I was fortunate the other morning to enjoy a guided tour of Ballinacarriga Castle, one of the most intact tower houses in West Cork in the company of local historian Gearoid. Fortunate for access to this former strongpoint of the Hurley Clan is difficult. It has a fine setting overlooking a Lough and with commanding views of the surrounding unspoilt and fertile countryside. The setting has been greatly enhanced by the Office of Public Works and the local community with the original bridge over the stream in front of the castle being made into a feature and behind entrance steps to the castle. On the far side of the road where the river has created a pond resplendent with water lilies there is a landscaped car park and an attractive pathway to Ballinacarriga Lough. Above this idyllic scene build on a rock is the tall and commanding presence of Randal Hurley’s Ballinacarriga Castle.
Ballinacarriga Castle (Béal Átha na Carraige in Irish, meaning Ford Mouth of the Rock) is a 16th-century tower house located in the village of Ballinacarriga, about 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) from the town of Dunmanway in western County Cork, Ireland, between Ballineen and Dunmanway. It is situated on a high rocky outcrop overlooking Ballinacarriga Lough. To the southeast a stream runs from the lake to join the River Bandon and once provided a supply of water to the castle.
While these structures are very common in Ireland and referred to as “Castles” they are really fortified Tower Houses housing extended families of Irish Chieftains and their retainers rather than garrisoned castles used to govern an area. Ballinacarriga Castle is a four-storey tower-house set high on a rock with the remains of the corner turret of a bawn close by. The entrance in the east wall leads to a vaulted lobby with a guardroom to the south and the main chamber straight ahead.
It was built by Randal Hurley who married Catherine Cullinane. The castle is a four story, six level tower house, measuring 14.6m by 11.9m, with a short section of a bawn wall at the northeast corner. The remains of a round flanking tower are just to the east of the castle. The east-facing doorway has been rebuilt but still has a portcullis groove and corbels for a machicolation above.
On the ground level on the south is a guard chamber off the main lobby and a spiral stair at the northeast corner. Above the ground floor are six levels of chambers. There are bartizans at the north-west and south-east corners of the third storey and this level is vaulted. Fireplaces are in the south wall of the second and fourth storeys. Inside at the second storey level, carving in the window embrasure is of a female figure accompanied by five roses, thought to be of Catherine O’ Cullinane, wife of Randall Hurley, and her five children. Also at this level are intricate and geometric designs. At the fourth storey level, carvings include The Instruments of the Passion of Christ, figures thought to be St John, St. Mary and St. Paul and the initials RM CC and the date 1585. These are thought to be the initials of Randal Muirhily (Hurley) and Catherine O’ Cullinane. The first floor has a fireplace and a decorated window. The spiral stairway rises to the top room and a straight mural stairway goes to roof level.
To the southeast is the remnant of one of four defence towers, which guarded the main tower of the castle itself. The other three have disappeared. The basement of the castle would have had a wooden ceiling – the stone corbels are still to be seen, as is the high stone arch of the second floor. On the second floor there is a mural gallery (built into the thickness of the wall) leading to the garderobe on the north side over a chute. For some reason this is known as “Moll the Phooka’s Hole”. The roof is missing, as are the parapets with their battlements.
Although the date 1585 appears in the fourth storey carving, the building could actually be older than that. It is possible that this was once a McCarthy holding before the Hurley’s acquired it. The Hurleys had once occupied land a little over a kilometre to the south, in the townland of Gloun, where some remains of buildings can be seen. The Hurleys forfeited Ballinacarriga Castle in 1654, and it passed to the Crofts. The religious carvings on the top storey tend to support the local belief that it was used as a chapel as well as living quarters for the family. Locals also claim that this chapel was still in use until a new chapel was built nearby in 1815, though the tower had been in disuse as a dwelling for some time.
On side of the castle with the doorway, a Sheela na Gig is sited high above and to the right of the door between and to the right of the top two right-hand windows. Sheela na Gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are architectural grotesques found on churches, castles, and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Great Britain, sometimes together with male figures. Such carvings are said to ward off death and evil and they are often positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings. They are relatively rare, 101 existing in Ireland and 49 in the UK.
As I stood on top of this tall castle the prominence of its position on a solid rock outcrop and its strategic position became apparent as it commands views of the lake and the surroundings for miles around. The tower house has been restored and conserved to protect the structure and allow it to be understood and interpreted by archaeologists and historians. The original restoration proposals called for the tower to be reroofed which would require reinstating the parapets and battlements which are missing, and this may still happen when funds allow. That Hurley roots still run deep was emphasised by my sharing the view with local Independent Councillor Declan Hurley whose house is overlooked at some distance by Ballinacarriga Castle and who conversely, gazes upon the ancestral seat when he opens his front door.
Directions: From Dunmanway, take R 586 east (toward Ballineen) about six kilometres to R 637. Take R 637 approximately one kilometre south. Take the first side road to the left (it will be within a kilometre and is signposted). Stay to the right. Within about a half kilometre, over Manch Bridge and the Bandon River, not far past the church, the castle will be on the right. There is a car park about 50 meters past the castle on the opposite side of the road. Climb the steps to the front of the castle.
GPS: 51.705571, -9.031648