Portora – The Royal School
Apart from their excellent writing skills what does Wabat (that’s me!), Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Henry Francis Lyte have in common?
Answer: We all went to the same school – Portora Royal School in Enniskillen.
In fact, not only did we attend, each of us signed an enrollment register retained by the school. Wilde’s signature was hidden and his name removed from a prize-winners board after his conviction for homosexual offences in 1895. His name was restored in the 1930s and consequentially shines with greater lustre than those of his contemporaries – something that would bring a wry smile to Oscar’s face, I imagine.
While blue Ulster History Circle plaques have been affixed to the walls in recognition of Wilde and Beckett (pictures three and four), Wabat’s and the Reverend Lyte’s plaques have yet to be affixed. Most readers will recognise Wilde and Beckett. Lyte was a poet and hymn writer – his most famous composition being the hymn – “Abide with me.”
Portora Royal School, which started out life as Enniskillen Royal School, is Enniskillen’s oldest school and indeed one of Ireland’s oldest and was establish pursuant to a 1608 decree by King James I. The original school was built in 1618 at Ballybalfour (Lisneskea), some 15 miles from Enniskillen. While the school actually moved into Enniskillen in around 1661, it wasn’t until around 100 years later in 1778 that the school moved to its present location atop Portora Hill. The original square block building, which gave accommodation for 60 to 70 pupils, can be seen as the central portion of the current façade of Portora.
Until the late 1900s the school catered for boarders (night-rats) and day pupils (day-dogs) and apart for a short period from 1979 to the early 90’s (when it unsuccessfully dabbled with having girls) it has been a boys school though it again started accepting girls into the 6th Form (final two years) in September 2011. Portora no longer accepts boarders and its enrollment is around 500 – the highest it has been in its 400 years plus history.
Old Portorans can be found in all walks of life scattered across the world. In the words of of the schools current headmaster:
“Portorans have been Olympians and Nobel Laureates, they have governed over British Colonies and led European Radicalism, they have been Soldiers and Statesmen, Lawyers and Litigants, Scholars and Poets, Businessmen and Bishops. One is under consideration by the Roman Catholic Church for beatification; another is regarded as a central icon of alternative life styles in the 20th Century.”
Portora Castle is located on the south bank of the River Erne overlooking the narrowest part of the river before it widens into. Lower Lough Erne. Archaeological digs have recovered Stone Age axes, Bronze Age swords and Iron Age ornaments proving that this has been an important and busy crossing point between the provinces of Connacht and Ulster back to prehistoric times.
The current castle – perhaps more a fortified manor – was built in 1613 by Sir William Cole, Constable of Enniskillen. It is one of a number of castles built around this time to consolidate the Ulster plantation in Country Fermanagh. Other castles from this era include Monea Castle and Tully Castle upon which I have written separate tips.
In 1619 it was described as a square bawn of lime and stone, with walls approximately 4 meters high, with 4 circular flankers and a stone house 3 storeys high. A bawn is a defensive wall surrounding an Irish tower house.
In the 1620s the castle was occupied by Dr James Spottiswood, Bishop of Clougher, the local diocese. Outside this, it was mainly occupied by members of the Cole family. During the 1641 Rising and again in 1688 when Enniskillen rallied in support of William of Orange (William III) the castle was an important and effective military outpost for Enniskillen. The castle survived both events without damage but fared less well in 1859 when truant students from the nearbyPortora Royal School put into practice what they had learned in chemistry class and with some homemade gunpowder blew up part of the, by then derelict, castle. They also dug tunnels under it. The castle was further damaged by the “big wind” of 1894 and the missing circular east flanker was lost in river dredging works some year later.
The castle is certainly worth a look if you are in town or passing by, as you would be, if driving around the Lower Lough.
Below the Castle on the River you will see a loch and sluice gates. These were installed to control the level of water in the lower lake to suit the requirements of a hydro-electric power station downstream at Ballyshannon.
Opening hours: 24/7
Entrance fee: Free
- Castles and Palaces
Ardess Famine Pit
“Within this famine pit lieth the unknown dead 1845-1850” – inscription on the Famine Pit Memorial.
As global leaders meet for the G8 Summit, outside Enniskillen in June 2013, to discuss global hunger among other things, I wonder how many will recall the death of over a million from starvation in the 1845-50 Irish famine? I am sure that few will know that within a few kilometres of the Summit venue 200 hundred or more of the dead lie in a mass grave known simply as the Famine Pit.
In 1836 a Poor Law Inquiry found that over one third of the people of Ireland depended on the potato as their main (almost only) source of food. The Potato Famine of 1845-49 brought inevitable results. The Poor Law Workhouse system introduced in 1838 failed. This famine grave – located in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church at Ardess (see seperate tip) outside Kesh - is a grim reminder of the effect of the famine on the Kesh and Ederney area and on Femanagh generally where it is thought that over 25% of the population died or emigrated as a direct result of the famine. Across Ireland, in addition to the million or so deaths, a couple of million more fled the country mainly for America and Canada.
There is no record of the identities of any of the people buried in this pit – in reality a sunken mound - (which runs for 120ft (40metres) up the Memorial tomb) which lay derelict, overgrown and forgotten for decades. The pit was restored in 1997 (marking the 150th anniversary of 1847 – Black 47) by the Ardess Community Association and the Ardess Historical Society when a four part memorial, designed by local artist Gordon Johnston, was erected at one end of the pit.
The vaulted tomb of local limestone symbolises an abandoned homestead, the grass covering symbolises a thatched cottage, the footbridge (set back along the pit just out of the attached picture one) provides an overview of the size of the pit emphasising the enormity of the tragic event it represents, and the funeral bier (makeshift field stretcher) recalls the tradition of leaving behind the two roughly hewn poles used to transport the dead.
Opening time: Church Graveyard open 24/7
Entrance Fee: Free
- Historical Travel
The war memorial...etched on our memories
The war memorial at Enniskillen is probably the main reason why this little town is known all over Ireland and the UK. During the rememberance day service in 1987 the IRA let off a bomb that killed 11 and injured 63.
The sad truth is that the town had a relatively good record as regards sectarianism compared to many parts of the province. This shocking action and subsequent outrage in some strange way led to greater calls for peace.
One result of such efforts is the Clinton centre that stands nearby (see seperate tip) and the addition of 11 metallic doves to the momument to symbolise those who lost their lives.
The town seems to downplay those events in the spirit of forgiveness and reconcilliation, a lesson to us all.
Drumskinny Stone Circle - Fermanagh's Stonehenge!
There are many examples of stone circles in high bogland in North Fermanagh and neighbouring counties. Based on the recovery of artifacts, which I refer to later, in the 1962 excavation of the site it is thought to date from around 2000 BC or earlier – the early bronze age – and apparently the peak of the “stone circle era”. This is one of the best preserved stone circle sites in the region and one of the most easily accessible. A very pleasant stop as you tour the area generally though it is substantially smaller that a stone circle complex of Beaghmore close to Cookstown, Co Tyrone (approximately 60kms distance) – which I have not visited yet. It too has circles, cairns and lines of stones similar to Drumskinny.
What the site was used for is unknown but it was most likely used for some for of religious practice, astronomical observations and/ or calendar functions. The site excavation did not uncover a lot -a hollow-scraper and a few flints were found under and around the cairn and a sherd of Western Neolithic pottery was found near a circle stone at the east. There was no evidence that the site was used for burials – as was often the use of sites like this.
The main stone is approximately 13 metres in diameter, it originally had 39 upright stones up to 1.8 metres in height, with a possible (assuming stones are in their original place, the alignment is not great) gap to the northwest where there is a small cairn of stones contained within a kerb almost 4 metres in diameter. Stretching south from the cairn is a 15-metre-long alignment of 23 small stones. The gravel throughout the site is there merely to keep weeds at bay and improve access to this otherwise boggy site – the original surrounds would have been grass/peat.
While the majority of the stones are original, a number are replacements. These are easily identified as the are stamped “MOF” – which rather curiously stands for the Ministry of Finance which has taken care of the site since 1934. Who would have thought that the MOF had a branch called the Ancients Monuments Branch?
Opening hours: 24/7
Entrance fee: Free
- Historical Travel
This museum, in the Keep or main castle building (along with a section on the Maguires) and former stables of Enniskillen Castle houses artefacts from the two army regiments raised in the town. This is a great museum if you are interested in military history.
Enniskillen is the only town in the British Isles to have raised two army regiments bearing the town’s name in one of its alternative spellings. These were the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.
Both Regiments (one infantry and the other cavalry) trace their roots back to 1688 when local soldiers sided with Protestant William III in his successful quest to defeat, and take the throne of England from, Catholic King James II. Originally raised to defend Enniskillen from Jacobite forces, both Regiments were soon incorporated in William’s army with the Fusiliers going on to fight with William at the Battle of the Boyne, 1690.
Both regiments continued to flourish and were, and are, most respected units of the British Army and have achieved great fame in numerous theatres of war across the globe. Just outside the Castle Museum Complex you will see the Boer War Memorial which commemorates the Inniskilling Regiments losses in the Boer War.
The Regiment's names have varied over the years and today the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers form part of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards form part of the Royal Dragoon Guards.
The museum's exhibits include regimental uniforms, weapons, standards, badges, medals, engravings and photographs. In pride of place is the bugle sounded at the charge of the regiment in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Regimental Chapel for the Inniskilling Regiments is within, the nearby, St Macartin's Cathedral - its houses various regimental colours and other items of interest to those with an interest in the Regiments.
The Howitzer Gun -picture one- , close to the Watergate, was captured from the German Army in WWI and was presented to the family of Lieutenant Otto Brooke of Brookborough to commemorate his award of the Victoria Cross.
Entry to the museum is included in a combined ticket for the Enniskillen Castle complex – purchased in the Fermanagh County Museum (part of, and entrance to, the Castle Complex).
Opening Hours: Given the variation in opening hours throughout the year and on different days of the week I am not going to try and include them here but rather I direct you to the website - www.enniskillencastle.co.uk/visiting-us/opening-hours/
Student & Senior Citizen £3.00
Family Rate (2 adults and 3 children under 16 years) £11.00
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- Castles and Palaces
- Museum Visits
This is most complete and the best preserved of Ulster’s plantation castles and well worth a visit. I have also written tips on two others, Portora and Tully both nearby in Co. Fermanagh.
The so-called plantation castles were built in the 1610s and 1620s to consolidate the Ulster plantation of that period – when Ulster was colonised (following the Flight of the Earls in 1607) and planted with loyal wealthy landowners (from Scotland and England) to prevent further rebellion. Ulster had been the region most resistant to English control during the preceding century.
Monea Castle was built in 1618 by the Rector of Devenish, the Reverend Malcolm Hamilton in a very characteristically Scottish style with corbels and crow-stepped gables on top of the towers (the steeped feature you see in picture five attached). The bawn (Irish defensive wall) was added in 1622.
In the Irish Rebellion of 1641 (an attempt by Irish Catholics to wrest control of Ireland from the English and Scottish settlers or planters) the castle was attacked and briefly fell into the hands of Rory Maguire who slew eight Protestants here.
Gustav Hamiliton, the Governer of Enniskillen and loyal supporter of King William III occupied the castle in 1688. He died bankrupt (due to major financial support of the Williamite Wars) in 1691 and by 1704 his wife and family were forced to sell the castle in 1704 for financial reasons. Following a major fire in around 1750 the castle was abandoned and has so remained, apart from a short period in the 1900s when "a weird woman named Bell McCabe took her residence in a vault beneath one of the towers" before being evicted.
- Historical Travel
- Castles and Palaces
I have already noted on my Portora Castle and Monea Castle reviews that a series of castles were built in County Fermanagh (and elsewhere in Ulster) in the 1610s and 1620s by settlers who arrived in the Plantation of Ulster around this time. The castles served a dual purpose – a display of wealth and power over the supplanted Irish and a line of defence to support and bolster the Plantation.
The 1641 Irish Rebellion (an attempt by Irish Catholics to wrest control of Ireland from the recently arrived plantation settlers) tested these defences. Portora, on the outskirts of Enniskillen and thus probably the best defended of the castles I have visited, withstood attack. Monea was lost temporarily with the loss of eight protestant lives.
Tully castle fared the worst – Around 84 people were killed (including 69 women and children) by the invading Maguires with its force of 800 men on Christmas Day of 1641. Interestingly and for reasons unknown, the Hume family (Scottish settlers who owned the castle) were separated from visitors to the castle and set free. The attackers pillaged and burnt the castle which was then abandoned by the Hume family. Notwithstanding the fire, the castle remains in remarkably good shape and is very much worth a visit. One can appreciate, given the activities of 25 December 1641, why they would have been reluctant to move back in.
Tully Castle had been built, in a traditional Scottish style in 1619 by Sir John Hume and like Portora is really more a fortified house with bawn (Irish defensive wall) than a castle in the normal sense of the word. The bawn was a rather impressive one of stone and lime 99 feet long, 9 feet broad, 10 feet high, with 4 flankers.
Excavations as part of a major restoration in the 1970s revealed that the bawn was divided up by cobbled paths suggesting the use of this area as a garden. In 1988 formal beds were created within these paths using plants known in Ireland during the seventeenth century.
A visitor’s centre, located in a restored farmhouse on the way in to the castle, houses an exhibition relating to the castle. As the visitor’s centre was not open when I visited I cannot comment on the quality of the exhibition. When the visitor’s centre is open you can also access the castle – not really necessary as you can see sufficient from the outside.
The castle can also be accessed via a path from Lough Erne should you wish to arrive by boat. Original access to the castle would have been from the water.
Opening times: Castle Exterior 24/7 (Exhibition and castle interior – check with tourist office in Enniskillen but don’t not go because this is not open as the beauty of this castle is seen from the outside. Certainly closed in winter – I was there mid week in early May)
Admission fee: Castle Exterior - Free (there may be charge for exhibition and internal access – I don’t know)
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
St Mary’s and the Hanging Tree
St Mary’s Church in Ardess, where the Ardess Famine Pit (see my separate tip) is located, was originally built in 1387. Part of today’s present stone built structure can be dated as far back as fifty years before the Reformation.
The earliest recorded headstones here (the earliest known example of sculpted headstones in Ireland – many in the form of the Irish Celtic Cross) date from the 1600s. Prior to this burials were marked by wooden rather than stone headstones. The graves in this graveyard face east with the exception of priests’ who, according to local folklore, face west reportedly overlooking their flock. Directly beneath the Church lies the family vault of the Archdales once one of Fermanagh’s premier families since the plantation.
While wandering around the graveyard you will come upon an old tree stump with a plaque stating “ Site of the Hanging Tree circa 1641”. It is highly improbable that anyone was hung from the tree now reduced to the visible stump, not least because the stump/ tree would have long ago rotted away had it existed in 1641. An Ash tree like this has a maximum lifespan of around 200 years.
While the Hanging Tree may be a figment of someone's imagination it is possible that people were hung in this area in 1641. In depositions collected after the 1641 Irish Rebellion evidence of Ann Blennerhassett, wife of Francis who was shot by rebels in Ballyshannon on Christmas Eve of that year states:-
"And further saith that she heard some of the rebel soldiers at the said Rory Maguire's house (Crevenish Castle, near Kesh) brag, boast and say that they had hanged several Protestants on the churchyard gate of that parish (St. Mary's, Ardess) where Mr. Flack was minister."
The truth will probably never be known.
- Historical Travel
Boer War Memorial
The Boer War memorial, now located just outside the entrance to the Enniskillen Castle complex, commemorates those who lost their lives, from the two Enniskillen raised Regiments of the British Army - the Royal Inniskillings and the Inniskilling Dragoons in the 1899-1902 Boer War.
The 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers arrived in Durban in December 1899 to join the army advancing to relieve Ladysmith. At the river Colenso the British lost over 1100 casualties to minimal Boer losses. The Inniskillings lost 117 men.
On the fourth relief attempt, in February 1900, the Boer defences were breached on the Tugela Heights and the advance to lift the siege was successful. The Inniskillings achieved great fame for their courageous attack, in spite of heavy casualties, up the hill which became known as Inniskilling Hill.
The 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons arrived in Cape Town in October 1899 and joined General French's Cavalry Division for the invasion of the Orange Free State and the relief of Mafeking.
During the Boer War, the Inniskilling Fusiliers lost 14 officers and 182 other ranks while the Inniskilling Dragoons lost 5 officers and 78 other ranks. As many men died from diseases like Typhoid as from enemy action.
This memorial used to be on a roundabout in the east end of the town but was moved to its current location in 2007 with a view to relieving anticipated traffic congestion in the east end of the town once Asda and Tesco built then recently approved superstores. Council records indicate that Asda/Tesco paid for the removal of the monument and for various new traffic lights.
This is actually one of two Boer War Memorials I am aware of in Enniskillen. I recall another one from my school days, located in the nearby Portora Royal School. The school memorial commemorates those old boys who served in, or were lost in, the Boer War.
Do have a look as you make your way to or from the Enniskillen Castle Museums complex.
- Historical Travel
Nobody mention Monica...
The Clinton centre in Enniskillen has been built just across the road from the horrific events of 1987 when 11 people were killed by an IRA bomb let off during a Armistice day (Nov 11th) day parade.
The building carries his name due to his efforts to end the sectarian divides and killing in Northern Ireland.
The hi-tech building is very eco-freindly and houses a small art gallery, a cafe, and a youth hostel.
No discounts for interns.
- Budget Travel
Looking out over his town...
The Cole monument stands in Forthill park, which stands at the back of the main part of the town. Just from the bottom of the edifice there is a fine view, but you can also climb the spiral steps inside for an even better view.
I was quite impressed that it was not a show of vanity on the Earl Cole's part, but his 'friends' raised the money to put up this tribute.
Interestingly, the Cole Monument is also said to have inspired the irish writer Oscar Wilde
, who attended Portora Royal Schoo in Enniskilen, to write "The Happy Prince" - fairy Tale (well he would write 'fairy' tales wouldn't he ?)
Next to the monument is also a rather fine Victorian Bandstand that is worth a look.
The Church of St. Molaise - Monea
A century after St. Patrick's death and paralleling the growth of monasticism in Ireland in the sixth century, St. Molaise, founded a monastery on nearby Devenish Island. The Reformation and defeat of Ulster's Irish Chieftains by the English and Scottish Plantation settlers finally brought the monastic communities on Devenish to an end in 1603.
Parish worship moved off the island in 1630 to this site in Monea. The original parish church here (actually the second church on this site) was burned down in the 1641 Rebellion. The 1641 Rebellion was an attempt by Irish Catholics to wrest control of Ireland from the recently arrived plantation settlers.
The replacement church was reportedly “a plain ugly one” and remained in use until the present church was opened in 1890. Notwithstanding its plainness or ugliness it contained the 1449 Devenish window from the now unused St. Mary’s Abbey Church on Devenish Island, inserted in the east wall in around 1804. The Abbey Church font, of dark grey igneous rock, was also transferred at this time.
Both the window and the font are now in the current Church of St. Molaise. Note that it is only the stone window that dates for 1449 and not the stained glass. The glass you see today is from 1968.
The architect of this gothic design church was Thomas Drew who also designed St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast and was consulting architect for both St. Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. I do like the Dumfries red sandstone used to dress this church making it stand out from other plainer churches in the area.
- Historical Travel
Enniskillen Town Hall
The Town Hall is located in the centre of Enniskillen (at the Diamond) and on one of two hills on the Island. Atop the other hill a couple of hundred metres away is St Macartin’s Cathedral.
The renaissance style building of dark Carrickreagh limestone finished with Dungannon sandstone columns, cornices and statues was built in 1901. Its copper dome can be seen from almost anywhere in the town. The Town Hall is built of the site of William Cole’s (the town’s founder) original 1618 market house.
The two sandstone figures, which I particularly like and which are rather rare additions to buildings like this, represent the two army regiments raised in the town in 1688/89– the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (photo two) and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (photo three).
The doors are of oak and hand carved by William Scott, a local craftsman. In the lobby you will find a (bomb proof ! – it having survived a 1972 bomb blast unlike the remainder of the floor) floor mosaic created by Italian artists and depicting the Enniskillen coat of arms
The Town Hall is, as you might expect, the centre of local government and home to the Fermanagh District Council. Unless you have the urge for a quick on the spot marriage (not recommended) in the Registry Office or have need to register a birth or a death you will not have much reason to venture inside.
Stop for a look as you pass by.
- Historical Travel
Crafty arty farty stuff
The Buttermarket area, just back from the main high street has been transformed into a craft area. There are a number of different shops and premisses around the courtyard and a rather good cafe called 'Rebecca's' in the centre.
The Cafe also has some rather impressive carved stones (copies I think) which give a little of the history on either side of the entrance.
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