The imposing Desmond Castle and Banqueting Hall in the centre of Newcastle West is the town's obvious historical landmark and a must-see for any visitor but there are also many other wonderful places of historical significance worth checking out.
The Castle itself dates back to the 13th Century but the main feature is the Desmond Banqueting Hall, an imposing two-storey structure that was used by the Earls of Desmond for banqueting and entertainment. The Hall, vaulted lower chamber and adjoining tower were all constructed during the 15th century on the site of the original castle. Its restored medieval features include an oak musicians' gallery and a limestone hooded fireplace.
Local folklore has always insisted that the castle was at one time a seat of the legendary Knights Templar and the discovery of the Seals and Crests of the Knights Templar during renovations at the end of the 20th century lends weight to those claims.
The castle is open to the public, for guided tours May to September.
Behind the castle and just off the north bank of the River Arra is a building locally known as 'Fullers Folly', a three-storey cut limestone building built as a tower house in the 1870's by William Fuller Hartnett.
Originally from Cork the wealthy linen merchant was a close friend of 'The Liberator', Daniel O'Connell and acquired the plot of land adjacent to the castle grounds from the Earl of Devon.
However, it's believed that Fuller had a subsequent disagreement with the Castle authorities and as a result built his version of a castle as a form of revenge. However at a reported average cost of €1 per stone to build the project ended up bankrupting Fuller and the locals named the building, 'Fuller's Folly' a name that has now stuck for over 140 years.
Fuller died in 1879 and was buried in Churchtown graveyard beside the Castle Demesne.
Close to 'Fullers Folly' and opposite the Church of the Immaculate Conception on the main N21 Limerick - Tralee road is the Old IRA Monument which was erected in 1955. The monument commemorates 17 local volunteers who were killed during the War of Independence and Civil War from 1916 to 1922.
Just off the N21 towards the Limerick side is the "Bridge of Tears" which was also known locally as the 'Bridge of Sorrows'. The names date back to the time of the famine when emigrants from all over West Limerick said their last tearful, goodbyes to family and friends before walking or taking a carriage to Cork and departing by boat to North America knowing that for most of them they were unlikely to ever return.
Those emigrants, however, were luckier than those who found themselves with no alternative but to be admitted to the newly opened Newcastle West Workhouse in 1841. Now St. Ita's Community Hospital the workhouse was originally established to accommodate 550 people.
During the famine in the mid-1840's new buildings were added to accommodate an extra 360 "inmates" with a fever hospital also added. Hundred's of people died there and were buried in unmarked plots in a famine graveyard located to the rear of the building.
It remains a sombre reminder of the impact of “the Great Hunger" in the town. The site continued to be used as a "Pauper's Graveyard" in the decades following the famine and it was only in the mid-1990's that work commenced to restore the area after falling into a state of disrepair.
New commemorative gates were installed featuring scenes from the famine were designed by renowned sculptor and Newcastle West native Cliodhna Cussen and new footpaths laid and trees planted to add to the original stone cross which commemorates all those buried there.
There is also a plaque to honour Paddy Flanagan who is also buried there. In 1868 while still a young boy Flanagan, along with Jim Quinn discovered the Ardagh Chalice while digging for potatoes.
Coming full circle and back to the Square itself is a plaque commemorating Sophie Peirce, a Newcastle West native who lived an extraordinary life worthy of a Hollywood movie script.
From tragic beginnings involving intrigue and murder, Sophie would go on to become a pioneering aviator, a dispatch rider in World War 1 and a hugely successful athlete who at one point held the world record for the high jump.
Peirce also played a key role in having women’s athletics included in the Olympics before an untimely and tragic death ended a truly amazing life.
Newcastle West Olden Times
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