‘The town is pleasantly situated on the declivity of a steep hill rising from the west bank of the river Awbeg, over which is a neat bridge of high arches… and with a castle and the church has a highly picturesque appearance.’
Samuel Lewis, Topographer, 1837.
Castletownroche has been a focus of settlement since prehistoric times. Tools belonging to its first inhabitants, who came here about 8,000 years ago, have been found in Kilcummer (two kilometers south, overlooking the Blackwater River). The area was well populated in the Bronze Age (2,500 to 500BC).
Perhaps the first community in Castletownroche occurred around Dún Cruadha – an Iron Age (500BC to 400AD) inland promontory fort. This was south of the present village, at Castlewidenham, overlooking the Awbeg River. The advantages of this commanding site were again exploited when the late medieval Roche castle was built there.
Early Mediaeval settlement in Castletownroche is represented by the number of ringforts in the area. These circular enclosures were used as farmsteads and are unique to Ireland. Local religious activities were probably focused around the Early Mediaeval monastery at Kilcummer.
The Roches erected the first castle here in the 14th century. In the late 1500s, Sir David Roche was arrested for treason by Sir Walter Raleigh, who had him taken prisoner to Cork. However, Sir David was later acquitted of the charges laid against him.
During the English Civil War in 1650, Lady Ellen Roche, wife of Maurice, Lord Roche, bravely defended the castle against Cromwell’s army. Upon surrender, she was hanged and, in 1666, the Roche lands were granted to Lieutenant Colonel John Widenham. The Widenhams extensively rebuilt the castle and gave it a more domestic appearance. Additions in the 1820s, retained its original keep and resulted in a castellated house with machicolations and a turreted entrance porch.
Through marriage, the castle became the home of Sir Delaval Cotter. In 1976, the Cotters sold the castle and moved to England. It is a private residence not open to the public but can be seen from the park beside the mill.
The village of Castletownroche evolved during mediaeval times. Like other Irish villages in the 18th century, Castletownroche developed around a central square with orderly rows of terraced houses that had shops on the ground floor and accommodation overhead. Today’s village retains that 18th/19th century layout. The houses were built in the typical neo-classical style of the time – well balanced and proportioned, with elegant sash windows.
In 1837, Castletownroche had 165 houses, a police barracks and two large flourmills. Fairs were held on 25 May, 28 July, 29 September and 12 December. A 17th century map shows a mill and bridge – part of that bridge is incorporated into the present structure.
The Down Survey of 1654-‘59 shows a mill in Ballyadeen and another on the west bank of the Awbeg, in Castlewidenham, which is now in ruins. The mill at Ballyadeen functioned as a corn mill until the 1990s. In 1996, it was bought by the local community council and converted for office use.
The Catholic parish church occupies a prominent site in the village. Its relocation to this central position, in 1848, reflected the growing confidence of the Catholic Church at that time. The edifice was burnt in 1896 and subsequently rebuilt.
Saint Mary’s Church (Church of Ireland) is on prominent ground overlooking the bridge and mill. Designed by James and George Richard Pain, it stands on the site of a mediaeval parish church. Its many pinnacles and well-proportioned steeple inspired Lewis to describe it in 1837 as ‘a remarkably handsome structure.’ Its chancel window commemorates local men who died in World War I (1914-‘18) and gives thanks for the Allied victory over Germany.
Bridgetown Priory, near the confluence of the Awbeg and Blackwater rivers, was founded for Augustinian monks in the 13th century by Alexander FitzHugh. Soon afterwards, it was owned by the Roches. Henry VIII dissolved the priory in 1540. Bridgetown has a cloister, kitchens, refectory, chapter house and church. Its ruins, now extensively restored, are open to visitors all year around.
An interpretive sign from the ‘Stories from the River of Time’ Heritage Trail is located at the entrance laneway to Bridgetown.
This wonderful garden was laid out in the early 20th century by Richard Grove Annesley, and is open to the public from Easter until the autumn. Robinsonian in style, it retains elements of an earlier 18th century ornamented landscape. Annesgrove is noted for its rare rhododendrons, which grow in its extensive woodland garden. Magnolias and other trees grow to an unusual size on the sheltered slopes of the Awbeg River.
Behind an 18th century house, steep paths wind down to the river, which was carefully incorporated into the garden design. Giant foliage plants border its riverside walks. A walled garden has a display of herbaceous plants and a contrast of styles within beds divided by hedges of box, beech and yew.
Famous Song Writer
At the entrance to Saint Mary’s graveyard lie the remains of Thomas Patrick Keenan, renowned songwriter. Some believe that one of his most popular tunes, ‘The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill,’ was written about Castletownroche. He died in the village in May 1927, and is commemorated on a stone plaque beside the bridge.
Oskar Metze, a German spy, entered a shop in Castletownroche in December 1942. His presence attracted the attention of the local Garda (policeman) who arrested him. That evening, he committed suicide using a cyanide tablet that he had hidden from the police. He was buried locally, but his remains were subsequently exhumed and reinterred in the German War Cemetery at Glencree, County Wicklow.