Friday, December 13, 2013

Mocollop Castle, Co. Waterford: A history of a medieval castle: Chapters one & two

Mocollop Castle, Co. Waterford:
A history of a medieval castle

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

Chapter one
    Mocollop Castle is situated on the north side of the River Blackwater and about half way between Fermoy and Lismore. It rises above the floodplain on a rock outcrop like a battleship in full sail on the open sea.

Location map of Mocollop with the surrounding castles and towns

A writer for the Dublin Penny Journal in 1834 said that the castle “has at present a very picturesque appearance when viewed in almost any direction but particularly across the river”. Today, one hundred and eighty years on, the view from the south side of the river is still the best view, especially at about three in the afternoon on a sunny day in summer. On such days, with the sun shining on the stonework, the whole castle comes alive and the beauty of the scene gives the appearance of a building just recently built. Yet it’s history is quite old and interesting.

The name of Mocollop means the “plain of the cattle”. The history of the castle is the story of the Norman invasion and colonisation of Ireland. Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed king of Leinster, invited the Normans to Ireland in 1167. Yet they had an interest in the country since at least 1155.[1] In that year the only English Pope, Adrian IV, granted a papal bull allowing the Normans to invade and conquer Ireland. Adrian IV was a good friend of King Henry II of England.[2]

Bannow Island on the south Wexford coast was the site of the first landing in 1169 and in the following year the main invasion force arrived. Shortly after Waterford city fell to the Normans and it was here that Richard de Clare, Earl of Stirgul and known as “Strongbow”, married Eva, the daughter of Dermot MacMurrough. By this marriage de Clare became the heir to the kingdom of Leinster on the death of Dermot. The Normans quickly advanced across present day County Waterford known then as the kingdom of the Déisi. The Déisi king had been captured at Waterford and so little effect resistance was forthcoming.  

King Henry II arrived in Ireland in 1171 to establish his authority over the Normans lords and to receive submissions from the Irish kings. In the course of his travels around the country he visited Lismore for talks with the bishop of Lismore who was the Papal Legate to Ireland at the time and thus an important man to have on the English side.[3] It is unlikely that a castle stood at Mocollop in 1171. When Raymond “le Gros” Fitzgerald sacked Lismore in 1173 in order to get funds to pay his troops no impression is given for the existence of Mocollop Castle.[4]

In 1175, one year after “Strongbow” suffered a heavy defeat at Thurles; the Normans had sufficiently recovered their position to declare all the land between Waterford and Dungarvan as crown property. Two years later, in 1177, this area was extended as far as Lismore. The royal land was further extended along the north side of the River Blackwater to near the present county boundary or to where the Araglin River meets the Blackwater River. The new marshal of these royal lands was Sir Robert de Poer, ancestor of the Powers of Waterford.[5]

It is possible by or shortly after 1177 that a motte and bailey type castle was built on the Round Hill, just east of Lismore. The nature of this structure is unknown as no archaeological excavation has ever taken place to determine the type of castle. It did not stay long in perfect condition according to the Annals of Leinster. In 1181 Cuilén O Cuilén and O’Faoláin, king of the Déisi, marched on Lismore and razed the castle there. In the battle they killed sixty to eighty Norman soldiers and went on to take all the castles in the Déisi and Ossory.[6] 

After this set back, the Normans got reinforcements from England and re-established control of present-day County Waterford. In 1185 Prince John, son of Henry II, came to Ireland and in the course of his travels visited Lismore. There he ordered a stone castle to be built on the site of the present Lismore Castle. From there Prince John went over the Knockmealdown Mountains to established two more stone castles at Ardfinnan and Tibberaghny in south west Kilkenny.[7] These three stone castles were to defend the crown lands of Waterford.

It is possible that some structure was built at Mocollop around this time of 1185. If such was the case the building would be of timber and any trace of it would lie within the foundations of the present castle. This timber castle lasted for a number of years and was not replaced by a stone building until about 1220. Without documentary evidence to confirm the existence of a timber castle or to say for sure that the stone structure was built in 1220 we are reliant of archaeological and architectural evidence.

The core of Mocollop Castle is its circular keep. Most castles of the period around the end of the 12th century had a square keep as the principal tower. The Tower of London and Trim Castle in County Meath would be examples of this type. The circular keep is more unique and rare. Such towers are known as donjon and originated in France in the late 12th century. King Philip Augustus of France had a special engineer corp. for the construction and maintenance of these rounds keeps.[8]

Ground plan of Mocollop Castle

The donjon never caught on in England but Wales has a few good examples which were built from about 1150 to 1250.[9] The English possessions in modern France contain excellent examples of the donjon. The castle of Château Gaillard (1191) on the River Seine north of Paris is possibly the finest of this castle type. It stood on the boundary of Normandy and was the principle gate way into the English province.   

In Ireland there are a limited number of donjon type castles. Dundrum Castle in County down was built around 1195,[10] while Nenagh Castle, County Tipperary, was built around 1216.[11] The lighthouse at Hook Head, County Wexford is also a donjon keep and was built around 1218. Unlike other donjon keeps where the division between each floor is flat, the Hook donjon has a vault over each floor because it was purposely built as a lighthouse and fire safety considerations were uppermost in the builder’s mind.[12] The flat division between each floor is also a good feature for dating evidence. Later round castles and tower houses of the 15th and 16th century such as at Carrigabrick had a vault over one or two floors but the donjons from around 1200 do not have any vaulting.

Another common feature of Mocollop with Nenagh and The Hook is that they all have the stairway built within the thickness of the donjon outer wall. All three stairways travel up in an anticlockwise direction.[13] The common features to all three structures would suggest that Mocollop is contemporary with Nenagh and The Hook and the same building firm may have been involved with all three. The close association between Mocollop and The Hook is further seen in the size of both buildings. Both have an external diameter of around 12.4 meters and an overall height of about 22 meters.[14]

Yet it is important to get more evidence to show a construction date of around 1220. For this we look to the wider political environment. The original castle at Mocollop was a ringwork type structure. This involved a flat area surrounded by a bank with a ditch outside that possibly full of water. A timber fence or sometimes a stone wall would be placed upon the bank. The buildings inside were a mixture of timber and stone construction. This castle survived until about 1220 because until that time there was no need to build a stone castle on the site. The stone castle at Lismore provided the chief defence location for west Waterford. In August 1220 the viceroy of Ireland, Henry de Londres, Archbishop of Dublin, issued an order to restore Lismore to cathedral city status.[15] 

Since about 1197 the Bishop of Waterford had been attempting to take over the Diocese of Lismore. At that time Waterford city and the barony of Gaultier formed a diocese on its own and was under Norman influence. The rest of County Waterford and a large part of south Tipperary along with Kilworth, County Cork was part of the Diocese of Lismore with Lismore as the cathedral centre. This diocese was under Irish influence.[16]

In 1204 Lismore was confirmed by the Irish church as a separate diocese from Waterford but successive bishops of the city would not accept the ruling. By 1219 Pope Honorius III had to issue a ruling confirming the separate status of Lismore and got three English bishops to persuade the viceroy in Dublin to also confirm Lismore as a cathedral city.[17] Part of the deal allowed for the bishop of Lismore to take over the stone castle there to form his bishop’s palace. This move left the whole of west Waterford undefended and so promoted the building of a stone castle at Mocollop which was outside the lands of the Lismore bishop and under the control of the civil government.

Another influence to suggest a date of about 1220 for Mocollop is in the person of Thomas Fitz Anthony. [Link to article = about Thomas Fitz Anthony Article] Thomas Fitz Anthony was sheriff of County Waterford since 1215 and so head of the civil government in the county. He was also at the same time seneschal of Leinster under William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke.[18] This William Marshal also owned the town of New Ross and Hook Head. It was this William who in around 1218 commissioned the building of the lighthouse as an aid for ships coming to New Ross.[19] Marshal’s own castle at Pembroke in Wales was of the round donjon type built around 1190.[20] Thomas Fitz Anthony was therefore well aware of the donjon type castle and the builders of same. Thus when he needed a new castle to defend west Waterford the donjon came to Mocollop.

Around the donjon at Mocollop were four square towers of which three remain. This design was repeated, or copied from, the donjon at Gowran, County Kilkenny. There a round keep was surrounded by four square towers. This structure was knocked in 1713 to make way for the present Gowran castle.[21] The owner of Gowran was Theobald Fitz Walter and in 1185 he had been granted the Nenagh area by Prince John.[22]  

All these round keeps like Mocollop were at the end of the fashion cycle. Within a few years the donjon type castle was no longer in fashion. From 1225 onwards people built the keep-less castle. Local examples of this type are at Mogeely and Aghern on the River Bride. In this type of castle all the buildings were constructed around the inside of the outer wall while the circle of the court was left empty. The weakness of the donjon was that once the outer walls were breeched that donjon was not effective enough to defend itself. The keep-less castle concentrated all its energy on strengthen the outer wall especially the weak point of the gateway and prevent entry.

The gateway of Mocollop had a drawbridge with a portcullis behind. A timber causeway led away from the drawbridge towards the modern road. It is possible that the course of the Blackwater was slightly altered to provide a watery moat around the castle. Inside the gateway tower was a small rectangular enclosure with a small doorway between the round keep and the south range of buildings. The visitor is now in a large rectangular enclosure with a square tower at the north-east and south-east corners. The round keep had no doorway on the ground floor. Instead the visitor climbed a outside stone stairway travelling clockwise up the tower. Over the small doorway mentioned above the stairway turns 180 degrees and the visitor is now climbing up the outside of the round keep in an anticlockwise direction. At the north-east side of the round keep the visitor bends down as he passes through the outer wall of the keep. The stairway now continues in an anticlockwise direction up inside the keep and continues in this way up to the roof level. Vanished doorways led into the different floor levels while a wooden stairway inside the keep led down into the ground floor.     

The gate-house of Mocollop with the donjon keep behind.

To give greater defence to Mocollop Castle the wider landscape was brought into use. Five townlands on the south side of the river, now located in County Cork, were attached to Mocollop manor and became part of medieval County Waterford along with the townland of Ballinaroone. With these six townlands the defenders could better observe any approaches from the south, perhaps using a few wooden watchtowers. The location of Mocollop Castle down in the valley floor would not be able to provide sufficient advanced warning.

Yet another important townland was needed from south of the river to give around security for Mocollop. To see any approaches from the north the townland of Ballydorgan was needed. This present day County Cork townland was joined to medieval County Waterford and to the manor of Mocollop. So important was this townland that the Power family kept ownership of it when Mocollop passed out of their hands towards the end of the 13th century. In 1329 Ballydorgan was owned by Annora le Poer, second wife of John Fitz John Fitz William le Poer of the Shanagarry branch of the family.[23]

Chapter two

    If documentation about the construction of Mocollop is non-existent then sourcing any documents on the castle’s later history is just as difficult. The destruction of the Earldom of Desmond towards the end of the 16th century by two wars with the burning and looting of many castles caused many documents to vanish forever. Further losses occurred in the succeeding centuries culminating with the destruction of the Public Record Office during the Civil War of 1922-23 means that we are left with very few documents. The writings of antiquaries help fill the gaps.

We know that Sir Robert le Poer held the County Waterford in the 1180s which included Mocollop and that the Power family continued to own property in the area up to at least 1329. Yet finding who owned Mocollop for the first fifty years as a stone castle is as yet beyond our abilities to find out. In 1280 Philip le Blund (White) held Mocollop. He also held the land of Whitechurch near Cork city and may have given that place his name. Philip was said to be an ancestor of the Doneraile historian Lieutenant Colonel James Grove White.[24] 

At what time and by what means did the White family acquire Mocollop is unknown. The three usual options are by way of marriage, purchase or by gift of the crown.

In October 1285 Philip White of Mocollop and William Terry paid a half mark to the Dublin Exchequer for the pledge of Walter White.[25] The reason for this pledge is unknown but it possibly was to keep the peace or as insurance to fulfil a legal obligation. In May 1291 the vill of Mocollop paid 60s for allowing the escape of Richard Mariscis. The vill paid a further 40s in November 1291 for the same offence.[26] At that time the local manor was the first stage in the judicial process as well as been a landed estate. Local manors often placed local law breakers in their own local jail or secured facility. If a prisoner escaped the local vill or township was fined for allowing the escape when they should have had better incarceration facilities. 

Philip White had two sons the younger of whom got four carucates of land in the parish of Ballyclogh, near Mallow. The elder son called Alan White got Mocollop along with other lands in County Cork. Alan White died around 1290 leaving a daughter called Elena as heir. Elena White was only a child when her father died and so was made a ward of the crown. Odo de Barry was made her guardian.

The north side of Mocollop Castle showing L to R the north-east tower, the keep and the gate-house.

In 1298 William Fitz William de Barry got Elena White to transfer the manors of Ardonoyth and Talaghocorkeran, County Cork, into his ownership. About the same time Mocollop was transferred to Sir John de Barry of Castlelyons.[27]

Having said the above there is a reference in the Carew Manuscripts to Lord Barry claiming the possession of Mocollop in 1229 as his inheritance.[28] This needs further research as William Fitz Philip de Barry, Lord of Olethan in Ireland continued to hold his ancestral castle of Maynaurpir castle near Pembroke in Wales. The similar spelling of both locations, especially when trying to read abbreviated Latin hand writing that is over 700 years old, makes further research important before passing judgement.


Link to chapters three and four = Chapters three and four

[Link to chapters five and six = Chapters five and six]

[Link to chapters seven and eight = Chapters seven and eight]

[1] Richard Roche, The Norman invasion of Ireland (Anvil, Dublin, 1995), p. 91
[2] Richard Roche, The Norman invasion of Ireland, pp. 79-80
[3] Richard Roche, The Norman invasion of Ireland, p. 189
[4] Rev. Samuel Hayman, The hand book of Youghal (Field, Youghal, 1973), p. 3
[5] Patrick C. Power, History of Waterford City and County (de Paor, Dungarvan, 1998), p. 22
[6] Joseph Hansard, History of Waterford (Dungarvan, 1870), p. 7
[7] Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The English conquest of Ireland 1166-1185 (Kegan, London, 1896, reprinted 1998), edited by Frederick J. Furnivall, p. 148
[8] Rene Huyghe, Byzantine and Medieval Art (Hamlyn, Middlesex, 1974), p. 337
[9] William Colfer, ‘The tower of Hook’, in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, no. 10 (1984-5), p. 71
[10] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992), p. 110
[11] Brian J. Hodkinson, ‘Excavations in the gatehouse of Nenagh Castle 1996 & 1997’, in Journal of the Tipperary Historical Society, 1999, p. 178
[12] William Colfer, ‘The tower of Hook’, in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, no. 10 (1984-5), pp. 73, 78
[13] William Colfer, ‘The tower of Hook’, in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, no. 10 (1984-5), p. 72, fig 1 & 2; Michael Moore (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford (Duchas, Dublin, 1999), p. 214; Nancy Murphy, Nenagh Castle: chronology and architecture (Relay, Nenagh, 1993), p. 2
[14] William Colfer, ‘The tower of Hook’, in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, no. 10 (1984-5), p. 73; Michael Moore (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford, p. 214
[15] Sr. Assumpta O’Neill, ‘History of the Waterford Diocese 1098-1363’, in Decies, no. 44, p. 12
[16] Patrick C. Power, History of Waterford City and County, p. 33
[17] Sr. Assumpta O’Neill, ‘History of the Waterford Diocese 1098-1363’, in Decies, no. 44, p. 12
[18] Ciarán Parker, ‘Local Government in County Waterford in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, part 1: The Office of Sheriff 1208-1305’, in Decies, no. 49, p. 19
[19] William Colfer, ‘The tower of Hook’, in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, no. 10 (1984-5), pp. 69-70
[20] Alan Reid, The castles of Wales (Letts, London, 1973), p. 116
[21] Mary Moran, ‘The Agars of Gowran (Lords Clifden and Callan)’, In the Shadow of the Steeple, vol. 2 (1990), p. 112
[22] Nancy Murphy, Nenagh Castle: chronology and architecture, p. 5
[23] Paul MacCotter and Kenneth Nicholls (eds.), The pipe roll of Cloyne (Cloyne), p. 146
[24] James Grove White, ‘Ancestors of the White family’, in the Journal of the Waterford and South East Archaeological Society, vol. 7 (1901), p. 101
[25] H.S. Sweetman (ed.), Calendar of documents relating to Ireland (5 vols. Kraus-Thomson, Liechtenstein, 1974), vol. 3 (1285-1292), p. 54
[26] H.S. Sweetman (ed.), Calendar of documents relating to Ireland (5 vols. Kraus-Thomson, Liechtenstein, 1974), vol. 3 (1285-1292), pp. 396, 436
[27] Paul MacCotter and Kenneth Nicholls (eds.), The pipe roll of Cloyne (Cloyne), p. 215
[28] J.S. Brewer & William Bullen (eds.), Calendar of Carew manuscripts at Lambeth (Liechtenstein, 1974 reprint), vol. 5, p. 370


  1. Hi Niall,
    I am a castle enthusiast and a member of the Castle Studies Group (CSG; UK based but with Irish and international members). Together with a friend, I am organising the 2018 annual CSG conference that will be based in Cork in April. We are hoping to visit Mocollop on the conference and your article here is very interesting in that context. I am also hoping to make people more aware of Mocollop so that it can get the conservation work it needs. As part of that I am referring to Mocollop in an article that will be published next year in a festschrift to honour fellow castle enthusiast Derek Renn, and I would like to illustrate it with a photo. My own photos of the site a dogged by raindrops, so I am wondering if you would permit me to use one of yours (with much less ivy too): the upper one above, with the gatehouse. If you get this I would be grateful for a swift response as I am past a deadline for final page proof changes. You can contact me at either, or on 087 2390405.
    Many thanks in advance,

    1. what conservation works would ye do on it?

    2. Hi Q,
      The most important thing would be to remove the vegetation from the castle walls, but this would have to be done under the strict supervision of a good conservation architect because the ivy etc. will be holding at least some of the masonry together. Everything would have to be conserved and made safe using approved lime mortar etc. At the same time, all openings in the great tower, including the one broken in at ground level would have to be made safe so as to avoid the risk of further collapse. The same should apply to clearing and making safe all steps, up to the original entrance into the great tower and onto the gate-tower and other structures, ideally to allow safe and open access.
      Mocollop Castle is and should be appreciated as a major Irish national monument, ideally coming into State care.
      It would also ideally be open to visitors. However, the construction of a new farmhouse on the site of the former ruined house, right alongside the castle, the development of a garden for the house against the castle walls and the continuing use of the adjacent farmyard would probably require some screening off of the castle (for privacy) and a new access route avoiding the private driveway to the house and farm if this is ever to be achieved. At he same time, I believe it should be possible for the farm to make some money from the site if it were openly accessible, through ticketing access (not too expensively), perhaps opening a cafe to sell light food and drinks, and producing and selling a guidebook for visitors.

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