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About the Author:
James Charles Roy is the author, most recently, of The Vanished Kingdom, also published by Westview Press. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
A castle of many rooms, but very filthy and full of dung.
The complexities of an Irish landscape remind me both of a family tree and a skeleton, where all parts interlock or connect in a seemingly ordered whole but, when looked at from different angles, reveal bewildering levels of meaning. No country in the world is as delineated and defined, down to the last square inch, as Ireland, yet boundaries of different sorts divide and confuse the various allegiances each seems to require.
Moyode Castle stands on the southern portion of a large, open piece of grazing pasture in the townland of Moyode demesne, land long valued as "champaign country" by farmers and herders of cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs. The townland is one of thirty-two that make up the parish of Carrabane, itself a part of the old Norman barony known as Athenry, after a town of that name roughly 3 miles to the north. This Norman delineation of power and, more important, possession, approximates the territorial boundaries of what it replaced, an ancient Celtic tuath, or kingdom, called in Gaelic Uí Mhaine and situated in the county of Galway, which, along with seven others, makes up the province of Connaught, one of the "Fifths," or Cóiceda, of Ireland, a broad geographic designation that predates recorded history.
The term "castle" as an architectural description for Moyode has always seemed to me slightly hyperbolic. Moyode is actually a rather smallandlonely tower house built around 1550 by a minor vassal family known as the Dolphins, who had held this patch of land off and on for three centuries, ever since the Norman incursion here that started in the early thirteenth century. Such an ancient pedigree strikes the modern visitor as substantial and noteworthy. But to the native Gaelic filid, official custodian of a clan's lore and genealogy who disdains the use of pen and paper in favor of that more trustworthy calculator, the human brain, any boast of 300 years' possession would be ridiculed as vain and preposterous. Celtic septs, whose lineage a filid could recite from memory to the back of beyond, had been here through three millennia.
In Irish terms, Moyode Castle is hardly unusual. If you were to sweep your hand in a large horseshoe curve beginning in Galway and heading south through Clare and Limerick, turning eastward over the Golden Vale of Tipperary and Cork, then coming back north over the province of Leinster into Meath, the shadow you'd leave behind would cover the remains of over 1,000 similar buildings. Some few, a handful, are occupied, either by ancient Irish families who never left or wealthy foreigners who have restored them to a degree of luxury never imagined by their original builders. Still others, open to the sky, stand in decent enough condition, taken over by the Irish government and minimally maintained, a rather recent preservationist impulse dictated more by the desire to promote tourism than to honor their builders, French-speaking Norman squatters. But most others lie scattered to the winds in fields and woods, farms and villages—deserted, cracking, falling apart, home to cows, pigs, chickens, mice, bats, crows, pigeon coops, peat piles, rusted farm tools, straw, refuse, and plastic feedbags. The smell of manure is their hallmark, the dank of slop and dripping ivy their atmosphere.
Of these cadavers, the majority have only a wall or two still standing, what the writer Sean O'Faolain called "broken tooths of masonry," seen from the train or car. Hundreds more are merely piles of stone, perhaps stumbled over by antiquarians trying to pinpoint some reference to a stronghold in a moldering charter or monastic chronicle from days long gone and forgotten. Yet some, by miracle, retain the semblance of their original condition and survive relatively intact, their circular stairways in place; carved window mullions, doorways, and fireplaces just where medieval masons set them; chimneys and gables erect, though tilting. That was essentially the condition of Moyode when I first saw it in 1969.
I had not come here by accident. Maps had led the way. In 1826 the British government commissioned the first ordnance survey of Ireland. Army engineers measured, plotted, and documented the entire island, producing hundreds of elegantly appointed charts that noted not just the geographical lay of the land but also human impressions, both ancient and modern. Old abbeys, monasteries, nunneries, saints' wells, sacred groves, cemeteries, round towers, megalithic graves, and castles, irrespective of historical era, were all marked, and when the Irish government issued a more broadly based series of thirty-two individual maps after World War II many of these identifications remained. I noticed them almost accidentally. I had purchased what I thought was a road map for Limerick. What I ended up with was a maze of castles.
I think back on those months of discovery in 1969 with great affection. I had never quit a job. In September of that year I did. I had never dropped everything, packed up, and run away from my responsibilities. In October of that year I did. I had never learned to operate, to say nothing of own, a motorcycle. In November of that year I did. For $550 I bought something in London called a Royal Star. It was a BSA, the initials standing for Birmingham Small Arms, the company that had made it. In just a few weeks I understood why so many other people called it Best Scrap Available. But it ran, most of the time.
In London I affected the current air—leather jerkin from Royal Navy surplus, flyer goggles, cowboy boots, blue jeans. In Ireland, where I went for cheaper living, all this was replaced by necessity: oilskins from a Dublin fishing gear shop, rubber Wellington boots from a grocer's; heavy winter underwear, socks, and gloves from secondhand clothing sales run by nuns. It was cold and wet in the countryside.
I was roaming. I had been to Ireland twice before as a child, but with little lasting impression. My mother was of purely Irish Catholic heritage (O'Brien and Hennessy). Her forebears, with the odor of rotting potatoes in their nostrils, had come over to Boston during the nineteenth-century Great Famine. They ended up in nearby Marblehead, but not as masons or fishermen. My grandparents were lace-curtain Irish, he a small-town lawyer and politician, she a lady of airs, many of which my mother inherited. When we returned to Ireland as visitors in the 1950s, we did not come to kiss the sacred land of our ancestors or to eat soda bread and drink stout in thatched pubs out in the bogs. We came to socialize at the Dublin Horse Show; to drink tea and eat enormous dinners at the Russell, Hibernian, and Royal Marine Hotels; to stay on as paying guests at Glaslough Castle, where Sir Shane Leslie, childhood playmate to Winston Churchill, bored everyone to death (even me, a child of seven) with his ghost stories. The only relations we thought to look up were the Blennerhassetts, an old Protestant family whose lineage, much to their regret, had included a wayward son in Tralee who went out slumming one night and ended up marrying a Catholic O'Brien, remotely attaching himself to our family tree. Come to think of it, we came to Ireland as the Normans had, as conquerors. Instead of swords and coats of mail, we had money.
The castle disease began modestly. The first tower I took the time to record was in County Limerick. I had seen it from the road, a sudden glint of gray, suddenly standing full in my sight, then hidden again just as quickly in a copse of trees as I motored by. Although I must have passed dozens of similar buildings on similar rides, I stopped for this one out of simple curiosity. It was lunchtime, and I picnicked there at the top on a bed of soft earth and grass that over centuries had settled, seeded, sprouted, and taken hold over the ramparts. The view remains in my mind's eye even now: scraggly, barren fields of autumnal yellow and green; stone walls speckled white zigzagging down hillsides and across pasture; rusted iron gates tied shut with twine; long, sloping vistas down a valley to the sea.
I camped out that night and lit a small fire in the old hearth on the top floor, open to the sky. It attracted the attention of a neighboring farmer who thought his cattle were being stolen, a pastime I imagined had gone out of style since the heroic days of Cú Chulainn and his Knights of the Red Branch, semimythical Celtic marauders celebrated by Yeats and other romantic Irish poets. "Ah, the days of Holy Ireland are long gone," he told me apologetically. "St. Patrick would curse our race if he were here again." Later he brought me over some tea and bread.
In the morning I looked at my map to see generally where I was, but no approximation was necessary. There, on that minor unnamed road, no more than a cow path really, on the backside of a deserted moor and mountainside, beside a little swollen stream of brown, chilled water, stood in bold Gothic type my definitive location: CAS.
Looking around, however, I had to ask myself—pinned down as I was by the cartographer's pen—just what was it here that made this barren place so worthy of attention, no matter how long ago in the ancient past? What led to this building, this strange mark of possession, authority, force, and anger in a kingdom worthy of nothing but the view, a place, as the farmer told me, where he could hardly make a living? Was there gold here long ago, silver, precious metals, slaves, plunder? All I could see or smell was dung.
In looking over the map, I noted two or three neighboring CAS. I went to see them. One reminded me of an inverted pyramid, a four-story-high corner of a wall precariously attached to earth by a course or two of eroding stone rubble. Not long for this world, and I put an "R" for "ruin" next to it on my map. The second had disappeared entirely: no mound, outline, cache of loose stone, uneven ground surface, or ruptured earth that might, in a ghostly sense, reveal where it once might have stood. Next to that I put a "D" for "disappeared." That night I camped again at the ruin of the previous evening. The farmer laughed at me, said I was trespassing. An American had bought the castle from his cousin a decade before.
For the next three months, my collection of maps grew. One or two here, three there, eight at one shop, until I had all thirty-two covering the entire island. At night, in hay sheds, open fields, pubs, or wherever I happened to be, I pored over them, circling every notation I saw for these buildings. By day I traveled to search them out. There was not a dirt track (what the Irish call a boreen) I didn't follow, a bog I didn't slog through, a stream I didn't cross, or a bull I didn't challenge if a CAS lay alongside or at the finish. Where and when I determined to purchase one I cannot say, but my notes grew more detailed and critical. They took to pointing out negatives such as proximity to busy roads or unkempt farmsteads, cracked walls, smashed stairways, shattered vaulting. There could be only a single explanation for doing all this. My final list had forty to choose from.
It came down, in the month of November, to two sites. The first was on the shores of Lough Mask in Galway, looking across that great lake toward the incomparable collection of mountains in Connaught called the Twelve Bens of Connemara, "a grand soft spot" as one local put it, and unrelievedly dramatic. I camped there for a couple of days, the farmer eager to sell. Storms came and went, passing showers and sometimes hail from above. The wind never ceased its pleading whine from the nearby Atlantic, lake water at the castle base relentlessly slapped the masonry.
Nietzsche wrote that a bold man must always build his house at the base of a volcano, but the tumult of this desolate, wild scene I judged to be too much, a decision I look back on as remarkably mature. Besides that, the farmer wanted too much: £5,000! He couldn't believe it when I left. "I thought all you Germans had money," were his last confused words to me.
In the dusk of a late fall day, I returned to Moyode and reconfirmed my initial attraction to it. Far away from any road, the building had few neighbors nearby and no annoying disfigurements to intrude on an otherwise unblemished vista. Clambering again about the ruin, I judged it sound and asked about its owner. It turned out he lived 3 miles away, a not uncommon occurrence in Ireland, where farmers may have several small holdings scattered about the neighborhood. I have often wondered what he and his wife really thought when they saw this motorized wonder in their yard, a John the Baptist in animal skins perhaps, swaddled in several layers of unwashed and now torn rain gear, four months' beard, wild and dirty hair, making inquiries about something that they had never in their lives given a moment's thought to. We arranged to meet the next morning. He must have tossed and turned all night in questioning amazement.
It was very cold that evening. I do not remember it as such, but I find the comment in my notes of these events, with an added remark in the margin that I was running out of money. It was becoming awfully raw for camping, the fresh hay in farmers' sheds too wet or clammy to sleep on. So I went to find a bed in the nearby town of Athenry. My journal entry says only, "a dank place." I recall sitting in a cold, dark pub drinking cold, dark porter.
Rain was falling when I went out to see Thomas Uniacke at Moyode. Athenry, an old Norman frontier settlement—a marcher baron town with grim castle, grim gate, grim walls—seemed to me a lumpy piece of black coal as I left it, an unnatural blot on this otherwise deeply green, though sodden, landscape. I felt alien as I put the place behind me, a stranger, a Norman, going out to grapple with the native Gael. Instead of riding a warhorse, however, I came to bargain on Best Scrap Available, its deep-seated roar reverberating through the empty streets of Athenry.
I arrived first and waited on the little lane that runs by the entryway into Moyode demesne, one portion of which is the great 30-acre pasture, on the furthest edge of which stands the tower. Until the 1920s or so, a formal and rather grand set of wrought iron gates had stood here, held up by two imposing cut-stone pillars with pyramidal capstones. To the left of these was a handsome custodian's cottage of Georgian design. Both ostentatious statements were meant to inform visitors that they had reached the grounds of Moyode House, a neo-Gothic assemblage of nineteenth-century baronial castle, courtyard, stable, dairy, school, cattle shed, smithy, dog pound, vegetable plot, and formal garden that was the nucleus of a 3,000-acre estate of the Persses, a once prominent family of the Protestant Ascendancy. The little tower I was here to purchase had been a folly or ornament for the Big House, a few hundred yards to its west. But in Yeats's phrase, all turns to ruin once again. The Big House was burned to the ground in the "Troubles" of 1922, the Persses having fled three decades before, ruined, as they would claim from faraway Westminster. The gates were sold off and removed, the lodge beside them deserted, turned into a storage shed.
I saw Thomas Uniacke a good several hundred yards away through the morning drizzle, certainly before he saw me. Thomas Uniacke never learned to drive a car, but the miles he pedaled! He had come from the opposite direction, Loughrea, another former Norman outpost some 7 miles to the southeast. He coasted noiselessly down to me, small sprays of water shooting off to either side. We walked into the field together.
He owned all of this pasture, inherited from an uncle, once the formal lawn of Moyode House and surrounded by a sunken wall of about 6 feet in height to keep livestock out and tame deer in. These are the famous ha-has of Ireland, so called by huntsmen who, at full bray on a chase, gallop along and suddenly find themselves confronted with a 5—or 6-foot drop to an adjoining pasture and no time to stop. The avenue to the old mansion was the property dividing line. Everything to the west belonged to Gerald Harty, another farmer, whose house from the 1930s we approached; everything to the east belonged to Uniacke. The one exception to this was the mansion ruin. Uniacke owned what was left of this and a decrepit coach shed. The rear yards and outbuildings, the residue of decay, belonged to other assorted individuals, farmers and day laborers whom I would come to know well in future years.
It was clear from the start that Uniacke cared nothing for the castle—"I'd give it to you for a shilling if ye'd take it away"—nor indeed for the old mansion, the rubble of which he sold off to the road commissioners whenever they needed fill or crushed stone. It was the land that counted, and it was the land he wouldn't part with. I explained I was interested only in the tower and a small right of way leading up to it, feeling reasonably secure that way back in here it would be unlikely that anyone might build a house. We stepped off a rough calculation as to how much land this really involved. Very little, we judged. However, it would cut a swath through his field and technically separate it into two portions. We agreed to no fences along the right of way that could interfere with the desultory wanderings of his cattle. All of a sudden, we had nothing more to say. It was Uniacke's decision whether to sell.
His mind was churning. Was this a good deal or not? Was he being made a fool of? Could the tower truly be worth anything? He couldn't believe it was, nor his uncle, who had held it since the Troubles way back in the 1920s, and his wife had said to him just last night it wouldn't fetch a farthing. Yet someone else's interest in it had suddenly made it valuable. How valuable? This was bad terrain for Thomas Uniacke. This was not trading cattle at the mart in Athenry. He knew the rules there; he knew what a beast would bring; he was famous far and wide in the parish as a canny man of business. This, however, was different. This was dangerous.
"What's it worth to you, then?" His first venture.
"£500," I said.
"£800." A long pause here. A very long pause.
We shook hands on it, in the by now pouring rain. Three days later I was back in New York, looking for a job. I sold the BSA.
* * *
THE IRISH WAY OF
The deal for Moyode was clinched via Western Union many months later, a delay that, in retrospect, should have come as no surprise to me. I had hired a solicitor in Dublin, an Anglo-Norman eccentric of the first order, Godfrey Skrine, who informed me quite early in our friendship that he began each day standing on his head, naked, for three minutes. Godfrey's office, an impeccable address next to the old Parliament building and Trinity College, should have warned me that Ireland does not work like other countries. Stacked to the ceiling were scores of ancient metal bins, painted black, with stenciled names of famous Protestant Ascendancy families printed on each. These boxes were packed with papers, often to the bursting point; wills, deeds, codicils, and property maps—the documentation of countless lifetimes—spewed over the edges of their containers, barely kept in place by straining padlocks. This was a Dickensian nightmare, a hell on earth for some filing clerk in need of punishment.
"Will I have a box here with my name on it?" I asked Godfrey.
"Oh heavens no, not unless you get a title from Buckingham Palace. But the paperwork will be just as grubby and tattered, maybe even singed from a fire or two in the past. But we needn't worry about that for the moment. The first task is to get Uniacke's agreement in writing as to what you discussed in the field."
"That's no problem. We shook hands on it."
"That's what you think, my American friend. Let's wait and see if Mr. Uniacke reconsiders."
Godfrey, of course, was right. Just as English kings and queens received, to their growing annoyance, dispatches from generally hapless lord deputies describing the vagaries of extending law and order to the unruly Irish, so too did my loyal solicitor send one report after another with generally gloomy tidings. "Uniacke back-peddling," said one. "Mr. Uniacke very inclined to run out on this," said another. "Uniacke having second thoughts altogether," and so on, said many more. Thomas himself even sent me a note. "You will be surprised to hear from me," he wrote, and I was. The difficulty seemed not so much about money as about judgment and reputation. "Mr. Uniacke has a sinister acquaintance who is telling him not to sell," one of Godfrey's letters said, "and this mug is dead right in my opinion. The value of property in this country is soaring, and what you have to realize is that whereas Moyode Castle doesn't mean a row of beans to Uniacke, such men as he count their land by the square inch."
Thomas was later to tell me, after we too had become friends, that he never intended to welsh on our deal. "I was happy enough with the price, and we had agreed to it face to face so I felt bound to keep my word. It was all so unusual to me, to be honest, and when you're dealing with the unknown you have to step back and see if you've made the right choice. I never decide anything with cattle until I know it's what I want to do. Same thing with getting married, for that matter! Once I thought it through and heard some opinions, I saw no reason not to do it."
Many, many months later Godfrey sent a telegram: "Uniacke has signed at last." Five or so years after that, having negotiated the anarchistic maze of Irish legal custom, I finally had a deed, "a scruffy piece of paper" in Godfrey's words, "by no means to be lost as we can never bespeak another. You're welcome to Ireland!"
* * *
In the fifteen years after, Moyode remained in much the same condition as the previous three or so centuries. Cattle came in when it was raining hard, hundreds of generations of crows and mice made the place home and reared their young, and locals still came to court on the top floor over the arch, known as "the Green Field," where a large tree took root and a fine bed of grass grew luxuriantly from wall to wall.
My own emotional response to the place was neither calming nor rhythmical, but rather displayed a typically American aptitude for impatient naiveté—I would restore the place, and soon. Labor in the early 1970s was £14 a week, which seemed affordable, and by my calculations the place could have been done up in three to four months' time. I burned to start, but an architect I knew, my old friend Bob Brown, advised calm. "You haven't a clue as to what it's like here. You cannot delegate authority on the job. You can't say, `Do this and that. Have it done by the time I come back next summer.' The minute you leave, tea is served and a song—out of sight, out of mind. The wages are cheap, but spread them out over many years and the whole thing becomes very dear indeed."
I eventually reached a Zenlike level of acceptance and compatibility with the building. Moyode was there, going nowhere. As my mother used to say, "I'll never spend a night in that place," and she was right. She died sixteen years after I bought it. I still went by every couple of springs or falls. I brought my wife-to-be, an artist. She loved France, Italy, Portugal, even England, but Ireland seemed pretty crude by comparison, and the tower house left her cold. "I'll never spend a night in that place," she said, but her reasons were different from my mother's. It was just too gloomy. How could anyone come here after Tuscany or Venice or the Alentejo and love a place that had no light? Dungeons just were not for her.
So after a while I generally went by myself. I'd camp in my car or pitch a tent out in the pasture, visit with all the locals until another cup of tea would almost make me sick, rummage through the neighborhood on the old bridle paths, putting my nose in whatever pile of ruins came my way. Naturally enough, I also spent hours just sitting on the ramparts, sharing the ravens' view of open countryside for miles around, and one thing I noticed was that no matter the season, no matter the weather, no matter the year, my view never changed: to the south, stretching 20 or so miles in open, wide, green fields, the champaign of what the Gaels called O'Kelly's Country, dominated by a modest but attractive mountainous ridge of 1,200 feet known as Slieve Aughty; to the west, toward the Atlantic (only twenty minutes' drive away) were the Persse ruins with Harty's farmstead to the right of it, fields and forests beyond; northward, Thomas Uniacke's pasture and the broken gatehouse, followed by a long, indistinct blur of woodland, mostly pine; facing east, a panorama of irregular, slightly rolling fields and stone walls, plenty of livestock, and just about the only mark of modernity around, an inconspicuous set of high-tension wires. In there somewhere, if you looked for them, were the ruins of Rathgorgin Castle, built in the thirteenth century by Norman invaders.
The impress of man, from up here, anyway, seemed then and still does relatively slight, and yet the entire compass of Irish history can be surveyed and noted and verified within walking distance of Moyode Castle. Such a claim seems pretentious, but two points of contrast come to play here. The lore and recorded passage of people and events through Ireland's past are lengthy and hyperbolic. At times, in the telling or listening or reading of it, one receives the impression that this small island has forever been at the center of great deeds and events from which spectators around the world can only stagger back in awe and stupefaction.
In fact, Ireland has always been the back page, most of its recorded history of more import, quite naturally, to the Irish than anyone else. It has never ever, I can say with confidence, affected the greater, wider world in any fashion other than annoyance. The Romans knew the place existed yet found it too poor to bother conquering. Christian missionaries paid it little mind, sending over to Ireland the least of their brethren, ill-used zealots like St. Patrick, on woefully unsupported missions that were more concerned with stanching the sources of bloody raids than with saving souls. Pope Gregory the Great had no knowledge of Ireland: It was Britain he cared for, and he knew little enough of that country. The Vikings, fellow outcasts, did make a play for the place, but their interest in the Continent and England, where prosperous societies had produced considerably more attractive pickings to steal and plunder, was far more pronounced. The twelfth-century Normans were vagabonds for the most part, penniless descendants of William the Conqueror's warriors whose glory from the single Battle of Hastings has eclipsed for centuries the nameless skirmishing that constituted the invasion of Ireland. The First Crusade, a cataclysmic event in European history, contained but a smattering of "naked and savage fanatics" from Ireland and was ignored in Irish monastic chronicles. And no matter what parochial writers from Ireland may say, English kings and queens, be they Plantagenets or Tudors, Stuarts or the House of Orange, never spent more time or attention on Irish details than they had to. No matter the Irish headache, greater fame or disaster always lay to the east of them, on the Continent, than over their shoulders out in the Atlantic. Rarely was there glory to be won in Ireland. The country had potential; it was there to be plucked, harvested, or planted with unwanted populations from England, Wales, Scotland, or Flanders, but no one's British heart was ever really in the place.
And so the legendary battles of Ireland, the armies and conquests, with their attendant great threats and parleys and treaties, all taking place in venues of monstrous castles, abbeys, and cathedrals are all really rather mundane when taken in the context of wider European history, as indeed the physical remains testify. The armies in Irish conflicts were never so very large, the battles not nearly as immense, nor the castles ever so grand as all the old sagas relate. Just walking about these few Irish acres around Moyode will show us that. But this must not disguise what were large and grand: the people, their unbounded desires, the depths of tragedy that often engulfed them.
This is what makes Irish history so attractive and compelling, its utterly human scale. Moyode Castle (and the other artifacts that lay a mile or two in any direction) by its mere inconsequentiality gives substance and authority to the multiple dramas that played out here. Warriors fought and died on this field not by the hundreds of thousands, not by the thousands or even hundreds, but more likely ten or twenty, fifty or eighty in any given battle. But the death rattle of one man, with our attention solely on him and his miserable, tortured demise, may grip our hearts more than some anonymous, impersonal conflagration where uncounted souls have fallen. Moyode removes the hazy myths of Arthurian fantasy, the kind of romantic posturing that I grew up on reading adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and, later, J. R. R. Tolkien.
By concentrating on the view from Moyode and what it includes, we focus our attention on the few. The story is here to see in small decrepit ruins, in boggy fields and forests, at a crossroads here or a river crossing there. None of it is on a grand historical scale, but the familial dimensions are the stuff of Shakespeare. One wonders at the capacity of the heart for suffering. This is one dimension where the Irish do not exaggerate.
|1 Moyode Castle||5|
|2 Celt & Norman||21|
|3 de Burgo & Burke||67|
|4 Dolphin & Clanricard||113|
|5 Persse & Mellows||193|
|Afterword: the Celtic Tiger||261|