This morning we had a cup of tea with Jessica Cooke, the owner of Annaghdown Castle- a Norman tower house, the most common type of the castles of Ireland.
I was curious as to how she came to own and renovate a real life medieval Irish castle.
Jessica’s dad, Ray Cooke, a Galway man, had a career as a civil engineer. A lot of his work involved the restoration of historic buildings in Dublin and London. Restoration was close to his heart. In the 1970's, Ray’s hobby was to go look at castles and castle ruins all over just for the love of it. He looked at a lot of Norman Tower Houses and he brought his brother along.
From left: Tara, Susanna, and Jessica having tea at Jessica's place
One day he found Annaghdown castle and fell in love with it. It was a ruin in a bad state. The spiral staircase had been broken, and the battlements pushed off by Cromwellian soldiers in order to render the castle useless as a fortification. After centuries of disuse the roof was gone, and all the structural timber had rotted away.
However, Ray and his brother decided to approach the owner to see if they might be interested in a sale. The castle was owned by an elderly lady who was a local character, Lady Cusack-Smith. She had no plans with the castle.
After some negotiations, Ray persuaded the lady to sell him the castle ruin. The price was fixed at some 2000 Irish Pounds.
This was the 1970ies. Norman tower houses were not particularly popular back then. People did not consider them Irish. They were seen as a symbol of English invasions, having been built by the Anglo-Normans who followed Strongbow.
However, this turns out to be nothing more than prejudice. The truth is, that even though the Normans had brought the technology and built a lot of them, Irish chieftains built them as well. The 15th century in particular saw a building boom of castles among the Irish.
The tower house seen from the road on an autumn evening.
Being a child, Jessica remembers climbing around the ruin of the castle every time the family was over here at weekends and during holidays to visit relations. She became familiar with the structure and grew to love it. ‘I remember at one point falling down the castle steps’, she says. The spiral staircase had been destroyed by Cromwell’s army.
Jessica went on to study Ancient History, Medieval English and Archaeology at Trinity followed by a PhD programme in Cambridge, here she met her future husband Sean Faughnan.
While living in London, the couple travelled to Galway for Jessica’s granddad’s funeral in 1997.
‘So, what about this castle then’, Sean asked.
He had heard all about it of course. Jessica’s dads’ response was:
‘Nah, just forget it, it’s too complicated.’
But Sean insisted he wanted to see the place anyway. So they took the trip out to Annaghdown. Sean took one look- and was blow away by it. Having worked in banking for years, he had been looking for a focus, for something to get involved in. Restoration of the 15th century Annaghdown Castle would be this new project.
Artifacts found during the reconstruction of the castle: a chisel at the far left, to the right of that a hand sickle, top right from there two heavy door nails, below those left over bits of a clay pipe, below that the top of a medieval wine bottle, some pieces of pottery, and above those in the middle the star piece I loved best- a musket ball, unused (if used it would be flattened). What a find!
Now that they had a team of three, they applied for planning permission to renovate the building. Tower houses are generally not listed as National heritage, so there is more freedom as to how to restore them, but this family was looking to do an authentic reconstruction.
The next stage was an archaeological dig which turned up items similar to those seen on the photo above. The findings were sent to the National Museum. Later, during the renovation, more similar items turned up.
Jessica herself found the only available evidence that the castle had featured battlements, a piece of broken battlement lying upside down just where it had fallen when the castle was destroyed mid seventeenth century by Cromwellian soldiers.
Sean was instrumental in negotiating the purchase of surrounding land in order to create access to the castle. Some years later, when Jessica was expecting their first child, he organised another small miracle, the purchase of a family home right next door to Annaghdown castle. So, finally, when their daughter was due to start school, the family was able to move back to Ireland and to take on the bulk of the challenge- the renovation work itself.
Annaghdown Castle in its' picturesque setting here in the summer seen from the lake.
Jessica’s dad, Ray, took on the project management which, being an engineer familiar with this type of restoration work, came naturally. It has been a difficult project, a puzzle and an obstacle course from the word go, but now the restored castle is really beginning to take shape.
When making decisions on how to restore castle features, the family strove to look for solutions that were as authentic as possible. Choosing between the different phases of the building, they decided sometimes to go with the 17th century features, and sometimes with 15th century ones. They got lots of advice from organisations such as Dúchas. During the process they involved many local crafts people such as stone masons and carpenters who all used traditional techniques or designs.
Plans for the future? The next stage will be to furnish Annaghdown castle. Jessica is now restoring a number of antique furniture pieces for this purpose. And then? ‘Well, at some stage, whenever we are ready’, Jessica says, ‘the castle will be available for rental for events and as holiday accommodation. But we are not setting ourselves a deadline.’ We wish Jessica, Ray and Sean the best of luck with this amazing project.
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