Of the hundreds of ruinous castles across Ireland, Ballymoon is among the most unusual and mysterious. Situated in the upper Barrow Valley outside Bagnelstown, Ballymoon was never completed but abandoned at midpoint in construction. What happened is unknown but given it was started during a chaotic period in Irish history the scraps of evidence we have indicate that things didn’t end well for the builders.
Layout of Ballymoon castle.
Square in shape the walls at Ballymoon only reach about twenty feet in height and were clearly never completed. Nevertheless its possible to see a clear outline of the intended building. While no tower or keep was intended several features set into the walls indicate the castle was to take the form of an internal courtyard surround by buildings as can be seen in the plan below.
This massive double fireplace in the north facing wall indicates this was to be the location of the castle’s hall.
From the architectural styles used, we can say the construction of Ballymoon began sometime around the year 1300, a time of great upheaval in Ireland. After the Norman invasion of the 1170s the Normans dominated around 75% of the island of Ireland including the Upper Barrow Valley around Ballymoon.
Once part of the Lordship of Leinster, it was given to the Bigod family when the last Lord of Leimnster Anselm Marshall died in 1245 without an heir. In the late 13th and early 14th century the Norman colony including the Barrow Valley was engulfed by a severe social, environmental and economic crisis. Warfare between two factions within colony – the de Burgh and Fitzgerald families lead to political instability and huge levels of destruction. This was accentuated by an increasingly erratic environment that lead to severe famines in 1295, 1308 and 1315.
However it was he Gaelic Irish, who had been dispossessed of their lands after the Norman Invasion that created the greatest threat to the colony’s vey survival. In the decades after 1270 across Ireland Gaelic Irish families began to reconquer lost territory from the Normans. This lead to a climate of fear among the Norman colonists. Hugh Lawless a prominent colonists east of the Wicklow Mountains an area under attack articulated this in Dublin in 1316
“the Irish of the Leinster mountains, manifestly unable to restrain themselves put themselves at war against the lord king, just as the other Irish in this land did, and they hostilely invaded, burned and totally destroyed the aforesaid lands and tenements of the lord king at Bray and all other lands and tenements of divers lieges of the lord king in those parts.”
Ballymoon situated to the west of the mountains was increasingly engulfed in similar violence. By 1309 the O’Byrnes were pushing down from the Mountains and attacking the region. Within a few decades the entire area would be paying what was known as Black rents, in effect protection money to the Gaelic Irish McMurrough-Kavanagh family.
This increasing chaos that explains context in which construction at Ballymoon began. As can be seen above the castle was designed with defense in mind, with cross bow loops throughout the walls. Indeed it seems the entire region was being militarized – only a few miles away Ballyloughan castle was built around the same period.
While Ballyloughan castle was completed and would ultimately fall into the hands of the Kavanagh family what happend at Ballymoon is far more ominous and mysterious. Construction stopped abruptly before the castle was ever completed. The lines of stone on either side of the top of the arch below is where an outer defense or barbican was to be added.
Inside the castle the walls are littered the features that remind you this was also due to be a home as well as fortifaction – this chimney built into the wall was new technology in the year 1300. Construction of the some of the buildings inside the castle seem to have been pretty far advanced before the site was abandoned. In the centre of the picture below the lower course of stones on the right was the inner wall of buildings on the eastern side of the castle.
Ballymoon castle was never finished. Indeed the site is shrouded in mystery. Its even not clear who built the site. Harold Leask pointed out that it was almost certainly not a King. While Kings of England did commission certain castles in Ireland, for example Dublin, Limerick, Rindoon and Ballymote were all built by royal command, the silence in royal records about Ballymoon rules this possibility out.
This leaves two potential candidates – Roger Bigod or John Carew. Bigod, the 5th earl of Norfolk died without an heir in 1306 and in the carve up of his estates John Carew was given much of his lands in Carlow. It is entirely possible that if Ballymoon had already began prior to Bigod’s death in 1306 that it may have been stopped temporarily while Bigod’s estates were sorted out. However this does not explain why John Carew did not finish the site.
Indeed the most likely answer is that the very reason Ballymoon was begun in the first place explains why it was never completed. Through early 14th century the surrounding region became a lawless frontier. The Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Normans constantly battled for control with raids and warfare being common. Perhaps it was a fatal attacks which inflicted casualties on the work force which made completion impossible. Finding the skilled work force needed who were willing to work in such precarious environment became impossible or perhaps Carew himself gave up realising that if the site was difficult to complete it would be equally difficult to hold.
Today Ballymoon is a site well worth a visit. It gives you some sense of the complexity of building a castle and the level of planning involved. Features such as fireplaces chimneys and garderobes had to be incorporated from the beginning and were by no means just an after thought.
You can find Ballymoon just to the east of Muine Bheag/ Bagnelstown
Duffy, S. The Bruce invasion of Ireland; A revised itinery pge 33