Fanningstown Castle is situated in the fertile valley of the river Maigue, in Co. Limerick. It lies in the barony of Coshma (Coshmagh) which, meaning 'Foot of the Plain' or 'Bank of the Maigue,' describes this location. The area of the barony coincides with the territory of the Celtic people, the Ui Cairbre Aobhdha.
In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century the invading Anglo-Normans identified the strategic importance of the Maigue, and gradually established a series of fortresses along its western shore, some a rebuilding of existing forts. An early castle was built at Newtown near the mouth of the river, another near the ford at Croom by 1215 when it was granted to Maurice Fitzgerald, an old fort at Adare was walled, and by 1280 there was a castle on raised ground near a bridging point on the river at Castleroberts.
There was a castle at Fanningstown by 1285. Situated a few miles from the bank of the river behind Castleroberts Fanningstown seems to have been part of a second line of defence. It is difficult to date the remaining castle ruins which consist of a small, almost square chamber without upper floors or roof, and a round staircase tower which, pierced with arrow-slit windows, rises about three floors, but from which the staircase and roof have been removed.
There is the remains of a bartizan (a turret corbelled out from the wall on cut stone corbels, used for defence) on the west corner. This castle was incorporated into one corner of a battlemented bawn wall which enclosed a large courtyard.
It is possible that the other three corners were given towers or the external appearance of towers. There is one of the latter on the NE corner, surmounted by double battlements which are typical of Irish medieval castellated architecture. It could be a nineteenth-century addition, like the one on the NE corner which was incorporated into the new house, of which more later.
The difficulty in dating Irish castles for which there is little documentary record derives from the fact that architectural features are unreliable as a source. Medieval castellated styles tended to be simple and conservative, stone work varied little over the centuries, attacks often left the structures badly damaged or ruined. However, the small size of Fanningstown Castle suggests that this is the ground plan of an unimportant, probably primarily defensive structure. In possession of the Norman Maurice family by 1285, along with the castle at Adare, Fanningstown castle and the cantred of which it was a part, and into which English and Welsh settlers may well have been introduced, were an integral part of the Norman feudal system.
A seventeenth-century description of Fanningstown draws attention to a single plowland, a thatched house, and an orchard. These could have sustained a steward charged with the upkeep of the castle. They might well have lain safely within the bawn walls, though it is not impossible that the present extensive walled orchard adjacent to the bawn could have had a seventeenth-century or earlier origin.
While Fanningstown lingered as a defensive outpost Adare Castle expanded, acquiring a massive stone keep, separate hall, stables, kitchen, dungeon, portcullis, all of which are being currently restored. Croom Castle too grew, becoming the principal seat of the Earl of Kildare. The castle, renovated in the nineteenth century is still inhabited.
Unfortunately Fanningstown does not surface in the historical record until the late sixteenth century. By this time the English, conscious that their power was slipping from them in Ireland, were determined to reassert themselves. One strategy was the appointing of a new breed of ambitious administrator such as Sir Warham St Leger, who became Lord Justice in 1569.
With the granting of the tithes of Ballyfenninge to him in 1567 Fanningstown had fallen into the English orbit. This was important for the Fitzgerald earldom of Desmond, which controlled large swathes of Munster, including many of the old Norman fortresses, were opposing English efforts at centralisation.
In 1569 this resolved itself into rebellion, which lasted until James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald submitted in 1573 before going into exile. When he returned with fresh soldiers in 1579 a new phase in the rebellion started. It was to Fanningstown that Sir William Pelham, now Lord Justice, camped with a large force, summoned the Earl of Desmond to meet him.
When Desmond failed to make the rendezvous Pelham charged him with treason and instituted a scorched earth policy which reduced Munster to a famine that lived long in the folk memory. Gradually Pelham captured the castles that had supported Desmond; Limerick, Croom, Kilmallock, Lough Gur, and finally Askeaton.
The Rebellion was finally crushed in 1583 with the killing of the Earl of Desmond. Fanningstown was granted to the succeeding Lord Justice, Sir H. Wallop, in 1592.
In the mid-seventeenth century English efforts to bring Ireland to heel were spear-headed by Oliver Cromwell's ferocious and successful military campaign. Planning to reward his soldiers with Irish land Cromwell ordered that a survey of who held what was made. It was completed in 1656 and called the Civil Survey. This reveals that Fanningstown had slipped from English control and was now in the possession of Edmund Fanning, a member of an old Anglo-Norman family that had remained Catholic and was vehemently opposed to Cromwell.
In Limerick City where Cromwell's general, Henry Ireton, had led a six-month siege, another member of the family, Dominick Fanning, an alderman, had led the resistance. By October 1651 Ireton had prevailed and Dominick Fanning was one of the twenty who were to loose 'lives and property.' He had escaped but returned to the city to retrieve some money. As his wife refused to receive him he hid in his ancestor's tomb in St Francis Abbey for three days and nights. Emerging to warm himself at a guard's fire he was identified by a former servant who denounced him to Ireton's soldiers.
One of the few remaining medieval houses in Limerick is Fanning's Castle, on Mary Street, a late medieval stone tower house, once five storeys high, with a turret staircase, ogee windows and battlements. This former residence of Dominick Fanning was one of the houses that lined the main street of English Town and so impressed foreign visitors. It is eloquent of the prominent position of a family that was supplying bailiffs and mayors for the city from the mid-fifteenth century until Cromwell's victory, when a new group of English Protestant families became dominant.
Anna Fanning, who died in 1634, is the only Fanning remembered in St Mary's Cathedral in the city; a stone slab on the floor of the chapel of St Nicholas and St Catherine bears her name.
The eighteenth century was a period of relative peace in Ireland. This was reflected in the architecture. Defence, finally, was no longer an issue. The old defensive structures could be demolished or skilfully amalgamated into the new classical style where light and space were a priority.
At Fanningstown part of the bawn wall was taken down and a new house erected. The castle was left to one side as a ruin. Nothing of this new house now remains. It was, however, still in existence when the Ordnance Survey cartographers visited in 1840, and from their map it is possible to see that the new house faced the old courtyard with a long impressive façade and a bow-fronted entrance. The orchard was to the rear. An eighteenth-century cut stone opening can be seen in the eastern wall. Fanningstown was now entered by a road from the east which ran off the Patrickswell-Croom Road, marked by a gate lodge which still stands.
This house seems to have been uninhabited by 1850. By then the townland of Fanningstown was largely owned by Hamilton Jackson. Most of this was rented to tenants, but he held over 280 acres in fee which included a number of 'offices' but no house, suggesting that the house was in ruins.
Other landowners in the neighbourhood were investing in their properties. Two Limerick historians, Fitzgerald and McGregor, present a picture of neat, well-kept houses and demesnes in 1826. Croom Castle stands out. John Croker had 'fitted it up and furnished [it] in the castellated style, with great taste and judgement. The gardens, shrubberies, and gravel walks are kept in the neatest order, and from the house is a very fine view up the River Maigue which winds along in a majestic stream, and of a handsome Chinese bridge ...'
Adare too, where a classical mansion had been built in the eighteenth century, was acquiring a Gothic character. This project, started in 1832, was the preoccupation of successive Earls of Dunraven who employed a talented local stone mason, James Connolly, and various well-known architects who specialised in the Gothic Revival. James Pain, A.W. Pugin, P.C. Hardwick. The result was a splendid mix of historicism and fantasy in which Irish double-stepped battlements rubbed shoulders with English towers and Romanesque doorways.
Elsewhere in Co. Limerick the Gothic style was also being vigorously pursued. At Castle Matrix near Rathkeale the Southwell family modernised a fifteenth-century keep in 1837, while at Castle Oliver the Misses Oliver-Gascoigne built a Gothic fantasy to give employment after the Famine in c 1850. At nearby Dromore in Pallaskenry, Lord Limerick commissioned E.W. Godwin in 1867 to design a castle based on a survey of old Irish castles.
So it is perhaps not surprising that (sometime between 1850 and 1865) Hamilton Jackson or his successor, David Vandeleur Roche, who acquired the property in 1860, should consider unearthing the Gothic potential at Fanningstown. He employed a Cork architect, P. Nagle, and together they decided to demolish the eighteenth-century house, reconstruct the bawn walls, build a house along the entire east wall of the courtyard facing outwards and make a new entrance from Adare Road to the west.
At the corner opposite the old castle Nagle designed a three-storey tower serviced by a staircase (which may have been taken from the old tower) in a round tower which was a direct echo of the thirteenth-century building.
Between these two towers he erected a gateway with monumental double battlements and the battered (outward sloping) walls of the towers.
He reproduced a bartizan on the square tower (it forms a delightful cupboard in one of the bedrooms), introduced battlements to all the walls giving them the appearance of machicolations by projecting them on cut stone corbels (in medieval castles this would have formed a parapet through which missiles could be dropped on the enemy), and gave the ground floor windows and door on the entrance facade ogee windows.
The other windows were rectangular casements which, a nineteenth-century watercolour indicates, once had window frames of pointed arches. The old tower was made into a dove cot; the pigeon holes can still be seen. The result is a restrained nineteenth-century version of the medieval castle in which the integrity of the bawn and castle has been retained. This was an unusual solution, and gives this modest-sized castle a pleasing integrity.
Inside Nagle designed ogee arches above the window recesses in the thick walls, vaulted ceilings on the ground floor and Gothic fireplaces were acquired for the rooms. Despite some additions Fanningstown Castle retains much of the character of this nineteenth-century building in which the medieval past so easily seems to break through.
In 1890 the castle came into the possession of J.F. Bannatyne, whose family owned a successful milling business in Limerick. They had built a state-the-art mill at Limerick docks in 1874 which still stands and is known as Bannatyne Mills. The 1901 census indicates that Bannatyne did not live in Fanningstown. Instead, the castle and adjoining buildings were inhabited by five different families who mainly serviced the dogs and horses kept for hunting.
In 1936 the estate was acquired by the Normoyle family, who are still in residence. They are currently working on the restoration of the nineteenth-century castle.