/Ballycarbery Castle

Ballycarbery Castle

Tradition attributes the building of this castle to one Carbery O’Shea (Chatterton 1839, 285), using the blood of bullocks to cement the stones. But it is more firmly associated with the MacCarthys. Some form of residence appears to have stood at Ballycarbery in 1398 AD when Taghd Mac Carthaigh’s death there is recorded in the annals (Ó hInnse 1947, 113), but the existing ruins are later in date and are probably those of ‘the castle of Valencyen called Ballycarborow’, referred to in a document of 1569 AD (Cal Car MSS 1569, 389).


The castle was taken over by the O’Shea clan C. 1400 AD, who gained possession from the O’Falvey clan. MacCarthy Mor brought the O’Shea clan to task and installed a chieftain of the Clan O’Connell, under Morgan Dubh as hereditary Constable of the castle. This O’Connell chieftain was an ancestor of Daniel O’Connell.

There is a legend that indicated how independent these constables could be. MacCarthy Mor is supposed to have sent a cradle to O’Connell as an indication that he would send a child for fostering. O’Connell cut off the messenger’s head and sent it back in the cradle. MacCarthy Mor had the bearer of this message hanged. Filled with anger, MacCarthy Mor came with a large army, captured the castle and hanged Morgan Dubh from the highest window. It is reputed that on a certain night of the year, Morgan’s screams can be heard echoing around the castle walls.

It is noted as a MacCarthy Mor castle in 1594 AD (King 1910, 215). Other sixteenth-century sources indicate that it was occupied by the O’Connells in their capacity as MacCarthy wardens (Fiants Eliz No’s. 488,6469, 6569); one Morgan O’Connell of Ballycarbery, for instance, became High Sheriff of Kerry during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

Ballycarbery Castle is 3 kilometres from the town of Cahersiveen * in south County Kerry. It is indeed a great castle – and, like many castles, it was erected on a previous occupied site. In fact, the site’s occupancy seems to have been constant, either as rath, stone forts or timber and clay.

The castle is located on a slight eminence on the North shore of the tidal estuary of the River Ferta, just East of Valencia Harbour, on a grassy- hill facing the sea, and is a short distance from Cahergall fort and Leacanabuile Fort.



Shadow of the Ballycarbery ruins clearly seen in bottom-right corner
Shadow of the Ballycarbery ruins clearly seen in bottom-right corner

Dated by Leask to the fifteenth century (1973, 157), it comprises a fine, ivy-covered tower house surrounded by the remains of a bawn. Much of the South and East walls of both the keep and bawn are destroyed, presumably due to the mid-seventeenth-century attack by Cromwell’s artillery, though a portion of the bawn (curtain wall) at the South was dismantled and removed in the early twentieth century (Cochrane 1910, 57). A pair of early nineteenth-century watercolours of the castle by Daniel Grose depict large masses of faced masonry lying on its South and East sides (PI. XXVIII; Stalley 1991, No. 53); most of these were also removed in the early twentieth century.

Ballycarbery castle architecture would suggest it was probably built as a Norman “Hall” castle – the ground floor with the several arches are typical feature. These hall castles were later often enhanced with a service tower (which would contain the stair case but also garderobe chutes) and additional floors were added. It is not impossible that the Hall castle was the first stage, which was later enhanced by the MacCarthy…. But, as for most castles, we have very little history …


Possession of the castle passed to Sir Valentine Browne following the death of Daniel MacCarthy More – the Earl of Clancar – in 1596 (Hussey 1916a, 252).

It appears to have been attacked by sustained cannon-fire, directed by the ‘New Model Army’ of Oliver Cromwell’s English parliamentarian forces in 1652, when Valencia Harbour was being fortified (Stalley 1991, 127).

The tower house is rectangular in plan and measures 22.5 metres x 12.9 metres; there is an attached turret at its North East corner. Built of roughly coursed blocks, slabs and split stone rubble laid in a lime, pebble and stone-chip mortar, the walls display a low but prominent base batter. The undressed quoins are alternately face-bedded. The building is of three storeys, with vaults roofing the first floor level. Communication with the second floor, which appears to have formed the hall of the castle, was by means of two sets of mural stairs. It has a series of fine windows with limestone dressings, but many of the stepped merlons are missing.



The entrance is at ground level and is located off-centre to the Noth wall. Here the batter of the wall is interrupted to accommodate a 1.75 metre wide round-headed doorway, arched with pitched stones; its East jamb does not survive, but two drawbar sockets occur opposite. A shallow groove on the upper surface of one of the West jamb-stones may represent the housing for the hinge of a yett. The vault of the small entrance lobby is of pitched stone and traces of the wooden framework which supported its centring are visible; it is pierced by a portcullis groove which was served from the second floor window embrasure. A straight mural stair leads East from the lobby to the first and second floors of the building. The stair is approached through a poorly preserved doorway, only the South jamb of which survives. This is formed from well-cut ashlar blocks and immediately behind it two iron stumps, probably the remains of butt-hinges, are set in the South wall of the stair lobby. The entrance lobby communicates with the central ground floor chamber through a tall, segmental headed doorway with jambs of roughly cut blocks. The door was secured from within by a pair of drawbars for which both the sockets and channels are preserved.

The ground floor of the building was divided into three transversely disposed chambers with average dimensions of 7.15 metres x 4.95 metres. Only that at West is intact. The first floor was accommodated beneath the pointed vaults of these chambers, which were constructed on wicker centring. The two dividing walls and the single surviving end-wall at ground floor level are pierced by a number of holes. The central chamber was lit by a window in the South wall, of which traces of the embrasure ingoing survive. Access to the West chamber is through a round-headed doorway which was built askew; it is fitted with an internal drawbar channel and socket. Traces of plastering survive in this chamber, which was lit by a loop set in a large vaulted embrasure in the North wall. A doorway is accommodated in its West ingoing and interrupts the vault; through it access is gained to another mural stair which leads to second floor level. Beam sockets in the embrasure ingoing may have supported a short wooden stair to give access to this doorway. A large blocked embrasure with a segmental rear arch occurs in the South wall of the chamber, and two large wall-cupboards occur in the West wall; the larger features a relieving arch overhead. The East chamber was probably entered through a doorway in the largely destroyed wall which separated it from the central chamber. In its North East corner is an ope, set low down, through which access was gained into a downward-sloping, blocked mural passage which appears to have led into the foundation area of the turret.

The first floor of the building is comprised of three chambers accommodated beneath the transverse vaults and carried on a series of beams, the ends of which were embedded in the side-walls during construction. The end-walls of the chambers appear to have been built subsequent to the construction of the vaults. Access to the East chamber was through a doorway in its North wall which opens off the mural stair ascending from the entrance lobby. Access to the West and central chambers was probably by means of timber stairs from the ground floor chambers beneath; a number of beam sockets which are preserved near the North West corner of the West ground floor chamber may have served to secure such a stair. Both the central and West first floor chambers were lit by narrow loops at North, set in deep, rectangular embrasures. Traces of an embrasure ingoing survives in the South end-wall of the central chamber, and it is probable that a loop in this position also lit the largely destroyed East chamber.


The commodious mural stair which ascends from the entrance lobby to the second floor of the building is broken in places. Ceiled by slabs which rest on the oversail formed by a slight inward corbel of its high side-walls, it is lit by three narrow loops set in lintelled, splayed embrasures. It ascends to a doorway, furnished internally with a single drawbar socket, through which access is gained to a small lobby; the ceiling slab immediately outside features a large circular perforation of uncertain purpose. The lobby is accommodated in the East wall of the building at a slightly lower level than the second floor; it is lit by a splayed loop at East, and from it access is gained, through a poorly preserved doorway at North, into a small room which comprises the first floor of the corner turret. This room is spanned by a low vault, and is lit by splayed, lintelled loops at North, East and West. A short stair ascends from the South side of the lobby to the East end of the second floor hall.

The second mural stair commences at the doorway set in an ingoing of the large window embrasure in the West ground floor chamber. The doorway could be secured from within by a drawbar, the sockets for which remain. The stair turns to South in the North West angle of the building, and after a short ascent leads to another doorway which could be secured from its South side by means of two drawbars. From here the stair continues to ascend and is stepped to East to maintain its central position in the wall which is reduced in thickness at this level. It leads to a short mural passage at the South end of which a doorway, with only the North jamb surviving, gives access to the West end of the second floor hall. The stair and passage are ceiled by slabs and are lit by three splayed loops.

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The walls of the building are reduced in thickness from an average of 2.65 metres above the basal batter to 1.6 metres at second floor level. The floor area of the large hall at this level measured 17.15 metres x 9.4 metres, but this was later divided by the insertion of a cross-wall towards its West end. The timbers of the roof, which may have been of cruck-truss construction, were supported on a series of finely cut limestone corbels of which three are preserved in the North wall; the pitched West gable survives almost intact. The hall was lit by a series of large windows in the North and South walls; three occur at North, but at South only the ingoing of one large embrasure is preserved. In each of the surviving embrasures, some of which display traces of plank centring on their rear arches, are preserved some fine limestone dressings though much of this appears to have been robbed in the later nineteenth century (Hussey 1916a, 250). The West window in the North wall is a tall, two-light, ogee-headed example with cusping, an external roll to its jamb-stones and a chamfered sill; the central mullion is missing but a drawbar socket for a shutter survives. The embrasure was fitted with window seats, traces of which survive at West. All of the external dressings of the tall, round-headed central window have been robbed, though some chamfered scontions remain; the groove of the portcullis, which was served from this embrasure, is accommodated in its bed. The East window is a single-light, cusped, ogee-headed example furnished with a drawbar socket for a wooden shutter. Its jambs retain the sinking for transverse bars. In the East ingoing of its splayed embrasure is a doorway to a short mural stair, which ascends to the second floor level of the corner turret Access to a small mural chamber at the North West angle of the hall is through a low flat-headed doorway; the door, when open, occupied a shallow niche designed for its reception in the North wall. The chamber was lit by low windows in the North and West walls, some of the chamfered dressings of which remain, and it was furnished with two spacious wall-cupboards. Several large beam sockets on the internal face of the West end-wall of the hall, situated above the level of the mural chamber’s doorway, may indicate that a gallery or loft existed in this position. The cross-wall which divides the hall is an insertion; the remains of a doorway, the South jamb of which is decorated with a broad roll and fillet, survive at its South end. The wall is pierced by a number of beam sockets. No fireplaces or garderobes survive in the castle, but such features may have been present in its destroyed South and East portions.

The chamber which forms the second floor of the corner turret has its West wall set outwards. Access is gained via the short stair which ascends from the East window embrasure of the hall, and through a flat-headed doorway. The chamber is lit by three splayed, lintelled loops, two of which retain some of their limestone dressings. One features a drawbar socket for a wooden shutter. Three steeply pitched beam sockets of uncertain purpose occur in the vaulted roof.

Access to the alure was probably from the now destroyed South East sector of the castle. The surviving North and West sections are drained by overlapping slabs, delivering through outlets at irregular intervals along the base of the parapet. A number of stepped merlons survive on the parapet though most at North have collapsed. Access to the third floor chamber of the turret was from the alure; it is lit by three splayed, lintelled loops, the embrasures of which preserve drawbar sockets for shutters. A small wall-cupboard occurs in the North East corner. The upper portions of the East and West walls of the narrow chamber project internally and are divided into arched bays; this arcading is carried on stepped corbels and served to increase the wall thickness and give added stability to the alure above. The latter was reached by ascending narrow steps on the inner lace of the East end of the parapet at North, which was increased from an average thickness of 0.35 metres to 0.7 metres at this point.

No trace survives of the stone carved with a fleur-de-lis which Smith (1756, 106) noted in the interior of the castle.

The castle stands within the remains of a bawn/ curtain wall (KE079-034002-) which originally enclosed an area measuring 31.6 metres North-South by at least 35 metres East-West. At present only the West wall and the West portion of the North wall remain; the remains of the South wall at West, c. 10 metres in length, were demolished in the early twentieth century (Cochrane 1910, 57), as was the East sector of the North wall (Lecky 1914, 51). The bawn (curtain wall) at West rises from a slightly battered base, 1.65 metres in thickness, to an average height of 4.2 metres. A gap at North, 1.9 metres in width, may represent the original entrance into the bawn which was described by Lecky as formerly having ‘holed stones to either side on which the gate was pivoted’ (1914, 51). Between this gap and the North West corner are two loops, and a series of four others occur in the West wall. These narrow, vertical loops are set in splayed lintelled embrasures, 1.2 metres in average height. On top of the wall is the remains of an alure, and near the North end of the West wall a short stair descends from this to a mural chamber of trapezoidal plan which is furnished with a cupboard in its North end-wall. The chamber is located above a loop embrasure which was partially blocked to become an internally discharging chute when the chamber was modified and fitted with a garderobe. This modification may be connected with the construction, probably in the eighteenth century, of a large house abutting the exterior of the bawn wall at this point. This house, which was demolished in the early twentieth century, is depicted in both of Grose’s water-colours (PI. XXVIII; Stalley 1991, No. 53) and was the residence of the Lauder family (Hussey 1916a, 251).


The castle was surrounded by a high wall, with less than half still remaining. There are arrow slits dotted along the bottom of the remaining wall. A staircase remains inside one part of the wall however is not easily accessible.

The ground floor of the castle was made up of several chambers but only one chamber is still roofed and walled. It’s a large chamber with a quite high roof and in one corner a staircase leading upstairs.

There are two different staircases leading to the first floor and there is also a path up the back of the castle since the whole back wall is missing. One of the staircases is up on a height inside the ground floor chamber and is in very good condition. The other is entered from outside the chamber and is slightly damaged.

The first floor is covered in grass and has some windows and a few small rooms but is mostly in the open. The first floor is the highest accessible part of the castle as the steps to the second floor must have been attached to the now missing back wall.