject for later Irish literature.

The Spanish Arch, one of many contributions the Martyn family made to Galway life.

The Spanish Arch, one of many contributions the Martyn family made to Galway life.

Guaire died, but his name lives on. Whether Dunguaire remained as a name for the area, or whether the Hynes clan sought to capture the spirit of the earlier age, when they raised their castle they named it for the King. They could not hold it long, however, and in the 17th century the castle came into the ownership of the Martyn family. The Martyns were an Old Norman family, who had come over several hundred years before. The saying goes that the Old Normans “became more Irish than the Irish themselves”, but the Martyns remained loyal to the crown throughout. Oliver Martyn was the first to hold the castle, but it was his son, Richard Oge Martyn (Oge meaning “the younger”), who was the first to make their mark on history. He was the mayor of Galway, and not the first of his family to be so – his ancestor William Martyn had also been the mayor, and built the Spanish Arch, one of Galway’s most distinctive pieces of architecture. Other Martyns had also been mayor, one even clashing with famous Irish woman pirate, Gráinne Ní Mháille.

Gráinne Ní Mháille, anglicized as Grace O'Malley, was the most famous Irish pirate. This engraving shows her meeting Queen Elizabeth - a memorable occasion for all involved.

Gráinne Ní Mháille, anglicized as Grace O’Malley, was a powerful leader in Ireland as well as a famous pirate. This engraving shows her meeting Queen Elizabeth – a memorable occasion for all involved.

Richard Oge’s loyalty to the crown nearly proved his downfall, as it put him on the wrong side during the English Civil War. He was one of the leaders of the Catholic Confederation, an early attempt at “home rule” that professed loyalty to Charles but was crushed by Cromwell. Richard Oge managed to avoid treason charges, however, and the castle remained in the hands of the Martyn family, and around this time the spelling changed to Martin. The name Richard remained a popular one for the family, with a Richard Martin in 1822 sponsoring “Martin’s Act” in 1822, the first ever British law against cruelty to animals. He had been an MP in the old Irish Commons, and when it was dissolved he became an MP in Westminster, where the King nicknamed him “Humanity Dick”. When, a hundred years later, the subject of reinstating that parliament was raised under the title of “Home Rule”, two descendants of Richard Oge would find themselves on opposite sides of the debate.


The “Trial of Bill Burns”, the first conviction for cruelty under Martin’s Act, was a popular subject in the papers. This illustration shows Martin bringing a mistreated donkey into court.

One of those descendants was Sir Edward Carson, who first achieved notoriety by leading the defence against Oscar Wilde’s case for libel after he was accused of sodomy, but who would become far more famous as the leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance, and founder of the Ulster Volunteer Force. He is regarded by many as the “father of Northern Ireland”, and his statue stands before the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont. In contrast, the other descendant, Edward Martyn, was raised as a Unionist but came to support Irish nationalism when he grew up. He was active in politics with Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith, and when Griffith founded the original Sinn Fein party in 1905, Martyn became the first president. He was also active in the Celtic Revival movement, which sought to recreate the idea of Irish heritage and culture as a distinct entity. Ireland as a country had never truly existed, as it had been a land of fighting clans and petty kings. The leaders of the Revival movement knew that a new Irish nation would need a unifying culture if it was ever to succeed. Othrs active in the movement were WB Yeats and Oliver St John Gogarty. The former featured Dungaire and King Guaire in several of his poems, while the latter would buy Dunguaire Castle after Martyn died in 1922.

Oliver St John Gogarty, painted by Sir William Orpen in 1911

Oliver St John Gogarty by Sir William Orpen, 1911

Gogarty was, like Martyn, a supporter of the Anglo-Irish treaty and during the civil war served as an Irish senator. On one occasion he was kidnapped by the anti-Treaty forces and was held in an abandoned house. The house was next to the Liffey, and Gogarty (who knew that the anti-Treaty leaders had vowed to execute Free State senators they captured) faked a diarrhoea attack to get away from his captors before diving into the river and swimming away, escaping to the police barracks in Phoenix Park. Following the war he became an independent Senator and a constant thorn in the side of Eamonn De Valera. It may have been Gogarty and other senators like him which led De Valera to dissolve the senate in 1936, consolidating power to himself. Gogarty emigrated to America three years later, living in New York and supporting himself through his writing. Though Gogarty died in 1957, he was immortalised as a character in some of the great works of Irish literature – most notably as Buck Mulligan in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Christabel Russell, Lady Ampthill.

Christabel Russell, Lady Ampthill.

The final private owner of Dunguaire house was Christabel Russel, also known as Lady Ampthill. She had been the wife of John Russell, Lord Ampthill, though their marriage was somewhat unconventional. She was notorious for having a lot of male friends, while he “enjoyed going to fancy dress balls in drag”. Their marriage was never fully consummated (the few attempts being what she described as “Hunnish scenes, usually preceded by threats to shoot himself and once to shoot my cat, which often slept on the bed”). This became an issue in 1921 when Christabel discovered that she was pregnant. John sued for divorce, and the case, naturally, made for excellent tabloid fodder. In the end, however, the judge ruled that it was inadmissible for a husband or wife to give evidence that would result in the “bastardising of a child born in wedlock”. They remained nominally married until 1937, when Christabel finally gave him a divorce. The case was re-opened in 1973 when John died and the son born in 1921, Geoffrey, sought to inherit the title; but the earlier decision was upheld.

Christabel and baby Geoffrey.

Christabel and baby Geoffrey.

Christabel died during the course of that trial, and the castle was bought by Shannon Development, an Irish state agency (that is to say, a private agency entirely owned by the government), which restored it and used it to promote tourism. It is currently host to a historical recreation, including a famous “castle banquet”. The Hynes clan, who named it for their history, and the Celtic Revivalists, who saw their future in its past, and now Shannon Development, who use it to tell us of how our lives used to be. Dunguaire may not be the largest or oldest of Irish castles, but there’s a lot of history within those halls.

One of Dunguaire Castle's Medieval Banquets, in full swing!

One of Dunguaire Castle’s Medieval Banquets, in full swing!

6 thoughts on “Dunguaire Castle – Celtic Legends and Celtic Revival

  1. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: Dunguaire Castle – Celtic Legends and Celtic Revival | Daily Scribbling

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  4. Donna Balinger

    Very interesting article! I am a Martin descendant and wonder if this Martyn clan are my ancestors. My mother always told me that her family (Martin) were financially well off family from Ireland.

  5. Pingback: Fighting Fitzgerald – georginarobin

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