Tuesday, August 10, 2010

At Kilcolman Castle

Kilcolman Castle, which I was pleased to be able to revisit a few days ago, having misplaced the photographs I took on a visit two or three decades ago. It’s not an easy place to get to see: a colleague tells me that the landowner detests all mention of Spenser, and is reputed to remove any signs directing the curious. I hiked across a couple of fields covered in long wet grass, was shocked three times on electric fences, climbed over lots of barbed wire, and discovered on my way back that the herd of cows I had seen grazing were large and rather too curious young bulls, who had me backing out of their field, and smartly back over the electric fence that I’d first thought of as surely too rusty to be electrified…
 Window at first floor level

But it’s an evocative place for the Spenserian. He is not supposed to have lived in the keep of the old FitzGeraldine castle, but it must have been very familiar to him, and some of the masonry looks post-medieval. The tower stands slightly off the crest of a low, grassed-over limestone outcrop. The only other piece of substantial early masonry is a ruined turret quite a surprising distance away, which indicates that Kilcolman, once described as “a large castle, old, and dilapidated, which at the present time has no use except to shelter cattle at night’, once would really have been so. Perhaps it had a palisade rather than a curtain wall.
View from the surviving tower back to the keep

I do not know if any archaeology has been done here. Maybe some 19th century gentlemen poked around. The outcrop has suggestions of former buildings all over. To the south, Spenser had his own bog, now a nature reserve, which among the lines wishing away all the bad things from the wedding night in ‘Epithalamion’, especially brings alive: “Ne let th’unpleasant Quyre of Frogs still croking / Make us to wish theyr choking.”

Home for the unpleasant choir of frogs?

At the north west of the outcrop, there’s another feature of Spenser’s imagination, a cave running back into the hill. It could only be through here that, on the 15th October 1598, when Kilcolman was attacked “Spenser and his family escaped through an underground tunnel, known as the fox hole, leading to caves north of the estate (the tunnel is still recorded as extant in 1840)”, as the ODNB rather vaguely puts it. There must have been a sousterrain from the old keep. I fondly imagine that somewhere in this lost tunnel Spenser left a small iron chest containing, say ‘The Legend of Sir Peridure, Of Constancy’ – the rest of Book VII. He certainly had time to work on extra portions of his great poem, though not very much after James fitz Thomas Fitzgerald, ‘the súgán earl of Desmond’ began his 1598 rebellion.
'Therein is eaten out a hollow cave...'

Earlier in our week in Ireland, I had found my way to Smerwick, and the desolate remains of the Fort d’Oro, where Spenser was probably present when Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton ordered the massacre of the surrendered garrison (9th November 1580). The local musuem says that the fort was named because scattered along the foreshore were lumps of Canadian stone, glittering with pyrites, brought back as gold by Martin Frobisher's expedition for the North-West passage.
Fort d'Oro

If Spenser himself wasn’t a man of blood, most of his superiors and associates were, and he defended and advocated brutality. Kilcolman seems to have been very much targeted by the rebels in 1598: Spenser had quite clearly been an aggressive land-grabber, and the native Irish had reason to remember who it was that Spenser had served (and tried to remake into ‘Arthegal’).

‘The iron hand and the velvet glove: 
Come live with me and be my love.’