The History of Cahir and District: An Introduction

Article from the booklet 'CAHIR A Guide to Heritage Town and District'
Published by Cahir Tourism-Heritage Association, June 1999.
Compiled and Edited by David J. Butler.

Cahir 1599

The ancient and proper name of Cahir is Cathair-dún-Iascaigh or the circular stone fortress of the fish abounding Dún or Fort. This name can only be accounted for by the supposition that an earthen Dún or Fort had originally occupied the site on which a stone fort was erected subsequently.

Earliest Times:
 Some of the earliest evidence of habitation in the Suir Valley around Cahir survives in the form of megalithic tombs, ring forts, ancient roadways and field structures. The Lios at Lisava is a classic example of a uni-vallate ring fort complete with central standing stone. Other ring forts and cairns can be found at Garryroan and Kedrah. A wedge tomb was discovered in Scarough Wood some years ago, as was an Iron Age Cist burial in Upper Cahir Abbey. The ancient roadways of Munster passed through Cahir. The Rian Bó Phadraigh, later Christianised to the "Track of St. Patrick`s Cow" supposedly linked Cashel with Lismore. Parts of this trail can still be traced in the vicinity of Cahir, particularly at Garnavilla.
Historically, there is evidence of settlement in and around Cahir from as far back as the third century when a very large earthen fort at Knockagh was the residence of the poet Fearchois MacComan. In 212 AD it is recorded that while Lugaigh MacConn, (King of Ireland 182-212 AD) was distributing gold and silver to poets at nearby Derrygrath, Fearchois hurled his spear at him and killed him.
From the ancient Irish Annals, it is reported that in the third century, the Rock on which Cahir Castle is built, was occupied by an earthen Dún or Fort, the residence of Badamair, lover of the local Gaelic chief, Finn MacRadamaid. Finn had killed a relative of Cuirreach Life and in revenge Cuirreach, who was brother-in-law of the lawgiver, Felemy Rechtmar, murdered Badamair and plundered the fort before making his escape. This story ended with Finn killing Cuirreach with his spear.

Early Christian:
With the coming of Christianity the ancient pagan sites were gradually taken over. Tobar Íosa, the Holy Well at Cahir Abbey (recently restored) is such a site, rich in tradition, with the pagan custom of tying coloured rags on a nearby tree still practiced. Also close by, Toureen-Peakaun and St. Berihert`s Kyle are two of the finest collections of early Christian burial sites in Munster and are under the care of Dúchas - The Office of Public Works. At Grangemore, one of the more curious items in the area can be found, namely St. Patrick’s Stone, reputedly bearing the knee prints of the good man himself! Three townlands meet there. 
Between the fifth and eleventh centuries ancient church sites abounded and in some cases were succeeded by medieval or monastic churches. Local townland names such as Killeigh, Kilcommon. Killeen Butler, and Killemly are the only extant evidence of these sites. The Quaker Burial Ground at Ballybrado (Garranalive) is thought to be on an ancient church site.

Conor na Cathrach O`Brien, King of Thomond, is said to have built a fort at Dún Iascaigh in the early twelfth century prior to the coming of the Normans. This stone fort replaced its earthen predecessor on the rocky island in the River Suir, which later became the site for Cahir Castle.

When the Anglo-Normans arrived in the area, in 1169, Dún Iascaigh was already fortified. It was an important link between the two major Norse settlements of Waterford and Limerick, the River Suir then being navigable as far as Cahir. However the Normans chose a more politically important site four miles North of Cahir as their administrative Headquarters for the district. This was at Knockgraffon, where they built a Motte and Bailey in 1192. Knockgraffon was the crowning site for the Kings of Munster prior to the Rock of Cashel. The Normans dedication to Christianity quickly became apparent, with the foundation of two monastic settlements in the Cahir area in circa. 1200. The first was at Cahir, where Geoffrey de Camville, a Norman Knight, founded an Augustinian Priory, a sister house to that at Athassal, eight miles distant. It was dedicated to Our Lady, and became known as Cahir Abbey. Substantial remains survive.
Further down river at Kilcommonbeg, also circa. 1200, a Priory dedicated to Saints Philip, James and Cumin was founded by Philip de Worcester, as a dependency of Glastonbury Abbey in England. The Priory continued until circa. 1332, when during the reign of King Edward III, Glastonbury lost much of its Irish property. Nothing remains of this monastic settlement.

By 1375 the lands around Cahir had come into the possession of the 3rd Earl of Ormond. They were in turn granted to James "Galda" Butler, a natural son of the Earl and Catherine, daughter of the Earl of Desmond. Further details on this tale are contained within the Guided Tour of Cahir Castle.

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries:
King Henry VIII rewarded the Butlers of Cahir for their loyalty, when in 1543, he created Thomas Butler, Lord Baron of Cahir. In 1540, Henry’s dissolution of the Monasteries saw the break-up of the extensive Cahir Abbey Monastic Estate and the lands were subsequently granted to Sir Thomas Butler, Lord Cahir. The last prior, Edward Lonergan, became the first Parish Priest of Cahir. The Butlers and their kinsmen consolidated their holdings, and substantial tower-houses can be seen at Lisava, Loughloher, Kedra, Rochestown, Rehill, Knockgraffon, Cahir Abbey, Nicholastown, Cloughabreda, and Moorstown, all within a short distance of Cahir.
Throughout the turbulent sixteenth century, loyalties wavered among the Anglo-Irish. This situation came to a head in l599, when Queen Elizabeth I sent her favourite, the Earl of Essex, to subdue the rebel Irish, and especially O’Neill in Ulster. The only victory on his campaign was the capture of Cahir Castle after a siege lasting three days. This siege is graphically described in the State Papers and Pacata Hibernia, with description and illustration in the Cahir Castle Guidebook. In a letter contemporary with the siege, Archbishop Miler McGrath described Cahir to the Queen as “the only famous Castle in Ireland which is thought impregnable and is the Bulwark of Munster and a safe retreat for all the agents of Spain and Rome against the Lord Lieutenant".
Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I, Cahir Castle appears as a frequent and important scene in the melancholy drama of which Ireland was a stage. The Castle was taken and re-taken, but rarely damaged and through it all remained in the hands of the Roman Catholic Butlers of Cahir. By this time Cahir had become a great centre of learning for poets and musicians. Theobald, Lord Cahir was said by the Four Masters "to be a man of great benevolence and bounty, with the greatest collection of poems of any of the Normans in Ireland".
A study of the Butler Family in Cahir in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reveals the rise and fall of one of the minor branches of the House of Ormond. At the end of the fifteenth century, they possessed extensive powers, good territorial possessions and a tenuous link with the main branch of the Butler family. During the sixteenth century, their possession was strengthened by the grant of the title of Baron of Cahir with subsequent further acquisition of land, but they came under closer central government control. A complete reversal in their relations with the Earls of Ormond occurred, strengthened by various marriage alliances. They also participated in political action, both in the Liberty of Tipperary and at National Level. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries their position was affected by their adherence to Roman Catholicism, which resulted in their revolt during the Nine Years War, and subsequent exclusion from power by the Central Administration. They formed part of the Old English Group and as such, suffered from the discriminatory politics practiced by the Government. From 1641 they became minor landowners keeping their lands by virtue of the favour of their relative, the Duke of Ormond. In 1647 the Castle was surrendered to Lord Inchiquin for Parliament but re-taken in 1650 by Cromwell himself, whose letter describing acceptable terms of surrender still survives. At the restoration of Charles II, in 1660, George Matthews, (as Warden of Cahir Castle and half-brother to the Duke of Ormond), retained the Cahir lands for the Lord Cahir, then a minor. 
Despite embracing the Jacobite Cause in the Williamite Wars, the Cahir estate remained relatively intact. However, the Butlers never again lived at Cahir Castle but rather at their country manor, Rehill House, where they lived in peace and seclusion from the mid-seventeenth century, when not living abroad in England and France.

Eighteenth Century:
By 1700 a sizeable town had grown around the Castle, although hardly any other buildings survive from this period. Agriculture, milling and a wide range of trades would have brought quite a bustle to the muddy precursors of our present streets. At this time, the Castle was quite dilapidated and was let to the Quaker William Fennell, who resided and kept a number of wool combers at work there. On the completion of Cahir House in the later l770’s, Fennell rented Rehill House from Lord Cahir and lived there over half a century. A strong Roman Catholic middle class emerged. James, 9th Lord Cahir, practiced his religion openly. He maintained strong links with Jacobite France, and paid regular visits to England. While not a permanent resident, he kept his Cahir Estates in impeccable order and was largely responsible for the general layout of the Town of Cahir. Under his patronage, some of the more prominent buildings such as Cahir House, the Market House and the Inn were built during the late 1770s and early 1780s. In addition, the Quakers built the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills in the period 1775-90.
The main line of the Cahir Butlers died out in 1788 with the death of Pierce, 10th Baron, but a distant cousin was discovered to accept the Title. The story of this succession is quite dramatic and can be found in the Swiss Cottage Guidebook.
The young Lord Cahir (Richard, 12th Baron) married Miss Emily Jeffereys of Blarney Castle and together they led Cahir through the most colourful period of its development. By the end of the eighteenth century, the youthful Lord and Lady Cahir had begun improving their Cahir estates while socialising extensively in Dublin, London and Paris. Improvements on the Estate were limited by the extensive sub-letting that James, 9th Lord Cahir had practiced, with the result that the powerful Roman Catholic and Quaker middle classes had control over much of the land, without much desire to improve their properties. These long leases did not expire until the 1840s.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries:
The new century opened with the passing of the Act of Union (1801), and the removal of the Irish Parliament. London now became the epicentre of the Empire. Improvements on the Cahir Estate had begun under the energetic and enthusiastic guidance of Emily and Richard, 12th Lord and Lady Cahir. Kilcommon Demesne (Cahir Park) was landscaped circa 1800, reputedly under the direction Humphrey Repton. The Bridewell, Dispensary, Fever Hospital, and most important the Cavalry Barracks at Kilcommon were all built in the first two decades of the century. For St. Paul’s Church, the adjoining Erasmus Smith Schoolhouse and probably also the Swiss Cottage, the services of John Nash, Royal Architect were employed. (At the same time, Viscount Lismore commissioned Nash to design Shanbally Castle as his seat in nearby Clogheen. The castle was wantonly destroyed in 1957). Cahir became a fashionable centre among the gentry, the annual Races of Cahir being the highlight of the social year. Lord and Lady Cahir were popular and controversial, the latter notorious for her drive and fiery temper. Richard, Lord Cahir, sat in The House of Lords as one of the Irish Representative Peers, and in 1816 was created Earl of Glengall, a title he enjoyed for just 3 years. He died at Cahir House of typhus in January 1819, at the age of 43 years.
Richard, Viscount Caher, (now 2nd Earl of Glengall), had already taken his place in political circles while his mother, Emily, ran the Estate with an iron fist. Richard, in his early years was a dandy playboy and a lover of fashion. He was a patron of the arts, amateur playwright, duellist, and remained a bachelor to the age of forty. When he did marry, he married money. In 1834, he wed Margaret Lauretta, the younger daughter and co-heiress of William Mellish of London, the army contractor, whose estate was worth three million pounds at that time. 
Meanwhile in Cahir, the milling industry flourished, as did many of the businesses. The Cavalry Barracks, which housed an entire cavalry regiment throughout the nineteenth century, contributed much to this boom. The Military Bands played on the Mall, at The Cottage and all major events. They added colour to the annual races and assisted the local authorities whenever they could. (In 1893, the Square would have been consumed by fire if it were not for the efforts of the 10th Hussars).
From the later 1830s, Lord Glengall poured money into the Estate, giving his more important tenants long leases, on strict condition that they build according to his plan. Hence, Michael Burke built most of the East Side of the Square; John Cusack, Old Church Street; John Egan, parts of Castle Street; Michael Blake, the Parish House; John Chaytor, the current A.I.B. Bank and Thomas Beale, the Mall Houses. Cahir Castle was also restored at this time, the cost personally borne by Lord Glengall. The town was transformed in a short period by an unprecedented amount of building and rebuilding activity. 
During the Great Famine (1846-51), Lord and Lady Glengall did much for the relief of the poor and the starving. Lord Glengall`s town improvement plan was shelved in 1847 due to a resulting lack of funds and his wife’s fortune being tied up in a Trust Fund. The Cahir Estates were sold in 1853, the largest portion being purchased by the Trustees of Lady Glengall. This sale came about due to Lord Glengall being declared bankrupt. The Grubbs had by now become the most important Quaker family in the district and bought parts of the Cahir Estate during the 1853 sale. Despite furious competition between Lady Glengall`s trustees and Sadleirs` Dublin solicitor at the offices of the Encumbered Estates Court, the demesne of Kilcommon and Cahir Town were lost to the Glengall Butlers. Such activity at the court was unprecedented, and the final price of £30.000 was widely reported and much commented upon. Part of the mountainous outlying part of the estate was purchased by Robert Murdoch (Sadleirs solicitor), whose family resided on their small estate based at Rehill and Kilcoran from the l870`s until its sale in 1941.
Cahir Town and Demesne came up for auction again in 1857, on the suicide of Sadleir, but Lady Glengall`s Trustees were unable to purchase, due to their having already expended circa £200,000 on repurchasing the greater part of the Estate. The purchaser was Robert Malcomson, a prominent Quaker from Portlaw, Co, Waterford, whose mother was a Cahir Abbey Grubb. Malcomson`s Cotton Empire collapsed, and in 1876, Kilcommon Demesne was again auctioned. In the interim, Lady Margaret Butler (elder daughter and heir of Lord Glengall) had married Lieut. Col. Hon. Richard Charteris, 2nd son of the 9th Earl of Wemyss & March. Using a combination of her mother’s Trust and Charteris funds, Cahir Town and Kilcommon Demesne were repurchased. 
Lady Margaret, although an absentee landlord, resident in London, kept a close watch on her Cahir Estates through two excellent managers, Major Hutchinson and his successor William Rochfort. The latter lived first in Cahir House and later bought Cahir Abbey House. Lady Margaret was an improving landlord and through her efforts, Cahir was one of the first towns in Munster to have a fresh water supply (1876), and "modern" sewerage facilities (1914). She had a Ball Alley and several other cut stone structures built, laid out Cahir Gardens, and managed two visits (she had a fear of travelling by sea) in 1877 and 1908. During the land war, the purchase by tenants of their holdings appears to have been handled without much strife. Unemployment was non-existent and there was a general secure feeling in Cahir as the new century opened. Her son, Richard Butler Charteris took over her role in 1915 and remained resident in Cahir from 1916 until his death in 1961. In 1962, the House, and circa 750 acre estate core (within the walls of Cahir Park and Kilcommon Demesne) were auctioned. Also sold were circa 2,000 acres of Mountain and Forestry and a three-mile stretch of the River Suir. The lands were purchased by the Irish Land Commission and were subsequently divided among local farmers. The contents of the house were of exceptional standard, many pieces having descended from the families’ French connections during the eighteenth century, and attracted many international buyers. The sale, which took over a week to conduct, realised in the region of £250,000, a fabulous sum when very many people were earning well below £10 per week. And so ended the direct line of Butler ownership in Cahir, almost 600 years.