In engravings from 19th-century travel books the castle rises in a pale glimmering out of still waters in which its reflection descends to mysterious depths; the romantic perspective captures its symbolic stature as Connemara’s navel, but in the physical world it appears from the shore as a brownish rectangular stump. I rowed out to it once in company with researchers who were to measure it up for inclusion in The Archaeological Inventory of County Galway.
The island is about 31 yards in diameter, and there is enough tumbled stone around its rim to support the tradition, recorded by John O’Donovan in his letters to the Ordnance Survey in 1839, that it is at least in part artificial, i.e. that the castle was built on a pre-existent island cashel. Lake dwellings from medieval times and even as far back as the Neolithic are frequent in Ireland; most of them are crannogs, built largely of wood, but in Connemara about half the known examples are platforms of stone, perhaps based on an islet or a shallow spot, and rimmed by a stone cashel wall. The Inventory lists 23 lake dwellings in Connemara; one or two more have been found since its publication in 1994, and no doubt several other impenetrably overgrown islands in the area’s three hundred or so lakes would turn out to be lake dwellings if they were investigated.
The castle, ragged with ivy, occupies the centre of the island, the rest of which is dense with hawthorn, holly and willow bushes, and a couple of lovely guelder rose trees. It is a simple tower house consisting of four rooms, about nine yards by seven, one above the other. The interior of the ground-floor room bears patches of fancy plastering and a moulded cornice, and large window embrasures have been knocked out of the old masonry. In one corner are the remains of a spiral staircase, like the building’s spinal cord, and on the first floor there is a latrine passage in the thickness of the wall. In a two-story extension built out to the west there are peculiar curved brick-built surfaces, the remains of a kiln and an oven, and above these, on the outside of the tower, more brickwork, perhaps of a flue. Ceilings, garret and roof have long fallen, and in the extension an extraordinary grove of pallid twayblade plants, two or three feet high, struggle up towards the rectangle of sky above.
The history of western Connemara, that is, the Barony of Ballynahinch, is summarized in these structures. The decorative plastering and big windows date from the use of the ground floor as a tea room by some of its later owners, probably the Berridges; the extension was a brewery built by Richard Martin probably around the end of the 18th century; the tower house itself was used by him as a prison for tenants who maltreated their beasts of burden, but it was built long before his time, by the O’Flahertys when they were lords of Connemara, while the underlying island cashel is thought to have been a stronghold of the Conmaicne Mara, the medieval people from whom Connemara derives its name, and whose own name is rooted in myth.
Indeed, the Conmaicne people claimed that their progenitor was Feargus Mac Roich, the unassuageably lusty owner of the Lia Fál, the great phallus, now turned to stone, which stands on the top of the Hill of Tara. Medieval genealogists held that he had a son, Conmac, by Queen Maebh, from whom are descended the Conmaicne, the “seed of Conmac,” or alternatively that Conmac was the son of Oirbsiu Mór from whom Loch Oirbsen, now corruptly known as Lough Corrib, was named, and who himself was descended from Feargus. In early historic times the Conmaicne dwelled around Dunmore in what is now North Galway, and, perhaps around AD 500, radiated from there into parts of Westmeath, Longford, Leitrim and Mayo, while a branch of them who settled in the Atlantic extremes of Galway became known as the Conmaicne Mara, the Conmaicne of the Sea.
Now, although I believe that right living in a place—as I try to live in Connemara—entails a neighborly acquaintance with those who lived there in previous times, I have found out so little about the very people who gave Connemara its name that to me they are ghosts faded beyond all recognition. References to them are few. It is claimed that Caireach, son of a chieftain of Conmaicne Mara and the first of his line to become a Christian, was baptized by St Patrick himself, whom he invited into his territory to propagate the faith. Their later chieftains were the Ó Cadhla (usually anglicized as O’Kealy or Keeley), one of whom, Carnen, is mentioned in the Annals of Inishfallen as having commanded a contingent of the Conmaicne Mara at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, when Brian Boru defeated the Vikings. Perhaps Carnen marshaled his men on the lake shore here; perhaps it was for his hospitality on the island that one of his successors living in the 1160s earned these praiseful lines, from a Metrical Topography composed in about 1350:
Over Conmaicne Mara great,
Was Ó Cadhla, friend of feasts.
But if it was so, the venison-reek of his last feast drifted off into the depths of the forest so long ago that not a molecule of it remains. And, since there are traces of other lake dwellings not far away, including one visible after droughty weather as a circle of stones in Ballinafad Lake, a mile to the east, another in Loch Caimín and a third in Lough Inagh; is there any reason to think that Ballynahinch was the central stronghold of the Conmaicne Mara? Well, I can advance an argument to that effect.The Conmaicne Mara were virtually deleted from history by the O’Flahertys, who moved into Connemara driven by the westward tide of the Norman conquest.
According to Roderick O’Flaherty, writing in 1684, there was on the island of Ballynahinch “a hallowed monument of St Fechin, to whom there is a well dedicated at Cara-more, where the river parts with the lake.” The remark might suggest the pre-eminence of this island cashel, and hint at the reason for the O’Flahertys’ later adoption of it as their own chief place in central Connemara. “Cara-more” means “big ford,” and the old bridle-way into western Connemara from Galway used to cross the Ballynahinch River where it flows out of the lake, which is about half a mile south-east of the island; nowadays this track is just one of the hotel’s woodland walks, and the footbridge near St. Fechin’s well carries it across the river. St. Fechin is chiefly associated with Fore in Westmeath, but he also founded a monastery at Cong and one in Sligo, and is said to have journeyed thence to the island of Omey, off the west coast of Connemara, where he died of the plague in 664, having established monasteries there and on High Island, five miles further out into the Atlantic. A number of holy wells, such as one at the crest of the pass called Mám Tuirc in the Maumturk Mountains, which was the northeastern gateway of Connemara even down to the early 19th century, and this one at Ballynahinch, as well as a stone platform on the shore, the “bed” he slept in before crossing the sands to Omey, are traditionally regarded as traces of his passage.
Perhaps, therefore, “Cara-more” was a recognized crossing place even in the days of the Conmaicne Mara. So far as I can make out, it is the only ford on the river between the long chain of lakes that stretches far to the north-east from Ballynahinch, and the sea to the south-west at Tuaim Beola; so it would have been a place of military and commercial significance, and the lake island was well situated to watch over it.
The Conmaicne Mara were virtually deleted from history by the O’Flahertys, who moved into Connemara driven by the westward tide of the Norman conquest. Before that time the O’Flahertys had lorded it over the fertile limestone plains east of Lough Corrib. There had been O’Flaherty kings of Connacht in far-off days, but having lost power to the O’Connors they later provided kings to Iar-Chonnacht or West Connacht only (which included territory on either side of Lough Corrib at that period), and they were finally driven west of the lake by the Norman de Burgos in 1238. A branch of them evidently settled at Ballynahinch, as they founded a Carmelite monastery there in the 14th century (its site is unknown, and it has been suggested that it lies under the present Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, or that the cillín near St Fechin’s well marks its site).
In the following century they founded the Dominican abbey near the river mouth at Tuaim Beola. The Normans built their characteristic tower houses throughout the former O’Flaherty lands, and by the sixteenth century the O’Flahertys were imitating them. There were tower houses associated with or built by the O’Flahertys along their eastern borders with the de Burgo lands, and spaced out rather regularly around the coast, at Indreabhán, Leitir Mealláin and Aird in south Connemara, at Bunowen, Streamstown Bay and Renvyle on the Atlantic shore, and at one central site, the strategically located island of Ballynahinch. The castle of Ballynahinch was built in the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, i.e. soon after 1558, by the chieftain of Aird, Tadhg na Buile (Tadhg of the rage or madness—the O’Flahertys went in for intimidatory nicknames), according to one account; he is said to have robbed the deserted abbey at Tuaim Beola of its stones for the purpose.
The O’Flahertys feuded among themselves now and then; they fought at first with their neighbors to the north, the seafaring O’Malleys of Mayo, but then joined with them in alliances cemented by intermarriage, but theirs was probably a relatively prosperous and settled period in Connemara’s history. They had their dependent clans, including the O’Hallorans and the Duanes; the O’Lees were their hereditary doctors and the Canavans their officers. They exported wool to the Continent and shipped in wine and other rich goods, and therefore were regarded by the growing mercantile town of Galway as smugglers and pirates, the “Ferocious O’Flahertys.” In summer they removed with their herds of cattle to the booleys in the hills and lived in large temporary buildings, accompanied by their ladies, their priests and their wolfhounds. Under their protection the Welsh-Norman Joyces settled in what is still called the Joyce Country, east of the Mám Tuirc Mountains, and the O’Tooles came from Leinster to Omey Island on the Atlantic fringe of Connemara.
English law could not reach into these almost trackless fastnesses, and while most of Ireland was being incorporated into the feudal system, under which land was heritable and held as a grant in return for service to an overlord and ultimately to the Crown, the O’Flahertys still lived by the old Brehon Law, their territory being the communal property of the clan, and their chief chosen for his ability out of a small number of eligible contenders. All this eventually came to an end, amid some bloodshed and much paperwork, when it became clear to the Tudor functionaries that diplomacy and bribery would be more effective than soldiery in the conquest of Connemara.
In 1538 Henry VIII’s Deputy visited Galway and called upon the nearest O’Flaherty chief, Hugh Óg of Moycullen Castle, to come into town and submit, which he did, whereupon the head of the senior branch of the clan, Dónal Crón of Aughnanure Castle, seized Moycullen and had Hugh starved to death. Then another of the eastern and junior branch of the O’Flahertys, Murchadh na dTua (Murrough of the battleaxes), routed an expeditionary force sent into Iar-Chonnacht by Lord Clanricard, and the English had to buy his loyalty by declaring him chief of all Iar-Chonnacht and helping him seize the castle of Aughnanure and Moycullen. But since the rightful successor to the chieftaincy was the O’Flaherty of Bunowen and Ballynahinch, Dónal an Chogaidh (of the combat), this provoked more feuding, of which Ballynahinch became the epicentre, and Dónal’s wife, the young Grace O’Malley, was thus drawn into the tangled history of the castle.
In 1584 Murchadh’s son captured the castle from the sons of Tadhg na Buile (a later deposition of Grace O’Malley’s states that he built the castle, and another source says he built its lower floor, but these accounts must mean that he refortified or strengthened it). He held off the counter-attacks of the western faction represented by Dónal and the sons of Tadhg; in fact, says the Annals of the Four Masters, “he left not a single head of cattle in any part of their country to which he came that he did not kill or carry off.” Then he pursued the westerners to the Aran Islands, and fell upon them at daybreak as they ‘lay between sleeping and waking’, at a place still called Log na Marbh, the hollow of the dead. “Unfriendly was the salutation he made them on that shore, and indeed the island [Ballynahinch] was not worth all that was done about it on that one day,” is the judgement of the Four Masters on the affair. Later the English made peace between the two factions, and reinstalled the Bunowen O’Flahertys in Ballynahinch.
From Listening to the Wind by Tim Robinson. Used with the permission of Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 2019 by Tim Robinson.