Limerick Chronicle files: Askeaton’s Desmond Castle a true fit for the Earls

Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Askeaton’s Desmond Castle

Askeaton’s Desmond Castle

THE Limerick county town of Askeaton, which in Irish is Eas Géitine, is located on the banks of the River Deel, which enters into the Shannon Estuary.

Due to its location it became an ideal ground for early Irish settlements. One of the clans that made their home here were known as the Géitine, who settled by the small waterfall (Eas in Irish) on the Deel.

In 900, Askeaton is mentioned in a list of royal forts for the King of Cashel.

In 1203, William de Burgo acquired the castle in Askeaton on a rocky island on the Deel. William de Borgo was a Norman knight and the son-in-law of Donal Mor O’Brien. Hamo de Valoignes built the castle four years earlier.

The castle site passed through several hands before 1348, when the Earls of Desmond, the Fitzgeralds, held it as their main seat of power. For the next two centuries, the Fitzgeralds ruled Munster from Askeaton. They held onto power by a series of intermarriages and alliances.

In 1569, this stronghold on Munster created much annoyance to the English Protestant crown, who wanted to oust the Earl. Over the following decade, the Fitzgeralds revolted against Protestant rule. In 1579, they tried to persuade Pope Gregory to supply six hundred troops to fight for the Catholics in Munster. The Protestant crown attacked Askeaton and although they could not take the castle, they burned the town and attacked the friary, killing most of the friars and desecrating the ancestral tombs of the Fitzgeralds.

The Earl went on the run and was captured and beheaded on November 15, 1581. His head was taken to London where it was impaled on London Bridge.

In 1641, the Confederate Irish Catholics rebelled against the crown. They laid siege to multiple strongholds in Ireland, including the castle in Limerick, and Desmond Castle. On August 14, 1642, Lieutenant Patrick Purcell of the confederate Catholics captured and held Desmond castle for eight years. In 1649, Cromwell’s army arrived in Ireland to defeat the Confederate Irish Catholics, leaving a wake of destruction as they went.

In 1650, the Cromwellian army reached Askeaton, taking it without resistance, though they still dismantled the building. As for Purcell, he was captured during the 1651 Siege of Limerick, and along with Dominic Fanning, Mayor of Limerick, Daniel Higgins, former Mayor of Limerick and Bishop Turlough O'Brien. Purcell was brought up in front of a court-martial held in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick by Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton. All four men were sentenced to death and so ended the era of Irish Confederate rule in Limerick. The ruins of Fanning’s castle can still be seen today in Mary Street, Limerick City. Henry Ireton died of plague in Limerick only a few weeks after the executions.

Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond, founded the friary in 1389 and was later completed by his son, John in 1420. Gerald was known as the Poet Earl and was highly regarded by the general population at the time. The friary was built with magnificent cloisters and 12 arches on each side.

Following the attack by the Protestant crown, the monks returned to the friary in 1627 but the community did not reach its former numbers until 1642. The community again abandoned the site in 1648 when Cromwell’s forces neared Askeaton, and did not return until the 1660s. The friary permanently closed in 1740.

As the friars left Askeaton in 1740, an interesting club known as the Hellfire Club was established to the east of the castle. The building was originally part of the castle complex. The Hellfire Clubs were where rich men in English and Irish society gathered to get involved with debaucheries such as drinking, gambling and orgies with prostitutes. There was only one other Hellfire Club in Ireland, located just outside Dublin.

In 1934, Gerald Moran recalled the story of the Hell Fire Club for the folklore compiled by schoolchildren in Ireland “Beside the ruins of the castle may be seen the ruins of the "Hell-fire club". Intending members had to show their prowess by drinking a bottle of wine, bottle of brandy, bottle of whiskey and a bottle of rum. Then he should walk along a straight line some twenty yards in length. Failure to comply with the conditions led to the applicants being pushed through a window into the Deel.”

Some of the members of this club were Edward Croker and his son John Croker, Ballingarde, the father of the 1st Earl of Dunraven Wyndham Quin, Adare, the Reverend Thomas Royce rector of the parish Nantenan, near Askeaton and Henry Prittie the father of the Irish peer Henry Prittie, 1st Baron Dunalley.

The Askeaton club had closed by 1800. Askeaton also houses an octagonal tower, which according to Samuel Lewis in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, was built by the Knights Templar in approximately 1298 during their last crusade.