Magnificent symbol of 17th century Irish chief's powerOctober 12, 2012 - 7:00am
Portumna Castle dominates the history and landscape of South East Galway and has done so since the early 1600s when it was built at a whopping cost of £10,000 by the fourth Earl of Clanricard, Richard Burke.
In later generations, the family – who subsequently added an ‘e’ to the spelling of Clanricard – were to become one of Ireland’s most hated landlord families, but in the early 1600s, Richard’s main aim was to ensure that Connacht remained free from English Planters.
That was one reason why he built this striking castle at Portumna, says art historian Jane Fenlon, the editor of a beautifully produced new book Clanricard’s Castle; Portumna House, Co. Galway.
Ten contributors to the book explore the historical background to the castle, the process involved in building it, its role in the area and how it compared to similar houses of the time in England, including one owned by Clanricard himself.
Houses like Portumna Castle are an important part of Ireland’s history, says Jane. But, she adds, the 17th century generally has been a neglected area of study and, when it came to the grand houses of the era, historians “tended to look at them as being not quite Irish”.
That was certainly the case in the early years of the Irish State, but as time passed, their worth became more recognised. Work to restore Portumna Castle began in the late 1960s, 20 years after the building and grounds were bought by the Office of Public Works. Without that work, the castle would have fallen down and “would have become a very dangerous ruin in the National Park owned by the OPW”, Jane observes.
She previously worked for the Irish Georgian Society, an organisation founded in 1958 which campaigned to protect Ireland’s gentry houses. But the houses it fought for mostly dated from the 18th century.
Following a stint with the Georgian Society, Jane did a degree when in her 30s and then a PhD in Trinity, specialising in art history. She became involved with Portumna Castle during the mid 1990s when restoration was already well underway, with the roof, massive chimneys and the floor of the great hall area having been saved.
Before work began, the roof and central wall had collapsed and many of the standing walls were covered in ivy.
Jane, who had been working for the OPW as an archival historian and was doing comparative studies with English houses, helped compile information for a permanent exhibition that’s in Portumna Castle about the building and the Clanricarde family.
As part of the research on Portumna Castle, she organised a conference there in 1998, when much of the information in this book was first presented.
“The best way to gather information academically is to get hold of the best people – the experts in their fields,” she says. It was always intended to produce a book after the conference, but that was delayed when she became ill.
However, it’s finally on the shelves and it’s a handsome work, which includes extensive illustrations, including beautiful photographs from the National Monuments Photographic Unit.
It will go into academic libraries and she hopes it will also interest people who care about history.
Because the information the experts were presenting was relatively new, it all had to be referenced and there is a great deal of detail in the book. Underpinning it all is the fascinating story of Richard Burke, a great survivor, who was born in about 1572, an era where the political survival of an Irish chief was an achievement. He managed this by being loyal to the Crown, but also by ensuring he remained the most important man in Connacht and by looking after the tenants on his vast estates – something his descendants were less diligent about.
The Burkes of Clanricard were a Norman or Old English family that had become Gaelicised through the generations. But Richard had been reared at Court in London, one sign that the family was adapting to changing times.
For more, read this week's Galway City Tribune.