Mountlong Castle

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Volume 26

Mountlong, Co. Cork

By Stephen Byrne

 

Above: Mountlong Castle, Co. Cork, showing two of its four flankers or towers at each of its four corners. (NIAH)

Mountlong Castle, begun in 1631 by John Long, is a fine example of a new building type that emerged in the early seventeenth century: the fortified house. An earlier type, the defensive tower-house, dominated from the early 1400s until the 1640s. Seventeenth-century builders owed a debt to the numerous tower-houses scattered across the country and superimposed onto their basic form new architectural features introduced by English settlers. Mountlong Castle, set on high ground overlooking the winding Belgooly River and Oyster Haven, exemplifies the new style. Its proportions and detailing, including large mullioned windows, mark the transition from dimly lit tower-houses with an overt defensive capability to properties boasting comfortable, well-lit rooms and a modicum of fortification.

One reason for being less preoccupied with defence was that this corner of Ireland was for the most part subdued by the English following the Munster Plantation. A new authority ruling the land, and less inter-tribal conflict between Gaelic lords, brought about a brief period of comparative political stability. In lieu of defence, builders could turn their attention to aesthetics and functionality.

Mountlong Castle boasts a flanker or tower on each of its four corners. These are features shared in common with the contemporary Monkstown Castle and, originating in English architecture, may have supplemented living accommodation. The mullioned windows, given chamfered frames and simple hood mouldings, were clearly not intended for defensive purposes. Nevertheless, gun loops covering most angles allowed some protection against potential enemies.

Another feature borrowed from English architecture was the gable-ended attic space, and it quickly became the custom to use the ‘garrets’ as servant accommodation. Unlike the earlier tower-houses, where the household might share the same cramped quarters, the new houses saw the separation of family and servants. In accommodating the servants in quarters ‘out of sight’, dwellings such as Mountlong Castle set the precedent for the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ way of living that continued through subsequent centuries.

In its ruined state, the exact function of the rooms on each of the three main floors is unclear, but it is reasonable to speculate that the ground floor was given over to the kitchens. The living accommodation overhead gives an insight into how much value was placed on aesthetics and, writing in 1907, J.F. Fuller describes cornices ‘with figures representing scriptural subjects and field sports’. No fireplaces survive in the main block, but chimneys in the corner towers suggest that those rooms were well heated.

Unfortunately for its builder, the glory days of Mountlong Castle were brief. In 1641 a rebellion in Ulster quickly spread across Ireland. John Long sided with the Catholic rebels in a conflict that has since been known as a war between Catholic natives and Protestant settlers. He and his sons set up camp on top of a hill near Belgooly, but the following April saw the defeat of the rebels near Bandon. It was the beginning of the end for the Long family; John was convicted of treason and hanged alongside many of his fellow rebels. Legend tells us that, aware that he would be captured and executed, John instructed a relative—some sources say his daughter and others his sister—to burn Mountlong Castle to prevent the Cromwellian army from using it. Remarkably, some timbers, including lintels over door and window openings, still carry scorch marks to this day.

 

Stephen Byrne is currently working in collections conservation with the National Trust. Series based on the NIAH’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.com.

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