Only few castles in the West of Ireland have survived into our times. Ballynagowan (Smithstown) Castle has played an exciting role in the history of North Clare, taking its name from ‘beal-atha-an-ghobhan’, meaning the ‘mouth of the smith’s ford’.
It was first mentioned in 1551 when the last King of Munster, Murrough O’Brien, (also known as the Tanist, was created 1st Earl of Thomond and 1st Baron of Inchiquin in 1543), willed the Castle of Ballynagowan to his son Teige before his death.
Over the years it accommodated many famous characters of Irish history. Records show that in 1600 the legendary Irish rebel “Red” Hugh O’Donnell rested there with his men during his attack on North Clare, spreading ruin everywhere and seeking revenge on the Earl of Thomond for his being in alliance with the English.
In 1649 Oliver Cromwell’s army came from England with death and destruction. The Castle was attacked with cannons when Cromwell’s General, Ludlow, swept into North Clare striking terror everywhere he went.
In 1650 Conor O’Brien of Lemeneagh became heir of the castle. His death, however, came shortly afterwards in 1651, as he was fatally wounded in a skirmish with Cromwellian troops commanded by General Ludlow at Inchicronan. With him had fought his wife Maire Rua O’Brien (“The Red Mary”, named after her long red hair), one of the best known characters in Irish tradition. She had lived in the castle as a young woman and it is the ferocity and cruelty attributed to her, which has kept her name alive. Legends tell that to save her children’s heritage after Conor’s death she married several English generals, who were killed in mysterious ways one after the other- she supposedly ended her bloody carrier entombed in a hollow tree.
During 1652 almost all inhabitable castles in Clare including Smithstown were occupied by Cromwellian garrisons, a time of terrible uncertainty as Clare was under military rule.
Over the next decades Ballynagowan Castle was the seat of army generals, the High Sheriff of County Clare and Viscount Powerscourt, one of the most powerful aristocrats who had their main residence - a monumental neogothic palace - in Dublin.
The castle was last inhabited mid 19th century and until its recent restauration served as beloved meeting point for couples -, songs and poems about it finding their way into the local pubs.
Oh lovely seat, oh sweat retreat
It's oft I think of thee
When on the Sunday, boys would meet
Light hearted, gay and free,
At the cross road beside the gate
With trees of green and brown
T'is here the girls and boys would meet
By the Castle of Smithstown.
The dance it would then there begin
The music too was splendid
The boys and girls would foot it then
Until the dance was ended,
And then at theend of every set
While cheers and cheers came down
Its echoes you would never forget
By the Castle of Smithstown
The castle so fair, dear spot devine
Oh what a chance there is now
Nothing dwells but the rock and kine
Oh where the Chieftain now
No wonder he would rise from his tomb
When the setting sun goes down
To see that lovely place in gloome
Dear Castle of Smithstown
The river it does gently flow
through valley and through lea
And to Kilshanny it does go
And then off to the sea
For it's there I repent somehappy days
For trout broth white and brown
Fishing for days, in the sun's bright rays
Around the Castle of Smithstown
By James O'Donoghue 19th century