MacCoghlans, De Renzy and West Offaly Castles.


So it’s Heritage Week and Saturday 25 August 2018 was given over to a tour of the West Offaly castles in the company of Kieran Keenaghan and James Scully. It was a full day starting at the lovely Crank House, Banagher at 10. a.m. This house is a tourist facility and a community endeavour from a community co-operative society. Banagher needs all the support it can get in the form of incentives and tax relief schemes to bring the older houses, including the Shannon Hotel, back into use.

Sir Matthew De Renzy
Our day started with a refreshing presentation from James Scully and Sir Matthew De Renzy (aka Kieran Keenaghan). The pair have been to London to see the original manuscripts of De Renzy (1577-1634). De Renzy was born in Germany, later went to London where his business failed and fled to Ireland. Here he travelled widely and by 1613 had land in the heart of MacCoghlan’s country in West Offaly or Garrycastle barony. He used legal chicanery to secure lands in west Offaly and kept a greedy eye on Sir John MacCoghlan with a view to securing more lands. He lived for a while in Clonony but by 1620 had moved to Wood Quay, Dublin. He retained his lands in West Offaly and later secured lands near Tinnycross, Tullamore where he was established by 1635. Some of his family may have built Hollow House, Tinnycross by 1700. When the borough of Banagher was established in 1628 he was one of the thirteen burgesses. He had a great knowledge of Irish which he used to further his commercial interests. He died in 1634 and his death is marked in a funerary monument in Athlone. His son, also Matthew (c. 1609-52), married a daughter of Sir John Moore of Croghan and Tullamore. Sir Matthew’s surviving papers are substantial and were housed from 1650 in Chester and are now in Kew. James and Kieran gave us a delightful, memorably funny presentation.

The Castles
After that wonderful start the day only got better. First stop on the tour was Garrycastle with its Sheela-na-gig and its stories from the Dublin Penny Journal of 1840 about the last of the MacCoghlans – ‘The Maw’. George Petrie when visiting Clonmacnois in 1820 took the time to sketch Birr Castle (See Brewer, 1826) and Cromwell’s Ireland (early 1820s) for Clonony Castle and Garrycastle.

After passing the remains of Banagher Royal School it was past Streamstown Castle and on the sacred site of ‘Friar’s Stone’ and hole well at Smithstown, near Killourney. We were on the old road from Nenagh to Birr and Ferbane. And lovely it all was. Our guide here was Ger Murphy with the help of Mrs B. Camon, Michael Camon and Mr Daly.


To get to the old house at Ballyshiel we travelled past the remains of the Clara to Banagher railway, over the Grand Canal and to the remains of the house. Michael Camon knew all the stories as if they happened last week. He told us of the Shiel family who went to France and on to America. They were a medical family and the place still has placenames such as Pidgeon Park, Surgery Field (where graves were found) and Fox’s Turn. These fields are beyond the bawn wall of the house and to the south of it. Mrs Fox acquired the house and lands when the Judges (successors to Shiels) gambled away the place on a horse. If only they had listened to De Renzy’s advice to his son. Mrs Michelle Obama may be connected with the Shiels family who were, apparently, slave owners in the US. It’s all fascinating and in a wonderful setting.

Clonony Castle
Clonony Castle is now wonderfully and tastefully restored thanks to the heroic work of its owner, Rebecca Armstrong. Wiki gives us a summary which is mostly accurate and feature some of the stories already mentioned. Having been a ruin for as long as 100 years or more it is wonderful to see it now. Trip Advisor rightly states that is a must see when visiting Offaly. Details of opening times on Facebook .

Clonony Castle (Caisleán Chluain Damhna) is a Tudor castle built by the MacCoughlan clan, and ceded to Henry VIII by John Óg MacCoghlan, then to Thomas Boleyn when Henry wanted to marry his daughter Anne. Mary and Elizabeth Boleyn, second cousins to Queen Elizabeth I, lived out their lives in this castle and their tombstone still stands on the castle grounds. The grave was discovered in 1803, approximately 100 yards from the castle. The inscription on the eight feet by four feet, limestone flag reads: “Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.”


The castle was occupied from 1612 to about 1620 by Matthew de Renzi (1577–1634), a London cloth merchant originally from Cologne in Germany, who created the first English-Irish dictionary, according to his tombstone in Athlone. The castle has all the basic features of a tower house of this period such as machicolation, murder hole, base batter, mural passages, spiral staircase, gun-loops, garderobe and bawn. The first floor had collapsed but has been replaced in recent restoration works by the owners. The castle also boasts a barrel-vaulted ceiling making up the second floor which has been restored. The Tower House is three storeys high with an entrance in the west wall with a machicolation above it. There is a fire-proof vault over the ground floor in the interior and a spiral stair leads to the upper floors. There are round-headed, ogee-headed and flat headed windows. The bawn wall with its two square corner towers and entrance, which had a coat of arms, was reconstructed in the nineteenth century and gives a good impression of how an original Tower House might have looked, with a set of perimeter and internal defences. The inner bawn building in front of the west entrance appears to be a nineteenth-century construction.

We finished the day with a beer in Banagher’s Railway Bar, as it too recalls that wonderful history of this borough town (until 1800) so long associated with the MacCoghlans, De Renzy, its famous bridges, the fairs, the borough and so much more. It is a town that can be rightly proud of all that has gone before. Our thanks for a great day to James Scully, Sir Matthew (KK), Ger Murphy, Amanda Pedlow (the county heritage officer), the Camon family, Rebecca Armstrong and all others who helped.