Is Castlebar’s long search at an end?

County View

County View
John Healy

The centuries-long search to locate the origins of the castle which gives Castlebar its name seems finally to be at an end. Local historian, Noel Campbell, in the newly published ‘History of Castlebar’, posits that a recent scientific survey has finally pinpointed Barry’s Castle at its elevated position overlooking the town and the adjoining river.
The findings come from the result of a geophysical survey conducted by Mayo County Council on the site of the Military Barracks, itself now in the ownership of the council and earmarked for substantial development over the coming number of years.
For centuries, the exact location of the castle, built by the Norman adventurer De Barry who came from Buttevant in County Cork in the 12th century, has remained a question of conjecture and debate. The earliest written reference to Castle Barry is found in a survey carried out in 1680, but this was some four hundred years after its first construction. In between, it had been ‘burned to the ground’, according to the Annals of Connacht, rebuilt and destroyed again in the battles between the Bourkes and the Binghams, the new conquerors of Connacht, before being entirely rebuilt by John Bingham. Eventually, the Bingham heirs, the Lords Lucan, dismantled the castle before retiring to build Lawn House, now home to St Joseph’s Secondary School.
The Lucans resided there before quitting Castlebar for good for permanent residence in England. The absence of any trace of the old castle lends weight to the theory that its stonework was removed either to be used entirely in the building of Lawn House, or in constructing the extensive boundary walls of the existing barracks. It was remarkable that excavations some years ago for a new road between Barrack Bridge and Castle Street yielded nothing by way of traces of the castle’s foundations.
Noel Campbell’s research reveals that the County Council survey shows the foundation of two large circular towers, linked by a long large rectangular structure, which corresponds with an 1838 survey of the town where a piece of ground is identified as ‘the site of the Castle’. This definitive site is at the centre of the parade ground of the former barracks, and tallies with the Ordnance Survey description of a castle ‘washed at its base by the river of Castlebar’. The historian, HT Knox, speculates that the Castlebar castle was of the same design as Ballylahan Castle, one of the circular towers of which still stands today.
Campbell says it is vital at this stage to trace the towers and the associated building before plans to transform the site are started. Barry’s Castle is, as he points out, an integral part of the town’s foundations and unique history.
The new discovery dispels the long-held Castlebar belief that Barry’s Castle is, in fact, the unfinished ‘castle’ dating back to 1580, and a familiar feature close to Lough Lannagh and just off where the recent lakeshore walks have been developed. Euphemistically referred to by one local wit as ‘a recognised place of innocent, late-night relaxation for youngsters celebrating the Leaving Cert results’, the castle itself was never occupied by its founders, the Bourkes, who were routed and put to death by the invading Binghams.
A particular myth had it that here resided ‘the beautiful Miss Gunnings’, the daughters of the Bourke family of Castlecoote, County Roscommon, famous for their pulchritude. Like much local lore, the story did not have a shred of truth, the beautiful sisters never having as much as set a foot in or near to Castlebar.