Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mahee Castle, Co. Down

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As a follow-up to my recent piece on the monastic site and stone carving collection at Nendrum monastic site [here], I thought I should make some mention of Mahee, or ‘Nendrum’ Castle. It’s only a short distance from Nendrum, but is located on a bend with no place for parking, so it’s probably missed by the majority who make the trip out there. My advice is to park at the monastery and walk the couple of hundred metres back to take in this lovely little site.

Mahee Castle from the road,
with the modern road bridge to the right & Strangford Lough behind
The site is the remains of a tower house, built around 1570 by a Captain Thomas Browne after a petition to the Bishop of Down. It is sited at the original fording point onto Mahee Island. Today, the tower partially survives to three stories in height. The ground floor was divided into two rooms. As Ó Baoill notes (see below): ‘the west chamber contains the entrance, murder-hole, stairwell and vaulted ceiling; the east chamber, once thought to be a boathouse akin to that of nearby Sketrick Castle, consists of a wide vault of several building phases.’ Portions of a defensive ‘bawn’ wall survive to the south-west of the site

Satellite image of Mahee Castle (circled) with Nendrum
Monastery in the bottom, centre of the image (Source)
The structure does not appear to have been of particularly long duration and was abandoned and fell into ruin early in the following century. Some of the stone is believed to have been deliberately robbed out for various local building projects, including creating the causeway to the site that superseded the current road bridge. In 1923 H. C. Lawlor and the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society took on the task of renovating the structure – this would have been at the same time they were engaged in excavating at Nendrum. To prevent further damage to the castle through erosion, they constructed a buttress wall to support the north-east corner. They also removed the ivy from the walls and cemented up the cracks, along with waterproofing the wall tops.

A view through the main entrance to the modern road
Since Lawlor’s time at the castle, there have been two sets of archaeological excavations carried out in advance of restoration ad consolidation efforts. The first, in 2001, was carried out by Ruairí Ó Baoill [summary report: here]. The excavation concentrated on the area between the bawn wall and the castle proper. Here the stratigraphy survived to a depth of 1.5m and revealed the existence of a horseshoe-shaped drystone wall that the excavator variously interpreted as either the possible footing for a wooden superstructure, or part of the elaborate system of drains employed by the site. Whatever the precise function, the excavation confirmed that the bawn wall, horseshoe-shaped wall, and the drains were all of 17th century date. Much of the area between the castle and the bawn wall contained a rough cobbled surface that extended inside the tower, into the south-east chamber and was contemporary with the earliest phase of castle construction.  During the 19th century the structure was used to house animals and was re-cobbled at this time. A further drainage system was also constructed as part of these works. The breach in the wall between the two ground floor chambers was examined and found to have once held a formal doorway, now with only one portion of a stop-chamfered sandstone jamb surviving. Although only a small portion of the north-western chamber was excavated, evidence was recovered of a metalled clay floor cut by a number of stake-holes. Ó Baoill argues that the stake-holes may relate to the scaffolding necessary to construct the arched vault. A trench opened against the north-east wall showed a cobbled surface and a pair of walls abutting the tower, possibly part of an ancillary building or outhouse. The artefact assemblage included a variety of metal objects, including knives, pins, and keys. Datable pottery spanned the period from the late medieval to the 20th century. Finds of worked bone and slate were also made, along with significant quantities of unworked animal bone and shell. A single piece of a human cranium was also recovered. Significantly, the dating of the finds indicates that this area was inhabited prior to the construction of the castle. With regard to the castle itself, the evidence indicated that the structure was constructed in two phases and that the bawn wall and drainage system were created in the late 17th century.

The shattered remains of the castle today.
Note the holes in the rear wall for beams to support a wooden floor
A second set of excavations were carried out in the following year (2002), this time directed by Philip Macdonald. The aim here was to excavate the remaining area between the revetment wall and the tower house, begun by Ó Baoill. Evidence recovered from this area included various dumps of building rubble and hill wash deposits, suggesting that the destruction of the tower had occurred as a series of relatively small collapses, rather than one single, catastrophic episode. Among this material was an almost complete sandstone window jamb. The inherent softness of the stone, coupled with its relatively unweathered state is taken by the excavator to suggest ‘that it had not been exposed to the elements for a long period before its deposition’, and that the tower had not been in existence for particularly long before it was abandoned and collapsed. Below this was ‘a thin but extensive, charcoal-rich, loamy deposit that represents an occupation deposit’ that butted up against the revetment wall. As with the previous excavation, the recovered artefacts included a variety of ceramics, glass, pottery, and animal bone.

Interior of the ground-floor chambers
As I always say with these type of posts: I hope you enjoy the photos, but please consider coming to visit Northern Ireland in person. If you’re lucky enough to live here already, why not get out and see them yourself?

The rear wall of the castle
For you delight and delectation, I have placed a couple of 3D (anaglyph) views of the castle: here. To view these images, you’ll need to buy a set of the red/blue kind (or make your own).

Suggested reading

Bigger, F. J. 1905 ‘Miscellanea: Inis Mahee, Lough StrangfordUlster Journal of Archaeology 11, 2nd Series, 192.

Macdonald, P. n. d. Excavations at Mahee Castle, Co. Down. DSR No. 11. CAF, QUB.

Reeves, W. 1902 ‘A description of Nendrum, commonly called Mahee Island, embracing its present condition and past history Ulster Journal of Archaeology 8, 2nd Series, 13-22.

Reeves, W. 1902 ‘A description of Nendrum, commonly called Mahee Island, embracing its present condition and past history’ [and: here] Ulster Journal of Archaeology 8, 2nd Series, 58-68.