I have heard of Dunboy through bits and pieces. I knew at first that it was the last dwelling place of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Bere, the last Chieftain of Beara, who had fled north to Leitrim as his castle burned. He was not even present when the English armies patiently positioned their artillery on the height above the castle and gathered wood from the forests to build their gabions. The defenders padded the eight feet thick walls with earth and timber logs but to no end: survivors were found cowering in the basement knowing they would receive short thrift. Fifty of them were hanged from the same tree timbers in the town square. Carew, president of Munster, ordered the castle be made level with the ground but the soldiers never took it apart brick by brick (like others after them) so Cromwell’s men had some shelter them when came to quell the insurrections fifty years later. Dunboy was one of three castles that peppered the south coast of Beara. Castletown takes its name from the first, whose last stone foundation was destroyed by a digger when the present property was being built in the 1960s. Donal’s brother owned the Dursey sound in the west but that castle fell before Dunboy and no trace remains. The end of that peninsula seems like the end of the world and Dunboy castle the passage point.
The first time I walked down to the ruins was a grey lacklustre day in November. I assumed that the heavy, crumbling entrance boarded up with plywood was somehow connected to the Irish castle but they turned out to be from much later. Henry and John Puxley bought the land in 1730. They were sons of a land agent in Galway. The house they built on the grounds of the O’Sullivan Bere domain began small but in 1812 copper ore was discovered in the north, in Allihies. A road was built from the mines all the way across the breadth of the peninsula to the exact place where the English ordinances had fired their cannon. The boats took away the copper and left coal, to fire more mining. ‘Copper John’, the great grandson of the original Puxley, paid off debts, built stone bridges, widened rivers and built a storied leap for the salmon. By the time his brother, another Henry, had taken over the house and begun his vast Gothic extensions, a gift to his wife, hundreds of miners had left for Bute, Montana where today suburbs have the names Castletown and Hungry Hill. The copper dried up in 1881, around the time the rhododendron was first planted, and soon after Henry’s wife died, days before the last timber lengths were due to be laid in the ballroom. Henry never returned to the house and the ballroom was never finished. In 1921 young rebels marched and trained in the grounds of the estate hidden by the evergreen oaks and monkey puzzle trees. The butler and housekeeper kept watch for the punt bringing soldiers back and forth to the barracks on Bere Island. Orders from Collins himself to burn the house that winter were reluctantly carried out and another ruin was added to the grounds. That grey day could hardly have found a more sombre scene.
At the height of the Irish boom Puxley mansion was sold by a local man to American developers who had visions of another exclusive, six- star hotel. ‘Welcome to someplace truly unique. Historic. Original. Rare. Welcome to Capella Dunboy Castle’, their website tells you. A party for the Beara community was held for the New Year two years ago. Watching from the water, the windows all a- glow, sounds of glasses chinking, it might have seemed as if the house had new inhabitants. Videos of the conservation consultant giving a speech on the wide bottom step of the main, marble staircase that evening record him laughing as he re-tells the story of the unfinished ballroom floor and the unrealised potential of the house. Now, alongside the rack of a ruined trawler sitting like a whale carcass in the shallow, sky blue water, are the redundant fences of the McMahon construction company rattling in the wind, rusting. Capella went bankrupt nine months ago and the summer opening was suspended. Walking around the site one can see wheelbarrows and neat stacks of slates still ready for use. Stakes are tied with red ribbon marking the place for young saplings to grow in the newly laid gardens. The interiors are finished, the floors laid, but there is no lights in the windows, only the fluorescent security lights to warn people off at night.
Apart from the ranks of felled sitke spruce in the Coilte managed forests the ruins are not so present at this time of year. Gorse, with coconut strangeness, is in places still glowing. Fields along the drive are covered in buttercups and the blossom of the whitethorn. Several horses and a clumsy white foal give a kind of Scandinavian purity. The Italian gardens laid out by the last Puxley are obscured by banks of spurge laurel that hang low over the water by the wrecked boat. Behind the laurel a path is so wet it takes your legs up to the knee. You can see the brick facing of the old copper house but there is no evidence of any garden design, only rhododendron ponticum. In winter, on the winding paths around the original castle, this plant grows all around and overhead in perverse root arches. But in summer, opposite the Puxley mansion, the failed hotel, they bloom into the most magnificent shows of pink and I am reminded of the ancient account of Greek soldiers who having consumed honey in a village surrounded by rhododendrons began to hallucinate.
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