/Ballinskelligs Castle

Ballinskelligs Castle

Ballinskelligs Castle is a castle located near the village of Ballinskelligs on the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.   The castle is situated on the western shore of Ballinskelligs Bay, on a narrow promontory which is subject to heavy erosion.   The castle was constructed by the MacCarthy Mórs to protect the bay from the many pirate ships off the coast during the 15th and 16th centuries, and to collect a tariff from incoming trade vessels.

Ballinskelligs Castle

Very little historical information is recorded about this small tower house.   It is located on the Western shore of Ballinskelligs Bay, at the North end of a storm beach a short distance from Ballinskelligs Priory.   Originally a MacCarthy castle, it is possibly to be identified as the manor which the Sigerson family occupied in Ballinskelligs in the early seventeenth century (Lynch 1902b, 352).   The history of the tower house appears to be closely linked to that of the nearby priory during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   Several references concerning the leasing and garrisoning of the latter are on record (Cal Car MSS 1569, 389; Fiants Elizebeth No’s. 3339, 4992, 5982).

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=   Ballinskelligs Castle / Caisleán an Sceilg:  the inside of the tower is completely destroyed.   To the right, after entering through the doorway, is a small room referred to as the ‘Chamber of the Rustic’ (Seomra an Bhoduig)

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The walls and shadow of Ballinskelligs Castle can been seen in the centre-right, above

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At present ground level, this three story rectangular tower-house measures 10.35 metres North East – South West x 8.25 metres North West – South East externally.   It rises from a battered base, returned to a maximum height of 7.65 metres at its Southern angle.   Its walls are built of split stone laid in a strong, pebbly mortar with marine shell inclusions.   The quoins, many of which are missing, are of dressed sandstone and are alternately face-bedded;  the slightly undermined angles have recently been repaired.   The majority of the window opes feature uncut surrounds, but the entrance retains most of its sandstone dressings.   At each floor level the plan of the building consists of a main chamber with an adjoining mural passageway.   The first and second floors are reached by a stair in the Southern angle of the building, which commences at ground floor level.

The well-preserved entrance is at ground floor level and is located slightly off-centre in the South East wall.   The doorway, of punch-dressed sandstone blocks, has a pointed head and is rebated internally for a door and externally for a hinged grille;  the grille was secured from the mural chamber in the Eastern angle of the building by a chain that passed through a narrow ope in the doorway’s North East jamb. The door’s upper and lower pivot-stones survive, and it was secured from within by a drawbar, the socket and channel for which are preserved.   The entrance gives access to a small lobby that features a murder-hole, served from the bed of the first floor window embrasure.   A small mural chamber, known as Seomra an Bhoduig (OSL), opens off the lobby at North East.   Access is gained through a lintelled, trabeate doorway, and the chamber is ceiled by flags that rest on inwardly corbelled side-walls. The lobby communicates with the main ground floor chamber through a ‘Caernavon type’ doorway (Leask 1973, 24), the lintel of which is supported on two inwardly projecting corbels;  the door was secured by a drawbar, for which both the socket and channel survive.   The ground floor chamber measures 6.2 metres x 3.85 metres.   It was lit by loops, centrally placed in the North East and North West walls, set in lintelled, rectangular embrasures with widely splayed ingoings.   Wall-cupboards occur in the North, South and West corners.


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Access to the upper floors of the structure is gained by means of a mural stair, approached from the entrance lobby through a doorway which could be secured from within.   The stair runs as a fairly straight flight to the building’s Southern angle where it was lit by an ope, now a ragged gap externally, in the South East wall.   From this level the stair ascends in a full turn to second floor level, where it was lit by a small, lintelled ope with splayed ingoings in the South East wall.   At first floor level a passageway in the South West wall opens off the stair.   Its side-walls are slightly corbelled and it was ceiled with lintels, only a few of which survive.   It was lit by a small, lintelled ope which is fitted with a small slop-stone.

The first floor chamber was entered through an internally rebated doorway at the North West end of the mural passageway.   The door was secured from within by a drawbar, the socket and channel for which survive.   The timber floor was laid on wall beams which were supported on tough corbels projecting from the North West and South East walls.   The chamber was lit by windows in the North East, North West and South East walls. Two of these are set in wide, rectangular embrasures with angled ingoings.   Their flat soffits retain traces of plank centring, and a centring hole is preserved in the South West jamb of the North West embrasure.   The beds of the embrasures are slightly raised above floor level, and that at South East is fitted with window seats.   It appears that this latter feature, and the large rectangular window opes, are secondary;  the disposition of the plank-centring and the presence of a portion of a narrow ingoing in the South East embrasure suggest that the North West and South East opes were enlarged and rebuilt.   They may have originally resembled the ope preserved in the North East wall which is narrow, has splayed ingoings, and is step lintelled;  the soffit of the embrasure has collapsed, but traces of its plank-centring survive.   A wall-cupboard is preserved in the East angle of this floor, and the walls at this level retain clear evidence of plastering.

The walls of the building are greatly reduced in thickness at second floor level, where they rarely exceed 0.7 metres.   Access is either by means of the stair which opens onto the Southern angle, or via an inserted flight of steps in the South East wall which ascends towards North East from a lower level of the stair.   The floor of the chamber was probably laid on crossbeams supported on the offsets created by the reduction in wall thickness at this level.   It was lit by loops with splayed ingoings in the North East, North West and South East walls, only the lower portions of which survive.   The possible presence of a fourth loop is suggested by a ragged gap midway along the South West wall.   A garderobe occurs in the North West wall, near the W angle, the chute of which delivered through a discharge ope directly below.

There is no evidence for the form of the roof of the second floor of the building, and no section of the building above this level is preserved.   The stair in the Southern angle does not continue upwards, indicating that access to roof level may have been by means of wooden steps from the second floor level.

A series of beam sockets along the external face of the North West wall indicate the former existence of a structure here.   That this was an addition is suggested by the fact that it would have blocked the ground floor window ope.   The sockets may be support niches for press beams used in seventeenth-century pilchard curing stations.   Sir William Petty is recorded as having established a fishery at Ballinskelligs during this time.   Two early twentieth-century photographs of the castle (Crawford 1923, 199) show that a building formerly stood against its North East wall.   This appears to have been of relatively modern date, as it is not noted in OSL and does not feature in the Lawrence Collection photographs of the site.

Excavations were undertaken at the castle in 1988 and 1991, following the erosion of a large area of land at its Southern and Eastern sides.   The original ground floor, formed of large paving slabs, was revealed beneath a considerable build-up of storm material.   Traces of two external lean-to structures with pitched-cobble floors, both of which post-dated the primary period of occupation of the castle, were discovered on its South East side.   Most of the finds from the site were of post-Medieval date (Sheehan 1989, 20-1; 1992, 23).

The above description is derived from A. O’Sullivan and J. Sheehan (compilers), ‘The Iveragh peninsula:  an archaeological survey of South Kerry’.   Cork University Press (1996), no. 1085.

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Ballinskelligs Village

Ballinskelligs village, from Irish:  Baile an Sceilg, meaning “homestead of the rocks”, is a Gaeltacht village in the south-west of the Iveragh peninsula (Uíbh Ráthach) in County Kerry, Ireland.   (Gaeltacht, or an Ghaeltacht, refers to districts where the Gaelic-Irish language is the predominant language, that is, the vernacular spoken at home.)