History of Blackwater Castle

The history of the Castle extends back some thousands of years and there are clear indications that the site was first occupied during the early Mesolithic period (circa 10,000 years ago). There is also evidence of occupation of the site during the Iron Age (c. 500 BC and possibly even the late Bronze Age) when the fort of Dún Cruadha was established on the current site of Blackwater Castle.  With such an extensive history we have summarised the main points to give you an overview and followed it with more detail reflecting all periods of Irish history from ancient times to the present day.


10,000 years ago

First settlements (caves/flint scatter)

6,000+ years ago

Farming commences

2,500 + years ago

Fort established

2,000+ years ago

Cliadh Dubh built (remains visible)

2,000+ years ago

Defence Walls built (embankment visible)

2,000 years ago (circa)

Dún Cruadha established

250 AD (circa)

Caoille granted to Mogh Ruith

250 AD to 1014 AD (circa)

Mogh Ruith’s Descendants/O’Dubhagain Clan

1014 AD to 1,167 (circa)

Eoghanacht Royal Family of Cashel

1,001 AD to 1167 (circa)

O’Laoghaire Clan (sub Chieftains) rule Hi Bece Abha


Anglo Norman Invasion commences


Grant of lands to Fitz-Hugh brothers


Fitz-Hughs build Tower & Chapel (still standing)


Death of Raymond Fitz-Hugh


Alexander establishes Bridgetown Priory (in ruins)

Early 13th C – 1229

David de la Roche

1229 -1262

Gerald de la Roche

1262 – 1300 circa

David de la Roche

1300 – 1374

David de la Roche – First Lord Roche


Lord Roche knighted by King Edward III

1374 – 1387

John, Lord Roche

1387 – 1448

Maurice, Lord Roche

1448 – 1488

David The Great, Lord Roche, First Viscount of Fermoy


Construction of Keep (accessible throughout)

1470 (circa)

David created a Viscount

1488 – Early 16th Century

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy

Early 16th Century – 1544

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy

1544 – 1561

Maurice “The Mad”, Lord Roche, Viscount Fermoy

1561 – 1583

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy

1570 (circa)

Knighted by Sir Henry Sydney, Lord Deputy of Ireland

1565 & 1572

Receives letters from Queen Elizabeth I


Sir Henry Sydney visits Roche Castle


Start of the Decline of House of Roche


Sir Walter Raleigh takes the Castle

1583 – 1600

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy


Maurice imprisoned

1600 – 1635

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy


Appeals to Queen Elizabeth I

1635- 1670

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy


King Charles I summons Maurice to London


King Charles I releases Maurice from prison


Skirmishes by Lord Inchiquin


Cromwell’s forces attack – Lady Roche defends


Lady Roche hanged


Lord Roche surrenders and estate is confiscated


Estate awarded to Colonel John Widenham

1666 – 1963

Castle stays with Widenham family

1963 – 1976

Lord & Lady Cotter

1976 – 1991

Various owners

1991 – to date

Nordstrom Family Trust




The history of Blackwater Castle extends back some 10,000 years.   An extensive flint scatter from the early Mesolithic era was found in Kilcummer (on lands formerly owned by the Castle and just outside the current boundary of the estate)  confirming the area was settled at least 10,000 years ago.  In excess of 300 pieces of worked flint were discovered and as tiny chips and a core of flint were also found this confirms that the tools were made at this location so it was obviously a settlement of some description. This find represents the earliest evidence of human settlement in Cork and one of the very few such sites in Ireland.

Caves on the south bank of the Awbeg opposite the Castle were likely occupied by early human settlements as they were located on fertile ground near a freshwater spring and adjacent to an extensive river system for navigation which also provided a food source. All this confirms that the region was an established site of settlement in the early Mesolithic era making it one of the first areas in Ireland to be settled when our very first inhabitants likely made their way across a land bridge (or perhaps sailed) from modern day Britain 10,000 years ago or more.  Our understanding of Mesolithic settlements in Ireland has recently been thoroughly upended with the revelation that a bear’ s knee bone which had been subjected to recent radio carbon dating revealed that it had been butchered by human hands in Ireland some 2,500 years earlier than the accepted date of the first human habitation. Accordingly we know from our flint scatter that the Castle grounds were occupied by humans some 10,000 years ago but in light of recent evidence may well have been occupied back in Paleolithic times. We would love to find something to shed some more light on this – oh to have the funds for an archaelogical dig!

Cave settled in Early Mesolithic

Entrance to one of the three caves located on the south bank of the River Awbeg opposite Blackwater Castle.


Ireland’s first farmers in the Neolithic period continued patterns of settlement in the area and used the network of rivers in the Blackwater Valley to trade with other settlements.  Trade and travel along the river network continued into the early Bronze Age when navigators used the various fulachta fiadhs located along the river banks as outdoor cooking sites.  One of these fulachta fiadhs was located at Kilcummer.

An example of a fulacht fiadh

A representation of a fulacht fiadh such as that found at Kilcummer 1 mile from Blackwater Castle.

BRONZE AGE ( 2,500 BC – 500 BC) AND IRON AGE (500 BC – 400 AD) IRELAND

The site upon which Blackwater Castle is built represents an inland promontory fort which type of structure was typically erected in the period 1,000 BC to 500 AD.   A promontory fort is a defensive structure located above a steep cliff, usually in a coastal location, often only connected to the mainland by a small neck of land, thus utilizing the topography to reduce the ramparts needed.  An aerial view of the Castle shows that the River Awbeg wraps around the outcrop upon which the Castle is constructed on three sides so the fort would only have needed to be defended from attack on one side making it an ideal location as a fortress.   We can conclude from the evidence with some degree of certainty that the site would have been occupied throughout the late Bronze Age and Iron Age as the Castle is built on the edge of a rocky promontory which is surrounded by the Awbeg River on three sides.  It also had its own fresh water supply and natural spring, was situated in the fertile hills of North Cork, and had ready access to the river system of the Blackwater and its various tributaries.  It was also immediately adjacent to the “highway” of the time, the Cliadh Dubh, an earthen bank or highway (or as recent excavations suggest perhaps a defensive wall) which was in place by at least 100 AD and which runs to the east of the Castle for some 16 miles from the Nagles Mountains to the Ballyhouras in County Limerick. A hoard of early bronze age copper axeheads dating from circa 2,500 BC was also found in Castletownroche near the Awbeg which adds weight to the possibility that the site was occupied even earlier than the on site evidence suggests and that it was indeed a fortress/settlement of sorts over 4,000 years ago.

There are traces of an outer defence wall/bank which runs across the fields on the approach to the Castle and would have formed part of the outer defence wall of the fortress.  Archaeologists are satisfied that these remnants are circa 2,000 years old.     The fort contained within this protective wall was known as Dún Cruadha which probably doesn’t refer to the fort of Cruadha (as in a person) but rather a fort built on a rock or a hard place from the Irish word for hard – “cruadh”.

A full archaeological survey of the area would undoubtedly reveal further treasures and help us to learn more of the pre-history and history of the site but for the present we can confirm that in the pre-historic era the area was occupied by early man circa 10,000 years ago and traces of a fortress from over 2,000 years ago are still in evidence here making Blackwater Castle a significant site of international importance.

An aerial view of Blackwater Castle

An aerial view of the site shows the commanding position of the Castle over the winding course of the River Awbeg.  When this site was a fortress the vegetation in the valley would have been kept to a minimum and the extensive woodlands you now see would not have existed – rather there would have been an exposed limestone outcrop surrounded by water on three sides – ideal for defence purposes.


Blackwater Castle once formed part of the ancient land known as “Caoille”, an area of approximately 250 square miles which covers the Barony of Fermoy and the Barony of Condons and Clangibbon and the modern day towns of Fermoy, Mallow and Mitchelstown.  Caoille was described by Patrick Power in his study of a medieval manuscript, “Crichad an Chaoilli”, as

“a pleasant, fruitful and desirable land it is – one of the richest agricultural tracts in Ireland – drained by the Avonmore and its tributaries to the North,  the Araglen, the Funshion, the Breagog and the Awbeg … decidedly a land worth fighting for  – fertile above the average, delightfully timbered, well cultivated and naturally protected from hostile attack and winter winds”.

The Siege of Knocklong – circa 250 AD 

We know quite a bit about Caoille from Crichad an Chaoilli (itself a remarkable and unique manuscript compiled in the 15th Century from sources written prior to the Anglo Norman Invasion in 1169 and most probably prior to the Synod of Rathbreasil in 1111) as the manuscript describes the topography and the ruling families of the area in some detail.  Legend also tells us that back in the 3rd Century Caoille was awarded to Mogh Ruith, a blind magician of significant magical powers, who hailed from Valentia Island.  The High King of Ireland at the time, Cormac mac Airt, was in financial difficulty and sought additional levies and taxes from the King of Munster, Fiacha Moilleathan (elsewhere called Mogh Corb), and a war ensued.  Cormac’s Druids magically deprived Munster of water so in desperation Fiacha called on Mogh Ruith and asked for help in return for which Mogh Ruith could have his pick of the land in Munster. Cormac was defeated by Mogh Ruith’s superior magic which restored water, conjured up magical hounds which destroyed Cormac’s Druids, and turned his breath into storms and men into stone.  Cormac’s defeat led to Mogh Ruith choosing the best land in Munster as his reward and he chose Caoille.

The granting of Caoille to Mogh Ruith is described by Power as follows:-

“The story is that Cormac mac Airt finding himself, like many high-placed people since his day in financial straits through living beyond his royal means, was advised to refill his coffers by an increase of taxation upon Munster. In an evil hour for himself, and notwithstanding the warnings of his more prudent councillors, he resolved to make the levy despite the opposition of Munster.  He is represented as marching south at the head of his army to threaten a recalcitrant province.  In the campaign Cormac’s chief weapon of attack seemed to have been magic.  Magic was also made use of – and to still better purpose – by the Munstermen.  When the druids of Cormac, by their spells, had succeeded in depriving Munster of water and reducing people and cattle to great want, the Munster King from his Dun at Knockgraffon sent messengers to Mogh Ruith promising his own reward, would he but come to his province’s aid. The druid, having examined the chief plains of Munster, chose Caoille for the recompense in question. Meeting magic by magic more powerful Mogh Ruith, like another Moses, defeated the soothsayers of Cormac, so that the High King had to retreat to Tara.” 

As both Cormac and Fiacha were documented as being High King and Provincial King respectively from the 3rd Century it is also likely that Mogh Ruith was a real figure (but perhaps not in possession of magical powers) and did come to the aid of Fiacha in some manner by forming an alliance with him which led to Caoille being awarded to him after The Siege of Knocklong.  Over the centuries many myths have evolved and attached themselves to figures in antiquity with the result that we cannot clearly separate fact from fiction. (For a more evocative description of the events and characters involved in the Siege of Knocklong or the Siege of Drum Damhgaire click here.) The grave cairn of Mogh Ruith himself is reputed to be at Corrin Hill south west of Fermoy (10 miles ffrom the Castle) and the grave of his wife “The Hag of Beara” (who is alleged to have murdered Mogh Ruith by pinning him to the bed of the River Funcheon by flinging a rock at him) is reputed to be at Labbacallee or The Hag’s Bed some 6 miles from the Castle. Labbacallee itself is Ireland’s largest wedge tomb and dates from circa 2,300 BC and is well worth a visit.  Perhaps there is some truth to the legend that Mogh Ruith’s wife was buried here as when the site was excavated in 1934 the decapitated skull of a woman was found.

Mogh Ruigh and his descendants ruled over Caoille from the 3rd Century after Cormac’s defeat and in the course of time took the name of O’Dubhagain/Duggan.  Later still O’Keeffe of the Eoghanach (or Royal Family of Cashel), who were the dominant family in Munster from the 7th to the 10th Centuries,  ousted the O’Dubhagain clan and by the time of the Anglo Norman Invasion in 1169 the O’Laoghaire/O’Leary clan was the ruling family of a section or “Tuatha” of Caoille which was by then known as the Tuatha of Hi Bece Abha.  The ruling Chieftain’s Castle had been located at Dún Cruadha which became Roche Castle, and is now the site of Blackwater Castle.

Hi Bece Abha

Power in his examination of the text of Crichad an Chaoilli describes Hi Bece Abha as follows:-

This is the only one of our Tuaths the name of which is derived from a physical feature.  In all the others the name is borrowed from the occupying people. Intimate association of land and its tillers is, however, also maintained even here, where the people get their collective designation from the soil, or rather from the river which drains it [Awbeg River]. The region is one of the most interesting (topographically) of the triucha and fortunately our surveyor is fairly full in his details.  Hi Bece Abha is in two divisions , Upper and Lower, representing two formerly independent tuaths.   The land is sound limestone plain with little waste, and is drained by the romantic Awbeg – well beloved of Spenser – as well as by the Blackwater. Rising away to the West, in Orrery, the Awbeg, after a long meander through the pleasant country immortalised by Canon Sheehan, and having washed the walls of Buttevant, Doneraile and Castletownroche, joins the Blackwater at Renny where once on a time dwelt Edmund Spenser”.

Dun Cruadha is also described as

“the ancient dun capped the commanding elevation, on west side of the Awbeg, now occupied by a modern mansion and the ruins of Roche’s Castle, associated with the “Book of Fermoy”. The O’Learys (Hi Laeghairi) of this place gave way to the Roches in the second half of the 12th century.”

In fact the O’Learys gave way not to the Roches as suggested by Power but initially to the Fitz-Hugh brothers.   Alexander and Raymond Fitz-Hugh, grandsons of Maurice Fitz-Gerald, were initially granted the Western portion of Caoille post 1170 after the first wave of the Anglo Norman Invasion.  The daughter of Alexander Fitz-Hugh, Synolda, married David de la Roche which alliance started the period of Roche overlordship which would last from the early 13th Century up to the mid-17th Century.

The Anglo Norman Invasion – Alexander and Raymond Fitz-Hugh

The fortunes of Dún Cruadha were transformed by the arrival of the Anglo Normans in Ireland from 1167.   A significant tract of land in the Western Fermoy area was allocated by Robert Fitz-Stephen to the brothers Alexander and Raymond Fitz-Hugh, (grandsons of Maurice Fitz-Gerald the head of the Geraldine Clan), who went on to make Dún Cruadha their principal settlement.  In time Dún Cruadha would become the dominant seat of power in the North Cork area becoming the seat of Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy who rules over the Barony of Fermoy, an extensive tract of land comprising the towns of Mallow, Fermoy, and Doneraile.

Maurice Fitzgerald

A drawing of Maurice FitzGerald, grandfather of the founders of Roche Castle, from a manuscript of the Expugnatio Hibernica, an account of the 1169 invasion of Ireland written in 1189 by Maurice’s nephew, Gerald of Wales

Alexander Fitz Hugh Bridgetown Priory

This head found in Bridgetown Priory, the priory established by Alexander between 1202 and 1216, carved in oolithic limestone imported in the 13th century from south-western Britain, is conceivably from an early effigial tomb and evidence suggests it represents Alexander. It is unusual to have depictions of these figures from the late 12th century but in our case we are fortunate to know what both Maurice Fitz Gerald and his grandson Alexander Fitz Hugh looked like.. 

Alexander Fitz-Hugh, who was pre-deceased by Raymond, began to consolidate his power base from the late 12th Century.  Work continued on his fortification around this time and the tower remains intact to this day.

Roche Castle Blackwater Castle

The 12th Century Tower with later Medievaladdition of Roche Castle.

In 1202 Alexander endowed the Augustinian Priory of Bridgetown  Priory, located over a mile from the Castle where the Awbeg meets the Blackwater, and which had been in existence for some time prior to the Anglo Norman conquest.   The endowment enabled the Priory to flourish under the patronage of Alexander and his successors and the ruins of this Priory are still in remarkable condition and open to the public.  The Roche tomb and the Roche family crest are still visible at the site. This Youtube link shows you an aerial view of the Priory.

Bridgetown Abbey

Bridgetown Priory located some 2 miles from Blackwater Castle where the Awbeg meets the Blackwater.

David de Rupe – David de la Roche – Early 13th Century – 1229

David de Rupe, was the son of one of the Anglo-Norman Invaders (or perhaps more accurately Cambro-Norman Invaders or “settlers”  or even “invitees” depending on your point of view) Rodebert Fitz-Godebert (son of Godebert Flendrensis of Rhos, Pembrokeshire, Wales).  Fitz-Godebert travelled to Ireland with Strongbow, and was of Flemish descent.  David becomes the founder of the Roche family in Cork on his marriage to Alexander Fitz-Hugh’s daughter Synolda and the first of the Roche line to become known as “de la Roche”. (Other sources contend that Synolda married an Adam de Rupe and not David and that the first Roche on site was accordingly Adam who may well have been a brother of David. The genealogical line here is not clearly established but our sources seem to confirm that David was the first Roche.) The name “Roche” has its origins in the prominent rock /”roch” on a projecting peninsula in Pembrokeshire in Wales (from where Strongbow, Fitz-Godebert and Fitz-Gerald came from) and over time the fort of Dun Cruadha became known as “Roche Castle” and the adjoining village became “Castletownroche”.

Gerald de Rupe – Gerald de la Roche – 1229 -1262

By all accounts the second Roche was a warlike man who was deemed at the time to be the “third best knight of his time in Ireland” and, in a manner befitting such a knight, died in battle in 1262.

David de Rupe – David de la Roche – 1262 – 1300 circa

This third Roche was chiefly distinguished by his marriage to Amicia de Caunteton, heiress of Fermoy, which firmly established the Roches in the region when the estates of the Roches merged with the significant holdings of the de Cauntetons (subsequently known as Condon) and the Roches triumphed over the Condons following years of litigation to assume the overlordship of the area.

Alexander de Rupe – Alexander de la Roche

Alexander had two sons, David and Ralph, and as Alexander predeceased his father the estate passed on his father’s death to his own son David.

roche family crest

David (de Rupe) de la Roche – Lord Roche– Sir David 1300 – 1374

David was a minor when he inherited his grandfather’s estate and had a long reign consolidating the influence of the Roches in the region.  In 1351 and 1356 we know he received letters from King Edward III indicating his position of power at the time. By the early 14thcentury he was known as Lord Roche and by 1358 he was signing letters as “Lord of Fermoy” and was the first of the Roches to assume this title.  Furthermore while previous incumbents were officially addressed as “de la Rupe” David became the first to be formally addressed as “de la Roche”. By the mid 14th Century many of the High Anglo Norman settlers had totally seceded from the English government and it was perhaps to affirm his loyalty to the Crown that he was knighted by King Edward III in 1365 which further cemented his degree of influence.  David also died in battle in 1374.

King Edward III

King Edward III knights David, Lord Roche.

John, Lord Roche – 1374 – 1387

John, the second Lord of Fermoy, was made Sheriff of Cork in 1382 and died after a relatively short period in power in 1387.

Maurice, Lord Roche – 1387 – 1448

Maurice was a minor when he came into his title and estate and had a long period of over lordship in the area and also acted as County Sheriff from 1422.

David Mór (The Great), Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy – 1448 – 1488

David Mór was again quite warlike in his approach to the over lordship and engaged in many local battles, invasions, and raids and was one of the most significant of the Lords Roche in terms of renown and importance.  His activity against rebels earned him further favour with the Crown and he was created a Viscount on an unknown date but some time before 1478.  It is under David’s reign that the construction of the keep that remains standing to this day began.  The keep acted not just as a last line of defence in the event of attack but, built some 75 feet above the river valley in a commanding position visible for miles around, it also served as a very striking reminder to all of the wealth and power of Lord Roche. It is likely that David is the Roche warrior buried in the tomb of Bridgetown Priory. See this link by Time Travel Ireland for some more detail on Bridgetown and images of the Priory and tomb of the fallen Roche knight.

The Roches generally and David Mór in particular were great patrons of the arts as would have been customary for such  powerful figures.  The manuscript The Book of Fermoy or The Book of Roche, now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, was written under the patronage of the Roches during the 14th-16th Centuries and contains a fragment of Lebor Gabála, a collection of poems and material relating to the Roche family, poems of Gearóid Iarla, lives of saints, historical tracts, genealogies, mythological tales and fragments of medical treatises.   One poem in particular is some 56 stanzas long extolling the virtues of Lord Roche.  The Book is of significant importance as a late Medieval manuscript given that so few have survived and while it is not in pristine condition (seemingly for a period part of it had served as a pot cover) it is still legible in parts and some work has been done in analysing its contents but in general it shines a light on the folklore and traditions of Ireland (which were diligently recorded by scribes down through the ages) and for our purposes it is invaluable in tracing the history of the Castle and the geneaology of its former residents.

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy – 1488 – Early 16th Century

The second Viscount of Fermoy continued the dominance of the Roche Family in the area and was a trusted servant of the Crown.  He was summoned to Greenwich by Henry VII along with other Irish peers confirming his position of power and influence in the region by then known as “Roche Country”.

King Henry VII

King Henry VII summons Maurice, Lord Roche to Greenwich.

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy – Early 16th Century – 1544

David carried on the Roche tradition of much raiding and invading but with continued fealty to the Crown.  The political importance of the Roche family at the time was acknowledged by William Wyse in a letter to Lord Cromwell where Roche is acknowledged to be on the government side.

Maurice “The Mad”, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy – 1544 – 1561

Sadly and, tantalisingly given his name, we know very little about this Lord Roche.  Invaluable historical documents were destroyed during the Irish Civil War on 30 June 1922 when a huge explosion of stored munitions destroyed the Public Records Office blowing to pieces one thousand years of Irish state and religious archives and with it a huge swathe of Irish cultural memory and historical documentation.  Many of the Court records have also been lost and as the Roches were quite litigious in their dealings with their neighbours (especially the Condons) we have no doubt lost valuable primary sources of information.

Destruction of the Public Records Office

Destruction of the Public Records Office in 1922.

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy  – 1561 – 1583

David was quite pragmatic and set about establishing the exact extent and value of his estate when he came into his inheritance and invested further in the purchase of lands thereby extending his estate and consolidating his influence in the region.  The Roches had always been recognised as loyal subjects but for the first time some doubt was raised as to the allegiance of David.  In a letter written by the Lord Lieutenant at the time, Thomas Sussex, he mentions a rumour that the Earl of Desmond had sworn Lord Roche to him.  There is a wider context to unrest by the Catholic overlords in Munster at this time.   There were rebellions by the Earl of Desmond, head of the Fitz-Gerald Dynasty in Munster, and his followers the Geraldines and their allies which were known as the Desmond Rebellions and which took place during the years 1569-1573 and 1579-1583. The rebellions were motivated primarily by the desire to maintain the independence of feudal lords from their monarch, but also had an element of religious antagonism between Catholic Geraldines and the Protestant English state. Despite these persistent rumours David continued to support the Crown and this loyalty was rewarded when Sir Henry Sidney knighted David.  He also received letters from Queen Elizabeth in 1565 requesting that he assist in maintaining order in the troublesome province and in 1572 he received a further letter thanking him for his continued support.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I corresponds with David, Lord Roche.

In 1576 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, visited Roche Castle and

 “lodged two nights by the way netherwards at my lo: Roches, where I and all my trayne were verie largely and bountiefullie entertayned”.

(The Roches, Lords of Fermoy, Eithne Donnelly, p24)

David’s position with the authorities however was not helped by the fact that his son Maurice and brother -in-law James Fitz-Maurice were openly on the side of the rebels with the consequence that his son’s activities in particular led to doubts being raised as to the trustworthiness of David.

Matters took a turn for the worse in 1580 at the height of the rebellion when Walter Raleigh (later Sir Walter Raleigh) succeeded (with a degree of cunning and deceit) in taking control of the Castle when he

“advanced to the Castle, attended by six men only, and the Chieftain (Lord Roche) received him with apparent cordiality.  Sir Walter contrived to keep him in conversation on various topics, while the men who accompanied him contrived to give entrance to all their companions fully armed, each musket containing two balls. Lord Roche, perceiving the Castle to be in the hands of the English, made a virtue of necessity, and addressing Sir Walter with kindness, ordered refreshments for his men, and invited him to dinner. He yielded when he could not resist and Sir Walter carried him to Cork that night, which proved dark and stormy…”

The Castles of County Cork, by James N. Healy, The Mercier Press, 1988, p.401

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh overcomes David, Lord Roche.

Was the suspicion surrounding Lord Roche justified? Four of his sons died defending the Crown in the Desmond Rebellion (Redmond, John, Ulick and Theobold).  Ironically it was another son, Maurice, who had been in open rebellion and was pardoned in 1580, was the son who succeeded to the title on his father’s death in 1583. The upheaval of the Desmond Rebellion and the attempts by the Crown to control the Chieftains led to David losing much of his influence due to the confiscation of a significant proportion of territory.  The stronghold of Roche Castle and the surrounding lands remained within the Roche family but the dominance the Roches enjoyed for nearly 4 centuries was beginning to wane.  The Roches would no longer control Roche Country and David was the last of the Roches to be held in favour with the Crown.

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy  –1583 – 1600

Maurice had been in open rebellion with the Crown and following his pardon in 1580 and inheritance some 3 years later he then turns his mind towards restoring the influence of the Roches by attempting unsuccessfully to win back the confiscated lands by claiming he had seen the error of his ways and that he was now a faithful servant of the Crown.  Despite his best efforts he was not trusted so his attempts failed and eventually he relapsed into his old rebellious ways and by 1597 found himself imprisoned in Dublin for a time for “crymes of high nature”.

David, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy  – 1600 – 1635

Carrying on the tradition of his father this David opposed his own father and sided with the rebels in his youth but when he came into his inheritance and title he supported the Queen.  He wrote to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 protesting his loyalty and regretting his father’s rebellious ways while he bewails his poverty and inability to furnish men for the Queen’s service. He was successful to the extent that he remained in power and his lands were not further diminished during his over lordship.

Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy  – 1635- 1670

Maurice, the last Lord Roche, continued the Catholic tradition of the Roches and was openly a staunch adherent to the Catholic faith.  In this however he had to pay the price on foot of the Penal Laws which were a series of laws imposed in an attempt to force Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the reformed Christian faith as defined by the Anglican Church in England and practised by members of the Church of Ireland.  Maurice was summoned to Dublin in 1636 by writ of Charles I to justify his contention that his lands should not be forfeited to the Crown.  During this period Catholics were barred from holding public office or serving in the army and a concerted attempt was underway to disenfranchise those, such as Maurice, who refused to convert.  Maurice was imprisoned for several years in England and as unrest grew in Ireland, partly due to Catholic resentment, he was released.  On his return to Ireland in 1641 he joined the Catholic insurgents and was a member of the Supreme Council of the Catholic Confederates in Ireland. He was part of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and as a result skirmishing took place around the Castle by Lord Inchiquin (later Earl of Inchiquin) during Easter 1642.

Maurice held on for a further seven years until order was restored by Cromwell’s Conquest during 1649 – 1653.   Roche Castle was attacked by Cromwell’s forces under Lord Broghill during the conquest in January 1650 and as Lord Roche was away at the time of the attack Lady Ellen Roche bravely led the defence.  The Castle came under heavy cannon fire from the “Camp Field” where Cromwell’s troops were positioned opposite the Castle which resulted in the near destruction of the house between the 12th and 15th century towers while some damage was done to the battlements of the 15th century tower.

Lord Broghill, Oliver Cromwell's General

Oliver Cromwell

   Sir Oliver Cromwell and his general Lord Broghill who laid

siege to the Castle in 1650.

After a siege and a heroic defence of the territory the Castle fell to Lord Broghill and the six officers commanding the troops under Lady Roche were summarily executed and it is suggested their remains were tossed into the river valley as Lord Broghill was known to be particularily ruthless and unnecessarily cruel with the vanquished.  Lady Roche herself was hanged in 1652 on a trumped up charge of murder.

“She was brought before on of those High Courts of Justice (or injustice) set up immediately after the surrender of the Irish in 1652 where they hanged women for want of men.  There she was tried, condemned and afterwards hanged, on the evidence of a strumpet, for shooting a man with a pistol whose name was unknown to the witness – although it was ready to be proved Lady Roche was twenty miles distant from the spot”.

(A Brief Narrative of the Sufferings of the Irish under Cromwell – London 1660).

Shortly after Lady Roche’s death in June 1652 Lord Roche laid down his arms and surrendered.  He was dispossessed of his entire estate and died in poverty in 1670.   The loss of his estate marks the end of the Roche reign in Roche Country.  Thereafter the title “Viscount of Fermoy” was an empty one and the family dispersed from Munster, dwindled, and died.   The title“Viscount of Fermoy” passed to David until 1681, thereafter to John (1681 – 1694), David, (1694 – 1703) and finally dies with Ulick, the 12th Viscount who died without a male heir.  Incidentally in 1856 Edmond Burke Roche of Trabolgan was elevated to the peerage as Baron Fermoy and it is from this line that the late Diana, Princess of Wales, is descended from.  Click here for more information on the Roche lineage.

Princess Diana Spencer Trabolgan

The late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lieutenant Colonel John Widenham

The Roche Estate (although much diminished from the glory days of the 14th and 15th Centuries) was viewed as a significant prize so many supporters of the Crown lobbied for the estate to be granted to them.  In 1666 Lieutenant Colonel John Widenham received the Castle as a reward for his loyalty although no evidence of his support has been unearthed so the grant, even then, was deemed dubious.

The Castle was thus renamed “Castle Widenham” and the reign of the Roches was consigned to history.  As the estate had been much diminished in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion and reduced further after Cromwell’s Conquest the Widenhams did not exercise anything like the degree of power wielded by their predecessors.  The Castle had been damaged during the siege so the main house was completely rebuilt during the late 17th century by Colonel Widenham on the site of Roches’ house using the same foundations and materials. The Keep on the western side of the Castle, although damaged, remained intact as did the 12th century tower and both remain standing to this day.  The main house, also intact, was extended during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Castle Widenham, Roche Castle French

Castle Widenham circa 1865 (Robert French).

The Widenham family enjoyed a peaceful time for some 300 years from 1666 until the 1960′s, the Castle then passing (through marriage) to the Creagh and Smith families.  Lord and Lady Cotter purchased the estate in 1963 and sold it in 1976.

Some historical pictures from life at Castle Widenham:

Castle Widenham

Girl in pony and trap outside the North facing entrance

Castle Widenham family

Previous residents of Castle Widenham

Castle Widenham

The Widenham family gathers outside the Southern entrance – now the Dining Room

Photographs courtesy of Angela Widenham who kindly donated them to the Nordstrom family some years ago.

Blackwater Castle

The Castle, by now rebranded as “Blackwater Valley Castle”, passed through the hands of a number of different owners. In 1992 it was purchased by Dr. Rabbe Nordstrom (now deceased) and Mrs. Ninna Nordstrom who established The Nordstrom Family Trust which now owns the Castle (known as Blackwater Castle) the purpose of which is to preserve and enhance Irish Heritage and to promote art, culture, and scientific research and development.  Blackwater Castle is now managed by Patrick Nordstrom, the son of Dr. and Mrs. Nordstrom and Patrick’s wife Sheila.

You can listen to Sheila discussing the history and heritage of the Castle with Billy Cotter on local radio by clicking on this link. The interview is 35 minutes long and starts at 1 hour 5 minutes on this broadcast file. https://www.mixcloud.com/CRKFM/crk-fm-broadcast-11-february-2017/


Researches in the South of Ireland Illustrative of the Scenery, Architectural Remains, and the Manners and Superstitions of the Peasantry, by T. Crofton Croker, 1824.

Historical and Topographical Notes, County Cork, collected by Colonel James Grove White, published 1906 – 1915.

The Roches, Lords of Fermoy: The History of a Norman Irish Family, by Eithne Donnelly, published in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaelogical Society 1934 – 1937.

The Norman Invasion of Ireland, by Richard Roche, Anvil Books, 1970

The Castles of County Cork, by James N. Healy, The Mercier Press, 1988

The Sub-infeudation and Descent of the FitzStephen/Carew Moiety of Desmond, by Paul McCotter published in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaelogical Society Vol 102 1997

The Medieval Castles of Ireland, by Davis Sweetman, The Collins Press, 1999

An Anglo-Norman Monastery, Bridgetown Priory and the Architecture of the Augustinian Canons Regular in Ireland by Tadhg O’Keeffe, Cork County Council and Gandon Editions, 1999.

Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, vol IV, parts 1 & 2, Duchas The Heritage Service, 2000.

A Viceroy’s Vindication? Sir Henry Sidney’s Memoir of Service in Ireland, 1556 – 1578, edited by Ciaran Brady, Cork University Press, 2002

Oliver Cromwell Soldier, The Military Life of a Revolutionary at War, Alan Marshall, Brassey’s, 2004

Blackwater and Bride, Navigation and Trade, 7,000 BC to 2007, by Niall O’Brien, Niall O’Brien Publishing, 2008.

The Old Rustic Bridge, A History of Castletownroche GA.A., Sport, Culture, and Folklore 1888 – 2008, research by John McHugh & Billy Mannix, compiled by Tommy O’Brien, printed by Carraig Print inc. Litho Press, 2008

Medieval Ireland, An Archaeology, Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe, Tempus Publishing Limited, 2000

Iverni, A Prehistory of Cork, William O’Brien, The Collins Press, 2012

The Origins of the Irish, J.P. Mallory, Thames and Hudson Limited, 2013

With thanks to local historian Christy Roche, Fermoy, County Cork and consultant archaeologist Eamonn Cotter, Rathcormac, County Cork.

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An old view of Blackwater Castle formerly Widenham Castle and Roche Castle.


This image of Roche Castle was drawn on an unknown date by Alfred Nicholson.   The bridge at the bottom left of the drawing is the (now collapsed) Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill immortalised in Thomas Keenan’s ballad of the same name.