Rathkeale’s History

General Information

A market town and parish in the Barony of Lower Connello, County of Limerick, 120 miles S.W. from Dublin, 53 miles N.NW. from Cork and 17 miles S.W.by W. from Limerick on the banks of the river Deel. It was once a corporate town of some importance and successfully resisted many assaults during the reign of Elizabeth I.

At a very early age an Augustinian Priory was founded here by a certain Gilbert Hervey. The town consists of one long and wide street running East to West with some respectful houses and a few good shops. The Court-House in the Square is a neat stone building and the bridewell a substantial one. Petty Sessions were held on alternate Thursdays and Quarter Sessions in January, April, July and October. Agriculture was the prevailing occupation of the inhabitants. The trade of the town was based on agriculture. There were two flour mills, one of which is of a large size. The places of worship are the established Church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, erected on a gentle slope at the West end of the town and a Roman Catholic Chapel in Thomas St., both handsome structures, the former has a lofty embattled tower with crocketted pinnacles.

The surrounding country is highly interesting presenting a number of rich and varied prospects embellished with flourishing plantations and many seats of the Gentry. Click on the Historic Environment Viewer to look up structures noted in the Sites and Monuments Record and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. News and events from the late 1980s are chronicled in the former Deel Views magazine that is now being digitized by the Limerick Library.

A prominent object is Matrix Castle which stands on the banks of the river Deel about a mile from the town. It is in a fine situation commanding extensive views of the country including the Shannon river and the Clare and Tipperary mountains. It was besieged by Cromwell but received little injury from his hands and within a few years had been put in a state of complete repair. The markets which were well supplied were held on Thursdays and Saturdays. Fair days were held on January 6th, February 7th, March 10th, April 4th, June 19th, July 17th, August 25th, September 18th, October 14th and November 18th.

The population of the Parish in 1841 was 8,293 inclusive of 4,261 inhabitants of the town.

The Post Office is on the Main Street and John Hammond was the Postmaster. Letters from Ireland and England arrived from Dublin every morning at eleven and were dispatched every afternoon at twenty past one when the Royal Mail coach from Tralee called.

Cars and coaches travelled from the Kings Arms Hotel every morning (Sundays excepted) at six and seven thirty to Newcastle West also every evening at seven to Tralee. The Royal Mail called at the Post Office every morning at eleven.

Historic Dates

1890 Rathkeale
Pictures Copyright of Lawrence Collection. Produced at O'Brien Studio, Bunratty Folk Park, Bunratty, Co. Clare, Ireland

902: The name Rathkeale is a suggested anglicisation of Rathguala (Rath Caola), which is mentioned in The Book of Rights for this year. The name which translates as “The fort of Caola”, it has been suggested that Caola was a local King. Local tradition suggests that the location of the fort was at the back of the shrine and to the side of the house known as Mount Southwell in Enniscoush.

1210: The religious house known as St. Mary’s Priory is said to have been founded by Gilbert Harvey for Augustinian Canons of the Order of Aroasia.

1223: According to the Black Book of Limerick, the manor of Rathkeale was in possession of H Waspayl at this time. The manor remained in the hands of the Waspayl family until 1280 when it passed into that of the Mautravers, who may have been relations of theirs. It is from the name Mautravers that the townland names of Castle and Court Matrix evolved, which today effectively represent what was the manor land of the Parish.

1280: Elinor Purcell of Croagh leaves to the Monastery of Rathkeale what the tithes of the Manor of Croagh are effectively. Her son refuses to pay these to the Priory of Rathkeale and is successful in a subsequent court case in having the amount owed reduced considerably.

1380: The Crown seizes the land of the Manor from J Arundel, heir of the Mautravers after which it passes into the hands of the Munster Geraldines - The Earls of Desmond.

1436: St. Mary the Virgin is reputed to have worked several miracles in the Priory and the Augustinians were allowed to grant indulgences to penitents in order to raise funds for the repair of the church.

1487: James the 9th. Earl of Desmond is murdered at Castlematrix by his servants in what is in effect a struggle for the title. His brother Maurice who succeeds to the title has all of those who were servants of James executed.

1542: The monastery of Rathkeale was officially suppressed.

1580: Sir Walter Raleigh, then a captain in the Queen’s forces camped in Rathkeale while on their way to do battle with the Spanish forces who had landed at Smerwick harbour, doubled back on those who had come into where the camp had been pitched to scavenge for food and other items and massacred all of them.

The castle of Rathkeale was burned to the ground by English forces on their way to suppress the Desmond rebellion.

1582: The lands of Rathkeale and Kilfinny are among those granted to Edward Billingsley in the Munster Plantation. He decides to centre his estate on the village of Kilfinny, which he re-names as Knockbillingsley. The estate is sold on to the Dowdall family.

1642: After the death of her husband Captain John Southwell when he is ambushed at Grange Bridge on his way to assist in the defense of Newcastle (West), Lady Dowdall, organises the defense of Kilfinny Castle against 4 successive attacks by Irish rebels. She is eventually forced to surrender when artillery is brought from Limerick.

1709: Thomas Southwell, whose family have inherited some of the old Billingsley/Dowdall estate, introduces Palatine refugee families to the town lands of Courtmatrix, Killeheen and Ballingrane. In all about 120 families were introduced. They augmented an already established English settlement which had been introduced to assist in the development of the linen/flax industry.

1740: Archdeacon Brown is appointed Rector of Rathkeale and Chancellor of the Diocese of Limerick. Members of his family become agents for the Southwell estate and a number of significant houses are built by members of the Brown family including Danesfort, Mount Brown, Wilton and Brownville. The Church of Ireland records including the vestry book survive from this date until 1821 giving a very comprehensive record of the history of the Union. At the time Kilscannell and Cloughnarold belonged to the Union. Clonshire parish later became part of the Union.

1743: Frances Ingoldsby, then the wealthiest woman in the world is abducted from Nantenan Glebe to the north of Rathkeale by Hugh Fitz John Massy of Co. Cork. It is unclear as to whether Ms. Ingoldsby was a willing party to her abduction, but they did marry, and the descendants of the union reside today in Stoneville.

1756: Is the year of the first recorded visit by John Wesley to the Palatine communities in the neighbourhood of Rathkeale. Many of the Palatines become Methodist in line with Wesley’s teachings.

1766: At the behest of Barbara Heck, Phillip Embury preaches the first Methodist service in America. They are both emigrants from the Palatine settlement at Ballangarrane and are credited with being the founders of Methodism in America.

1786: Following the recent completion of the house now known as Beechmount, the Pigott family decide to no longer reside in Rathkeale and centre their estate on their Queen’s Co. (Laoise) estates.

1820: The area around Rathkeale and Newcastle became the centre of the rebellion known as the Rockite rebellion. Among incidents in and around Rathkeale were the ambushing of a planned attack on a tithe proctors house by the local militia which left 4 of the attackers dead or near dead and the assassination of the local Police constable Captain Going because local belief was that at least one of the bodies he had buried in quick lime near the Deel bridge was of someone who was still alive.

1846: The Rathkeale Coin Hoard was discovered this year. It is said to have contained over a thousand coins of Edward III and a thin gold band which is one of a small group of such ornaments which can be dated to the eleventh or twelfth centuries. It is said that the find was made near the town. In 1857 Captain Edward Hoare a Cork antiquarian owned the band. He published a drawing and description of the band that year.

1862: Sir Launcelot Edward Kiggell, Chief of Staff to Sir Alexander Haig between 1915 and 1917, was born in Wilton House. Kiggell is reported to have broken down in tears after visiting Passchendaele during the third battle of Ypres saying, “Good God did we really send men out to fight in that”. He retired his position towards the end of 1917 and finished the war as head of forces in the Channel Islands. At least 22 men who either gave Rathkeale as their place of birth or were at the time of enlisting died fighting with the British forces in the First World War.

Rathkeale was connected with Limerick and Newcastle West by railway.

1873: St. Mary’s church designed by Ireland’s major church architect of the time was officially opened. Previous Roman Catholic chapels and Mass Houses had been located in Chapel Lane and on or about the location of the current convent hall.

1916: The death takes place of William Hayes local organiser for the Irish Parliamentary Party. In 1898 he had been the principal organiser of the erection of the celtic cross at the bottom of St. Mary’s grave yard to commemorate those who died in the planned attack on the tithe proctors house in 1821. Before his death he had proposed that those who died in the 1916 rebellion be included in the list of those commemorated on the cross. Three people from Rathkeale and its environs died in the Irish War of Independence, these included Sean Finn a member of the Irish volunteers since their founding and Officer in Command of the West Limerick battalion of the IRA who died in ambush by British forces near Loughill.

1921: The local workhouse was burnt to the ground by the IRA during the truce between the end of the War of Independence and the signing of the Treaty. The incident was not as a result of orders issued from IRA HQ in Dublin. Many of those who were in the workhouse at the time were obliged to continue living among the ruins until as late as the 1940’s. The burning was suspected by some to be the outcome of the competition to have the County Home located in the work houses of Newcastle West and Rathkeale.

1954: As a result of local initiative, a Meat processing plant called Shannon Meat is opened on the site of the old workhouse.

1975: The local railway line which had operated since the 1860’s was closed. Passenger services had been closed some years previously. The original line which ran from Limerick to Foynes had seen the station later known as Ballingarrane Junction known as Rathkeale. The later Rathkeale station house is today the Irish Palatine Centre. The station house which had originally stood near the roundabout/flyover was dismantled brick by brick and moved to its current location. Desmond Creation also opened around this time.

Page content written by John Shanahan and Ciss Breen of the Rathkeale Historical Society.