Clonony Castle’s rich heritage and ties to the ill-fated Queen of England Anne Boleyn

Clonony Castle in west Offaly.
Drawing of Clonony Castle, Co. Offaly, by George Petrie (source: “Excursions Through Ireland: Province of Leinster” (1820–21) by Thomas Cromwell).

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Clonony Castle, built by the MacCoghlans in the 15th or 16th century, boasts a long, rich history intertwined with fascinating characters. Among them are the kin of executed Queen of England Anne Boleyn, a German merchant notorious for his disdain of all things Irish yet responsible for compiling an Irish dictionary, and an unpopular barrister who defied the odds by surviving multiple assassination attempts.

Clonony Castle & the MacCoghlans

Clonony Castle is situated on a limestone outcrop beside the small village of Shannon Harbour in Co. Offaly. It was built by the local ruling MacCoghlan family at the end of the 15th or start of the 16th century. It was one of several late medieval castles owned by these hereditary chieftains in west Offaly. The MacCoghlan family were known locally as the “Maws” or the “Mas”, and their territory, which roughly equates to the barony of Garrycastle, was called “Dealbhna Eathra” or “Delvin MacCoghlan”.

MacCoughlan castle Clonony
Clonony Castle, Co. Offaly, 2007 (credit: © Sarah777, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

The earliest records for Clonony Castle appear in the 16th century in the Annals of the Four Masters, recorded under its older names “Cluana Damhna” and “Cluain Nóna”. These records indicate that it was the scene of much violence:

“A great war broke out in Dealbhna between the descendants of Farrell Mac Coghlan and the descendants of Donnell, in the course of which James Mac Coghlan, Prior of Gailinne [Gallen], and the Roydamna of Dealbhna Eathra, was killed by a shot fired from the castle of Cluain-damhna [Clonony].” (AFM 1519) 

“… a vindictive war arose between Mac Coghlan and the descendants of Farrell and O’Molloy, during which injuries not easily described were done between them. During this war an astonishing exploit was performed at Cluain-Nona [Clonony], namely, a peasant of the people of the town acted treacherously towards the warders of the town, and slew three distinguished men of them with a chopping-axe, tied a woman who was within, and then took possession of the castle; and this was a bold achievement for one churl!” (AFM 1553)

The Boleyns

It’s widely believed that Clonony Castle was granted to Thomas Boleyn (“Bullyn”) when King Henry VIII was pursuing his daughter Anne. Thomas’ mother was the daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond – an Irish title. In English law, matrilineal descent is not valid for earldoms, but the title had fallen into abeyance as Ormond had died without a male heir. Henry strategically pressured the main claimant to renounce his claim and the king made Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Ormond in his stead. Through this newly acquired title, Anne Boleyn’s elevated status was deemed a suitable match for Henry.

“King Henry and Anne Boleyn deer shooting in Windsor Forest” by William Powell Frith, 1903 (Bridgemanart, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

When Anne failed to produce a male heir, she was beheaded by her husband in 1536. It is believed that sometime after the execution, some of Anne’s relatives fled to Clonony for their own safety but the details are hazy. In any case, some members of the wider Boleyn family (possibly through an illegitimate line) came to reside in Clonony and were connected with other powerful families that had settled in this region of Offaly: the Atkinsons, L’Estranges and Parsons.

In 1803, some workmen recovered a large grave-slab from a quarry or cave close to the castle; it memorialized two members of the Boleyn family, sisters Elizabeth and Mary. The slab can still be viewed on the castle grounds today and its heavily weathered inscription reads:

“HERE UNDER LEYS ELIZABETH AND MARY BULLYN DAUGHTERS OF THOMAS BULLYN SON OF GEORGE BULLYN THE SON OF GEORGE BULLYN VISCOUNT ROCHFORD SON OF SR THOMAS BULLYN ERLE OF ORMONDE AND WILSHIRE.”

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A report in the Irish Penny Magazine in 1833 claimed that the slab covered two skeletons. Local tradition has it that the “Bullyn” sisters were reinterred in the nearby cemetery of Gallen Priory.

Legend has it that when Elizabeth died young, Mary was devastated and threw herself off Clonony Castle. Another tale, recorded in the Schools’ Folklore Collection in 1937, claims that Mary was thrown down the steps of the castle to her death by an intoxicated army officer.

>>> READ MORE: From Mayo to Buckingham Palace: the legacy of Tom Mulloy, an untrained “genius”

Matthew de Renzi

The MacCoghlans continued to assert their influence in the Clonony area throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. However, much of their estate was forfeited after Cuchogrie MacCoghlan was killed in 1601 during the Nine Years War.

Within a decade, Matthew de Renzi had acquired the castle and 100 acres of the forfeited MacCoghlan estate from a government administrator named Roger Downton. This was on the condition that de Renzi would not “receive, nor pay any Irish rent, taxes, or services, nor divide his land according to the Irish custom of gavelkind”.

De Renzi was a German-born cloth merchant who, finding himself in financial difficulty while living in London, sought to remake his fortune in Ireland. He held the belief that the local people were backward and that they should be dispossessed of their lands. He described the locals as follows:

“They live upon oaten bread and spreckled butter all the year, lie in straw, wear a shirt for four months or till it be rotten afore it be washed, keep beastly houses, endure rain, cold, and snow all day and then roast themselves at night like hogs; go naked and cazer from one smokie cabin to another; eat their meat at unseasonable time, fast sometimes two or three days together, and then eat so much again when they come at it as will keep them three of four days fasting after, like unto hungry wolves.”

Attempting to bolster his power in Ireland, de Renzi learned to speak Irish and studied Gaelic culture despite his disdain for the native people. He learned spoken Irish from the Mac Bruaideadh family, hereditary historians of the Uí Briain (O’Briens) of Thomond, and he learned classical Irish from Tadhg Ó hUiginn of Sligo so that he could read Irish manuscripts. The epitaph on de Renzi’s tomb in Athlone informs us that he composed “a grammar, dictionary and chronicle in the Irish tongue”. Despite his ability to communicate with the native population, de Renzi was an unpopular character in west Offaly.

>>> READ MORE: The story of O’Doherty’s Keep, a medieval tower house in Buncrana

Sir John Óg MacCoghlan (Seán Óg), head of the sept, remained loyal to the Crown during the Elizabethan wars, but the family ardently disputed de Renzi’s claim over what was previously their land. Directed by Seán Óg, his family continued to plough the fields around Clonony. This resulted in constant fighting between the MacCoghlans and workers hired by the new settler, which forced de Renzi and his second wife, Anne, to seek refuge with her family, the Maypowders (“Mapothers”) of Kilteevan House, Co. Roscommon.

Crest of Maypowder family of Kilteevin County Roscommon.
Coat of arms of Mapother of Kilteevin (source: Burke and Fox-Davies, 1912. A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Ireland).

Within a few years of arriving in Offaly, de Renzi was granted more land and his estate soon exceeded 1,000 acres. Much to his delight, the territory of Delvin MacCoghlan was eventually planted in c.1620. The plantation envisaged that 25% of existing buildings would pass to the planters, while the remaining 75% would be regranted to native landholders. It was also expected that the local population would embrace British values and convert to Protestantism. The reality differed greatly.

The impact of the plantation on the story of Clonony Castle is rather complex. Captain Thomas Webb was granted 400 acres of land, which encompassed Clonony Castle. In the aftermath of the plantation, de Renzi initiated a plan to re-acquire this land from Webb. Under the terms of the plantation, de Renzi was classified as Irish, so Webb would have forfeited his grant had he sold to any Irish individual, including de Renzi. To circumvent this, the transaction was conducted in the name of de Renzi’s wife, Anne.

Around the time of the plantation, de Renzi moved to Dublin, where he became a government administrator and was later knighted. He died in 1634, aged 57 and is buried in Athlone. Clonony Castle remained under his widowed wife’s ownership until at least 1640; however, the MacCoghlans persistently contested their claim to this land.

It’s possible that Clonony Castle remained unoccupied for a time following the de Renzis’ departure. Interestingly, in c.1938, octogenarian Jane Walker of Park, Co. Offaly, claimed that the castle boasted a room “where priests hid in the Penal Days.”

Counsellor Edmond Maloney

By the early 19th century, Clonony Castle had come into the possession of Edmond Maloney, a wealthy barrister from Birr, Co. Offaly, who previously resided at Woodlands in Dublin. He was known as “Counsellor Maloney”, and it is said that he flew a victory flag from the castle’s battlements whenever he was successful in court.

Like his predecessor de Renzi, Maloney seems to have been rather unpopular in west Offaly and the locals were regularly hostile towards him. In November 1833, while Maloney was out riding, a man fired his gun at the barrister. Although the gunman missed his target, he followed it up by successfully striking a stone off Maloney’s shoulder.

In February 1834, an armed party entered the castle and ordered those inside to cease working for Maloney, while his plough was stolen that month as well. Also in 1834, a band of eight men fired a shot at Clonony Castle, while the barrister was assaulted again in another incident that year.

Clonoony Castle.
Clonony Castle, early 20th century (source: Irish Travel, Oct. 1950, vol. 26).

In 1839, Caesar Otway detailed a conversation he had with a Catholic publican who was the keyholder of a nearby church, Temple Conor at Clonmacnoise:

“I was taken in once by a man with as smooth a face as any of yees, and when I let him into the church to satisfy, as he said, his curiosity, what did he do, but set about defacing an ould tomb-stone of the Malones. Yes, in troth, a man calling himself Counsellor M–––––– did this upon me, in order that he might carry a lawsuit his own way; and ever since I have been in dread concerning strangers getting in there.”

There can be little doubt that the publican was speaking about Edmond Maloney. Interestingly, the barrister was connected to the Malones through his first wife, Jane, daughter of Sergeant Richard Malone. After Jane died in 1808, aged 59, Maloney wed another Jane, this time the daughter of Anthony Shee of Castlebar and Miss Burke, a cousin to politician and philosopher Edmund Burke. Maloney was Shee’s third husband. At the age of 74, Jane (the second) died and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Hanover Square, in London. She is described as follows on a mural tablet erected by her husband:

“She was hot passionate and tender and a highly accomplished lady and a superb drawer in water colours which was much admired.”

The barrister created an observatory in Clonony Castle and was probably responsible for some of the building’s more recent alterations, such as the widening of the narrow window opes on the ground floor.

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In the 1840s, following Maloney’s death, confusion arose over the ownership of Clonony Castle as it seems that the learned barrister had made more than one will bequeathing his possessions to different parties. This ended up in court. The plaintiff – Mr Seymour of Banagher and Eyrecourt, who had been Maloney’s medical attendant – took the case against Celia Kelly and won.

Recent history of Clonony Castle

By the mid-19th century, Clonony Castle was under the ownership of John and Thomas Murray, who were leasing the building and adjacent land to Peter Callaghan for £7. Around this time, an Ordnance Survey letter described the castle as being in an excellent state of preservation, while antiquarian Thomas Lalor Cooke also noted its good condition.

Soon after, the castle suffered damage during the War of Independence. In 1938, 13-year-old Domhnaill Mac Cioráin from Moystown Demesne, Co. Offaly, gave the following account of the castle in the Schools’ Folklore Collection:

“This castle was almost intact up to a few years ago when the British soldiers pulled down parts of it to prevent the Sinn Feiners attacking them from it, as several shots were fired at the guards from there. Up to a few years ago one could go up to the very top of the castle by a narrow winding stone stairway. Right over the entrance to the castle there is the figure of a man driving in some sort of chariot built into the wall but this is partly broken away now.”

In 1940, Clonony Castle was taken over by a State agency, the Board of Works. By this time, the only residents were goats. Ferbane parish held music concerts on the picturesque castle grounds in the 1970s, and it soon became a popular site for camping.

Clononey Castle
Clonony Castle, Co. Offaly, 2005 (credit: © Steve Ford Elliott / SteveFE, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0).

In the early 2000s, the Scottish novelist Campbell Armstrong (now deceased) and his wife, American ballerina Rebecca Black, purchased the castle but listed it for sale in 2006 seeking offers over €695,000. Since the castle did not sell, they commenced extensive restoration works in 2010.

Rebecca has lived in the castle since she began the restoration work and has used the venue to host events such as weddings, parties and festivals; she has also kindly welcomed summer tourists every season (without charge!). In the summer of 2022, once again Clonony Castle was placed on the market with an asking price of €695,000.

>>> RELATED: For sale: 500-year-old Clonony Castle linked to Anne Boleyn

The castle structure

Clonony Castle is classified as a “tower house”, which is defined as a late medieval fortified residence characterized by a multi-storeyed tower, typically rectangular in plan and often enclosed by a bawn or courtyard.

This well-preserved, three-storey structure was built with roughly coursed limestone rubble. It’s entered through a rebuilt doorway in the western wall. Just inside the doorway is a murder hole: a gap in the ceiling through which the occupants of the castle could fire or pour boiling liquids on attackers below as they attempted to enter the building. The upper floors are accessed via spiral stone stairs in the southwestern angle of the tower.

The original design combined comfort and prestige with security through defensive features such as the murder hole, gun loops, machicolation, basal batter and bawn. The bawn was a high, defensive stone wall enclosing a tower or fortified house. The outer bawn wall at Clonony is attached to the northeastern corner of the castle; it was not depicted in George Petrie’s 19th-century drawing of Clonony Castle (pictured below), which indicates it was partly rebuilt later that century probably by Counsellor Maloney. The inner bawn wall in front of the castle’s main doorway could have been an 18th- or 19th-century addition.

Clonony Castle Offaly
“Cloghnony Castle, King’s County” drawn by George Petrie and engraved by John Greig (source: “Excursions Through Ireland: Province of Leinster” (1820–21) by Thomas Cromwell).

The main entrance in the west wall of the bawn is built from worked stones deriving from another structure, possibly an earlier entrance. Nineteenth-century ancillary buildings surround the castle on the west, south and east sides.

Archaeological discoveries & recent renovations

In 1851, a silver coin of Elizabeth I, together with a sword and human skeleton “of more than ordinary size” were found at Clonony Castle, according to a letter by James Carruthers (keen coin recorder) to Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society.

Clonony Castle is subject to a preservation order made under the National Monuments Acts. Starting in 2010, in line with planning permission and the National Monuments Acts, the castle was sensitively restored by owner Rebecca Armstrong Black. Before any renovation and conservation works commenced, archaeological testing was carried out. Excavation in the western corner of the ground floor revealed the original clay floor surface, while another trench on the ground floor exposed the compacted upper metalled surface of the 19th-century floor.

A trench in the northeastern corner of the second floor of the castle uncovered the original medieval fill of the vault, which was largely intact under the modern fill that acted as bedding for later 19th-century floor joists. The southeastern corner of the parapeted wall-walk was also dug, exposing slate cladding of probable 19th-century date, which was protecting the original wall fabric from weathering. This was probably added in the 19th century.

The first floor, which had collapsed, was replaced, while the second floor’s barrel-vaulted ceiling was very well restored. In addition, new windows and doors were fitted, a roof/deck area was added, and bathrooms and kitchens were installed. Rebecca personally undertook a significant portion of the restoration work, including the stonework, joinery and reconstituting the vaulted ceiling while lying on her back high up on scaffolding, Michelangelo-style!

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Acknowledgements:

Our thanks are due to historian Kieran Keenaghan for sharing his expertise with us.

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