Ballinderry Castle is a medieval tower house located near Tuam in County Galway. Ballinderry Castle has a rich and varied history that spans over five centuries, and it features some remarkable architectural and artistic features that make it stand out among other castles in the region.
Ballinderry Castle was built by the Norman family of the de Burgos (Burkes), who were among the most powerful and influential lords in Ireland during the Middle Ages. The de Burgos were descendants of William FitzAdelm de Burgo, who accompanied King Henry II of England to Ireland in 1171 and was granted large estates in Connacht and Munster. The de Burgos built many castles and monasteries throughout their lands, and they often clashed with the native Irish clans who resisted their rule.
Ballinderry Castle was one of their fortifications, erected between 1450 and 1500 on the shores of a lake that has since dried up. The castle was surrounded by a moat and had an inner and an outer ward, with a garden in the latter. The castle consisted of a six-storey tower house, which was the main residence of the lord and his family, and a bawn wall with corner towers, which provided additional protection and accommodation for the garrison and servants.
The tower house had a vaulted basement for storage, a guard room on the first floor, a kitchen on the second floor, a suite of two rooms on the third floor, a large hall on the fourth floor, and a master bedroom on the fifth floor. The top floor was probably used as a lookout or a chapel. The tower house also had several fireplaces, latrines, windows, and spiral staircases. The most striking feature of the castle is the carved stone figure of a Sheela-na-gig over the main entrance. A Sheela-na-gig is a female figure displaying her genitals, which is often interpreted as a symbol of fertility, protection, or warning. The Ballinderry Sheela-na-gig is unusually elaborate, with two long braids in her hair, each twisted into a different pattern, and various motifs surrounding her, such as a rose, a bird, a marigold, and two kinds of triskele.
Ballinderry Castle witnessed many turbulent events in Irish history, as it changed hands several times between different factions and families. In 1592, during the Nine Years’ War, the castle was seized by Red Hugh O’Donnell, the chieftain of Tyrconnell, who was leading a rebellion against English rule in Ireland. However, O’Donnell only held the castle for a few months before it was recaptured by Lord Grey de Wilton, the Lord Deputy of Ireland.
In 1641, during the Irish Rebellion of 1641-1653, the castle was occupied by Irish Catholic rebels who rose up against English Protestant settlers and authorities. The rebels were eventually defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s army, which invaded Ireland in 1649 and imposed harsh measures on the Catholic population. In 1659, as part of Cromwell’s land redistribution scheme, Ballinderry Castle was granted to John Nolan, an Irish Catholic landowner who had lost his estates in Galway for supporting the royalist cause during the English Civil War.
The Nolan family retained possession of Ballinderry Castle until the 19th century, when they built a manor house nearby and abandoned the castle. During their tenure, they hosted several notable guests at the castle, such as Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Home Rule movement in the late 19th century. The castle also served as a British outpost during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), when Ireland fought for its independence from Britain.
Today, Ballinderry Castle is privately owned and not open to the public. However, it can be viewed from outside. The castle is in a relatively good state of preservation, although some parts have collapsed or deteriorated over time. The tower house still stands tall and imposing, while the bawn wall is mostly intact except for one corner tower that has fallen down. The Sheela-na-gig is still visible above the entrance door but has suffered some damage.
Ballinderry Castle is an important part of Ireland’s cultural heritage. It is a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of its builders, as well as to the resilience and adaptability of its inhabitants. It is also a witness to the complex and often violent history of Ireland, as it reflects the changing political and social dynamics of the country over the centuries. Ballinderry Castle is a historic gem in Galway that should not be missed by anyone interested in Irish castles and history.
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