Of all the places in Ireland associated with Spenser, Kilcolman Castle is most prominent. It is situated in north-central County Cork, roughly half-way between the cities of Cork and Limerick, 3.25 miles North-Northwest of the town of Doneraile (archaeological survey map).
It sits on a low-lying ridge next to a marshy, seasonal lake to the south of the castle (image gallery). The lake would have acted as a defensive barrier and would have attracted waterfowl and other animals that could be hunted: a marsh was not a wasteland, therefore, but a valuable resource. Kilcolman today lies adjacent to a bird sanctuary and is on private property. To the north and north-east stretch the low-lying Ballyhoura Mountains.
The area was occupied long before Spenser arrived. David Newman Johnson, in the most extensive description of the castle’s history, describes early-medieval church sites and other monuments close by, including prehistoric ones. An Iron Age (c. 100BCE-400CE) fort lay elsewhere on the ridge, for example (Johnson 422). Later medieval settlements, including churches and monasteries, were built in the vicinity of the nearby town of Doneraile and environs (archaeological survey map). The name Kilcolman means ”church of Colman,” referring to a legendary saint from the sixth century CE who was famous as a royal poet (appropriately enough!). An early Christian church named after the saint would have stood nearby (Johnson 418-9).
Intriguingly, given its description as a “manor“ in the original grant to Spenser, Johnson suggests that a “small medieval settlement“ may have existed along the ridge near the castle (422). If so, archaeology has yet to find it; only select portions of the site have been excavated (Klingelhofer 109-31).
Nearby castles that would have been occupied by Spenser’s Irish and Old English neighbors include Castlepook, a large tower house completed in 1380 and once owned by the Shynan family (Hadfield 206). It now stands in ruins about two miles to the east of Kilcolman (Castlepook). It may be alluded to when a threatening “Pook,“ or Irish spirit, is mentioned by the poet in his marriage poem, “Epithalamion“ (1595). The speaker of the poem also complains about the annoying croaking of frogs, whose descendants can still be found in the lake at Kilcolman.
The tower house structure was built in at least two stages before the time of Spenser’s occupation: a “four story tower-house... probably built by the sixth Earl of Desmond when he received the property from an uncle in 1418“ as well as later additions (de Breffny 146; Newman Johnson 421). Walter A. Jones (239; see also Henley 72), states that the castle was built in 1347 by the first earl of Desmond, but Johnson supports de Breffny and based on his own judgement of the building construction dismisses the earlier date in favor of the 1420s. Kenneth Nicholls (190) states that Kilcolman was acquired by the Desmonds, c. 1430, from William, Lord Barry. The Barry family, along with the Roches, were Spenser’s most powerful Old English aristocratic neighbors.
In the later-sixteenth century, the castle was acquired by Sir John Fitzgerald of Desmond (Nicholls 190), brother of the fifteenth, ”Rebel" Earl of Desmond. Johnson (419) follows Jones (239) in stating that it was owned by the Sidneys for a time in 1568 [intriguingly, Sir Henry Sidney also owned, in 1576, Bridgetown Friary near Kilcolman; it passed on to Spenser’s fellow-author, Lodowick Bryskett (Hadfield 363)]. According to Spenser’s own testimony in government documents, the estate was owned by Sir John at the time of the Desmond rebellion (1579-1583), when both Sir John and his brother the earl rebelled and were killed. Kilcolman, like other estates owned by the Desmonds, was among those attainted, or made forfeit to the crown, and thus became part of the Munster Plantation.
Spenser acquired the castle from the English undertaker Andrew Reade of Facombe, County Southampton, to whom it had first been assigned in 1587. Spenser's name appears on the Articles for the Undertakers (June 27, 1586) but not in association with Kilcolman. Spenser acquired the property from Reade sometime before 1589, by which time the castle had presumably become the poet's main residence. Spenser was granted 3,028 acres of land and the castle by formal patent (October 26, 1590); he may have owned many more acres on the estate which were unfarmable or “waste.“ The same patent names the castle “Hap Hazard.“
Spenser probably lived on site for approximately the last decade of his life (1589-1599), with intermittent travels as far as London. From 1589 until at least 1594, Spenser (and some of his New English neighbors) entered into prolonged lawsuits with his Old English neighbor, Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount Fermoy, and his tenants, including Nicholas Shynan, over various parcels of land in and around Kilcolman. Lord Roche apparently claimed all of Kilcolman from Spenser (Heffner). Spenser lost part of the estate to Roche in 1592, but retained most of it, and he acquired lands nearby in the late 1590s, including Buttevant Friary, in the town of Doneraile (Buttevant), and the major castle (now demolished) and estate of Renny (Hadfield 362-3). The poet fled Kilcolman before it was sacked and burned in October, 1598, when the Munster Plantation was overrun by native Irish forces during the Nine Years’ War. Following Spenser's death in January, 1599, and the end of the war in 1603, the estate reverted to Spenser's wife and family.
Sir Walter Raleigh may have visited Spenser at Kilcolman in 1589, before both men made a journey to London to conduct business and to present The Faerie Queene to Queen Elizabeth and her court. The first three books of the poem were dedicated in part to Raleigh and published in London in 1590. Spenser allegorizes himself and Raleigh as shepherds “piping“ back and forth at Kilcolman, as if in a poetry contest, in his poem “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe“ (c. 1591; published 1595). Spenser records that Raleigh piped him portions of a “lamentable lay” dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, most likely Raleigh's poetic fragment, “Oceans Love to Cynthia” (unpublished until the twentieth century). Legend has it that Raleigh and Spenser read their poetry to each other and shared tobacco pipes in the window-seat of the second story of the castle, called “Raleigh’s window.“ (Spenser and Raleigh; Raleigh’s window)
Building Types and History
The ruins of Kilcolman today consist primarily of a tower house, a highly common form of small castle built in Ireland from the fourteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. The greatest concentration of these structures is in Munster. The ruins of Kilcolman today can be seen in the image gallery on this website (image gallery). Tower houses were usually surrounded by a “bawn“ or fortified wall to keep cattle in and raiders out. A small ruined south-east corner of the bawn can be seen above ground at Kilcolman.
It is uncertain how many stories the tower house would originally have had; six was not uncommon for the type (Johnson 421; our reconstruction is approximately six stories tall, including the roof and crenellations). As demonstrated by excavations conducted in the 1990s by Eric Klingelhofer, hence post-dating Johnson’s study, additions to the castle would have included the outlying Great Hall, probably built in the fifteenth century at the same time as the southern bawn wall; a south-facing cellar under the Great Hall was later filled in and a garderobe added onto the south-east corner (Klingelhofer 117). A kitchen also probably stood on premises. The substantive Ground-Floor Parlor situated between the Great Hall and the Tower House was added sometime in the sixteenth century. This Parlor has been likened to a "privy chamber" by Tadhg O'Keeffe (13). It, along with the other structures, was burnt in 1598 and again c. 1615 (Klingelhofer 122), when it was owned by Spenser’s son, Sylvanus (Life at Kilcolman: arrangement and uses of buildings). The ruin as it stands today also has additions to it built during the nineteenth century (image gallery).
Brian de Breffny, Castles of Ireland (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977): 146-7.
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012).
Ray Heffner, “Spenser’s Acquisition of Kilcolman.“ Modern Language Notes 46 (1931), 493-98.
Pauline Henley, Spenser in Ireland (Cork: Cork UP, 1928).
David Newman Johnson, “Kilcolman Castle.“ The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 417-22.
Walter A. Jones, “Doneraile and Vicinity.“ Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 7 (1901), 238-42.
Eric Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists: An archaeology of Elizabethan Ireland (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010).
Kenneth Nicholls, “The Development of Lordship in County Cork 1300-1600.“ Cork: History and Society. Ed. Patrick O’Flanagan and Cornelius G. Buttimer (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1993), 157-212.
Tadhg O'Keeffe, “Kilcolman Castle, Co. Cork: a New Interpretation of Edmund Spenser's Residence in Plantation Munster.“ International Journal of Historical Archaeology 20.1 (2016), 1-17.