Adults can sometimes be guilty, inadvertently in fairness, of causing deep confusion in youngsters. An example I can recall was the placename “Buttermilk Castle” or more common with the fishermen simply “the Castle”. The Castle was formidable lump of rock and forestery that jutted out into the river directly across from the Russianside, just below Nuke in Co. Wexford. The associated fishing weir shared the name. The rock gave a sense of a citadel but when I sought further information my youthful questions were usually brushed aside. My confusion continued even after I started fishing, the Castle from which the name arose you see had crumbled into the cliff, and was swallowed up by the undergrowth.
My first introduction to the Castle, came when visiting a wonderful maritime museum that was located at Duncannon Fort, back in the 90’s. Alas no more now, it had a photograph, below, of the Castle, taken by AH Poole in the late 19th C. It depicted the familar square shaped Norman Tower house. It was before the coming of social media and the wonderful books of Billy Colfer, and it was a joy to me to finally see what for years I could only try imagine. It was well worth the £25 I paid!
|Buttermilk Castle AH Pool
But where one question is answered, others very often arise. And so it was with Buttermilk. Why a castle in such an out of the way spot and what was its purpose? Locally the accepted wisdom was that it was part of the elaborate farm and business of the Cistercian abbey at Dunbrody. The monks constructed it as a protection and comfort to their fishing monks, who were working the associated weir, and operating others, no doubt 24/7. Colfer states that it was built as a “headquarters for fishing activities in the harbour”.1
|Via Colfer, RSAI 2
However in another publication he says that both the Towerhouse at Ballyhack and Buttermilk were constructed to “exploit the economic opportunities presented by Waterford harbour”3
I personally lean towards the broader position, although for years I had accepted the fishing monks abode without question. In the first instance, it’s an elaborate build to keep the rain off fishermen. Towerhouses, were usually built for defense. The location would not protect it much from the land, but would certainly be formidably from the river. Was it more of a secure location, a place where business could be transacted and valuables stored.
Its undoubtedly true that the weirs were a commercial success in the harbour and drove a lot of the trade from the area to the continent. Rental to Dunbrody of three fishing weirs was equal in value to the rental of half a ploughland at 48s 4d. 4
|Buttermilk castle and weir circa 1850 N.L.I. 5
Of course, foreign fleets were also working the harbour and off the coast. Such fleets needed secure landing places to dry or salt their catch. Is it possible that it was an administrative centre for such activities. The monks certainly would have had the contacts. I wonder was the fact that we have two towerhouses so closely located, a sign of hostility. The tower at Ballyhack is most probably of Templar build, was there competition between both groups at a time in the past, for such trade .
I also heard it described as a Toll House and indeed a Water Gate. I find the notion of a toll house fascinating. In modern times, we might think Buttermilk is a bit out of the way, but in medieval times what ships needed was a safe anchorage and would have sought out such places whilst waiting a cargo or a position in port. There could have been a possibility of a connection with Dunbrody or New Ross. An intriguing thought. Even in modern times the site is still highly regarded as a safe anchorage.
Colfer says that the Tower was initially known as “Skeroirke Tower”, something that he speculates is a name of Norse origin, Skar being a word used for rock.6 Certainly appropriate given the outcropping, The name Buttermilk is a newer origin. I’ve never heard anyone speculate as to why a tower built to protect weirs, would be called after a dairy by-product. According to my Grandmother, the name of the castle comes from the fact that it was used to transport point between Dunbrody and Faithlegg. She said that butter was made on the site from milk gathered from the Waterford side of the harbour on a Faithlegg farm under their control.
Whatever the truth of it, the reality is that over millennia, the chances are that Buttermilk Castle served several purposes, some of which we may never realise. Its just another one of those rich and fascinating placenames and sites we have in the harbour, which we need to explore.
1&2 Colfer B. Wexford Castles. 2013. Cork University Press
3,4,5&6 Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press