THE STORM had been raging all night, but the crack of thunder that came at 2am was so violent it woke half the parish.
Killeedy castle, a watchtower which had sat at the foot of the West Limerick hills for 800 years, was struck by a lightning bolt so vicious that the ancient structure was split right down the middle.
Boulders and masonry that had stood since three years after Saladin had taken Jerusalem from the Crusaders were thrown as far as 100 yards away.
When dawn broke on that January morning in 1988, the scale of the damage caused a few hours earlier was clear. Local farmer Jim Mulcahy was one of the first to come across the scene.
“There were stones blown out as far as the road. For 400 or 500 years people would pass that castle and say it would come down in the next storm. I remembering the clap of thunder, and thinking that it would have done some damage. I went down first thing in the morning and the castle had been split in two halves, right down the middle”.
That week’s Limerick Leader, dated January 16 1988, carried the story of the castle’s fate under the headline “Killeedy Castle taken by storm”. A photograph of what was left of the castle showed a tall, narrow stack which looked like it would fall down if a crow landed on it. The article stated that the Ambrose family, who own the land the castle is built on, believed that the rest of the structure could have to be demolished over safety fears. But after 25 years and countless storms, today the ruin remains upright with almost wobbly defiance.
Killeedy castle is one of those unlucky pieces of Irish history which have fallen through the cracks, and owe their survival today entirely to the skill of their medieval craftsmen.
The castle dates back to 1190, when it is thought to have been built by the Knights Templar to guard the passage into southern Limerick from the hill country beyond. The tower was built on top of an existing artificial mound, part of an old motte-and-bailey defensive structure built to protect the early settlement first founded by St Ita over 600 years before.
Its strategic importance made it valuable, and in 1207 it was personal handed to the de Barry family by King John. However its role was eventually superseded by the construction of Glenquin castle in the thirteenth century; a more stout defensive structure closer to the low crease in the hills that traffic from Abbeyfeale and Tournafulla passed through.
Killeedy castle steadily fell into disrepair as the land holdings on which it was built passed from owner to owner during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the time of the storm in January 1988, half of the tower had fallen away, as the structure had not been taken under the protection of the State.
For years the remains of what is known locally as ‘Ambrose’s Castle’ has drawn little more than idle curiosity. However stories and lore abound – that there was once an undergound passage connecting it with Glenquin castle; that the original decaying structure was blasted apart in the 18th century by a cannonball fired from the top of Glenquin; that when it finally falls, it will fall on a young girl.
From the top of the mound today, the crack where the bolt split the castle in half like a saw is still visible. The blocks and shattered boulders of the collapsed half still lie at the castle’s feet, now covered by a quarter century’s worth of vines and hedgerow. The tall ruin, rising like a chimney stack, is visible for three miles. Despite man’s neglect and nature’s fury, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“They put bullocks’ blood and pigs’ hair in the render,” Jim said of the castle’s builders. “They knew what they were doing.”