The castle history is a remarkable tale of survival. Killiane Castle, a landmark in this cornerstone of Ireland’s Ancient East, has been in the Mernagh family for nearly one hundred years. However, its origins date back to medieval times to the Norman conquests and possibly even further to the early Irish settlers 5,000 years ago.
The name ‘Killiane’ derives from ‘Cill Liadhaine’ in Gaelic, meaning the church of St Leonard which lies within the grounds of the Castle.
Pre-dating the castle history, it is likely that there was some form of native Irish settlement here before the Normans. However, the first recorded owner of the lands was Richard de Hay in the 13th century. Richard de Hay came over with Fitzstephen in the first Norman invasion.
The Norman tower house is approximately 50ft high and measures 39ft x 27ft externally. The walls are between 4ft and 9ft in thick. The Normans built the tower around 1470. It is most likely one of the “£10 castles”. King Henry VIII awarded a grant of £10 for the building of fortresses in his kingdom that became known as the “£10 castles”. In recent years, an Australian visitor brought us a photo of the original deeds for Killiane Castle signed by King Henry VIII no less!
Thomas Hay, a descendant of Richard, probably built the tower in the late 15th century c.1470. The present castle and surrounding walls bear testimony to the building genius of the Normans, over 500 years old and quite sound! Built in a prominent position, the tower most likely overlooked a harbour. However, in the intervening years, reclaimed land replaced the harbour. The surrounding lands feature a canal, slob lands and slightly further down the coast, Rosslare strand.
Legend has it that below the ground floor underneath the stair way is a dungeon leading to a passageway to a doorway that no longer exists. It is said that the passageway leads to Johnstown Castle which is over 4km away!
In the early 16th century c.1520, Killiane passed to the Cheevers family by marriage. They continued to fortify the site. By 1543 one Howard Cheevers held Killiane, 2000 acres of land and the office of Mayor of Wexford. The ‘Laughing Cheevers’, as they were then known, held prominence in Wexford for another 100 years until the great rebellion. They built the house sometime in the early 17th century.
The 17th century was a tumultuous part of the castle history. George Cheevers took part in the Irish Rebellion of 1641. He played a role in both the Siege of Duncannon, and the Confederation of Kilkenny. Following the Sacking of Wexford, Cromwell dispossessed him for his part in these rebellions. Georges son, Didicus, was a blind Franciscan monk. Infamously, several clergy were murdered in Wexford town’s Bullring at this time. Didicus was one of them. Sent to Connaught by Cromwell, the Cheevers family left Killiane. Just a few remained as tenants. The last of the them, an old man, who died in 1849.
Nearby stands the ruins of the small medieval church of Saint Helen which was in ruins by 1835. Enclosed by a wall is the adjoining cemetery. It is reputed to be the burial place of the Cheevers family.
In 1656 the property, along with 1500 acres, was granted to one of Cromwell’s soldiers, a Colonel Bunbury. He sold it on to his friends, the Harveys of Lyme Regis. The first of these, Francis Harvey, became MP for Clonmines and Mayor of Wexford, positions his son John also held. A famous beauty known as the Rose of Killiane, a daughter of the Harveys, married the Dean of Dublin in 1809.
As time went by, the Harveys increasingly became absentee landlords. They leased the land to their tenants. Both the condition of the castle and the size of the estate materially diminished during this dark time in the castle hsitory.
Throughout the 19th century there are references to tenants ‘Aylward’, ‘Elard’ and ‘Ellard’, possibly all the one family. By this time, the Harveys overwintered in their townhouse in Wexford at 38 Selskar Street. The family considered Killiane Castle too damp to stay at in winter.
In 1908 Crown Solicitor, Kennan Cooper, bought the property for £1515. Cooper, a renowned character, kept racehorses and the 1911 census shows Killiane occupied by his tenant, George Grant and family. The census records Grant’s occupation as a ‘Horse trainer/jockey’.
In 1920 John Mernagh, father of Jack the present owner, bought Killiane with 230 acres for £2000. At that time there was no roof on the tower-house. Ivy covered it. John re-roofed it and used it to store grain and potatoes. Today the castle is home to Jack & Kathleen Mernagh who run the property along with their son Paul and his family.
The Structure of the Building
Original Norman Features
The castle still contains one original window that dates from the 15th century. The original window is an ogee style window featuring two lights. Over the years, incumbents replaced the other windows. The main entrance to the castle was originally on the east side. It provided an adjoining door to the house at one time. The original door is bricked-up. On the south side of the tower a new door has been opened.
Looking at the front of the castle. There are murder holes over each of the doors on the ground floor. Perfectly located to pour hot tar over any unwelcome visitors! This practice, we assure you, is not in place today!
The third floor contains a fine granite fireplace. Small smooth stones from the beach line the chimney rising on the outer wall. Also in evidence on this floor, is a cupboard recess.
Corrugated iron replaced the original slate roof. The parapet consists of large sloping slabs. The battlements are of the steeply stepped type. There is a square turret on each corner. On the outside of the southern turret is a carved head.
The large bawn has a round tower on the south east corner and a square tower on the south west corner, castle occupying the north west corner. The north east tower has been removed. In order to accommodate the facade of the house, the northern apron wall was taken down.
Original 17th Century House
The original 17th century house consisted of two storeys with a garret on top. The incumbents raised the roof at a date unknown to us. This action incorporated the original dormer windows of the garrets, converting it into a third storey. Furthermore, they also reduced the great slant on the original 17th-century roof.
The staircase of the house is of a simple very wide design, typical of the 17th century.