Listowel (Co. Kerry / North)
Listowel (Lios Tuathail – “Tuathal’s fort”) (pop. 7000) is an attractive market town with colourful old houses and shops. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)
Situated at the head of the North Kerry limestone plain, it lies on the banks of the River Feale, spanned here by an impressive five-arched bridge.
Listowel Castle was founded by relatives of the FitzGeralds of Desmond, the FitzMaurice Barons of Lixnaw and Lords (later Earls) of Kerry; first mentioned in 1303, the town grew up around the castle and the adjacent Square.
The ruined C15th edifice currently visible was the last Geraldine stronghold to be subdued by Crown forces in the Desmond Rebellions. After a 28-day siege it fell on 5th November 1600 to Sir Charles Wilmot, who had the garrison executed.
The castle was later granted to Richard Hare. His descendant William Hare, MP for Cork City and later Athy, voted for the 1800 Act of Union, and was duly created Baron of Ennismore in 1801, Viscount Hare of Ennismore & Listowel in 1816, and Earl of Listowel in 1822.
(In 1869 the 3rd Earl, also called William, was created Baron Hare in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, giving him an automatic seat in the British House of Lords; he later held minor office in Gladstone‘s second administration. The 5th Earl, yet another William, was a Labour politician and notably served as the last Secretary of State for India and Burma and Governor-General of Ghana. The current Lord Listowel is one of the ninety hereditary peers remaining in the House of Lords after the House of Lords Act 1999, and sits as a cross-bencher).
The surviving towers and façade have been partially restored and opened to the public for tours led by guides from the adjacent Seanchaí Centre.
The Seanchaí Kerry Literary & Cultural Centre, located in an splendidly restored Georgian townhouse on the Square, has audio-visual exhibits devoted to County Kerry’s many acclaimed writers, and holds regular ‘Seisiúni’ blending traditional music, song, dance & storytelling by local world class performers.
Listowel likes to call itself the “Literary Capital of Ireland” due to the number of internationally known authors and playwrights who have lived locally, most notably John B Keane, who wrote:“Beautiful Listowel, serenaded night and day by the gentle waters of the River Feale. Listowel where it is easier to write than not to write, Where first love never dies, and the tall streets hide the loveliness, The heartbreak and the moods, great and small, Of all the gentle souls of a great and good community. Sweet, incomparable hometown that shaped and made me.”
Listowel’s Writers’ Week, held every June, is one of Ireland’s biggest annual literary festivals, with lectures and workshops dealing with all writing genres, poetry readings, drama, pub crawls, excursions and children’s events.
St John’s church (1819) is a Gothic edifice designed by George Paine as the centre-piece of Listowel’s Square. (Photo – www.irelands-directory.com)
It was built in 1819 with stones from an older structure on Church St, of which all that remains is a 9m tower covered in ivy.
The building was used by a dwindling Church of Ireland congregation until 1988, when it was converted for community use.
St John’s Theatre, Arts & Heritage Centre runs various educational programmes and regularly hosts plays, concerts, dance performances and exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, photographs etc.
St Mary’s church (RC) was built in 1829; the spire and porch were added in 1865, and the side aisles in 1910. Local folklore has it that Lord Listowel prevailed upon the clergy to ring the Angelus bell at 7:00pm in order to get his men to work an extra hour.
The Listowel Arms Hotel, located in a corner of the Square, is almost 200 years old. WM Thackaray recommended it in 1842, while other guests have included Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, who famously declared “No man has a right to set a boundary to the march of a nation” from an upper window of this hotel. In more recent times the premises was owned for a while by the tenor Josef Locke.
The Listowel Mutiny
The Listowel Mutiny occurred on 17th June 1920, during the War of Independence, when the Black & Tans occupied the town barracks: RIC members led by Constable Jeremiah Mee refused to be relocated to rural outposts, a move they regarded as both dangerous and hopeless in the face of huge local hostility.
It seems that they (perhaps correctly) interpreted a new order stating that the police could shoot if a suspect failed to surrender ‘when ordered to do so’ as an effective instruction to shoot IRA activists on sight. The Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster, Lt.-Col. Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, who made every effort to change their minds, reportedly encouraging them with the words “The more you shoot the better I will like you” and “No policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man“, was himself shot dead in the smoking room of the Cork & County Club by six IRA hitmen on 17th July. His burial in Banbridge, County Down, was accompanied by sectarian violence against local Roman Catholics.
By then many of the mutinous policemen had for a variety of reasons decided not to engage the IRA at all, and some even joined their ranks. The mutiny was hailed by Sinn Féin as a Republican success, and described semi-fictionally in Robert Perrin‘s 1985 novel Noonday. Interpretations of the event vary (see e.g. here).
The former RIC station, an imposing edifice in its way, is now the local Garda HQ.
Pat McAuliffe (1846-1921), a local plasterer and builder, stuccoed the façades of townhouses and shops in the town and surrounding area and created a number of unique plasterworks, notably the Maid of Erin figure over the entrance to the pub of that name.
John B Keane‘s name is prominently displayed over the pub long owned by the famous playwright, now run by his son.
Many of Listowel’s numerous pubs host traditional music sessions; some serve good food, and the area also has a wide range of eateries, including pleasant cafés and well-reviewed restaurants.
The Listowel & Ballybunion Railway
The Listowel & Ballybunion Railway, in operation from 1888 to 1924, was the only one of its kind in the British Isles. (Ballybunion Postcard c.1900).
The L&BR was the first railway in the world to use the Lartigue monorail system. Invented by the French engineer of that name, whose inspiration came from watching camels carrying panniers in the Algerian desert, it involved a double-engined steam locomotive straddling an elevated rail.
The system overcame several major problems ingeniously. A large number of turntables substituted points and level crossings. Coaches, with a compartment on either side of the rail, had to be kept balanced. If a cow was being brought to market, two calves would be sent also, to balance it on the other side. The calves would then be returned, one on either side of the rail.
The train would stop anywhere along its route on request, and was not the speediest mode of transport imaginable. One story recounts that the driver spotted a regular old passenger travelling on a donkey and cart, and remarked that he’d missed her that day, only to recieve the reply “I was in a hurry today so I took the ass & car!”
A 1000m long replica of the original was opened in 2003.
The Vintage Wireless Museum, located in Cherrytree Drive, is a privately owned collection of broadcasting memorabilia. Collected over many years, the exhibits include lovingly maintained and beautifully restored old wireless sets, miniature gramophones, magic lanterns and Paris aerials.
Childers Town Park
Childers Park comprises Gurtinard Wood, granted to the town by Lord Listowel in 1946 for a nominal sum, and ‘Cows Lawn‘, a 30 acre field on which a number of townspeople had pasture rights. It contains a children’s playground, a Pitch and Putt course, two tennis courts, football pitches and a well equipped sports complex.
The Dandy Lodge was the a gate lodge to the residence of the of Lord Listowel’s agents.
The Garden of Europe features representative shrubbery from many countries and contains a monument to the memory of the millions who died in the Holocaust.
The Listowel Heritage Trail is a guided tour leaving the Square at 6 pm each evening during July and August.
The Riverside Path is a pleasant 4 km stroll along the River Feale, while the Old Railway Trail (11 km) leads out into the countryside through wild bogland where turf cutting takes place.
Ballinruddery is the site of Woodford Castle, built in the post-1600 period by the Knight of Kerry, who continued to live sporadically in an adjacent thatched mansion until 1870.
The Listowel Races & Harvest Festival
The Listowel Races, a seven-day National Hunt meet, is run every September on the Island Course, across the River Feale from the Town.
The Harvest Festival of Ireland, run in conjunction with the races, includes the All Ireland Wren Boys Competition.
Both events have been held annually since 1858.
North County House is a family-run B&B highly recommended by travellers, centrally located on Church St.
Billeragh House Hostel is a lovely ivy-clad Georgian house set in a large mature garden about two miles out of town.
The last word on Listowel goes to Brendan Kennelly, who wrote:When a Listowel man takes a drink from any tap in this lovely town
‘Tis not only water thats going down, but the purified secrets of the dead
Flowing into his belly and through his head
No town here or in any land will do this for your body and mind
Inspiration flows through the graveyard sod
Turn a tap in Listowel, out flows God!