One of the more interesting ruins in this locality is to be found in Rheban on the West Bank of the River Barrow. Rheban Castle was originally built at a fording point on the Barrow, as was Woodstock Castle, some three miles to it’s South. The Castle in Rheban appears to have been built in a number of different stages. The first stone structure on the site was a building consisting of a pair of barrell vaults placed side by side with a battered base. It probably rose to at least two stories about ground floor level. The substantial nature of the batter would suggest it was a large building. Battered walls served a dual purpose, both to protect the wall base from being breached and to widen the base of the wall so as to distribute the weight of the upper stories. The original entrance to the first castle was probably in the northern end of the Western wall.
The first addition to the original castle was a three story building at the South end. It was in essence a fortified house with a design typical of the mid-16th century. It has an unprotected window opening at ground level, and on the upper stories a series of large sized windows with hood mouldings were present. An engraving of Rheban in 1796 suggested the South wall of this fortified house incorporated the South wall of the original building.
The window opening at ground level in the South wall must have been too exposed because not long after the fortified house was built a small unroofed court was added on it’s South side. This was equipped with some defensive features, most notably an angle loop in the court’s South East corner and at least one further loop centrally placed in it’s South wall. At around the same time a pair of crudely constructed rooms were added to the North East corner of the original structure, possibly to protect an entrance at that point.
A series of references to the castle appear at the end of the 13th century. In 1297 a haggard at the castle is referred to, as is a slaying near the castle in the same year. However, the nature of the surviving structures at Rheban do not indicate any building earlier than the 15th century. It is possible that the 13th century references to the site refer to the nearby motte and bailey rather than the later stone built castle.
A reference to Rheban in 1297 stated that “Roger Cardegan and his fellows robbed Robert Cardigan of three sheep which they ate in the Castle of Ryban.” This might indicate that whatever structure was on the Rheban site at the time was not continuously occupied by the St. Michael Family. The St. Michael Family were credited with the construction of Rheban as well as Woodstock Castle in Athy. In those early days it was not uncommon for castle owners to spend time away from a particular area and it is quite possible that Rheban was a lesser site within the Estates held by the St. Michael Family and as such may not have been continuously occupied by them.
Apart from an isolated reference in 1327 when Rheban Castle was captured by Lysagh O’More the castle is absent from records until the 16th century. In 1537 it was described as being laid waste as were many other castles in the South Kildare area. A further reference in 1538 stated that provisions were being made for the reoccupation of Rheban Castle. The St. Michael Family appear to have had possession during this period but later lost the castle and failed to regain it. Indeed, Rheban Castle repeatedly changed hands in the succeeding years. It was deliberately destroyed by fire in 1642 following the withdrawal of Catholic Confederate troops to Woodstock Castle where the Confederate leaders planned to concentrate their troops ready to withstand an attack from the Royalists. Rheban Castle has since been a ruin for over 350 years.
Jonah Barrington in “Personal Sketches of His Own Time” relates a story concerning Elizabeth Fitzgerald of Moret Castle. She was a widow of substantial means who refused matrimonial offers from many quarters. Her suitors determined that one of them should succeed agreed to draw lots to decide which of them would carry off Elizabeth. Eleven or twelve of her suitors met at Rheban Castle where it was agreed that whosoever should be the lucky winner was to receive the help of the others in abducting the rich widow. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, hearing of their scheme from a young servant in Rheban Castle made her own plans to deal with the plotters. The night of the planned abduction was preceded by a feast in Rheban Castle to where Elizabeth’s own troops marched in the dead of night to catch the would-be abductors off guard. In the battle which followed Rheban Castle was over-run and one of the O’Mores who had drawn the long straw and the right to pursue Elizabeth Fitzgerald was left for dead in the adjoining farmyard. With him died many of the Rheban Castle garrison who were buried where they lay. Elizabeth Fitzgerald lived to an old age while Rheban, according to Barrington, “became one of the most civilised parts of the whole province.”
Music being one of the great traditions of the area which once formed part of “Fassnagh Rheban” it is only right I draw attention to the recently released works of two local musicians. Jack Lukeman’s latest CD, “Metropolis Blue” is a must for everybody who appreciates the young man’s distinctive interpretative style of singing. The second work I want to bring to your attention has been released by Gael Linn and is a compilation album spanning thirty years of Irish traditional music. Termed “The Golden Age of Traditional Irish Music and Song” it features such musical masters as Donal Lunny, Paddy Glacken, Sharon Shannon, De Danann and Sean O’Riada with Ceoltoir Cualann. Amongst this august body is to be found Athy’s own Brian Hughes whose fine traditional whistle playing can be heard to good effect. The inclusion of his work is a worthy acknowledgement of Brian Hughe’s accomplishments as one of the younger generation playing Irish traditional music today.