Submitted to The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland for 2011

Building lordship in thirteenth‐century Ireland:

the donjon of Coonagh Castle, Co. Limerick

Tadhg O'Keeffe

Coonagh Castle, built c.1225, was the centrepiece of a strategically located

estate, the ownership of which was disputed in the middle

decades of the thirteenth century. Central characters in that dispute

were its builders, the husband‐and‐wife team of William and

Matilda de Marisco, the former subsequently achieving notoriety as

a pirate operating out of Lundy Island. Relative to its demonstrable

importance, historical and archaeological, no Anglo‐Norman castle

in Ireland has slipped as far below the radar of scholarly attention

as Coonagh. Its donjon offers the modern visitor a more intimate

communion with the rituals of thirteenth‐century lordship than

many better‐known castles of the period.

A canon of architecturally‐important castles of the late twelfth and

thirteenth centuries in Ireland was established just over a decade

ago in the syntheses published by Tom McNeill and David

Sweetman1. It is, however, an incomplete canon. Some buildings of

unquestionable importance occupy marginal places in that canon

simply because their above‐ground preservation is poor and

archaeological excavation is needed to establish or clarify their

plans, while others are marginal for no apparent reason other than

an infrequency of visits by castle‐scholars. This paper presents a

description and analysis of one Anglo‐Norman building, Coonagh

Castle, Co. Limerick, which, having somehow escaped the attention

of most castle‐scholars since the early 1900s2, is not even on the

margins of the canon, and yet should be regarded by archaeologists

and historians as one of Ireland’s most interesting thirteenth century

castles (Figs 1, 2).

The ruins of the castle are at the edge of a farmyard on a small

cul de‐sac that leads off the R507, the road connecting the villages of

Doon and Oola in east Limerick. Its site is the crest of a low east  facing

escarpment, quarried to provide for a lime‐kiln in the

nineteenth century. At the base of this runs a small river, the

Cahernahallia, a tributary of the Dead River, itself a tributary of the

Mulkear River. The castle and the ruined parish church nearby, a

modest fifteenth‐century building on a site with no evidence of

earlier use, are located in the contiguous townlands of Coolbaun

and Carrig Beg respectively. Both are in the civil parish of

Castletown. It is apparent from the historical record, and indeed

from the architecture of the castle, as we will see, that the manor

with which this parish was coterminuous was the capital manor of

the medieval cantred of Okonagh or Oconagh. Its name derives

from Uí Chuanach, a local lineage which still had kings in the twelfth

century3. The cantred, now preserved more or less coterminuously

in the modern barony of Coonagh, was shared between counties

Limerick and Tipperary, and was draped across the lowland corridor

connecting the city of Limerick with Tipperary town, Cashel, and the

other major settlements in the Suir‐drained lowlands of east

Munster. Coonagh itself was fairly central in that lowland corridor

(Fig. 3).

Apart from Coonagh Castle and the medieval church nearby, and

some possible medieval ridge‐and‐furrow in Carrig More townland

to the south‐east of the church, there is no obvious or aboveground

evidence of medieval occupation in the parish of

Castletown. The parish’ name possibly refers to an otherwise

undocumented attempt at town foundation, or more likely an

aspiration to create a settlement, but Castletown remained a rural

place through the middle ages. The cantred’ main population

centres were to the east, and the principal centre was the town of

Tipperary, less than ten miles to the south‐east of Coonagh Castle.

The cantred, manor and castle in the thirteenth century

Although there is no direct reference to its construction, the

historical sources suggest a mid‐1220s date for Coonagh Castle, and

the architectural evidence corroborates. To understand the context

of its construction, and indeed to understand the disputes

concerning its ownership not long after its construction, we need to

go back to the earliest horizon of Anglo‐Norman occupation in

Limerick and Tipperary.

The early history of the cantred of Okonagh is poorly documented.

Although it may have been one of the territories which John

granted to William de Burgh in the late 1100s, evidence that it was

in the king’ possession in 1215 suggests strongly William de Braose

(or de Briouze) held it in the early years of the thirteenth century,

and that it was he who established the vill of ‘Tibrary’ and its parish

church, both then recorded4. Historians, uncertain as to the

location of the cantred’s caput, have speculated in the past that this

vill fulfilled that role during the thirteenth century5, and that may

indeed have been the case in the first decade of the century, but it

would not have been so from the mid‐1220s when new owners,

whom we will meet presently, invested heavily in creating a

sumptuous seigneurial residence, Coonagh Castle, in the west of

the cantred.

We know nothing of the district around Coonagh Castle in the early

years of Anglo‐Norman lordship. However, given the strategic

importance of the lowland routeway linking Limerick city and south

Tipperary, it seems likely that William de Braose built a castle

somewhere in the western part of the cantred, possibly on the

actual site occupied by Coonagh Castle from the 1220s: the site is

flat ground which is bordered by a curving break of slope on its

south side, and this raises the possibility of an earlier earth‐andtimber

castle with an enclosure of about 50m in diameter. It is

worth noting that one of the key comparators for Coonagh’

donjon, the contemporary donjon in Castletown Conyers townland

in south Limerick, discussed later (p. x) was preceded (though not

on the exact same site) by a motte‐castle, erected by its firstgeneration

Anglo‐Norman enfoeffee.

Henry of London and the cantred of Okonagh

Okonagh, in common with other de Braose properties in Ireland,

was confiscated by King John in 1210 when William, unable to pay

the enormous sum he owed the crown for possession of his estates,

fled and was subsequently outlawed. A royal grant in 12156 gave

the cantred, with the vill of Tipperary and the advowson of its

parish church, and the services of the knights of both cantred and

vill, to Holy Trinity, Dublin, to hold of the service of three knights.

This grant came with the proviso that the crown would not be

required to provide an exchange to the archbishop at Holy Trinity

should anyone ‘justly traverse the title’ to Okonagh. This clause

indicates that there was some uncertainty in the king’s mind as to

rightful possession, and so anticipates an actual dispute over

possession two decades later.

Although manorial development was slow in the thirteenth century,

not least in this part of Ireland7, the manner in which the grant

attaches the vill and advowson to the cantred suggests that a

distinction was already emerging in 1215 between the (rural)

territory of Okonagh, centred probably on an eponymous if still

embryonic manor at Coonagh, and a (town‐centred) manor of

Tipperary. References to Okonagh after 1215 –and there is none

for more than a decade –may sometimes be to an actual manor of

that name (hereafter given as Coonagh, in order to make the

distinction), rather than to the cantred in its entirety.

William de Marisco and Coonagh

We do not know the geographical extent of the thirteenth‐century

manor at Coonagh, but legal tussles over its ownership in the

middle of the century suggests it was valuable because it was

extensive as well as strategic. It is conceivable, then, that it was

comprised of the whole western (or Limerick) side of the cantred,

and that Castletown civil parish, the parish in which the castle

stands, simply corresponds to the demesne. Whatever its

geography, it remained an archepiscopal possession until Henry of

London, the archbishop of Dublin at the time of the 1215 grant,

included it with the manors of Tipperary and Castle Blathac (near

Limerick8) in an endowment of the entire cantred to Matilda, a

near‐relation, possibly a niece, on her marriage to William de

Marisco, the eldest son of Geoffrey de Marisco9.

The alienation of the cantred to Matilda suggests that Henry held it,

or at least viewed it, as a personal fief to be disposed of at his will,

and yet the grant was formally approved by the chapters of both

Holy Trinity and St Patrick’s10. The date of the marriage, and

therefore the date of the passage of the cantred out of Church

hands and back into secular lordship, is not recorded, but we know

that it must have been in or before 1226, because in that year

Henry III granted William de Marisco a weekly fair in Tipperary, the

cantred’s main settlement11. Although the grant of that fair might

have been made in the context of the union of Matilda and William,

in which case we have a date of 1225 or 1226 for their wedding, the

grant probably needs to be understood in the context of the king’s

reappointment of Geoffrey de Marisco to the position of justiciar in

1226, and of his simultaneous grant to Geoffrey of a fair in Adare12.

William de Marisco himself was of age by 122413, and if he married

Matilda when he came of age, as seems likely, we can posit a daterange

of 1220‐24 for the handover of the cantred by Holy Trinity.

The earliest reference to a principal baronial castle in the cantred

dates from November 1234, and is unquestionably a reference to

the castle that we see today. It is described then as William de

Marisco’ castle14. Although this reference cannot be taken as proof

that Coonagh Castle was de Marisco in actual origin, there is no

strong case, historical or architectural, for attributing it to Henry of

London, the only other candidate once we exclude from

consideration the earlier William de Braose. First, had the

archbishop erected so substantial a castle in the cantred after 1215,

an unlikely action in and of itself, the endowment to Matilda would

(judging by the phraseology of contemporary grants of lands with

major castles) have included a mention of it. In any case, had the

bishop erected a big stone castle at considerable expense, he would

surely have opted to retain the portion of the cantred attached to it

and to give Matilda some other lands instead. Second, the

architectural evidence suggests that the castle we see today was a

fairly new building anyway in 1234; although it could date from the

1210s, its architecture is more consistent with a date in the 1220s.

Moreover, its design has parallels in some other buildings of de

Marisco origin, as we will see. If we knew the exact date of the

marriage we would have a certain terminus post quem for its

construction, but in the absence of a date it seems reasonable to

assign the building to c.1225. Work may have begun between 1220

and 1224, the years during which William de Marisco probably

reached adulthood and married, and it would certainly have been

completed by 1230 at the latest. Perhaps William and Matilda

should really have been identified in 1234 as its builders, but the

source may be indicating to us an early thirteenth‐century

understanding that it was de Marisco money and know‐how which

allowed the caput be furnished with so fine a building.

The decision to have the caput of the cantred, Coonagh, separate

from the cantred’s main town, Tipperary, was probably made by

William and Matilda. It was not a unique decision: the fitzGeralds of

Imokilly in Cork did the same in the early thirteenth century,

maintaining the rural manor of Inchiquin (with its stone castle, of

the 1210s or 1220s) as their caput while promoting the port of

Youghal as their major urban centre15. However, the separation of

the caput from the main town by a major administrative boundary

– the boundary between the medieval counties of Limerick and

Tipperary respectively – may, if it dates from early thirteenth

century, be unique. The detailed chronology of the division of the

original kingdom of Limerick into these two counties is unknown,

except that it had been achieved by 123516, but the cantred’s

proprietorial history suggests that its shrieval partition had been

effected a decade earlier and with some involvement by William de

Marisco. Under William de Braose, the cantred had been oriented

towards the districts that were to constitute the county of

Tipperary from about the second quarter of the thirteenth century,

but William de Marisco’s gaze was in the direction of the cantreds

with which he had family connections – those that came to

constitute the county of Limerick – and this patrimony must have

inspired the location of his seigneurial castle in the western part of

the cantred, rather than close to the vill of Tipperary,

notwithstanding the king’s grant of a fair. More significantly,

William would have known of any uncertainty surrounding the title

to the cantred (as indicated in the original 1215 grant to Henry of

London). He might therefore have seen strategic value in putting

down his seigneurial roots away from the vill, and in allowing the

invisible boundary of shrieval jurisdiction run up the middle of the

cantred, attaching him to the sheriff of Limerick rather than to the

sheriff of Tipperary.

William and Matilda had little time to enjoy their new castle in

Coonagh: the November 1234 reference to the castle relates to

their loss of it. Earlier that year William was serving with the king’s

army against Richard Marshal, earl of Pembroke (a service for which

the sheriff of Munster back‐paid a support fee of £100 to Matilda in

123517), but in May 1234 he and his father, Geoffrey, and at least

one brother, Walter, were found in the company of the Earl and

captured by the king’s army. Their association with Marshal was

serious enough to warrant their imprisonment for several months,

but their offence not so certain as to necessitate an immediate and

permanent confiscation of their possessions. The November 1234

reference is to the king retaining their castles – Geoffrey’s castles of

Killorglin and Hollywood, and William’s castle at Coonagh – as

‘security for their faithful service’, after they had been released.

Their freedom was short‐lived, however. In 1235 Geoffrey and

William were implicated with others in the famous murder in

Westminster of Henry Clement, the clerk of the justiciar, Maurice

FitzGerald18. The murder was evidently organised by supporters of

Richard Marshal, among whom were believed to be Geoffrey and

his sons, and the king sought immediate arrests. Geoffrey fled to

the Knights of the Hospital of St John in Clerkenwell, only to reemerge

shortly after, fully exonerated. But William escaped arrest

by bolting to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, a small and

remote place which had been in his family’s possession for the

previous two generations. Famously, William used it as a base for

maritime piracy, not only in the vast Severn estuary but also up into

Scotland19. His career as a pirate lasted until 1242 when he was

finally captured by the crown and executed. Matilda was also

arrested and detained. She was presumably in London with her

husband at the time of the murder, which suggests there was no

actual seigneurial presence in the newly‐built Coonagh Castle from

1234 or 1235. In Summer 1243 the sheriff of Gloucester was

instructed by the king to release her on the grounds that the

murderous and piratical felonies were committed by her husband,

not by her20.

Archbishop Luke and Coonagh

In June 1236, with William de Marisco on the run, Henry III

reopened the issue of the title to the cantred. He requested a copy

of the charter by which King John had originally granted it to

Archbishop Henry21. Satisfied with its legality, the following month

he mandated his justiciar to instruct Luke, Henry’s successor as

archbishop of Dublin, to take back possession of it22. The castle

disappears from the record for the next fifteen years, but its

presence is probably part of the reason why the estate remained in

the news.

In 1242, five years after Henry III’s grant, Luke gave a twenty‐year

lease of his ‘anor of Oconach’–actually the cantred –to Maurice

FitzGerald, the justiciar and Henry Clement’ former employer, at a

yearly rent of 58 marks, with the condition that Maurice surrender

it ‘ith appurtenances, castle, houses, etc’ (italics added) in good

condition to the Church at the end of the lease23. The archbishop’s

decision to issue this lease was presumably motivated by politics, as

was the choice of leasee. If Luke knew of William de Marisco’s

execution, he may have feared a repossession of the lands by the

crown. If he knew that Matilda had been spared execution, he may

have feared her reappearance as the rightful owner. Whatever the

more pressing object of his concern, the lease to Maurice FitzGerald

was presumably a very deliberate and carefully timed expression of

his right, as he saw it, to dispose of the land as he wished, while

simultaneously reminding the king of de Marisco’s involvement in

Clement’s murder.

In June 1244 Henry III did indeed order the justiciar to restore to

Matilda those confiscated possessions which Henry of London had

granted to her at the time of her marriage. Significantly, he also

instructed Archbishop Luke to allow her peaceful possession24. The

instruction indicates that the crown sensed, or already had actual

evidence of, Luke’s hostility to any de Marisco repossession of


It is certainly clear to us that Luke took steps to frustrate the

renewal of the grant to Matilda. One item of evidence is the new

grant of the cantred which he issued to the Prior and canons of

Holy Trinity and to the Dean and Chapter of St Patrick’s25. This is

probably best interpreted as a pre‐emptive grant, made before the

king had finally decided to give Okonagh back to Matilda. Granting

the cantred to the ecclesiastical communities which, some twenty

years earlier, had confirmed Henry of London’ original grant to

Matilda, was a fairly extraordinary ruse. Luke’ thinking seems

clear, however. If the king upheld Matilda’ claim to Okonagh on

the grounds that his predecessor as archbishop had made the grant

to her, that was the precedent by which Luke himself could claim

the authority to grant the cantred under his name to another party.

By naming the Holy Trinity and St Patrick’ communities as that

other party, Luke wrapped Okonagh in a sort of double‐bind which,

he doubtless figured, the king might find difficult to negotiate in

order to deny the Church seisin. The second item of evidence is a

charter procured from Hugh Tyrell of Castleknock, probably in

1242/4326. In it, Tyrell granted to St Patrick’s and to Archbishop

Luke, and to their successors in perpetuity, all of that land – not

specified – in Okonagh which he, Tyrell, claimed William de Marisco

had held of him and then subinfeudated to one William de

Hispania. Tyrell claimed to have already recovered this ‘as his

escheat’ on account of de Marisco’s felony27. Hugh Tyrell actually

claimed rights over the entire cantred of Oconagh, and entered into

an agreement with Luke that, should he win ‘his suit with William

de Mariscis about that land’, he would divide it between his family

and the archbishops of Dublin28.

A third item of evidence clearly post‐dates the king’ decision to

give Okonagh back to Matilda, and must be adjudged Luke’

immediate and last‐ditch response to the impending loss of the

cantred. It is a letter, undated but assigned by Eric St John Brooks to

1244, which Luke sent to Ralph de Neville, the bishop of Chichester

and the king’ chancellor, imploring him to persuade the king to

take ownership of all the possessions which William de Marisco had

in the cantred of Okonagh on the day of his initial arrest back in

123429. Luke may have drawn Ralph’s attention back to 1234

because he believed William’s treachery against the king was

demonstrably more deserving of confiscation than the murder of a

junior official and a career of piracy. Luke’s expectation,

presumably, was that king, if he took the cantred back, would

eventually restore seisin to the Church.

Henry III and Coonagh

These interventions seem to have persuaded Henry III some time

after June 1244 that the problem of title to Okonagh was best

resolved in the short‐term by simply taking it back into his

possession. Thus, in January 1245 he mandated John FitzGeoffrey,

justiciar, to reclaim on his behalf the cantred with its baronial

castle, and to await further orders30. In June 1245 we learn that the

king had, in the interim, requested and inspected the charter by

which Henry of London had given Okonagh to Matilda. He then

ruled that William de Marisco’s outlawry was irrelevant to the fate

of Okonagh because the cantred had been Matilda’s marriage

portion. Accordingly, he ordained that she should be permitted

seisin of it31. In making this ruling he referred again to the doubt

expressed over title back in 1215: Matilda was to be restored to

Okonagh ‘saving the right of any person who can claim it against

her in the King’s court’. However, his judgement must have been

appealed yet again because five years later, in May 1250, he

decided that Okonagh had been wrongly alienated by the chapters

of Holy Trinity and St Patrick’s back in the 1220s, and he decided

yet again to take possession of it, this time compensating the two

Dublin ecclesiastical communities for their loss of the cantred and

castle with various land. His request that he be given ‘all relevant

muniments in their possession’32 indicates that he had arrived at

what he regarded as his final decision. The exchange finally

happened in February 125133. Coonagh Castle was, from then, a

royal castle.

Exactly one year later year the king placed the castle in the custody

of one Walter Mansell. He also mandated John FitzGeoffrey to take

‘good and lawful men’ with him to Coonagh to view its defects and

effect their repair, and to pay Walter whatever sum was owed him

as its custodian34. The implication of this is that the castle had been

lying idle, possibly since the mid‐1230s. In 1260 Prince Edward, who

had been given charge of Ireland by his father, Henry III, in 125435,

granted Coonagh – presumably the manor, not the cantred – to one

Simon le Minur, a citizen of Limerick, until he himself came to

Ireland or made some other arrangement36. Edward’s personal

commitment to make some new decisions about Coonagh suggests

a continued dispute over ownership, no documentary evidence of

which survives to us. It is recorded in this grant that Simon had

previously held the land, but there is no other record of this, nor is

there any indication that Simon’s custody of Coonagh included the


In 1278 the castle was still in royal possession and still (or again) in

need of some repair. In December of that year Edward, now king,

learned that the ‘tower and house’ of his castle of Coonagh – the

source specifically identifies his ownership – needed roofing, and

accordingly he commanded Robert de Ufford, the justiciar, to

deliver to the castle’s constable as much lead as was needed, drawn

from the royal minery ‘in that country’37. It seems from these

references that Coonagh Castle was a property barely maintained

rather than treasured by the crown. With no significant investment

in its fabric over four‐and‐a‐half decades, Coonagh Castle would

also have looked quite an old building by 1278, especially to a king

as tuned‐in to architectural innovation as Edward38.

In 1281, with the principals who were involved in the mid‐century

disputes all deceased, Edward made a permanent grant of ‘he

castle, cantred and land of Okonagh, the vill of Tipperary, and other

lands and possessions’ to Otho de Grandison for the service of

seventeen knights39; this was reduced to the service of two knights

in 129040. Otho was also granted a weekly market at Coonagh on a

Wednesday, and a yearly fair of 15 days duration, as well as free

warren in his demesne lands41. Otho was no ordinary grantee, but a

man whose career had been distinguished and who was a close

confidante of the king; he also knew quite a bit about castles and

their strategic value thanks to his central involvement in the king’s

still on‐going incastellation of north Wales42. However, he had little

interest in Okonagh, commiting very quickly the custody of his lands

to his attorney, William de Drayton43. In 1287 Otho leased his

possessions in Okonagh and elsewhere to the bishop‐elect of Emly

for a term of 10 years at £500 per year, this fee to be paid to

himself or to William de Drayton44. The fee went unpaid so the

possessions were restored to him in 129045. Almost immediately

after this, he divided his possessions among his relatives. He gave

Okonagh to his nephew Peter de Estane (or d’Estavayer) for life,

with the service of half a fee owed to the king46.

Coonagh Castle disappears from the records after Otho’s initial

grant of it in 1281, except indirectly in the papal taxation (the

‘Chapel de Novo Castro’47 is the parish church at Coonagh), and it

does not reappear until the late middle ages when it is recorded as

a possession of the O’Briens48. The architecture would suggest that

neither Otho nor his nephew made any investment in it. Apart from

a repaired roof, the castle of 1300 probably looked exactly like the

castle vacated by William and Matilda back in 1234. Even in its late

medieval occupancy, as documented by Westropp, the donjon was

substantially as William and Matilda had left it, a mere decade after

they had built it at some expense. Roof repairs may have helped its

interior remain intact and habitable, but its floor timbers would

have been two hundred‐odd years old, and weakened by the years

in which the roof was in disrepair.

The architecture of Coonagh Castle: a description and


The donjon at Coonagh – the designation donjon is justified below

(p. x) – is a rectangular structure, 14.3m by 9m internally, with

square clasping pilasters of shallow projection, and a square turret,

externally 5.2m wide by 3.4m deep, projecting outwards from the

short east wall (Fig. 4); the latter is described hereafter as the

‘projecting turret’. The western side of the donjon no longer

survives above foundation level, but the two side walls stand to a

height of about 14m, which is almost their original thirteenthcentury

height; the north side‐wall is the better preserved of the

two, so it is unfortunate that a small plantation of recent vintage

prevents a good view of it (Fig. 5). The corner pilasters rose higher

than the side‐ and end‐walls, transforming into small corner turrets

as they cleared the wall‐head; the pilaster/turret on the southeastern

corner is the only one to survive almost complete from

bottom to top, and it is possible to determine an original

thirteenth‐century height of 17m (based on an in‐filled merlon,

visible only on the exterior), with a further 3m+ added on in the late

middle ages. The projecting turret stands to a height of about 20m,

of which the upper 4m+ is probably late medieval.

The exterior of the donjon is distinguished by large sockets of

former timber structures: a large forebuilding at the east end, the

nature of which is discussed below, and upper‐wall (originally

parapet‐level) hoarding (Fig. 6). It is also distinguished by horizontal

bands of original plaster, the preservation of which suggests that

parts of the walls were protected inside timber attachments that

are not otherwise in evidence; it might be the case that the plaster

was made and spread in different stages, and that what we see

today is differential preservation resulting from differential


The basement

The donjon’s lower room, or basement, had immensely thick walls,

with the north wall exceeding the others at 3.3m in thickness. The

corner pilasters were solid at this level. There were at least six

embrasured windows, three in the north wall, one in the east wall

and two in the south wall; the foundation of the west wall is too

low for evidence of fenestration. The doorway into the projecting

turret at basement level (Fig. 7) is slightly off‐centre (to the south)

in the east wall of the donjon, reflecting the one‐time presence of

an east‐west partition in the basement room, mainly to carry the

north‐south timbers of the floor of the large room (the hall) above.

This partition may have been of stone and arcuated: scarring high

up on the north side of this doorway is possibly from the springing

of an arch. There is no evidence that vaults were built in the late

middle ages over the two long spaces created by this partition, as

was done in the 1400s in very many other comparably‐large

thirteenth‐century castle‐buildings (including Maynooth castle, Co.

Kildare, a building which we will discuss presently as a parallel for


The projecting turret contains at basement level a small chamber

which had a large‐beamed timber ceiling holding up a mass of stone

above. This was lit from the east by a more finely‐crafted

rectangular window than one normally finds at basement level in

early thirteenth‐century towers. An external doorway leading into

this chamber from the south is a fifteenth‐century insertion; it is

now broken and blocked (Fig. 8); an arch built high above the space

between the south‐eastern pilaster and the projecting turret is also

late medieval in date and was a form of machicolation overlooking

this inserted doorway. In the north‐western corner of the

projecting turret, partly within it (though originally partitioned‐off

by a narrow wall, only the stub of which remains) but partly also in

the east wall of the tower, is the lower part of the exceptionally

well‐built spiral stairs. This stairs is noteworthy for its substantial

newel post, possibly the widest example of its date in Ireland, and

its tunnel‐vaulted roof, both broken in places as the stairs ascends

(Fig. 9).

Access to the main basement of the donjon in the thirteenth

century would have been from above: towers and halls of that

vintage were customarily entered at first‐floor level and the

basements were accessed by descending stairs; an exception is

Grenan, Co. Kilkenny, contemporary with Coonagh49. The spiral

stairs in the projecting turret obviously provided one means of

access to the basement from above, but there are two reasons why

it could not have been the only access. First, it is apparent from

evidence higher up the building that this stairs was somewhat

exclusive, and that neither it nor the doors connected to it was

designed to allow people traipse in and out of the donjon and its

hall; the quality of the newel post reinforces this impression of

exclusivity. Second, the doorway between the stairs and the

basement bolted from the west side (the interior of the donjon),

which means that this door was designed to provide access to the

stairs rather than from it, an impractical arrangement if the

surviving stairs offered the only access to the basement. It is fairly

certain, then, that the principal access to the basement originally

was a (mural?) stairway descending from first‐floor level at the

now‐lost west end of the donjon. It is unusual to find two doorways

into a donjon (or donjon‐like building) as is suggested here50, but

Coonagh is unusual anyway in having a projecting turret, much of it

solid masonry.

The hall

The first‐floor room in the donjon can be described as the castle’s

hall. Before proceeding to a description, it is helpful to clarify the

general relationship between function and architecture in medieval

castle halls.

In the middle ages the hall was the space in a castle which was used

– in some castles occasionally, in others regularly – for functions

which were overtly performative and ritualised, and which we

might describe in modern parlance as ‘public’: the formal receiving

of visitors, feasting, prosecuting the business of the castle or the

estate, and so on51. The castle hall thus had a symbolic role as well

as a practical role, and that was underscored and enhanced by its

setting, either in a long rectangular building of church‐like character

or as the central and pivotal room in a tower. The relationships

between halls and domestic or residential spaces in castles, or more

especially between the spaces of public and private performance,

are exceedingly complex, but suffice it to say here that castles of

middle‐ and high‐ranking lords of the thirteenth century normally

had residential units (chambers) separate from the halls. That 1278

reference to a ‘ower and house’at Coonagh noted above suggests,

even before one inspects the building, that the ‘ower’ by

definition a tall and ostentatious structure, contained the castle’

hall, and that the ‘ouse’contained the castle’ chamber and was a

separate structure. That ‘ouse’at Coonagh is gone, but we will

presently see the evidence that places its site to the south of the

donjon. The donjon is, of course, the ‘tower’ documented at

Coonagh, and the hall is that first‐floor room to which we will now


Coonagh’ hall was heated by a fine hooded fireplace midway along

its north wall (Fig. 10). This is an early example of its type: such

fireplaces were especially common in Ireland (as indeed in England)

after the date of Coonagh’ construction –there are mid‐ and late

thirteenth‐century examples at Ferns Castle, Co. Wexford, and in

Ballymoon and Ballyloughan Castles, Co. Carlow, respectively52

but the Coonagh example appears structurally to be original, and in

any case the post‐1234 history of Coonagh suggests there was little

opportunity or inclination to make elaborate changes to its design

or architectural furnishing53.

Beside the fireplace to its left (or east) was an embrasured and

seated window (Fig. 10). The actual window is now broken, but the

window in the opposite wall, which is of similar internal design,

retains its exterior: a chamfered round‐arched opening (with

original bar‐holes) set in a deep and undressed external rebate (Fig.


The hall’ interior was accessible through a (now‐blocked)

segmental‐arched doorway positioned centrally in the east wall

(see Fig. 7), and this led off the spiral stairs in the projecting turret

(Fig. 12). The mid‐1220s is quite early for a segmental‐arched

opening in Ireland but there is no structural reason to doubt that it

is an original feature of Coonagh’ donjon, and circumstantial

historical evidence would again support this view. Given its size and

positioning, this doorway was an exclusive entrance point to the

hall, and can be described legitimately as a processional doorway,

intended for use by William and Matilda and their innermost circle.

We will see below the evidence which suggests strongly that they

entered the donjon via the projecting turret, and then descended

towards the hall, entering through this doorway.

As suggested already, the main entrance into the hall for most of its

thirteenth‐century users would have been at the opposite end from

this processional doorway, and indeed it would have been the main

entrance from the outside into the donjon itself; the modern use of

the term ‘hall’, which seems completely at odds with the medieval

meaning, probably originates in the fact that for most

contemporaries the entry into many medieval buildings was directly

into the hall. First‐floor entrances in Ireland are usually at the sides

of long walls, in line with the general practice in Norman and

Angevin England, but there is probably insufficient room at the

west end of the south wall at Coonagh for a substantial outside

doorway, so we should reconstruct a west‐wall entrance instead,

reached by timber stairs.

Coonagh’ hall was timber‐floored. Reconstructing its ceiling or roof

is more problematic, however, and will might only be resolved (if at

all) by an examination from scaffolding of the fabric. A series of

horizontal chases along the side and end walls of the hall, about

3.0m above the original floor level and roughly halfway up the full

internal height of the tower (Fig. 13), seem at first glance to mark

the positions of floor timbers, suggesting a low timber ceiling rather

than a high roof. However, it is difficult to see how these could have

been for flooring: first, they are too shallow to take substantial

joists; second, they are at the same horizontal level all around

whereas floor‐timber sockets need to be staggered between the

long and short walls; third, the space above them had too little

fenestration –there is a single window opening at the west end of

the north wall –to be a functional room. Not dissimilar wall‐chases

in comparable position at Maynooth have posed similar problems

of interpretation, with David Sweetman suggesting that they

belonged to a gallery, but Con Manning suggesting they supported

a hipped roof overlooked from some height by the parapets54. We

could imagine a roof of this design at Coonagh, and so add it to the

list to thirteenth‐century towers and halls with low roofs inside high

walls55. However, a broad band of plaster work on the east wall

above the hall (visible in Fig. 13), presumably of thirteenth‐century

date, is not consistent with a low roof. On balance, then, the

likelihood is that there was a gallery running around the inside of

the hall in Coonagh at a high level, lit by the window in the north

wall of the tower, and that the (hipped) roof was above this again,

supported in part on the timber work of the gallery and in part on

upright timbers running along the middle of the floor of the hall


Although it seems to have been one open‐planned room with no

very strong separation between ‘igh end’and ‘ow end’such as

one finds in English halls56, the east end of Coonagh’s hall was

actually demarcated symbolically as a marginally more private

space. The elements of demarcation were the processional

doorway, the private chapel (discussed below) and, not least, the

mural passage at gallery level; such passages tend to be associated

with the smaller and more private spaces created by partitions at

first‐ and second‐floor levels in great towers in England, as at

Bowes and Porchester (see Fig.23: h, i). This symbolic infiltration of

the private realm into the floor‐space of Coonagh’ hall should be

read as a sign that this hall was not conceived of as a public space

(in the sense that, say, the fourteenth‐century great hall at Trim

Castle, Co. Meath, would have served public functions57) but as a

space for the household – a form of private hall – in which such

public and ceremonial duties as the receiving of guests were


The mural passages, fore‐building and timber chapel

The spiral stairs in the projecting turret ascends beyond the

processional doorway to a vaulted mural passage running the entire

width of the tower and located directly behind the putative gallery

(Fig. 14). At either end of the passage and within the corner

pilasters are small pointed‐vaulted chambers. Apart from small

rectangular windows, these are featureless. At the north end of this

passage a small opening, squinched across the interior corner of the

tower, led into a projecting latrine box, was machicolated on two

substantial timbers, the sockets of which survive; there is a very

good parallel of c.1240 in Kinlough Castle, Co. Mayo (Fig. 15). In the

later middle ages the back wall of Coonagh’s latrine box was

removed and replaced with a blocking wall (with a window) which

was flush with the side walls.

Leading off the long mural passage is a shorter and narrower

passage, also vaulted, which runs eastwards through the mass of

the projecting turret and out now into open space. The exit of this

passage is the smaller of the two arched openings visible high up on

the eastern face of the turret; the other arched opening on that

outside wall was a niche (Fig. 16). Two parallel rows of beamsockets

high up on the exterior of the projecting eastern turret and

clustered around both the exit of the passage and the blind arch tell

us of the one‐time existance of a substantial timber structure. The

upper floor –the only floor? – of this structure was level with both

the floor of the passage and the base of the blind arch. The roof

above had a simple pitch, the crease of which can still be discerned

higher up on the exterior of the projecting turret. The

constructional technique of the entire structure cannot now be

known, but the use of principal timbers suggests cage‐work.

The east‐facing window at basement level in the projecting turret

indicates that the timber structure did not extend to ground level as

it would have blocked light into the base of the stairwell. Therefore,

the structure either overhung in the manner of a gallery or

hoarding58 or, more likely, was held up from below on substantial

timber beams. Access was by stairs ascending from the south: an

angled scar on the east face of the pilaster to the south of

projecting turret remains from the structure containing this stairs.

It is clear that this whole structure was a timber forebuilding with

access stairs (Fig. 17). Its connection to the main, newel‐posted

stairs and, from there, to the processional doorway into the hall

means that it provided the route by which William and Matilda and

their inner circle accessed the interior of the donjon. This

conclusion requires us to reverse in our minds the direction in

which the great stairs spirals: we perceive it today as ascending

through the building from basement level to parapet level, but, in

terms of its usage, it actually originated at mural‐passage level,

ascending and descending from there, but mainly descending one

floor to the hall; the photograph of the processional doorway in

Figure 12 thus shows it as it was approached, not as it appeared

looking back at it. All other users of and visitors to the hall entered

from the opposite, western end of the donjon. The position of the

outside stairs to this forebuilding indicates that William and Matilda

approached from the south, appropriately the opposite side from

the latrine. If the donjon is the ‘tower’ mentioned in 1278, the

‘house’ referred to at that time was presumably their residence

(chamber), and it would have been to the south of the donjon.

The blind arch remains to be explained. The likely explanation is

that this was an aedicule associated with a small chapel or oratory

occupying the north side of the interior of the forebuilding and

oriented west‐east. Private chapels in castles are commonly

associated with entrances, not least (but certainly not exclusively)

in Norman and Angevin England59. Coonagh’s would have been

small, but with an estaimated area of about 12m2 it would still have

been more than twice the size of the chapel in contemporary

Grenan Castle. The chapel in the stone forebuilding attached to the

great royal tower of Porchester Castle in Hampshire60 is an

indicative if earlier (c.1130) parallel for Coonagh (Fig. 18). Although

lacking a back‐wall aedicule, another probable parallel is the stone

forebuilding, now destroyed, at Maynooth Castle; there, at firstfloor

level, the room to the south of the entrance into the hall is

best identified, according to its position and orientation, as a chapel

(Fig. 19).

The upper levels

The spiral stairs continued to ascend for a little less than full

rotation past the mural passage. The newel post and the steps are

all missing now, and so the upper levels are inaccessible except by

ladder. The extent of thirteenth‐century work beyond the broken

steps is difficult to determine. At the point at which the spiral stairs

stops, a straight flight of steps ascends at an angle back towards the

south‐west, away from the turret and back towards the east wall of

the great tower. The evidence for a slab‐roof overhead suggests it is

later medieval, but the steps lead in the direction of thirteenthcentury

work in the south‐east corner of the tower (the outline of a

thirteenth‐century merlon remians in the south face of the south

pilaster/turret), so may be original to the building, albeit re‐roofed

during the fifteenth century. When this flight of steps reaches the

east wall of the tower, it turns southwards to continue a short

ascent as a straight mural stairs. Again, the roofing is late medieval,

but the steps and the side walls are likely to be original, as they lead

to a shallow landing with a rough mortar surface of thirteenthcentury

date. Impressions in this surface of three great timber

beams from the timber hoarding that circled the building, two at

90° to the outside wall, and one at 45°, suggests that this mortared

surface is all that remains of the floor level inside the wall of the

tower that was level with the floor of the parapet hoarding as

reconstructed in Figure 17. There is a big step‐up from this

mortared surface onto the lower level of the next stair, a spiral

which is probably late medieval.

The most substantial later medieval alteration to Coonagh was

made to the top of the eastern turret. The two thin‐walled upper

rooms in the turret –indeed, the only rooms in the turret –have

late medieval features, including an arcuated parapet support

inside the upper room. The doorway into that upper room has a

shouldered arch, and while this type of arch is found c.1300 (the socalled

‘Caernarvon arches’ at Ballymoon Castle, Co. Carlow61), there

are later examples and variations, such as Caheradangan (aka

Strongfort) Castle, a tower‐house in Co. Galway. One cannot

distinguish a change in fabric on the exterior, or easily interpret the

complexities of fabric on the interior so it is conceivable that these

spaces are thirteenth‐century and that the openings and the

arcuation are the alterations. However, it is difficult to see how

these spaces may have been accessed from the main stairs in the

turret below, and on that basis they are provisionally adjudged here

to be late medieval additions.

Interpretations: Coonagh donjon in context

A high‐ranking English visitor to Coonagh Castle in 1230 would have

been surprised to learn that it was a new building; had Otho de

Grandison visited it –he might never have been there, although he

owned it –he would surely, at least on his approach to it, have

thought it much more than fifty‐odd years old. While the historical

evidence points to a date for Coonagh in the 1220s, it is a building

which looks back in time, stylistically and conceptually, not forward,

as we will see from the survey of its closest parallels. The only

original features of its thirteenth‐century architecture which could

be described as up‐to‐date, even slightly precocious, are the

segmental‐arched processional doorway and hooded fireplace in

the hall. Indeed, their location inside the hall makes one wonder if

this space, the pivotal space in the donjon, was designed with a

knowing modernity to counterbalance the archaisms of the

exterior. It is striking how, for example, the exterior of the window

in the south wall of the hall, as old‐fashioned for c.1225 as the

hooded fireplace inside the hall was contemporary, would not look

out of place in a twelfth‐century English ‘omanesque’castlebuilding62.

The point about Coonagh’s backward stylistic glance is well made

by comparisons between it and the donjon at Chambois (Fig. 20), an

English (and English‐style donjon) built on French soil in the 1170s

by William de Mandeville, earl of Essex and a trusted ally of Henry

II63. It and Coonagh are almost exactly the same size (the former is

externally 20m by 15m, and the latter is externally 21.4m by

15.4m), and it shares with Coonagh the use of clasping pilasters

with small internal rooms, a projecting mid‐wall turret (also slightly

south of centre) with an entrance and a chapel (the stone stairs in

Chambois is, however, an insertion), and the idea of the long‐wall

hooded fireplace. There were de Mandeville possessions in Ireland,

mainly in Ulster but also apparently in north Tipperary64, but the

evidence does not allow us suggest the Limerick castle was built

with particular cognisance of Chambois. Nonetheless, the not

inconsiderable similarities between Coonagh and Chambois

underscore both the ‘Englishness’ of the former’s architecture65 and

its somewhat anachronistic appearance for c.1225.

Reinforcing the point, there are features or aspects of Coonagh

which can be paralleled in two of the small number of Irish castlebuildings

still surviving from the late 1100s. Viewed from afar,

Coonagh is visually similar to the donjon at Trim, Co. Meath,

especially as it appeared after the final major de Lacy alterations

were made to it in the early 1200s66 (Fig. 21). While the

resemblance is partly a product of (and is therefore somewhat

negated by) the raising of Coonagh’s pilasters as high turrets in the

late middle ages, the counterbalance is that the two donjons would

probably look more alike were we able to properly visualise their

original and extensive timberwork. In terms of detail and microplanning,

the two buildings are quite un‐alike inside, except insofar

as they both possessed features which one customarily finds in big

towers of the late 1100s and early 1200s, such as basement

partitions and long mural passages at upper‐floor level. However,

the two spiral stairs in Trim, one serving the more public (hall) half

of the donjon and the other the more private (chamber) part, may

be related conceptually to the use of two upper‐floor entrances,

each with its own stairs, at Coonagh. There was a familial

connection between the de Lacys and the de Mariscos –William de

Marisco’ step‐mother was Alice, a sister of Hugh de Lacy II67 – but

we need not defer to that in order to explain those similarities of

appearance. Perhaps the best judgement to make of Coonagh as

viewed through the lens of Trim is that William de Marisco aspired

to possess a castle with the grandeur associated with the top

echelon of baronial castles, and none had greater grandeur, nor

was presumably better known in Ireland at that time, than Trim,

itself designed surely to emulate the great towers of Henry II,

especially Orford (built in the 1160s) and Dover (built in the


The other late twelfth‐century Irish parallel for Coonagh is the great

focal building at Maynooth, described by McNeill as a ‘irst‐floor

hall’and by Sweetman as a ‘all‐keep’69. This is usually dated to just

after 1200 but, given its architectural relationship with Trim, it is

surely a work of the late twelfth century70. As noted already,

Maynooth and Coonagh appear to have shared hipped roofs inside

high parapet walls as well as forebuilding‐chapels. Evidence for

external timberwork at Maynooth is negligible, certainly compared

with Coonagh (and Trim), but it might be relevant to note that its

upper hall had, in addition to the two doorways connected to its

forebuilding (one the main entrance and the other for the chapel),

yet another doorway in its north wall, on the outside of which must

have been timber structure. This feature, which has not been

commented on in the literature, is located in what was clearly the

higher status area at first‐floor level. It may have been the entrance

into a timber‐surrounded oriel window which looked northwards

towards a possible deerpark and north‐eastwards towards the

contemporary parish church at Laraghbryan. Alternatively, it may

have been an independent entrance directly into the hall from

outside, in which case it would have been an entrance for the

castle’ lord. The possibility of two main entrances into the hall at

Maynooth affirms the conceptual links between it and Coonagh,

even if the more private entrance at the latter was the one

accompaned by the chapel.

The most important Irish castle of the early thirteenth century from

the perspective of understanding Coonagh is probably Adare Castle,

Co. Limerick, the first Anglo‐Norman phases of which (Fig. 22) are

attributed, at least by implication of its architectural dating, to

Geoffrey de Marisco, William’ father71. Two buildings at Adare are

of relevance: the earlier of the two rectangular halls on the

riverbank, and the tower in its inner enclosure. The former was a

two‐storeyed structure, slightly longer than Coonagh internally but

almost the same width, with a hall at upper‐floor level. Refectorylike

in girth and fenestration, it bears no obvious stylistic

relationship to Coonagh, except that it had a hipped roof72, as

Coonagh and Maynooth appear to have had. The tower at Adare73

was also originally a two‐floored building, but was tall, with a

pitched (rather than hipped) roof low inside its parapets. Barely

rectangular in plan, its simple superstructure had articulating

corner pilasters projecting sideways from the end walls. The

presence of broadly comparable pilasters on two Co. Limerick

donjons built by Geoffrey de Marisco’s sons – Coonagh and

Corcomohide, the latter discussed at length below – suggests that

the Adare tower was Geoffrey’s work and was built in the first

quarter of the thirteenth century, possibly as early as c.1200 but

more likely perhaps in the 1210s or even 1220s74.

Coonagh and Corcomohide are two of six castle‐buildings in Ireland

(Fig. 23 a‐f) with clasping pilasters, corner articulations which not

unlike and certainly not unrelated to those which we see in the

tower at Adare75. Many, possibly all, date from the 1220s or 1230s.

Starting at the north, Greencastle, Co. Down, was built between

1226 and 1242, while Clough, in the same county, is undated except

generally to the early 1200s76. Castlekirke, Co. Galway, was

probably built in 123277. Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, was extant by

1233, and might even have been built under Geoffrey de Marisco’s

guidance as justiciar, between 1215 and 122178. Coonagh dates

from c.1225 as noted already. Finally, Corcomohide, as we will see,

is of about the same date.

The clasping pilaster is not an insignificant point of comparison

between these buildings. On the contrary, such pilasters are among

the most distinctive features of eleventh‐ and twelfth‐century,

Norman and Angevin, castles and churches in England, sometimes

fronting stairs and mural chambers (thanks to the extra wall

thickness that they provided), and always providing visual

articulation. Because these pilasters are so common in halls,

donjons and other focal buildings of English castles (Fig. 23 g‐i), the

small number of examples in Ireland assumes particular

significance. In visual appearance and in architectural design, they

are among the most ‘nglish’ but also among the most

anachronistically‐conceptualised, of castles in thirteenth‐century


The use of these pilasters at William de Marisco’s Coonagh is

unquestionably a product of their use (albeit in slightly different

form) in Geoffrey de Marisco’s Adare; the son was, in other words,

emulating one of the most visually distinctive features of his

father’s castle. Coonagh was, in its entirety, a much smaller castle

than Adare, but its tower, while reflecting its builder’s patrimony

through its use of pilasters, was physically bigger than Adare’s, it

was roofed differently, it possessed a more sophisticated social

geography, and it nodded stylistically towards the truly

monumental donjons built under Angevin lordship. So, while it

seems likely that masons moved from Adare to Coonagh, we should

interpret differences of treatment, and indeed differences between

the two buildings in general, as evidence that William de Marisco

had seen other buildings during his minority, and that he engaged

the services of a master mason whose curriculum vitae included

work other than Adare.

The masons who built Coonagh can certainly be identified at the

third Limerick castle to possess the corner pilasters: the muchreduced

donjon in Castletown Conyers, close to Ballyagran in the

south of the county (Fig. 24). This was originally the seigneurial

castle of the manor of Corcomohide, and it is given that name here

in preference to its current name, Conyers, which is derived from

an eighteenth‐century patronym80. Like Coonagh, it is another littleknown

castle, but is also misunderstood81. There is no early

reference to it, and indeed Westropp pointed out that

Corcomohide was one of the manors of thirteenth‐century Limerick

in which no contemporary castle is mentioned82, but the stone

castle was certainly there in the first half of the thirteenth century,

alongside a motte‐castle, its obvious predecessor, and a thirteenthcentury

parish church. Corcomohide, or ‘orkmoid’ was named as

a borough in 1321, the year of an extent83, but it presumably had

this status in the previous century. There is no evidence of a

settlement today. The village of Bruree was apparently the main

nucleated settlement in the cantred of Brouury in which

Corcomohide is located, but Corcomohide itself was almost

certainly the capital manor. This may be another example, then, like

Okonagh and Imokilly, of the geographical separation of the caput

and main town. The motte, which is small in size and may always

have been so, must have been the castle of Hamo de Valoignes, the

original grantee of this land in 119984, and the stone castle must be

assigned to his successor, John de Marisco, and to a date before

123485. The castle is today an ivy‐entangled building, now reduced

to its lower storey, but it resembles Coonagh in many aspects of its

plan and superstructure, and especially in some apparent

idiosyncrasies of design. Like Coonagh, it has (or had) a tower

projecting from the centre of its east wall, probably with a groundfloor

entrance, though not originally so (see Fig. 25), an ascending

spiral stairs in the north‐west corner of this projecting turret, four

corner pilasters, and a north‐wall latrine. The most compelling

evidence of a link between Coonagh and Corcomohide is in the

similarities of micro‐planning: both buildings have the exact same

orientation (±4°), their north walls are thinner than their south

walls, and the central axes of their projecting eastern towers are

slightly south of centre of their eastern walls. There are also

differences, of course, between the buildings –Corcomohide’

latrine had a mural chute rather than a floorless projecting

machicolation, for example –but they are not so significant when

weighed against the similarities. It seems certain, then, that

Coonagh and Corcomohide, castles of two of Geoffrey de Marisco’

sons, were built under the guidance of the same master mason, and

perhaps physically by the same group of masons, using a template

that was possessed in ‘ard copy’or was retained in the memory

with great mental exactness.

Coonagh donjon and the rituals of lordship

So far we have identified parallels for the tower at Coonagh, but

there remains the very important question of the building’s

function. For students of medieval Ireland – historians and

archaeologists – it is not the parallels for Coonagh that matter so

much as the meanings of those parallels. Those meanings derive

from, relate to, and articulate, Coonagh’s medieval functions. Here,

the temptation to revert to the traditional view of the medieval

Irish castle as essentially a fortress containing habitable space86,

and therefore to presume that Coonagh’s function is self‐evident,

must be resisted as stoutly as it has been resisted, even repelled, in

recent years in English castle‐scholarship87. Nobody could deny that

medieval castles were created in, and so expressed through

architectural invention the values of, militarised social‐political

environments, or that they had within them men who bore arms

and who were expected to kill, but the point increasingly being

made by English scholars is that militarism was so imbricated with

other aspects of medieval culture, including especially the symbolic

and performative, that ‘he castle’ as both a physical building and a

mental construct, cannot possibly be comprehended by an

interpretative foregrounding of its militaristic roles88. Suffice it to

say that if this is demonstrably true of England, it is no less true of

castles and castle‐culture in Ireland89. So, to describe the tower at

Coonagh as a fortress, and to conceive of it principally in terms of

aggressive Anglo‐Norman land‐grabbing and land‐defending in east

Munster, is to underrate the richness of the cultural ideas

embodied in its design, and the diversity of practices for which it

provided both containment and theatrical stage.

Demonstrably designed to accommodate and ornament seigneurial

life, rather than merely protect it, the surviving structure at

Coonagh fully merits description as a donjon, a term which, through

its etymological link with dominion, privileges the display and

performance of lordship90. The scale of the building, and the

contribution of this to its visibility in the landscape, was one

element in its symbolic effecting of lordly power, albeit an

important one. Judging by the contemporary topography, the tower

was visible from the south, presumably the side with the passing

traffic between Limerick city and Tipperary town. The fact that it

was also markedly visible from the east, the side of the manor’s

parish church, and that its great raised entrance and accompanying

chapel were visible from the church, reminds us that its primary

audience was probably a quiescent Anglo‐Norman audience, not a

hostile ‘ative’audience.

It was also mainly an Anglo‐Norman audience which bore witness

to, and comprehended, the rituals of the tower’ use during the

decade or so that it was a fully‐functioning seigneurial property. It is

clear that William and Matilda entered the great building from the

south –the side of warmth and light, and the side symbolic of

masculine power in a patrimonial society, according to a

structuralist reading of architecture91 – via a forebuilding in which

was contained a private chapel, the parish church visible through its

east window. Their entry into the donjon duly sanctified, they

descended into the mural passage that ran north‐south and

terminated in small chambers of uncertain function, with that to

the north –the side of coldness and darkness, the cardinal direction

equivalent to ‘he left side’or (in Latin) sinister side – being the

more spatially distant and having a toilet adjacent to it. They then

descended – again a symbolic movement – to the west‐facing

processional doorway into the hall, to feast or to receive an

audience which must have entered from the opposite, west, end.

Their business done, they departed through the same processional

doorway and headed for their chamber, the ‘ouse’that was still

there in 1278. It is an inescapable conclusion, then, that Coonagh’

symbolic gestures of authority to its Anglo‐Norman audience were

vested as much in the performative use of the building as in the

inert architectural structure itself.


My thanks to Trevor Anderson, Coonagh Castle’ owner, for

allowing me unimpeded access, and to Donal Anderson for his

hospitality on repeated visits, and for providing the ladders which

allowed me inspect the upper parts of the donjon. I am grateful to

Dr David Whelan and Karen Dempsey, research students past and

current, for helping me to record the building, and to David for a

number of the photographs published here.

1 Tom McNeill, Castles in Ireland (London, 1997); David Sweetman, The Medieval Castles of

Ireland (Cork, 1999).

2 Thomas Westropp knew of it (‘The ancient castles of the county of Limerick (north‐eastern

baronies)’ PRIA 26 (1906‐07), 55‐108, at 101‐2; ‘he principal ancient castles of the county

Limerick’ JRSAI 30 (1907), 22‐40, at 31‐32) but regarded it as a tower‐house, probably

because he relied on the description of it in the Ordnance Survey Letters, rather than on a

site‐visit of his own. Local‐historical studies in 1988 and 1990 (Michael O’wyer, ‘acBrien I

Cuanach’ The Lough Gur and District Historical Society, 20‐23; 4 (1988), and Anon.,

‘astletown’ Dún Bleisce: A History (Cumann Forbartha Dhún Bleisce, Doon, 1990), 99‐114,

at 99‐105) presumed a late medieval date, although the latter presented sufficient visual

evidence for it to be dated to the 1200s. Colm Donnelly listed it as a tower‐house (‘

typological study of the tower houses of county Limerick’ JRSAI 129 (1999), 19‐39, at 38.

Neither McNeill (Castles in Ireland) nor Sweetman (Medieval Castles) mention it. Mike Salter

identified it as ‘Norman’ and c.1200 in date less than a decade ago (The Castles of North

Munster (Malvern, 2004), 76‐77).

3 Paul MacCotter, Medieval Ireland. Territorial, Political and Economic Divisions (Dublin,

2008), 215.

4 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 621. See also C.A. Empey, ‘The settlement of the kingdom of

Limerick’ in James Lydon (ed.), England and Ireland in the Later Middle Ages (Dublin, 1981),

1‐25, at 6, 13.

5 John Bradley, ‘The medieval towns of Tipperary’ in William Nolan & Thomas G. McGrath

(eds), Tipperary: History and Society (Dublin, 1985), 34‐59, at 56; Adrian Empey, ‘he

Norman period: 1185‐1500’in Nolan & McGrath, Tipperary, 71‐91, at Map 5.1.

6 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 621; Archbishop Alen’s Register, 38.

7 M. Hennessy, ‘Manorial organisation in early thirteenth‐century Tipperary’ Irish

Geography 29, 2 (1996), 116‐125, at 120.

8 For its location see Goddard H. Orpen, ‘The site of Castle Blathac’, JRSAI 44 (1914), 167‐70.

9 Eric St. John Brooks, ‘Archbishop Henry of London and his Irish connections’, JRSAI 60

(1930), 1‐22, at 15‐16. Matilda was identified as Henry’ niece by Goddard Orpen (Ireland

Under the Normans, III (Oxford, 1920), 27), and initially by Brooks as well (‘Henry of London’,

7), but the latter subsequently revised his view and claimed her as a near‐relation (‘he

family of Marisco’ JRSAI 62 (1932), 50‐74, at 61).

10 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2747.

11 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 1397; see also Brooks, ‘Henry of London’, 15.

12 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, nos 1383, 1415.

13 Brooks, ‘Family of Marisco’, note 27.

14 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2228.

15 T. O'Keeffe, ‘Space, place, habitus: geographies of practice in an Anglo‐Norman

landscape’ in H.B. Clarke, J. Prunty & M. Hennessy (eds), Surveying Ireland’s Past. Multidisciplinary

Essays in Honour of Anngret Simms (Dublin, 2004), 73‐98, at 76‐77

16 Empey, ‘Norman period’, 71.

17 Pipe Roll, 19 Hen Ill: 35th Report Dep. Keeper of the Records of Ireland, at 35.

18 F.W. Maitland, ‘The murder of Henry Clement’, EHR 10, 38 (1895), 294‐7.

19 F.M. Powicke, ‘The murder of Henry Clement and the pirates of Lundy Island’, History 25

(1941), 285–310.

20 Brooks, ‘Family of Marisco’, 18.

21 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2328.

22 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2347.

23 Archbishop Alen’s Register, 66‐7.

24 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2684.

25 Brooks, ‘Henry of London’, note 125.

26 Archbishop Alen’s Register, 81.

27 This is not the only documented surrender of land in Okonagh to Luke: between 1228 and

1255 (but probably around 1243/44), one John de Kvlpek/Kylpech surrendered by quit‐claim

to Luke his land in ‘allyokargille’in Okonagh: Archbishop Alen’s Register, 78.

28 Archbishop Alen’s Register, 85.

29 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 1485.

30 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2805.

31 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2747.

32 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 3053.

33 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 3108. Archbishop Alen’s Register, 74

34 Cal. docs Ire., 1252‐84, 2.

35 Michael Prestwich, Edward I (Berkeley and LA, 1988), 11.

36 Cal. docs Ire., 1252‐84, no. 664

37 Cal. docs Ire., 1252‐84, no. 1516.

38 The role of Ireland as an Edwardian ‘laboratory’ for experimentation in architectural and

urban design is discussed in T. O’Keeffe, ‘Landscapes, castles and towns of Edward I in Wales

and Ireland: some comparisons and connections’, Landscapes 11, 2 (2011), 60‐72.

39 Cal. docs Ire., 1252‐84, no. 1847

40 Cal. docs Ire., 1285‐92, no. 705; also, G. Dorens, ‘Sir Otho de Grandison 1238? – 1328’,

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 3 (1909), 125‐95, at 129.

41 Cal. docs Ire., 1293‐1301, no. 646.

42 For his career see Ester Rowland Clifford, A Knight of Great Renown: the Life and Time sof

Othon de Grandson (Chicago, 1961).

43 Cal. docs Ire., 1285‐92, no. 693.

44 Cal. docs Ire., 1285‐92, no. 591.

45 Cal. docs Ire., 1285‐92, no. 569.

46 Cal. docs Ire., 1285‐92, no. 706.

47 Cal. docs Ire., 1302‐07, no. 719

48 Westropp, ‘Ancient castles (north‐eastern baronies)’ 102.

49 D. Waterman, ‘Rectangular keeps of the thirteenth century at Grenan (Kilkenny) and

Glanworth (Cork)’, JRSAI 98 (1968), 67‐73.

50 The form was used occasionally in Norman contexts (as at Chepstow in south Wales in the

late 1000s) and may have been used in Maynooth (see p. x).

51 There is a substantial literature on halls and their functions, including Margaret Wood, The

English Medieval House (London, 1965), 16‐66, and Michael Thompson, The Medieval Hall.

The Basis of Secular Domestic Life, 600‐1600 AD (Aldershot, 1995).

52 T. O’Keeffe & M. Coughlan, ‘The chronology and formal affinities of the Ferns donjon, Co.

Wexford, in John Kenyon & Kieran D. O’Conor (eds), The Medieval Castle in Ireland and

Wales. Essays in Honour of Jeremy Knight (Dublin, 2003), 133‐48; T. O'Keeffe, ‘allyloughan,

Ballymoon and Clonmore: three castles of c.1300 in county Carlow’, Anglo‐Norman Studies

23 (2001), 167‐97.

53 An early date is not problematic: see the late twelfth‐ or early thirteenth‐century example

in Boothby Pagnall (R. Harris & E. Impey, ‘oothby Pagnall revisited’ in Meirion‐Jones et al.,

Seigneurial Residence in Western Europe, 245‐69, at 247.

54 Con Manning, ‘Low‐level roofs in Irish great towers’ Château Gaillard 20 (2002), 137‐40,

at 138‐9.

55 To Manning’s preliminary list can probably be added Walterstown Castle, Nurney, Co.

Kildare, of which the only publication seems to be a grainy photograph in Mike Salter, The

Castles of Leinster (Malvern, 2004), at 54.

56 Wood, English Medieval House, 16‐66.

57 Sweetman, Medieval Castles, 46.

58 An external timber gallery or ‘walkway’ supported on similar projecting joists, including

three in the outer face (placed identically to those at Coonagh), has been reconstructed at

Deerhurst (M. Hare, ‘The 9th‐century west porch of St Mary’ Church, Deerhurst,

Gloucestershire: form and function’ Medieval Archaeology 53 (2009), 35‐93).

59 See N.J.G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: a Social and Political History

(Cambridge, 1994), 224‐31; S. Speight, ‘eligion in the bailey: charters, chapels and the

clergy’ Château Gaillard 21 (2004), 271‐280. See also P. Durand, ‘a protection religieuse de

l'entrée du château à l'époque romane en Haut‐Poitou’ Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 31

(1988), 201‐212.

60 John Goodall, Porchester Castle (English Heritage, London, 2003).

61 H.G. Leask, ‘Ballymoon Castle, County Carlow’, JRSAI 74 (1944), 183–190.

62 The Coonagh window is unique in Ireland. Wide and round‐arched external rebates of the

Coonagh type are fairly common in English castles of the 1100s, but they usually frame twinlight

windows. The only Irish parallel for this might have been at Ballyderown Castle, Co.

Cork, built c.1200 (see T. O’Keeffe, ‘An early Anglo‐Norman castle at Ballyderown, county

Cork’ JRSAI 114 (1984), 48‐56) where two big hall windows with external roll mouldings

probably each have had recessed twin‐lights.

63 J. Decaëns, ‘Le donjon de Chambois’, in M. Baylé (ed), L’Architecture Normande au Moyen

Âge (Paris, 1994), ii, 320–2; Daniel Power, ‘Henry, Duke of the Normans (1149/50‐1189)’ in

C. Harper Bill & N. Vincent (eds), Henry II: New Interpretations (Woodbridge, 2007), 85‐128,

at 93.

64 A. Gwynn, ‘Henry of London, Archbishop of Dublin’, Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review 38

(1949), 389‐402 at 91; for the family see K. Nicholls, ‘bstracts of Mandeville Deeds’

Analecta Hibernica 32 (1985), 3‐26.

65 More work needs to be done, however, on direct connections between castles in France,

within and outside ‘English’ territories, and Ireland: such connections are discussed inter alia

in O’Keeffe & Coughlan, ‘Ferns donjon‘, and T. O’Keeffe, ‘Dublin Castle's donjon in context’,

in John Bradley, Alan Fletcher & Anngret Simms (eds), Dublin in the Medieval World: Studies

in Honour of Howard B. Clarke (Dublin, 2009), 277‐94.

66 Kevin O’Brien, Trim Castle, Co. Meath (Dublin, 2002); for reflections on Hugh de Lacy’s

original intentions at Trim see T. O’Keeffe, ‘Angevin lordship and colonial Romanesque in

Ireland’, in M. Costen (ed), People and Places: Essays in Honour of Michael Aston (Oxford,

2007), 117‐29 at 124‐27.

67 Brooks, ‘Family of Marisco’, 57.

68 See T.O’Keeffe, ‘Angevin lordship’, 127.

69 Castles in Ireland, 38; Medieval Castles, 69.

70 T.O’Keeffe, ‘Angevin lordship’, 127.

71 McNeill, Castles in Ireland, 38; L. Dunne, ‘Adare castle: raising bridges and raising

questions’, in Con Manning (ed), From Ringforts to Fortified Houses: Studies on Castles and

Other Monuments in Honour of David Sweetman (Bray, 2007), 155‐70, at 155, 159‐60.

Although a date of 1199 is given by authorities for his enfoeffment of Adare, he is first

mentioned in connection with the manor in 1226 (Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 1415).

72 Dunne, ‘Adare Castle’, 160.

73 Sweetman describes the tower as a keep (Medieval Castles, 67), McNeill simply as a tower

(Castles in Ireland, 38‐40), and Dunne as ‘he great tower, comprising a four‐storey keep’(‘dare Castle’ 157).

74 Although outside the scope of this paper, this attribution of the tower to Geoffrey, which

has never been disputed, has obvious implications for the early hall. Similarities of detail

between the hall’s windows and those at the west end of the Cistercian abbey at

Monasteranenagh have persuaded scholars to date it to c.1200 (H.G. Leask, Irish Castles and

Castellated Houses (Dundalk, 1973), 35; Salter, Castles of North Munster, 58; Dunne, ‘Adare

Castle’, 159‐60; McNeill suggests a date ‘mmediately after 1200’(Castles in Ireland, 38). If

Geoffrey was indeed the first Anglo‐Norman builder at Adare, the hall, which seems to be

the work of a different hand, conceivably pre‐dates his arrival and is therefore a rare

example of twelfth‐century Gaelic‐Irish seigneurial architecture.

75 Omitted from this enumeration is Newcastle (near Tyrrellspass), Co. Westmeath, which

has the same proportions as the buildings listed and seems to be of the same general date

but, curiously, has one very shallow corner pilaster, and it projects in one direction only.

Newcastle is part of a small and heterogenous group of thirteenth‐century stone castles in

Westmeath which deserves attention. Such buttresses are not uncommon, of course, on

church buildings, especially the eatsern ends of monastic churches of the 1200.

76 For Greencastle see McNeill, Castles in Ireland, 88. The motte under the hall at Clough has

been dated numismatically to the early thirteenth century (T.E. McNeill, ’Clough Castle

reconsidered’, in C. Manning (ed), From Ringforts to Fortified Houses: Studies on Castles and

Other Monuments in Honour of David Sweetman (Bray, 2007), 41‐51, at 49), so a date in the

1220s for the hall and chamber tower seems reasonable.

77 The date of the Castlekirke (Caislen‐na‐Circe) is disputed. Patrick Holland suggested a post‐

1237 date (‘he Anglo‐Norman Landscape in County Galway; Land‐Holdings, Castles and

Settlements’ JGAHS 49 (1997), 159‐93, at 164), and Mike Salter a date of c.1235 (The Castles

of Connacht (Malvern, 2004), 28). McNeill identifies it, surely correctly, with the Irish‐built

castle –one of two, both built with Anglo‐Norman support –‘estroyed’by Fedhlim Ua

Conchobhair in 1233 (Castles in Ireland, 161); its construction should probably be attributed

specifically to Áed, son of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobhair, to whom Richard de Burgh restored the

kingship in 1232 (AC 1232.4).

78 An earth‐and‐timber castle was established before 1215; in that year it was delivered into

the custody of Geoffrey, and he surrendered it to the king in 1221 (Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251,

nos 600, 1015). The stone castle was certainly extant when it, with some other castles (also

of stone), were delivered to the justiciar by Richard de Burgh in 1233 (Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐

1251, no. 2009).

79 Indeed, outside of this small group, pilasters of any type are rare in Anglo‐Norman Ireland.

The mid‐wall projections at Maynooth can be described as pilasters. There are at least three

other ‘ilastered’buildings are deserving of attention. One is the fragmentary castlebuilding,

more likely a small donjon than a hall‐house (contra Sweetman, Medieval Castles,

91), at Ballyboy, Co. Tipperary, where the corners pilasters, remarkably and puzzlingly, were

cylindrical, in the manner of twelfth‐century donjons in France, including Henry II’s doubledonjon

at Niort (see André Chatelian, Donjons Romans des Pays d’Ouest, Paris, 1973, 178‐

80). A second is in Templemore in the same county, with two small squared‐off end‐wall

pilasters and apparently a couple of similar mid‐wall pilasters. A donjon rather than a towerhouse

or a possible ‘late hall‐house’ the options offered by Sweetman (Medieval Castles,

104), detailed examination of the exterior of this building is hampered by vegetation. The

third is the western church tower at Baldongan, Co. Dublin, where there are small but bold

mid‐wall pilasters. Could this be a thirteenth‐century an ecclesiastical donjon?

80 It was known as the castle of Corcomoyth (or Corcomohide, the present parish name) in

1322, the ‘old castle’ of Castletown in 1605, and Corkymohid‐Oughtragh in 1610 (T.

Westropp, ‘he ancient castles of the county of Limerick (western baronies)’PRIA 26 (1906‐

07), 201‐264, at 229).

81 In the only modern publications of it, the castle has been categorised not as a donjon but

as a ‘hall‐house’(Sweetman, Medieval Castles, 91; Salter, Castles of North Munster, 76) for

no apparent reason other than being a thirteenth‐century focal building of rectangular plan;

indeed, the building is too ruined for the number of floors to be determined by physical

inspection, so the certainty with which it is described as a ‘all‐house’ by apparent

definition a two‐storeyed building, is puzzling. Mark Keegan’ subsequent reliance on this

identification, and his apparent acceptance of the view, articulated by Sweetman, that

thirteenth‐century ‘all‐houses’were of lower seigneurial status than ‘rue’castles,

dissuaded him from identifying the manor of Corcomohide as the caput of its barony (‘The

archaeology of manorial settlement in west county Limerick in the thirteenth century’, in

James Lyttleton & Tadhg O’Keeffe (eds), The Manor on Medieval and Early Modern Ireland

(Dublin, 2005), 17‐40, at 25). So, not only is the building in Castletown Conyers denied for

posterity its actual status as a major seigneurial castle, but the project of reconstructing the

political geography of medieval Limerick is hampered by an uncritical reading by

archaeologists of the archaeological record.

82 Westropp, ‘Ancient castles (north‐eastern baronies)’ 66.

83 G. Martin. Plantation boroughs in medieval Ireland, with a handlist of boroughs to c.1500’,

in D. Harkness & M O’Dowd (eds), The Town in Ireland (Belfast, 1981), 23‐53, at 38.

84 Cal. docs Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 92.

85 John was William de Marisco’s brother. He is first mentioned in 1234 as John Fitz Geoffrey

de Mariscis, when it is noted that he was in England with William Earl Warenne at the time

of the war between the king and Earl Marshall, and that the seizure of his possessions (along

with those of his father and brother) was thus unwarranted. Accordingly, the king

commanded his justiciar to return to John seisin of all his lands and castles (Cal. docs Ire.,

1171‐1251, nos 2197, 2199). These lands and castles are not specified, which is unfortunate

for us but not problematic: by 1234 he was already married to Mabel, Hamo’s daughter, and

because by this time she had been given the vill of Brouury as her marriage portion, the

cantred of Brouury and the baronial castle at Corcomohide would have been among the

possessions restored to him. He was arrested again three years later, this time in connection

with the Clements murder, and his possessions were confiscated, but he was quickly

adjudged not guilty of being an accomplice in the felony of William de Marisco’ (Cal. docs

Ire., 1171‐1251, no. 2430) and released, though he seems not to have had his possessions

returned to him this time: we learn in 1242 that in 1237, when John was imprisoned and

dispossessed, Mabel lost possession of her vill of Brouury, and that she and her children had

to be accommodated and looked after by her grandfather, Richard de Burgh (Cal. docs Ire.,

1171‐1251, no. 2584). John’s dispossession notwithstanding, members of the de Marisco

family continued to reside in the cantred up to the 1290s at least, specifically (and

revealingly) in the manor of Corcomohide (Red Book Kildare, no. 54; Cal Justiciary Rolls 1,


86 See for example Sweetman’s definition of a castle: ‘The expression “An Englishman’s

home is his castle” may have some truth but what makes a true castle is its defences. Many

so‐called castles for instance in Scotland are merely ‘hâteaux’or grand houses of the late

sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and are not true castles because they do not have

the defensive features of the medieval fortress. The castle is essentially feudal and is the

fortified residence of a lord in a society dominated by the military’(Medieval Castles, 41).

87 See Colin Platt’s recent attempt at a trend‐challenging defence of the militarist paradigm

as applied to English castles (C. Platt, ‘evisionism in castle studies: a caution’ Medieval

Archaeology 51 (2007), 83‐102) and the response by Oliver Creighton and Rob Liddiard (O.

Creighton & R. Liddiard, ‘ighting yesterday's battle: beyond war or status in castle studies’

Medieval Archaeology 52 (2008), 161‐69).

88 See for example Matthew Johnson, Behind the Castle Gate (London, 2002). For an Irish

perspective see T. O'Keeffe, ‘Concepts of 'castle' and the construction of identity in medieval

and post‐medieval Ireland’ Irish Geography 34 (2001), 69‐88.

89 Irish castle‐studies are not yet, however, at the point at which the military‐domestic

dialectic is seriously challenged by the intrusion of new interpretations (structuralism

symbolism, the ritualised use architectural space, and so on). Terry Barry’ recent survey of

the field conveys accurately the value still being placed by a good number of writers,

especially in the Republic of Ireland, in the traditional interpretation of the castle as

primarily a fortress, the defensibility of which decreased in proportion to domestic

arrangements as as gunpowder the medieval centuries edged towards the modern period

and as gunpowder came into use (‘he study of medieval Irish castles: a bibliographic

survey’ PRIA 108C (2008), 115‐36).

90 For the etymology of donjon see Robert Higham & Philip Barker, Timber Castles (London,

1992), 361. The ceremonial functions of donjons are usefully outlined in P. Marshall, ‘The

great tower as residence’, in G. Meirion‐Jones, E. Impey & M. Jones (eds), The Seigneurial

Residence in Western Europe, AD c 800‐1600 (Oxford, 2002), 27‐44;. For exemplification of a

donjon’s performative roles, see P. Dixon, ‘The donjon at Knaresborough: the castle as

theatre’, Château Gaillard 16 (1990), 121‐39.

91 See Michael Parker Pearson & Colin Richards (eds), Architecture and Order: Approaches to

Social Space (Routledge, 1994), esp. 1‐34, 35‐67. For a structuralist reading of Irish

architectural (and urban‐topographical) space see T. O’eeffe, ‘ownscape as text: the

topography of social interaction in Fethard, county Tipperary, AD 1300‐1700’ Irish

Geography 32 (1999), 9‐25.

Professor Tadhg O'Keeffe UCD