Once we finished thanking the landowner at Ringhaddy it was time to be on our way again. This time we had set our sights on Sketrick Castle. I’ll be honest and admit that after nearly twenty years living in Belfast I should have managed to get to see this site before now. When standing at Nendrum monastic site, I’ve certainly wanted to – it’s barely over 1km away … as the crow flies … however, as the crow drives, it’s nearly a half-our over back roads. Inevitably, we put it off saying ‘Next time! … Definitely next time!’ Well … it took a while, but this is the time!
Sketrick is today the shattered remnant of a large tower house and bawn wall. The earliest mention of the site is in the Annals of the Four Masters, who note that the castle of ‘Sgathdeirge’ was captured by Henry O’Neill in 1470. This has led to the reasonable assumption that the building dates to approximately the middle of the 15th century. However, more recent research suggests that the large Tower House is actually of 16th century date, but built on earlier foundations. Sometime before 1534 there is a reference to the Earl of Kildare bringing ‘one great potgonne of Irne … to ye Castell of Scatryke in the Northe of Ireland’. The castle was captured by the constable of Carlingford Castle, John Prowse in 1536. After this point, as the Archaeological Survey of County Down puts it: “although appearing not infrequently on maps, further mention of Sketrick does not occur in the records”. By all accounts, the castle remained in relatively good condition until a fateful storm in 1896 took most of it away. Today, only the ground floor survives with any degree of completeness, thought the castle does survive to its full height of four stories in the north-east corner. Although my children made a good attempt at scaling the walls, only the ground floor is really accessible. Here, like at Mahee Castle, the central chamber was a boat bay or similar storeroom. As at Mahee, this is the only opening facing the road and access to the main chamber was either via this passage or through the doorway in the east wall (though the access at Mahee is slightly different). The doorway in the east wall is defended by a ‘murder hole’ above. The largest ground floor chamber was originally vaulted and has two ovens at the south end. On the north side of the castle, across from the boat bay, are two further rooms. The larger of the two is irregular in shape, with a single narrow slit window. The draw-bar holes in the jambs indicate that the door to this room could be secured from the inside. Within this chamber there’s a rather curious ‘room’ without windows. It is entered via a small square doorway, some distance above the ground and appears to only have been closed from the outside. The Archaeological Survey of County Down suggests that it was used as a prison, while the NIEA guidebook offers the interpretation of either a lock-up or treasury. The rectangular void in the thickness of the west wall is the base of a latrine shaft. Although the upper floors are badly ruined and inaccessible (despite the best efforts of two small children), the joist holes for wooden floors can clearly be seen. Where it survives, to the north and east, the protective bawn wall is relatively close (c 2m) to the castle walls. In the north-east corner of the bawn there is a low passageway that was discovered during site works in the 1950s. This passage runs almost 16m to the east, ending in a corbelled chamber over a fresh water spring. In typical fashion, the Chapples Minor were all for exploring this unlit path into the underworld and I was rather grateful that it was inaccessible. While I admired the architecture and the views, the Chapples Minor were frustrated with the lack of climbable surfaces, their inability to explore the ‘cave’, and the fact that there wasn’t much opportunity for a really good game of hide-and-seek or chasing. Leaving these egregious deficiencies aside, it is a truly lovely site in a gorgeous landscape and well worth the time to visit.