Ireland

Co Sligo castle conservationists hope to inspire other communities

Moygara Castle in Co Sligo was the centre of the O’Gara lordship.

Moygara Castle is believed to have been built in
Moygara Castle Moygara Castle is believed to have been built in

A group behind the conservation of a centuries-old castle is hoping the success of its project could inspire other communities to act to preserve their local history.

Situated atop a rolling hillside on the shores of Lough Gara in rural south Co Sligo, the picturesque ruins of Moygara Castle are a prominent and impressive feature on the landscape.

Work has been under way to preserve what remains of the castle which was the centre of the O’Gara lordship during the end of their tenure as Gaelic chieftains in the area and is located on land now owned by the local O’Neill family.

Archaeologists, historians, conservation architects, engineers, and stonemasons have been working on the site after the Moygara Castle Research and Conservation Project was established in 2005.

The oldest part of the castle, which is believed to have been built and rebuilt in several phases, is believed to date back to between the mid-1400s and the 1530s.

A restored archway at Moygara Castle
A restored archway at Moygara Castle A restored archway at Moygara Castle

The remains of an old tower house from this period are still present at the site, having been deliberately knocked at some stage to form a rectangular platform in the later castle – probably for a cannon platform.

Historians, as outlined in a recently published book about the castle edited by archaeology expert Dr Kieran O’Conor, believe it would have been visible from miles around, having been located in a prosperous agricultural landscape, and was subjected to raids on numerous occasions.

However, the main structure visible at the site today is that of a square fortified enclosure known as a bawn which was built sometime between 1580 and the mid 1600s.

The highly-defensive structure has residential towers at each corner and a gateway which featured figurative carvings – believed to have been a charm to ward off bad luck – which are also being preserved at the site.

Landowner PJ O’Neill said the defensive nature of the castle, which has several gun loops, makes it “very unique” for the period and area.

A view from inside the bawn of Moygara Castle
A view from inside the bawn of Moygara Castle A view from inside the bawn of Moygara Castle

The castle is believed to have been ultimately abandoned around 1700 and fell into disrepair over the following centuries.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr O’Neill said the conservation work was initially focused on the parts of the castle which were most urgently in need of protection.

“The thing that most strikes you when you come here is the enormous need for conservation. Once we were happy we had done all the research that we could, we realised we needed to take a major step forward to actually conserve the building.”

He said the receipt of the Community Monuments Fund, which is a Government grant for the protection of historic sites, was the “catalyst” for increased work on conserving the castle.

Scaffolding on the face of the Moygara Castle tower following restoration work
Scaffolding on the face of the Moygara Castle tower following restoration work Scaffolding on the face of the Moygara Castle tower following restoration work

That work first focused on restoring the entrance archway, before work began on the largest remaining tower in the south-west corner of the bawn.

Scaffolding surrounding two faces of that tower is due to come down following the completion of expert restorative stonemason work, completed using stones found in piles of rubble elsewhere on the large site.

However, attention will then turn to the remaining faces of that tower which also need protection.

“This is all emergency conservation. It’s for parts of the castle that are in absolute need or they will collapse.”

Landowner PJ O’Neill at Moygara Castle
Landowner PJ O'Neill at Moygara Castle Landowner PJ O’Neill at Moygara Castle

Mr O’Neill said the group has received great support and guidance from the National Monuments Service through the conservation efforts.

He said such projects are mainly on properties owned by the Office of Public Works (OPW), rather than on privately-owned land such as the Moygara Castle site.

“There’s a huge amount of properties out there not under State control in the OPW and I believe there’s a lot of goodwill out there with communities to take on castles, churches, and different types of buildings to conserve them and save them for future generations to be able to enjoy them.”

He said he hoped it would inspire further projects in other parts of the country, adding: “The State will see that it has got a huge benefit out of it, I believe that communities will see they have got a huge benefit out of it.

“They buy into the history of their area, they take ownership of monuments in their area, they feel they have contributed to the saving of the monuments and I believe that can be encouraged.”

A restored archway featuring a fireplace at Moygara Castle
A restored archway at Moygara Castle A restored archway featuring a fireplace at Moygara Castle

Conserving and promoting the castle is a labour of love for Mr O’Neill, who said his family had been living in the area for almost 200 years.

“We started off, probably, as tenant farmers in this area and happened to get the eight acres that the castle stands on.

“From my own point of view, my father would have instilled in me a great sense of the history of the place and to look after it and to try and maintain a reverence for the history that was in this place.”

He said it is his hope to restore access to the castle once it is safe to do so.

“I hope that by 2025 – which is not a long time away at this stage – we should have the first stage of conservation finished and with that, should bring the return of public access to the area.”

Mr O’Neill added: “But, I would envisage there will be long-term conservation going on here for many years.”