Clonony Castle, Ireland’s link with the Boleyn family


Cluain Damhna
Coordinates: 53°14′N 7°55′WCoordinates: 53°14′N 7°55′W
Country Ireland
Province Leinster
County Offaly
Time zone WET (UTC+0)
 • Summer (DST) IST (WEST) (UTC-1)

Clonony (Irish: Cluain Damhna Beag) is a hamlet in County Offaly, Ireland, on the R357 regional road. Located between the River Brosna and the Grand Canal, it is noted for its late medieval tower house of the same name, which was built in 1500. It is situated in the parish of Gallen and Reynegh and lies approximately one mile west of Cloghan and four miles east of Banagher.

Clonony Castle

Clonony Castle

Clonony Castle (Caisleán Chluain Damhna) is a Tudor castle built by the MacCoughlan clan, and ceded to Henry VIII by John Óg MacCoghlan, then to Thomas Boleyn when Henry wanted to marry his daughter Anne.[1] Mary and Elizabeth Boleyn, second cousins to Queen Elizabeth I, lived out their lives in this castle and their tombstone still stands on the castle grounds. The grave was discovered in 1803, approximately 100 yards from the castle. The inscription on the eight feet by four feet, limestone flag reads: “Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.”[2]

The castle was occupied from 1612 to about 1620 by Matthew de Renzi (1577–1634), a London cloth merchant originally from Cologne in Germany, who created the first English-Irish dictionary, according to his tombstone in Athlone. He acquired it after it had been forfeited by the MacCoghlans during the Nine Years’ War.[3]

The fifty-foot tower, an Irish National Monument, is surrounded by gardens and a moat. The castle is a few miles from Clonmacnoise, an ancient seat of Irish learning. Shannon Harbour and the towns of Cloghan, Banagher and Shannonbridge are close by. The castle is currently being restored, and is open to the public at no cost, and although there are no specific hours, the owners try to keep the castle open and encourage tours.

The castle has all the basic features of a tower house of this period such as machicolation, murder hole, base batter, mural passages, spiral staircase, gun-loops, garderobe and bawn. The first floor had collapsed but has been replaced in recent restoration works by the owners. The castle also boasts a barrel-vaulted ceiling making up the second floor which has been restored.[4] The Tower House is three storeys high with an entrance in the west wall with a machicolation above it. There is a fire-proof vault over the ground floor in the interior and a spiral stair leads to the upper floors. There are round-headed, ogee-headed and flat headed windows. The bawn wall with its two square corner towers and entrance, which had a coat of arms, was reconstructed in the nineteenth century and gives a good impression of how an original Tower House might have looked, with a set of perimeter and internal defences. The inner bawn building in front of the west entrance appears to be a nineteenth-century construction.[5]

The Annals of the Four Masters record “A great war broke out in Dealbhna between the descendants of Farrell Mac Coghlan and the descendants of Donnell, in the course of which James Mac Coghlan, Prior of Gailinne, and the Roydamna of Dealbhna Eathra, was killed by a shot fired from the castle of Cluain-damhna.”[5][6]


  1. Sweetman, David, Medieval Castles of Ireland, Dublin, 2000.
  2. Clonony Castle, Banagher, A Brief History, Banagher Parish Council, June 1951.
  3. Ryan, Brendan, A German Planter in the Midlands, History Ireland. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  4. Clonony Castle, The Standing Stone. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  5. Clonony Castle, Cultural Heritage Ireland. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  6. Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Four Masters), M1519.15: Coccadh mór i n-Dealbhna etir Sliocht Ferghail Még Cochláin & Sliocht Domhnaill dia ro marbhadhSemus Mag Cochláin prióir Gailinne, & ríoghdhamhna Dealbhna Ethra d’urchor do pheilér as caislén Cluana Damhna.

See also

External links

A German Planter in the Midlands

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2000), News, Volume 8

Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1577, Mathew de Renzi claimed descent from Albania’s national hero, George Castriott, also known as Scanderberg (d.1468), who defended his homeland against the Turks. De Renzi was a cloth merchant and operated from Antwerp, one of many foreigners who controlled trade in that city. But Antwerp’s trade declined as a result of the long drawn out conflict between the ruling Spanish Hapsburgs and the Dutch United Provinces to the north, and sometime before 1604 de Renzi moved to London. By January 1606 he found himself in financial difficulties, unable to recoup money owed from other merchants: he was declared bankrupt, his creditors were after him, and in August he beat a hasty retreat to Scotland en route to Ireland.
He arrived in Ireland penniless, but soon became friendly with Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy. Chichester saw in him an enterprising man of trade, and thus an asset for the ‘benefit of the kingdom’. During his first year in Ireland he curried favour with important establishment figures in Dublin, also visiting the port towns of Waterford, Limerick and Galway. He stayed in Thomond for some time where he became friendly with the old Irish family of Mac Bruaideadh, who were the hereditary historians of the O’Briens, Earls of Thomond. Here he learned spoken or colloquial Irish. His teachers were Conchubhar and Tadhg Mac Daire MacBruaideadh, who were both associated with the cycle of poems known as Iomarbhaidh na bhFilé [The Contention of the Bards]. From Tadhg Ó hUiginn of Sligo he learned classical Irish so that he could read Irish manuscripts and write the language. Although de Renzi was a linguist of note (speaking Latin, Italian, English, German, French and Spanish), his object in learning Irish had nothing to do with missionary zeal or even linguistic curiosity: it was motivated by a practical need to establish himself as a landowner in a Gaelic lordship.
Sometime in 1612 de Renzi arrived in West Offaly, the territory known as Delvin Eathra or Delvin MacCoghlan (the MacCoghlans were the hereditary chieftains of the area), nowadays the barony of Garrycastle, encompassing the towns of Ferbane, Banagher, Cloghan and Shannonbridge. It was bounded on the west by the river Shannon, and bogs made it almost inaccessible on the other three sides. He acquired a hundred acres in the Clononey area, including Clononey Castle, property which had been forfeited by Cuchogrie MacCoghlan, killed in 1601 during the Nine Years War. De Renzi bought it from a middle-ranking administrator, Roger Downton, probably using the dowry from his first wife, whom he had married in 1608.
When he first arrived Delvin Eathra was a vast countryside of woods and bogs, almost totally inhabited by native Irish, who spoke only Irish, and whom de Renzi described as idle, backward in speech, manners, dress and customs. Many of them bore the name MacCoghlan. He moved into the castle which had very small windows and as a result was in a state of almost perpetual darkness. He had no way of knowing for sure the extent of his lands or its boundaries. The MacCoghlans ignored his presence and ploughed his land, a customary method of indicating a land dispute. He hired local labour but there were constant outbreaks of violence between both parties.
The MacCoghlans were under instructions from the head of the clan, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, to shun this interloper, neither to sell to him nor to buy from him, except at excessive rates. De Renzi wrote many letters to the lords deputy in Dublin and to King James I in England, seeking help and proposing schemes of plantation. His many letters give useful insights into the difficulties experienced by a settler landowner.
In January he wrote from Killenboy, County Roscommon, to Sir Oliver St John. Killenboy, situated between Knockcroghery and Lanesboro, was the home place of Richard Maypowder who had received a grant of land in 1616. De Renzi’s second wife, Anne, was a daughter of Maypowder. The Maypowder family lived in Kilteevan House, in the adjoining townland of Cloontogher, until the early years of this century and the name still persists. De Renzi was afraid to spend the winter in Clononey for fear of the MacCoghlans. His possession of the land was being hotly contested: ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’
He argued that plantation would civilise Delvin Eathra. He listed the barbarous customs of the natives, such as attaching ploughs to horses’ tails, the burning of straw, the Brehon Laws, and the custom of migrating each summer with their cattle to the uplands, known as ‘booleying’. Most, he claimed, built their house without chimneys:

They live upon oaten bread and spreckled butter all the year, lie in straw, wear a shirt for four months or till it be rotten afore it be washed, keep beastly houses, endure rain, cold, and snow all day and then roast themselves at night like hogs; go naked and cazer from one smokie cabin to another; eat their meat at unseasonable time, fast sometimes two or three days together, and then eat so much again when they come at it as will keep them three of four days fasting after, like unto hungry wolves.

Next, he wrote of the idleness of the people and the lack of tradesmen. However, most of his venom was reserved for Sir John Óg MacCoghlan (Seán Óg), head of the sept. Even though Sir John had remained loyal to the Crown during the Elizabethan wars, he was portrayed by de Renzi as a traitor and a threat. He saw MacCoghlan as the main force behind the attempts to thwart him in his acquisitions and his letters demonised him. Seán Óg could not be trusted because he was ‘but a bastard, born in double bastardy’, and ruled as a tyrant, suppressing his own people. He related tales of terror perpetrated by MacCoghlan on English settlers and on his own people. Finally, he saw Delvin Eathra as having a strategic location. It was an important access route to Connacht and contained two major crossings of the Shannon, at Banagher and Shannonbridge.
It is difficult to assess the sincerity of these arguments or if they were a cover for his own greed. His grant of a hundred acres soon grew to 1,016 and he acquired properties in Counties Westmeath, Wexford and Dublin. Delvin Eathra was eventually planted in 1619/20, as were parts of Westmeath, Longford and Leitrim. About that time he sold his interest in Clononey; like others before him, he had used it as a stepping stone to greater things. He moved to Dublin and became a government administrator, always with a view to his own aggrandisement. He was knighted in 1627.
His interest in the Irish language was complex. He had mastered both the written and spoken language and was able, through conversing with the natives, to trace the genealogy of the MacCoghlans back four generations. He used this knowledge of the local béaloideas to strengthen his claim to the disputed land at Clononey. Such was his deep knowledge of both colloquial and classical Irish that he was nominated by the poets of the South (Leath Mhogha) as their independent judge against the poets of the North (Leath Chuinn), in what became known as the Contention of the Bards (1616-24).
By June 1608 he had composed an Irish grammar. He also claimed to have composed an Irish dictionary, as well as ‘chronicles in the Irish tongue’. Yet he advocated the destruction of Gaelic culture and manuscripts, seeing in them a form of propaganda which glorified dynasticism and incited the Irish against the English conquest.
He died on 29 August 1634 at the age of fifty-seven. His son, also Mathew, commissioned a memorial in his honour. It was erected in St Mary’s Church, Athlone, in 1635. When the present St Mary’s Church was built in 1820 the memorial was inserted in the rear wall, where it may still be seen. However, there is no evidence that Sir Mathew died in Athlone. The inscription reads:

This monument was erected for the rightful worshipfull Sir Mathew de Renzi Knight: Who departed this life on 29th August 1634: Beinge of the age of 57 years. Born at Cullen [sic] in Germany: and descended from that famous and renowned warrior Cieorge Castriott Als Scanderbege (who in the Christian Warre fought 52 battailes with great conquest and honour against the great Turke). He was a great traveller and general linguist: and kept correspondency with most nations in many weighty affairs: and in three years gave great pfection to his nation by composinge a grammar dictionary and chronicle in the Irish tongue and in accompts most expert and exceedinge all others to his great applause. This work was accomplished by his sonn Mathew de Renzi Esqr. August 29 1635.

Brendan Ryan is a retired school teacher.

Clonony Castle, Co. Offaly.

Location – The castle is on the R357, not far from Clonmacnoise.
OS: N 052 216 (map 47)
Longitude: 7° 55′ 19.55″ W
Latitude: 53° 14′ 41.17″ N
See map at the bottom of the page.
Description and History – This well preserved tower house is a perfect example of this style of castle. Standing at roughly 15m in height the castle has all the basic features of a tower house such as; machicolation, murder hole, base batter, mural passages, spiral staircase, gun-loops and bawn.  The first floor has collapsed but has been replaced in recent restoration works. According to the Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly the spiral staircase has partially collapsed preventing access to the upper floors. However, according to the present owner, these stairs were deliberately destroyed to prevent people accessing the castle when it was derelict. This is certainly a case of ‘state sponsored vandalism’ in Ireland which has happened all too often.  This castle also boasts a wonderful barrel vaulted ceiling making up the second floor which has been very well restored.
The history of this castle is equally as interesting as the building itself.  It was built by the MacCoughlan clan the early 16th century and was the first place in Ireland to practice musketry but was then ceded to Henry VIII in early 17th century.  The castle passed into the hands of the Boleyn family.  It was given as a gift to Thomas Boleyn by Henry as he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn.  In fact, cousins of Anne are buried in the grounds underneath a hawthorn three.  The writing on the stone has eroded away but may still be recovered with a rubbing.  Luckily this castle escaped the campaign of Cromwell and is in relatively good condition. The castle did become ruined but the excellent renovation work of the present owner is slowly restoring this castle to its former glory.
Difficulty – This site is not difficult to find as on the side of the road on the R357, not far from Clonmacnoise. There is no official parking here so you will have to park on the grass verge. The castle is privately owned and is a residence so always knock on the door and don’t barge in.
For more castles, click here.
For more sites in Co. Offaly, click here.
The impressive gateway entrance. You can see above the arch where the coat of arms would have been located. The owner informed me that it was removed by the previous owners and is still in tact somewhere.
Machicolation above the bawn wall entrance.
The bawn entrance from the inside.
The Boelyn gravestone.
Inside the renovated ground floor.
The owner has painstakingly found antiques to give the castle an authentic feel.
The restored first floor level.
One of the mural passages.
Looking out of one of the gun-loops.
Looking down on the second floor. The castle is missing its roof.

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