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The Decorative Plasterwork at Ormond Castle — a unique survival

  • Jane Fenlon


Here is my Lord of Ormond’s house, daintily seated on the river bank, which flows even to the walls of his house, which I went to see, and found in the outer court three or four haystacks, not far from the stable door; this court is paved. There are also two other courts; the one a quadrangle. The house was built at twice.

Sir William Brereton’s description is the earliest account of Ormond Castle, Carrick on Suir (Fig. 1). It was the favourite house of Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond. Inside the building a unique decorative scheme in plaster of mid-sixteenth-century date has survived. The castle, now known as Ormond Castle, takes it name from its former owners, the powerful Anglo-Norman family of Butler, who came to Ireland in 1185 with King John. James Butler (d. 1338) was created Earl of Ormond in 1315. In the seventeenth century another James Butler, 12th earl, was elevated to a dukedom of Ormonde after the restoration of Charles II.



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N.B. The earldom was spelt ‘Ormond’, the dukedom Ormonde’.

1 Extract from Travels of Sir William Brereton in Ireland July 1635, quoted in Falkiner, C. L., Illustrations of Irish History and Topography mainly of the Seventeenth Century. (London, 1904), p. 402 .

2 Fenlon, T. J., Ormond Castle (Dublin, 1996); Leask, H., Irish Castles and Castellated Houses (Dundalk, 1941, 1986 edn), pp. 146-47; Waterman, D. M.,’ Some Irish Seventeenth century Houses and their Architectural Ancestry’, in Studies in Building History, ed. Jope, E. M., (1961), pp. 251-67; Craig, M., The Architecture of Ireland (1982, 1989 edn), p. 114

3 Canny, N., From Reformation to Restoration: Ireland 1514-1660 (Dublin, 1987); S. Ellis, Tudor Ireland, Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures 1470-1601 (1985). See also, various essays in A New History of Ireland, III, Early Modern Ireland, 1534-1691, ed. Moody, T. W., Martin, F. X., Byrne, F. J. (Oxford, 1976).

4 Canny, op. cit., pp. 88-89.

5 Kirwan, J., ‘Thomas Butler, ioth Earl of Ormond’ Pt. I, Journal of the Butler Society, 1994, pp. 514-30.

6 J. Kirwan, art. cit, Pt. II, Journal of the Butler Society, 1997, pp. 67-85.

7 Ibid.

8 Saunders, Ann, The Royal Exchange (London, 1991), pp. 143 .

9 Burgon, J. W. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham (London, 1839), XI, p. 117 .

10 National Library of Ireland, Ormonde MSS 2527 f. 64.

11 Leask, op. cit., p. 146, D. M. Waterman, ‘Some Irish Seventeenth-century Houses and Their Architectural Ancestry’, in Jope, op. cit., p. 252. Craig, op. cit., p. 114; Craig suggests that while the house was unfortified it was not wholly undefended.

12 Craig, loc. cit., p. 114, n.

13 A large courtyard house was also built in Kilkenny about this time by Sir Richard Shee. See Neely, W. G., Kilkenny: an Urban History (Belfast, 1989), p. 68 .

14 Craig, loc. cit., p. 114.

15 M. Howard, The Early Tudor Country House: Architecture and Politics 1490–1110 (1987), pp. 42-43.

16 Bell, R., ‘The Royal Visit to Acton Court in 1535’, A European Court in England, ed. Starkey, D.. Exhibition Catalogue, 1991. pp. 120-23. Acton Court was chosen because of its links with the Ormond family in the next generation. Thomas Butler, styled Viscount: Thurles, married Elizabeth, daughter of John Poyntz of Iron Acton, as it was then known, they were the parents of the future Duke of Ormonde.

17 The sequence and naming of rooms at Ormond castle is based firstly on room dimensions and quality of plasterwork, secondly, on a 1630 inventory taken at Kilkenny Castle, also built at by the 10th earl.

18 It also closely resembles those ceiling patterns used at Sizergh Castle in Cumbria. See also Gapper, C., ‘Chastleton House: The Decorative plasterwork in context’, The Tudor and Jacobean Great House, Conference Proceedings (Oxford 1994), p. 102 .

19 C. Gapper, Ph. D. thesis (forthcoming), and F. Heal and C. Holmes, The Gentry in England and Wales, 1100-1700 (1994), pp. 178-99.

20 Canny, op. cit., p. 88.

21 Wells-Cole, A., Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England (New Haven & London, 1997), pp. 4952 .

22 J. Huzinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, (1924, Reprint 1979), pp. 107-08, 295-96; Traversi, D., ‘Literature and Drama’, 16th Century Britain, ed. Ford, B. (Cambridge, 1989) pp. 105-06.

23 Wells-Cole, op. cit., Chapter I.

24 In England, though not in Ireland. Very few examples of exterior decoration of this sort have been found in Ireland. Portumna Castle, Co. Galway has strapwork decoration above the principal doorway.

25 R. Strong, Gloriana. The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1987), pp. 59-61 and also R. Strong, The English Icon. Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture (1969), pp. 119-34.

26 Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1531-1603, An Exhibition Catalogue, NPG 1958, No. 15. See also, Hind, A. M., Engraving in England in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, Part I, (Cambridge, 1955), pp. 6465 .

27 A crowned image of Edward was published in woodcut in the second edition of John Foxe, Actes and Monuments 1570, illustrated in Howard, M., The Tudor image, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Gallery (London, 1995). p. 17 .

28 Fawcett, R., The Architectural History of Scotland, Scottish Architecture from the Accession of the Stewarts to the Reformation, 1371-1560 (Edinburgh, 1994), Chapter 10.

29 Wells-Cole, op. cit., particularly Chapters 5 & 6.

30 The exterior and interior of the Royal Exchange were engraved c. 1569, by Frans Hogenberg. Reproduced in Saunders, The Royal Exchange, op cit., p. 8.

31 Wells-Cole, op. cit., pp. 52–53, Other engravings in William Saxton’s Atlas, published 1579, are also attributed to Remigius Hogenberg.

32 Wells-Cole, op. cit., p. 55, An engraving of one of Floris’s cartouches by Pieter van der Heyden was used on Gresham’s tomb.

33 Wells-Cole, op. cit., p. 170.

34 Summerson, J., Architecture in Britain 1510–1830 (New Haven & London 1953, 1993 edn), p. 169 . Wells-Cole, op. cit., pp. 169-70.

35 C. Gapper, on-going research.

36 There are some examples of early seventeenth-century plasterwork at Bunratty Casde, the remnants of a plaster rendering of the Clanricarde arms at Portumna Castle, before 1618, a plaster frieze at Birr Castle, c. 1630 and some remains of plaster decoration at Roscrea Casde, c. 1640s.

37 National Library of Ireland, Ormond MSS 2325, Letter from Duchess of Ormonde, at Whitehall, 3 August 1661.

38 ‘Letters of Lord Longford and others on Irish Affairs 1689-1702’, Analecta Hibernica, No. 32, 1985, Irish Manuscripts Commission, p. 83.

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The Decorative Plasterwork at Ormond Castle — a unique survival

  • Jane Fenlon


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