Ballintober: a palace castle in a border territory

An enigmatic ruin

County Roscommon’s Ballintober Castle was probably built by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, in the early 14th century. It changed hands several times, but from 1381 it was under the control of the O’Conor family. After nearly being attacked in 1642, the castle was abandoned as a residence and the elements have left Ballintober as a ruin. The O’Conor family still own the castle today.

Despite Ballintober’s storied past and impressive ivy-clad remains, archaeologists first investigated the castle in 2008. When Niall Brady applied to the Castle Studies Trust for funding in 2013 the project to survey the castle offered the chance to push forward our understanding of the castle.

Though the castle now lies in ruins, parts of it stand up to 4m high (13ft). Ballintober Castle is rectangular, measuring 73.8m by 80.5m (242ft by 264ft). There is a tower at each corner, and on the east side the entrance is flanked by two further towers. The polygonal corner towers are thought to emulate the design of Edward I’s Caernarfon Castle in Wales. As well as being a military structure, emulating the most powerful of royal castles, Ballintober was a residence. Its comfortable accommodation revealed by the fireplaces marked it as a palace castle.

Ballintober is a ‘keepless castle’ which means it does not have a great tower such as the one seen at Trim Castle (Ireland) or Dover Castle (England). Instead it relied on its outer walls. There are a few castles like Ballintober. Richard de Burgh also built Ballymote as a keepless castles around the same time.  Just 18km (11mi) to the south-east is Roscommon, which may have provided the template for Ballintober. It was built decades earlier in 1269 on behalf of Henry III. Ballintober is the largest keepless castle in Ireland, and is more than twice the size of Roscommon despite its royal patronage.

Surveying the ruins

Laser scanning equipment at a castle
The laser scanning in progress at Ballintober.

Laser-scanners were used to record the standing structure and as a result we have a 3D point cloud which can be used to create accurate plans, elevations, and views. The survey took three days to complete in the field, followed by considerable time processing and interpreting.

It’s told us a lot about the castle. The south-west tower has a fireplace on the ground floor, and would have once had a fine timber vault. It may have housed a high-status hall. While it’s possible the south-east tower is the oldest as it is the smallest of the corner towers, the north-west tower was substantially redesigned in the 17th century. The arrow slits are wider than those found at Roscommon and Ballymote, and may be wider. This might suggest that comfort was a consideration in their design. There are signs of later adaptation, with gun loops being added to accommodate gunpowder weapons.

The survey also shows that Ballintober Castle is asymmetrical, with the entrance off centre. One possible reason is that the design changed to encompass a larger area or perhaps it stands on an earlier fortification.

An eye to the future

Importantly, the survey paves the way for future work: from July to August this year Foothill College, California, ran a Summer Fieldschool at the Castle. ‘Castles in Communities’ is advertised on the Archaeological Institute of America website. Niall Brady was one of the fieldschool directors. We asked him how the excavations went:

“The CST-funded survey in 2014 was a very important precursor to starting the present work. The 2015 season went well. We focussed on questions associated with tracing missing lengths of the standing walls, rather than looking into the main interior. This was to give us some sense of the site’s stratigraphy, while also tackling obvious questions in a way that wouldn’t open a can of worms we couldn’t close. We also engaged the attention of a conservation engineer, who is now quite excited by what can be possible in future years, vis a vis conservation works on the standing remains.

“For the four weeks on site, the excavation results were good, showing 16th-century and later levels. We only really broke the ground surface in three discrete locations, and so look forward to going deeper and exposing medieval horizons next year. There was massive buy-in from the local community (the landowners and the villagers), who see the great potential that lies in our plans for the castle site and its living community about it.”

Excavations in the southeast corner tower, exposing phases from the castle's broad history. Photograph by Nialll Brady.
Excavations in the southeast corner tower, exposing phases from the castle’s broad history. Photograph by Niall Brady.

The work the Castle Studies Trust is not the end point of a journey, but a crucial stepping stone towards understanding medieval society.

For more information on Ballintober, read the full length report prepared by Niall Brady. Please donate so we can support more projects like the one at Ballintober.

Three years of the Castle Studies Trust

Three years ago this month, the Castle Studies Trust officially became a registered charity. A group of castle enthusiasts while visiting castles realised there is still so much we do not know about these fascinating structures, even the basics of what they look like, let alone what they were used for and how they developed over centuries. This, combined with continued long term cuts to traditional funding organisations the enthusiasts decided to do something to help and set up a the CST.

From the start there have been three key tenets of the Trust:

  • Being a new source of funding for such work and not taking monies from existing sources and thus reliant on public donations.
  • Focusing on sites not in the care of major heritage organisations such as Cadw. This means we concentrate on castles which are privately owned or run by trusts or local authorities where even less is known about this sites.
  • All results must be published within a set time frame (currently nine months) and freely available to the public.

The charity exists to push the boundaries of our understanding of castles. We are primarily a grant-giving body and are run entirely by volunteer trustees. Once we were set up fundraising began in earnest so we could support research projects. Enough was raised so that in late 2013 applications were opened. As luck would have it, we were able to support four grants that year, one in each of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is an annual process and earlier this year we awarded our second set of grants to another two sites.

There are thousands of castles in the British Isles, built over hundreds of years and they are visited by millions of people every year. Some are very well understood. Many are in the care of national heritage organisations such as Cadw or the National Trust. But with so many castles there is always more to learn. That is why we feel we can make a real difference.

We work around castles which large heritage bodies might not have the resources for but have incredible potential. This year we are supporting two projects, one at Gleaston in Cumbria, and the other at Pleshey in Essex. Between them we have a site at risk of decay or even collapse and a castle which was the pride of one of the richest men in 12th-century England.

Aerial photo of Pleshey Castle. The castle consists of a grassy mound next to a kidney shaped enclosure, all surrounded by a moat. In the background is the village of Pleshey.
Pleshey is one of the grantees for 2015

Already we’re seeing the results from our first set of grants coming through. At one of the sites the work we supported has triggered further research supported by the Archaeological Institute of America. The Trust isn’t going to change our understanding of the Middle Ages overnight, but we can make an invaluable contribution and pave the way for more work.

The application process for new grants opens in September. We’re eagerly looking forward to see what projects are suggested.

Three years in, we’ve come a long way and in the future hope to support even more projects. With your support we can continue working at the cutting edge of our understanding. Help us do something exciting.

This new blog will be used to explain what the Castle Studies Trust does and the projects we support.