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Portumna Castle

Portumna, County Galway

Built in the second decade of the seventeenth century on the shores of Lough Derg, a short distance from Brackloon, Portumna Castle inhabits two worlds. This semi-fortified Jacobean house spans a middle ground between the late medieval castle and the country house of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While still exhibiting some minor defensive features, its large windows opened out onto landscaped parkland and formal gardens as if in expectation of peace and stability rather than conflict.

Portumna's builder, Richard Burke, 4th Earl of Clanricarde likewise straddled two worlds. From their castle at Loughrea, the earliest earls resembled tribal warlords who ruled Clanricarde, the medieval territory at the centre of modern County Galway. Richard was a new type of earl and his upbringing at the English court and early years campaigning with his father in Ireland allowed him move easily between both worlds. Favoured by successive monarchs, he married in Court circles and spent most of his life in England. Nonetheless, he strove to maintain his pre-eminent position in Connacht, retained an intimate interest in his Galway property and tenants and remained Roman Catholic when it would have been more opportune to convert. His new mansion, which replaced Loughrea, asserted his family’s social and political primacy to the world through a combination of archaic and modern architectural forms.

The fourth earl died in England, worn down by his efforts to prevent an English Plantation of his native county. His descendants went through various vicissitudes over subsequent generations, with Oliver Cromwell’s son Henry at one stage being granted Portumna and, after its return, losing it again for their support of the defeated Catholic king, James II. The title and estates were only regained in the early 1700s after the payment of a considerable fine and the prospective heir agreeing to convert to Protestantism and to allow his two eldest sons be educated in that religion.

The family spent considerable time in England over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and only sporadically used the castle which, in their absence, was either tenanted or vacant. John, 11th Earl of Clanricarde only spent the last years of his life in Ireland prior to his death in 1782. His son Henry 1st Marquis and 12th Earl of Clanricarde ordered the castle refurbished in 1789. When he returned from England with his wife in 1794, they were met on the county border by a vast crowd, their horses taken from their carriages at Eyrecourt and twenty men dressed in white and silver and preceded by bands of musicians drew each vehicle for ten miles from there to Portumna Castle.

Various additions and alterations were made to the house and grounds over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but on the evening of Sunday 15th January 1826 the castle succumbed to fire. Allegedly caused by intoxicated servants, constabulary were deployed from surrounding towns and managed to save some of the family papers, plate and ancestral portraits but, after the roof caved in, little was left of the house other than the masonry walls.

The castle continued as a ruin while the family used nearby stables as a holiday home, until a new mansion was built nearby. Before it was completed, the last de Burgh Marquis and Earl of Clanricarde died in England in 1916 and much of their vast wealth and property, including Portumna, passed to Henry, 6th Earl of Harewood and his wife Mary, Princess Royal, only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. The unfinished mansion was burned in 1921 and its stones later used in the construction of the town's Roman Catholic church.

In 1948 the State purchased the ruins of the fourth earl's castle and surrounding land.

Valued now as one of the most architecturally and historically important of Irish houses, initial restoration work on Portumna Castle, its gate lodges, gardens and surroundings began in the 1970s and continues to this day.  

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