02 March 2013
In the trees and the woods of Kilcash
On the way back to Dublin from Ardmore, Co Waterford, just as dusk was about to cover the countryside of the south-east, I stopped on the road between Clonmel and Callan, and took a detour off the N24 up the slopes of Slievenamon in south Co Tipperary, to see the ruins of the old churchyard and the ruins of Kilcash Castle, which is famed in song, folklore and legend.
The manor of Kilcash passed from the Wall family to the Ormond Butlers of Kilkenny Castle in the 16th century, and played an important part in the story of the Ormond Butlers for many generations. John Butler of Kilcash, the third son of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, was the first of the family to live at Kilcash Castle, and his descendants eventually became heirs to the Ormond titles and estates.
I first stopped to visit Kilcash Church, where four of five generation of the Comerford family were buried in the chancel from the late 17th century on.
This is a mediaeval church with a fine Romanesque doorway. Some of the 18th century headstones in the church and the churchyard are carved with elaborate crucifixion scenes. The church was partly repaired in the 1980s, but the graveyard is overgrown and the gravestones were difficult to read in the fading light.
A few paces to the east of the church, the Butler mausoleum in the churchyard is almost as large as the church itself. The Butlers buried inside include Christopher Butler (1673–1757) of Kilcash, who succeeded as Archbishop of Cashel after Archbishop Edward Comerford died in 1710; his sister in-law, Margaret Butler, previously Lady Iveagh, Viscountess Iveagh (died 1744); their nephew, Walter Butler, de jure 16th Earl of Ormond (1703-1783); and his son, John Butler (1740-1795), 17th Earl of Ormond.
A little further up the hillside, Kilcash Castle has a fortified tower dating from the 16th century, and the ruins of an adjoining hall that was added at a later date.
The castle is best known for the song A Lament for Kilcash (Caoine Cill Chaise), which mourns the death of Margaret Butler, Viscountess Iveagh (d. 1744). She was born Lady Margaret Burke, daughter of the Earl of Clanrickarde. Her first husband, Brian Maginnis (Mac Guinness), Viscount Iveagh, was attainted as a Jacobite in 1691. She was widowed when he died fighting in the Austrian imperial army, and in 1696 she then married her second husband Colonel Thomas Butler (died 1738) of Kilcash Castle.
Although Thomas Butler was a member of the Church of Ireland, the couple sheltered a number of Gaelic poets and Catholic priests and bishops, including Archbishop Christopher Butler, in Kilcash Castle.
When John Butler (1740-1795) established his rights as the 17th Earl of Ormond, the family moved to Kilkenny Castle. By 1800, parts of the Kilcash estate were sold, and by the mid-19th century the castle had fallen into ruin. During the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, the castle was occupied by anti-treaty forces artillery fire further damaged an already dilapidated castle.
By the late 20th century Kilcash Castle was in a dangerous state of repair, and it was sold to the State by the trustees of the Ormond estate for £500 in 1997. It is undergoing extensive structural repairs to save it from collapsing. But this means it is covered in scaffolding and the site is closed off to visitors.
The author of the popular Irish poem and song Cill Chaise (Kilcash) casts himself back in time to mourn the death of Margaret Butler, the former Lady Iveagh, in 1744. Her death moves the writer to lament her tolerance and to compare the cutting down of the woods of Kilcash with the destruction of the Gaelic way of life.
But the woods were not destroyed by the English, but through their sale by the Butler family, who needed the income to supplement their new lifestyle in Kilkenny Castle.
Traditionally, the poem has been attributed to Father John Lane, Parish Priest of nearby Carrick-on-Suir, who was educated for the priesthood at the expense of the former Lady Iveagh, the deagh-bhean or good lady in the song. However, the dating is misplaced, for Father Lane died in 1776 and the sale of the timber at Kilcash was not advertised in local newspapers until 1797.
Although the timber was sold off between 1797 and 1801, the earliest manuscripts of the text do not appear for another 40 years, which means Cill Chaise was written no earlier than the early 1800s, but perhaps much later. The air seems to be Bliadhin ’sa taca so phós mé (This time twelve months I married), which was collected by George Petrie in Clare and published in 1855.
The best account Kilcash, including the history of the castle, the church, the churchyard, the poem, and the graves, is given by John Flood and Phil Flood in their book Kilcash, A History, 1190-1801 (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1999).
Caoine Cill Chaise
Créad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad,
tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár;
níl trácht ar Chill Chais ná a teaghlach,
is ní bainfear a cling go bráth;
an áit úd ina gcónaíodh an deighbhean
a fuair gradam is meidhir tar mhná,
bhíodh iarlaí ag tarraing tar toinn ann,
is an tAifreann binn á rá.
Is é mo chreach fhada is mo léan goirt
do gheataí breá néata ar lár,
an avenue ghreanta faoi shaothar
is gan foscadh ar aon taobh den walk,
an chúirt bhreá a sileadh an braon di
is an ghasra shéimh go tláith,
is in leabhar na marbh do léitear an tEaspag is Lady Iveagh!
Ní chluinim fuaim lacha ná gé ann
ná fiolair ag déanadh aeir cois cuain,
ná fiú na mbeacha chum saothair
a thabharfadh mil agus céir don tslua,
níl ceol binn milis na n-éan ann
le hamharc an lae a dhul uainn,
ná an chuaichín i mbarra na ngéag ann,
– ó, ’sí a chuirfeadh an saol chum suain!
Nuair a thigeann na poic faoi na sléibhte
is an gunna lena dtaobh is an líon
féachann siad anuas le léan ar
an mbaile a fuair sway in gach tír;
an fhaiche bhreá aoibhinn ina réabacha
is gan foscadh ar aon taobh ón tsín,
páirc an phaddock ina dairy
mar a mbíodh an eilit ag déanadh a scíth’!
Tá ceo ag titim ar chraobhaibh ann
ná glanann le grian ná lá,
tá smúit ag titim ón spéir ann,
is a cuid uisce go léir ag trá;
níl coll, níl cuileann, níl caora ann,
ach clocha agus maolchlocháin;
páirc na foraoise gan chraobh ann,
is d’imigh an game chum fáin!
Anois mar bharr ar gach mí-ghreann
chuaigh prionsa na nGael tar sáil,
anonn le hainnir na míne
fuair gairm sa bhFrainc is sa Spáinn –
anois tá a cuallacht á caoineadh,
gheibheadh airgead buí agus bán,
’sí ná tógfadh seilbh na ndaoine,
acht caraid na bhfíorbhochtán.
Aitím ar Mhuire is ar Íosa
go dtaga sí arís chughainn slán,
go mbeidh rincí fada ag gabháil timpeall,
ceol veidhlín is tinte cnámh,
go dtógfar an baile seo ár sinsear
Cill Chais bhreá arís go hard,
is go brách nó go dtiocfaidh an díleann
ní fheicfear í arís ar lár!
A Lament for Kilcash (translation by Thomas Kinsella)
Now what will we do for timber,
with the last of the woods laid low?
There’s no talk of Cill Chais or its household
and its bell will be struck no more.
That dwelling where lived the good lady
most honoured and joyous of women
– earls made their way over wave there
and the sweet Mass once was said.
Ducks’ voices nor geese do I hear there,
nor the eagle’s cry over the bay,
nor even the bees at their labour
bringing honey and wax to us all.
No birdsong there, sweet and delightful,
as we watch the sun go down,
nor cuckoo on top of the branches
settling the world to rest.
A mist on the boughs is descending
neither daylight nor sun can clear.
A stain from the sky is descending
and the waters receding away.
No hazel nor holly nor berry
but boulders and bare stone heaps,
not a branch in our neighbourly haggard,
and the game all scattered and gone.
Then a climax to all of our misery:
the prince of the Gael is abroad
oversea with that maiden of mildness
who found honour in France and Spain.
Her company now must lament her,
who would give yellow money and white
– she who’d never take land from the people
but was friend to the truly poor.
I call upon Mary and Jesus
to send her safe home again:
dances we’ll have in long circles
and bone-fires and violin music;
that Cill Chais, the townland of our fathers,
will rise handsome on high once more
and till doom – or the Deluge returns –
we’ll see it no more laid low.