• Ali Isaac

the floating castle of co. cavan

Cloughoughter Castle in Co. Cavan may appear to float upon the cold clear water of the lake, but it's foundations are firmly rooted in the earth of a small, natural island. These days, the ruinous shell of the building and its majestic setting, seemingly far from all things human and modern, is picturesque and peaceful, but in fact, its innocent facade masks a grim and violent history.

Its name derives from the Irish Cloch Locha Uachtair, which means, more or less, 'the stone building on the upper southern part of the lake' - a bit of a mouthful in our flat, functional English, I think; Irish place-names are always so poetic and descriptive.

As you can see from the drone footage, the castle really does appear to float! Antiquarians of the nineteenth century believed the castle was built on a crannóg, or man-made island; they misinterpreted wooden beams and tumbled masonry on the shoreline as evidence of the construction of the island, but more recent archaeology has shown that these remains were in fact the basis of defences, and a quay and mooring system for boats, which would have brought supplies, and prisoners, to the castle.

Items have been found on the island which suggest it may have been occupied long before the stone castle was built; a wedge-shaped stone axe, a leaf-bladed bronze age sword, an iron socketed axe. However, stone castles in Ireland are associated with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the late twelfth century, and it is estimated that Cloughoughter was probably built by 1220AD.

At this time, the rule of the kingdom of Breifne was split between two warring local clans, the O'Rourkes in the west, now Co. Longford, and the O'Reillys in the east, now Co. Cavan. But in 1220, Walter de Lacey of the Anglo-Normans had taken control of much of the O'Reilly land, including the castle at Loch Oughter, where his brother, William, began the reconstruction of the structure in stone. Their goal was to seize the Earldom of Ulster, but King Henry III in England got wind of this, and sent a force against the de Lacy's. The O'Reillys sided with the King, and retook the castle, completing the work William had begun in 1233. They managed to hold onto their kingship into the 1600s through allying with the English, although, as time passed, they became increasingly discontent with the way England treated them.

As the English began to implement the Plantation of Ulster, Cavan land was seized by the Crown, carved up and redistributed among Protestant incomers, with the surviving O'Reilleys receiving small allocations of the land that had once been theirs. It is not surprising that they eventually responded with an uprising. Cloughoughter Castle played its formidable part as the stronghold of the Irish Rebellion against the English in 1641.

And this is where my personal interest in Cloughoughter Castle becomes apparent, and where my college and personal lives collide.

Back in 2017, in a first year history class, our lecturer asked us to research the 1641 depositions and write an essay on our findings. I looked up depositions made by planters in my own county, clicking on one made by Marmaduke Batemanson, purely because I liked his unusual name. He introduced me to a woman named Rose ni Neile, whom I have been fascinated by ever since. He claimed she had ordered his execution, and that struck me as odd; women in Ireland at that time led domestic lives, they wouldn't have held such power over a man's life. I opened up more depositions, and to my amazement, found more stories of Rose.

click to read an adapted version of that essay for my blog

incredible irish women | rose ny neile o’reilly

But Rose was no ordinary woman; she was born into the powerful Ulster Gaelic family, the O’Neills, said to be descended from King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Her brother, Owen Roe O’Neill (Eoghan Ruadh Ó’Néill), commanded the Ulster forces during the Confederate Wars which followed the 1641 Rebellion. And she had married into the O'Reillys; her husband was Philip O’Reilly (Pilib mac Aoidh mic Sheáin mic Aoidh Chonallaigh Ó'Raghallaigh). Pilib's father, and all his forefathers had been O'Reilly chieftains, and Lords of east Briefne. The kingship had been dismantled by the English by then, but Pilib was a member of parliament for Cavan until 1641, when he became a leader of the rebellion, and was elected by clansmen as the O'Reilly chieftain. He led battles in Belturbet, Drogheda, and Benburb.

As you might expect, Pilib was accused of treason by the English, but managed to evade capture until 1653. He had retired to Cloughoughter Castle, which had been used as a refuge, and a prison throughout the rebellion, due to its defensible position. However, Cromwell's forces battered it relentlessly with canon-fire, until one half of the castle wall collapsed.

According to Kirker, local lore claims Cromwell had a lot of problems with his assault on the castle; he only succeeded when, thanks to an 'Irish betrayer', he 'commenced battering the south face of the castle, but in vain, until a false woman, who was inside, hung out a white cloth opposite the spot where the wall was weak: at this spot he directed all his shots until he made a breach which exposed the warders inside to the fury of his firing.' Isn't it always a woman who gets the blame?

Pilib was forced to surrender. He was banished from Ireland, and fled to Spain, finally settling in Holland; I cannot find Rose's name in the historical record, but I like to think that she was with him. He died in 1655.

According to the depositions, Rose rode into battle alongside her husband, and wielded a gun called a petronel. She was so fierce and commanding that she was nicknamed 'the Colonel'. She also went on rebel missions where she was the leader in charge of groups of men, taking prisoners, and terrorising English planters. Pilib and Rose, it seems, were working in concert, where Rose was allowed the freedom and power to act independently. I guess extreme times, like a rebellion, call for extreme measures.

From the time it was built, until the time it fell, Cloughoughter was fought over and thus passed between clans as the spoils of war. For example, in 1327, following a war between the O'Rourkes and the O'Reillys, the castle was taken by Cathal O'Rourke 'by cunning, for 20 cows' - I suspect that is some reference to cattle-raiding; in 1369, Philip O'Reilly was imprisoned there by his clansmen, where he was 'severely bound and fettered'; Manus O'Reilly then made himself lord, which started a war amongst the clans in which Manus was defeated. Maguire, Lord of Fermanagh sent boats to liberate Philip, who promptly re-assumed his rightful lordship. In 1370, Manus was caught and imprisoned in the castle, and in 1390 escaped but was subsequently slain.

Although he gives no date, Kirker claims that on one occasion, the O'Reillys stole the castle back from the O'Rourkes by entering the building disguised as servants, and thus killing everyone inside it. During the 1641 rebellion, the Protestant Bishop of Kilmore, William Bedell, was imprisoned in the castle for giving refuge to English planters in his home. Although he was released some weeks later, he died as a result of the wounds of torture and effects of exposure he had endured during his imprisonment.

B&W portrait bearded man wearing jewelled cap and fur collar
OWEN ROE O'NEIL. Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 4, Pub Domain.

Rose's brother, Owen Roe O'Neill, a hero of the rebellion, and leader of the Confederate forces, died in Cloughoughter Castle in 1649, having been brought there following an acute attack of gout on his way to battle parliamentary forces. O'Neill was considered such a threat to Cromwell's invasion, that rumours circulated of his assassination, that he was poisoned by a priest recruited by the English, but no evidence to support this story has ever been found.

I wonder if Rose ever visited Cloughoughter Castle. Perhaps she did not think of it fondly; her brother, Eoghan, died there within its cold, stony confines; her husband was bombarded and defeated by Cromwell's forces there, her hopes for liberating Ireland from the English as shattered as the castle walls.

Cloughoughter Castle was a place I had always wanted to visit long before I was aware of its historical significance. I was then attracted by the romance of its location, the fairy-tale facade of a tower on a lake in the middle of a forest. Then I learned about the importance of Co. Cavan in the 1641 rebellion, that it began with Pilib calling a meeting of all his clansmen in the small town of Virginia, so close to where I now live. I learned about fiery, unpredictable, maverick Rose, whose presence has become a regular feature in my life. And I wonder at how their stories have intersected with mine, at how much they occupy my thoughts, how the voices of the past manage to find a way into the present to tell their stories if we are open to hearing them.


The Annals of the Four Masters, Celt UCC.

Kirker, S.K., 'Cloughoughter Castle, County Cavan', The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , 4th Quarter, 1890, Fifth Series, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 294-297.

Davies, O., 'The Castles of County Cavan: Part I', Ulster Journal of Archaeology , Third Series, Vol. 10 (1947), pp. 73-100.

Owen Roe O'Neill, Library Ireland.

Incredible Irish Women | Rose ní Neile O'Reilly

1641 Depositions