I grew up hearing tales of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Geoffrey O’Connell, Lord of Ballycarbery Castle. My imagination filled in the details of an imposing stone castle with drawbridge and gate, men on horseback, and grand halls, and my ancestor, ruling over it all. As I researched my family history I found that some of the details were embellished over time, such as Geoffrey O’Connell’s title. Rather than being a lord of the castle, he and many other generations of O’Connells served the McCarthy chieftain of the area. While my ancestors were only stewards of the castle and lands, this did not detract from the family story for me.
I grew up well before the internet age, but my children did not. While they were learning about our family history, my oldest son asked if Ballycarbery Castle still existed. I had never considered this possibility! In my mind, the geography of this family tale was as disconnected from reality as Camelot or Narnia. Before I could register it as a possibility, my son had pulled up a photo of the present day Ballycarbery Castle on the computer, and was reading all about the history of the Ballycarbery Castle.
It was several years later that I was able to travel back to Ireland and I was determined to see if I could find Ballycarbery Castle. I was delighted to find it well marked and easily accessible. We parked the car and walked through the cow field up to the castle. Walking through the bawn, the outer wall, we found the building remains were open and easy to enter. Soon I was scrambling up an inner stairway, to emerge onto the ruins of the second floor of this amazing building. While the road-facing side of the castle is relatively intact, the back side is not, the result of cannon fire by Cromwell’s troops in the 1600’s. The upper story is open to the elements: grass grows over it, ivy covers the walls, rooks nest in the highest tower. And yet the structure of the building remains, with beautiful stone arches, arrow slit windows, and even the channel in the front wall where the portcullis once slid down over the gate.
Since that first discovery of the real life Ballycarbery, I have returned many times. I have brought my own family members to stand in the place where our ancestors stood, and I have brought friends and tour participants. While it is understandable that it resonates with our family, I am always struck by how it affects everyone who visits it. Perhaps it is the way this ancient castle structure is clearly visible despite the centuries of abandonment, which allows the ivy and rooks to reign supreme. Whatever it is, I feel a magic in this place, and I hope some day you too will get to experience this very special spot.