Doneraile Castle

Dún ar Áill: The Fort on the Eminence

The old castle of Doneraile, not to be confused with the more modern mansion of the St Legers called Doneraile Court, stood just inside the massive entry gates to the estate over the Awbeg on the Buttevant road. It stood near where the car park now has been built.

The first fortification on the place appears to have been built by the Norman family of Synan, who are recorded as having moved into the area from Kilbolane and for a time had large possession in the Doneraile district where they also built Caherduggan, Castle Pook and Castlerichard. They also, apparently, had a fortification of some kind at Byblox (q.v.). MacWilliam Mór Synan built Doneraile Castle in 1402. In Elizabethan times (Fiant 2244) pardons were issued to a number of ‘Shynans’ including James, head of the family, but before the end of the Queen’s reign the estate had been taken form them and given to Edmund Spenser (see Kilcolman) the poet, whose son John, with a co-tenant Sir Walter Welmond, sold in 1630 to Sir William St Leger. He was Lord-president of Munster in the reign of Charles I, and the purchase was subsequently confirmed by the crown and the estate created into a manor. He received grants of other forfeited Desmond land at the time. St Leger was faithful to the King and when he heard that Irish forces had rebelled in 1641 and were being led through the pass of Redchair not far to the north-east he rode out with a force to confront them. He returned, perplexed, when he found that Muskerry appeared to have a commission form the King and that he, St Leger, was expected to support the King’s enemies.

I have always felt some doubt about the veracity of this story, but St Leger dies in the castle soon afterwards, it is said partly from grief. Lieutenant John Downing subsequently defended it on behalf of the President, but it was taken by a party of Viscount Montgarret’s men under John Creagh in 1642 and finally captured and burned in 1645 by Lord Castlehaven for the Confederate Irish who also sacked and burned the town. Sir Percy Smith wrote ‘all our Castles and holds beyond the Blackwater, Ballyhooley excepted, are gone; most burned to the ground – in particular Mitchelstown and Doneraile. Mallow and Liscarroll yielded without shot or stroke, and so did Milltowne but for Annagh no place in Ireland was better defended in which service the rogues lost at least three hundred of their best men, and at last got it by treachery.’ It is extraordinary that in any Parliamentary account of the time the Confederates seldom, if ever, won an encounter except ‘by treachery’; but the truth is that even with forces inferior in training and equipment Castelhaven’s campaign, if more logically planned to its conclusion, might have succeeded in total. Sir Richard Cox, writing in 1687, said ‘The house was burned by the Irish in 1645 but is since rebuilt’. This building was crumbling to ruin in recent years, but efforts are now being made to restore it, partly at least.

The St Legers had a long association with the town. Sir Anthony St Leger was sworn in as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1559. He died in England, but his second son, Sir Warham, was President of Munster, and was slain in a hand-to-hand encounter with Maguire, one of the officers of the army of the Great O’Neill, outside the gates of Cork in an encounter of 1599 in which both men fell. His son Sir William has already been referred to, and he had two sons – William who was slain at Newberry fighting for Charles I, and John, of Doneraile, who dies in 1696. John’s son Arthur was the first to be created Lord Doneraile (in 1715) and he was followed by two generations of Viscounts of the same name. Hayes, the fourth Viscount dies without issue and the title became extinct until a nephew St Leger Aldworth was regranted the title in 1785.

It was in the eighteenth century that a young St Leger lady is said to have fallen asleep in an alcove and heard a meeting of Freemasons taking place in the attached rounded room. Since such meetings were held to be strictly secret the perplexed gathering had no alternative but to elect her to their ranks, and she was the first lady Freemason. She later married one of the Aldworths of Newmarket. The last claimant to the title showed me the room and the alcove some fifteen years ago, together with the commendation to the family form Cromwell which hung on the wall; but the momento (sic.) which took me by surprise was the fine etching of the execution of Robert Emmet which hung on the alcove wall. Then I was reminded that Emmet was a first cousin of the St Legers. Irish history took peculiar turns.

From “The Castles of County Cork”. James N. Healy, Mercer Press, Cork and Dublin, 1988.