Granagh, also known as Grannagh or Granny Castle, is situated on the Kilkenny side of the River Suir, just to the north of Waterford City. Due to its strategic position it is not surprising that prior to the castle, a fort, possibly named Dun Bhrain or Brann’s had occupied this site since the early part of the first millennium. After the Norman Invasion of 1169 most of the lands of Waterford County and the southern half of Kilkenny County were granted to the le Poers who built the first castle at Granagh. The le Poers held onto the land for two centuries but fell out of favour with Edward III after the execution of Eustace FitzArnold Le Poer for treason, their lands were subsequently granted to James Butler, the 2nd Earl of Osmonde in 1375.
The period which saw the largest building and expansion work at the castle came during the time of the Earl Piers Butler, and Margaret FitzGerald, Countless of Ormond in the late 15th, early 16th century. Margaret was a woman of some esteem and is mentioned in both gracious and discourteous terms. Its a common enough occurrence when researching the course of Irish History to note that many writers of the day, perhaps those writing from, and understandably financed by, a more Anglo-Norman/the Peerage perspective have a very different story to tell than the folklore of the local peasantry, or stories invented many years later, and Margaret is a prime example of this. This period also saw the castle at Granagh becoming the seat of power for the Butlers, overshadowing Kilkenny Castle in so much as Granagh was where they held court.
In his Topographical Dictionary from 1837, Lewis recorded that, ‘Granny or Grandison Castle, in Iverk, is one of the most considerable: it was the residence of Margaret FitzGerald, the great Countess of Ormond, a lady of uncommon talents and qualifications, who is said also to have built the castles of Balleen and Coolkill, with several others of minor note.’ The renovation and upgrading of buildings such as Gowran castle and Kilkenny Castle, and also improvements to various church owned properties is mentioned repeatedly. As one would expect for the times she lived in Margaret’s unusual position as a confident and respected female in a male world led to her being described as possessing the traits of a man on more than one occasion. Richard Stanihurst, the 16th century alchemist, poet and historian described Margaret as such, ‘manlike and tall of stature, liberal and bountiful, a sure friend and a bitter enemy’. Stanihurst also tells us that Margaret was considered the real power and that Piers was a ‘simple gentleman’ who only ruled ‘through the singular wisdom of his countess, a lady of such a port that all estates of the realm crouched unto her’. After an argument with Piers, Margaret’s own brother put it far more mercilessly when he referred to Piers as, ‘said earl, or my lady, his wife, by whom he is only ruled’.
However many folklore tales speak of a very different Margaret, many referring to her simply as a witch. They tell of her imprisoning enemies in tunnels under the castle and leaving them to die. One story tells of her jester who one day failed to impress her with a trick where he fashioned a rope with several nooses, she demanded to see his invention work and seven local peasants were hung from the battlements to amuse her. It is said that this is why “the Butler Knot” was incorporated into the family coat of arms. It is true that there is an arched window with the sculpture of an angel holding the Butlers arms, from where the Countess hung rebels, even her biggest admirers at the time admit this. One tale from the national school’s collection even claim you can see the ‘witch’s face’ in the wall of the castle!
From whatever perspective Margaret FitzGerald was certainly a powerful figure, what is interesting is the history and the folklore and how they mainly contrast but sometimes are brutally similar. Throughout her life Margaret developed her own personal estate which she left to her younger son Richard, 1st Viscount Mountgarret upon her death on 9th August 1542. She was buried in St Canice’s Cathedral in a tomb alongside Piers, who had died three years previously.
The castle stayed in ownership of the Butlers until 1650 when it was taken and ransacked by Cromwell’s forces under Colonel Daniel Axtwell. His cannons destroyed the castle. However things didn’t end well for Axtell, only ten years later he would be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason. The castle was never inhabited again and stands as a beautiful, evocative ruin on the banks of the River Suir.
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