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The Deserted Villages                                                                                        

Of  Rathkeale, Co Limerick

or  how place names have just fallen off the map

by Patrick G. Coleman

This story first appeared in 1989 in Deel Views, a local newsletter. 

Centuries have passed since Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village and this poem illustrates that the deserted village is not a new phenomenon on the Irish landscape. However, before trying to identify the older variety of deserted village in this article, I will focus initially on those deserted villages left in the wake of the great Famine.

Ireland is fortunate in one respect that the British, for their own military ends, chose to map the island in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The subsequent maps which were produced the 6" copies of the Ordnance Survey maps are not only among the earliest of their type produced anywhere in the world, they also provide a detailed record of the Irish landscape at that time. The maps were accompanied by a series of name-books which record every site of note which appears on the maps. Furthermore, the cartographers and their assistants frequently wrote to headquarters at the Phoenix Park in Dublin, recording any differences they had experienced in the course of their exercise and frequently seeking advice. It is possible to find both copies of the maps and name-books for County Limerick at the County Library. The letters still remain in the Phoenix Park.

In 1840 Rathkeale was a major landlord town, along with being the County town of Limerick. It had a population of almost 5,000 people (compared with 1,800 today). Furthermore, ringed around Rathkeale were a series of small villages, some of which have since disappeared. These villages included the Palatine Chapel of Reens, clachans at Cappellagh (Riddlestown) and Loughill along with Croagh and Cappagh. Today, only Croagh and possibly Ballingarrane and Reens can be said to remain.

To actually put tags on the villages is misleading as within specific groups a great variety existed in their actual layout. This was particularly true of the three Palatine villages. The one feature all three had in common was the Methodist Meeting House. As regards their layout, this differed quite considerably. Courtmatrix was extremely well planned. It consisted of a square of houses laid out around a green with the Meeting House at the centre. This was the earliest of the Palatine villages to be settled in the locality (indeed in Ireland). Its layout indicates that Southwell was prepared to spend money to attract the community onto his estate. According to Mayes, each settler got 8 acres with the joint use of the commons. The Courtmatrix Commons are still used by local farmers.

At Killiheen the village was linear in shape with the Meeting House at the southern end of the village. Roughly half way between these two villages was a school built by Lady Butler for the education of the children of the two communities. Ballingarrane village, which lies to the north of Rathkeale, was far more dispersed. The Palatines appear to have had their houses spread along 1.5 miles of roadside. However, roughly halfway along this roadway stood the Meeting House and school. In this case the school expenses were paid for by Lord Southwell, whose family was at this stage Catholic (the Southwells were among the first Irish landlords to become Catholic with the ending of the Penal laws).

An interesting aspect of these settlements is that, during the 1820s, the Palatines were subject to sectarian attacks. While I am unaware of any such attacks on those villages around Rathkeale in the 1820s, during the 1780s some three hundred Whiteboys were to surround Ballingarrane and to relieve the inhabitants of their guns. There were no injuries in this incident. Also of interest regarding the later outbreak of violence, the Police Inspector Willcox, who succeeded the assassinated Going, was to testify that his first duty as the Inspector for the Rathkeale area was to purge the police force of Orangemen. Certainly the reduction in violence, following Willcox assuming command, indicates that the police may well have been the agents of provocation in this outbreak of violence. The survival of the Palatine villages at this date suggests that earlier resentment had receded.

It could be said that the Turnpike village of Reens survives today with its pubs and its sub-post office providing services for the surrounding countryside. It would be interesting to find out how long the two pubs have been located at this site. The fact that a village existed here is evident on the map. The name-book merely indicates the presence of a small village. The book does indicate, however, that the turnpike was situated on the main Rathkeale - Listowel Road which was still then under construction.

The third set of villages were clachans. These were little farming villages that grew up due to population pressure and the attempts by families to support each other and prevent the landlord from evicting the more vulnerable members. Often these villages could be said to represent a primitive form of cooperative, with everyone helping everyone else. While I know little of either of these two settlements, I do know that the buildings at Cappellagh can still be seen on later maps, such as the 1921 edition of the 6" maps. Tentative enquiries have revealed that it was only relatively recently that the ruins of this village were cleared. Fittingly, these ruins were on the land of Mr. Willie Mulcahy of Riddlestown, as most of the people who were settled in this village bore the Mulcahy name, though there were also some Magners. This suggests that at least one member of the Mulcahy family survived the landlords. I know nothing of the Loughill settlement.

The settlements at Croagh and Cappagh both would appear to have their origins in church related functions. In Croagh there is still very much evidence as the ruins of the old ecclesiastical settlement still dominate the village. By 1840 the village contained `40 huts' according to Lewis. Croagh's inhabitants were to endure a particularly rough time during the famine, yet the village was to survive. Today the village faces another major struggle with the building of the bypass a bypass which may yet provide the kiss of death for the village.

Patrick J. O'Connor in his book Exploring Limerick's Past gives a list of the occupations of the people of Cappagh from the Ordnance Survey name-book. There were a number of traders in the village, servicing the surrounding rural community and yet, of all the villages, Cappagh is the one which was clearly devastated by the famine. The 1851 Census clearly indicates the village was swept away during those hungry years. However, the Civil Survey does make a reference to a Cappaghtowne. As the parish belonged to the Bishop of Limerick, it had obviously developed under Church patronage. One further factor of note about the village in 1841 was the presence of eight Constabulary Officers which suggests the troubles around the area in the 1820s, culminating in the shooting of Captain Going.

Of the earlier deserted villages perhaps the most significant was that of Castlematrix. Castlematrix or Castle Mattress gets its name from the original Lords of Rathkeale. The Manor of Rathkeale was centred on the townlands of Castlematrix and Courtmatrix. Interestingly both townlands were the centre of earlier settlements. Castlematrix is recorded in the 1640s as containing a small village along with a mill. However, the inhabitants of the village were probably cleared at a later date by a member of the Southwell family, and probably these people were to be the original inhabitants of Church Street, the only street in Rathkeale to be part of the Southwell estate. The remainder of the town had the Abbey as the focus of its development. This is clear from the Peyton Survey of 1588, which shows the lands of the Abbey to be the centre for the annual market and records the presence of buildings which could be rented as `shops' in this area. The Civil Survey in 1654 and the 1659 Census provide us with a picture of a town stretching from the Abbey towards the Deel Bridge, containing over 600 inhabitants, where most of the property owners were old English. This implies that, contrary to McCarthy-Murrough's opinion, Rathkeale was not in fact a plantation town but had much older roots and far more substantial than people thought (Kilmallock about this time with possibly 3,000 inhabitants was almost certainly the largest inland town in the county and among the five largest in the country as a whole). Rathkeale would have been second only to Kilmallock in Co. Limerick.

There also appears to have been an earlier settlement at Courtmatrix where, during the Irish rebellion of 1641, the Southwell papers record that fifteen houses at Courtmatrix had been burned. This site (probably the site of an English village) was superseded by the later Palatine settlement. Today, in an attempt to trace evidence of deserted villages from this era, historians are using two methods. Firstly, there is aerial photography, which gives a clearer view of ruins from the air than exists on the ground. There is also the 1659 Census. In the case of Rathkeale parish, apart from giving knowledge of the existence of Ballyalinan village which has long been known, the Census also suggests the existence of a village at Ballyea of which no reference or evidence previously existed.

Other villages certainly existed at Nantenan near the Fair Green on the edge of the Royse Estate and Cloghnarold House. Again the village is suggested in the correspondence of the Southwells but is also supported by the presence of the ruins of an old church close to the house. The house was built on the side of an old castle. This practice was quite common in Ireland and in the neighbourhood of Rathkeale the most noticeable example appears to be Mount Southwell which, it has been suggested, was built on the site of Rathkeale Castle. If this is true, one should also be aware of the fact that the Rath (Fort) of Caola, from which Rathkeale gets its name, is situated near the Shrine. This suggests continuous settlement at the western end of town for at least one thousand years and is supported by the finding in the last century of a bracelet on an ecclesiastical site in Rathkeale, though this church was never identified. The bracelet was believed to have dated from the Bronze Age but recently this has been dated to the Viking period.

This article has sought to identify the rich artefacts on the landscape around Rathkeale and, in so doing, throw some light on the history of Rathkeale town. As can be seen, the town has in past periods been the centre of prosperous rural communities. The fact that these villages went into decline is usually linked with periods of crisis in Irish history. Thus villages like Ballyalinan, Cloghnarold and Ballyea (if indeed there was a village there) almost certainly went into decline in the wake of the Cromwell era. Later, villages such as Courtmatrix, Cappagh, Nantenan and Killiheen owe their decline to emigration in the wake of the Famine, if not the Famine itself.

However, another aspect of local history which has had little attention paid to it is the extent to which outside groups settled in the vicinity of Rathkeale. Most Irish parishes had to integrate English and Anglo-Norman settlers, however small these settlements. Rathkeale not only integrated these groups, but also the Palatine community and a Scottish settlement. The Scottish settlement was based in Ballyalinan and was introduced by the Earl of Desmond. They belonged to the MacSheehy clan and were settled as Gallowglass (members of Desmond's army). This tradition of integrating outside communities makes Rathkeale a unique example of a melting pot in Irish history. It continues today to have a large number of travellers who choose to make Rathkeale their permanent residence. In the past, local landlords helped integrate these groups into our community. If the travellers are to be integrated into Rathkeale, then a future has also to be guaranteed for the settled community. It is the time for a new benefactor to help in this process, namely the Irish Government, otherwise one fears that the long-term future of the town itself will be in question.

A set of early photographs of Rathkeale are available from the National Library in Ireland.


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