The much-ruined castle at Ferns is the largest of a distinctive group of 13th-century Hiberno-Norman keeps that comprise rectangular blocks with cylindrical corner towers. Known as "towered" or "four-towered" keeps, they evolved independently in the South Leinster region at least a century before any comparable castles were built in England. Considering the great size of the Ferns keep it is perhaps surprising that we have no historical reference for the date of its building, but it was probably begun around 1222 by Earl William Marshall the younger. Architectural details, however, suggest that it was not completed until the mid 13th century, when it was held by William de Valance.
In its heyday the castle must have been particularly imposing. The three storeys of the main block were divided into vast apartments, the upper floors of which were lit by rather splendid trefoil-pointed windows, mostly grouped in pairs beneath pointed and camber-headed embrasures.
There are similar windows in the beautiful circular chapel on the second floor of the largely complete south-east tower. This room, often cited as the most perfect chapel to be found in any Irish castle, is particularly noteworthy for its moulded rib-vaulting and supporting corbels in the shape of capitals. Of the other corner towers, one has vanished, only fragments remain of another, while about half survives of the south-west tower, which has a cellar hollowed out of solid rock, said to have been used to keep Kathleen, daughter of William Marshall, to prevent her eloping. Outside the walls a ditch was partly exposed during archaeological excavations carried out in the 1970s.
The castle evidently ceased being a residence in the early 14th century, for the ditch appears to have been filled by about 1310, while the building was in a bad state of repair by 1324. It was captured by the O'Tooles in 1331, recovered by Bishop Charnell shortly afterwards, and seems to have stayed in the hands of the Bishopric of Ferns until the 1370s when it was taken by the MacMurroughs. Lord Grey captured the place during the 1536 revolt, but the MacMurroughs managed to remain until 1551, when it was taken over for the Crown by John Travers. The Mastersons held the castle from 1583 until 1649, when it was surrendered to Cromwellian soldiers. It is likely these troops were responsible for demolishing much of its structure.
Ferns village. NGR: T 017501.
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