Castle Freke: A Brief History
Fire – Devastation – Restoration
In 1908 a devastating fire swept through the entire castle, completely destroying the interiors and causing several of its towers to fall. Between 1909 and 1912 the family rebuilt the castle, in time to host the 21st birthday ball in 1913 of John Evans-Freke, the 10th Baron, who sold the entire
estate less than 10 years later as a result of a bitter family dispute with his mother Mary, Lady Carbery, over her treatment of his young wife. The castle passed through several hands until the 1950’s when it was stripped down to an empty stone shell by a London based salvage company. In 2004, the castle was purchased by Stephen Evans-Freke. Stephen, youngest son of the 11th Baron Carbery, had felt drawn to the home of his ancestors since he first visited with his father at age 12. Since acquiring he castle, he’s been transforming it from a forlorn, vine-encased ruin into a rejuvenated and beautiful landmark structure. Today, the on-going restoration work on the interiors is becoming a tour-de-force of world-class decorative plaster and scagliola work incorporating Celtic and Norse themes and symbols into the ceilings and mouldings, all the handiwork of a highly skilled team of West Cork-based artisans using techniques and skill sets from centuries
The Old Pile
A listed National Monument, Castle Freke stands on a boldly elevated site with extraordinary views of the wild West Cork coastline stretching away toward Baltimore, Cape Clear and the Fastnet Rock to the west, and bounded by dramatic Galley Head and its lighthouse to the east. The exact date when construction of the initial building on the site of Castle Freke is not recorded, but the evidence in the basement masonry indicates a six-bay Elizabethan style ‘strong house’ of just one room’s depth was built in the early 1700’s, and Sir Percy Freke was recorded as ‘of Castle Freke’ by 1720. This makes sense since by 1690 Rathbarry Castle, the original stronghold of the Freke’s a few hundred yards closer to the Atlantic Ocean, was being described as in poor condition and offering very little in the way of creature comforts, probably due to it being burnt by Jacobite forces of King James II in 1688.
A Tsunami Hits West Cork
In 1755 the tsunami from the Great Lisbon Earthquake devasted the West Cork coastline including Rathbarry Castle, a castle sitting at the water’s edge several hundred yards beneath the elevated Castle Freke, which probably escaped unscathed. Today, Rathbarry Castle is an elegant farmhouse behind old fortified castle walls, and the sea no longer laps at its boundaries. The tsunami created a new shoreline hundreds of yards away known as Long Strand, leaving massive dunes, a marsh wildlife refuge and cattle grazing lands between the surf and the castle walls. Castle Freke, meanwhile, sits perched well away from any sea swells, and due to its prominent position provides a commanding presence over many miles of spectacular coastal scenery.
The Castle Grows More Grand
Sir John Evans-Freke, Baronet, and his wife inherited the Castle Freke estates, including over 15,000 acres of West Cork and the port of Baltimore, around the time of the tsunami, and decided to undertake a major expansion of Castle Freke, turning it into a Palladian style mansion of quite grand proportions with the state rooms boasting huge arched windows overlooking the extraordinary coastal views. By the end of the 18th century, however, architectural tastes were shifting from classical to the neogothic revival movement, and in the 1790’s Sir John (who became 6 th Baron Carbery in 1804) retained the leading proponent of this movement in Ireland, Sir Richard Morrison, to start turning Castle Freke into a gothic castle in external appearance, while retaining the classical interior proportions of the existing structure…and that is essentially what we see there today.
In 1908 a major fire swept through the castle after starting from an electrical wiring fault in the roof; the castle interiors were gutted and five of the seven towers fell. The family rebuilt the castle over the following three years, only for the 10th Baron to abandon it less than a decade later. The castle passed through both private and state hands until the 1950’s when it was stripped down to an empty stone shell by a London-based salvage company.
Castle Freke Today
The current restoration project aims to honour the external appearance of the castle as it was conceived by Morrison, while highlighting the architectural features that show off its Palladian roots. The interiors are being created from scratch by a small team of artisan craftsmen, emulating the techniques and decorative language of the mid-18th century high point in Irish Georgian style… but with the marked departure from 18th century fashion by incorporating Celtic and Norse themes and symbols into the ceilings and mouldings.
The Evans-Freke Family: A Brief History
The Freke family name is of Viking origin. Freke (pronounced “freek”) is an old Norse word meaning wolf or “wolfman.” Odin, the king of the Viking gods, was always accompanied by his shadows, his two monstrous wolf spirits – Freke and Gere – who sat either side of him at banquet and ate all his meat, since Odin consumed only wine. (Odin and his two wolves are just part of the recent decorative plaster work that is now adorning ceilings in Castle Freke.)
Enter – Two Clans
Sir Arthur Freke and his father arrived in West Cork in the 1500’s: their immediate forefathers having served as Keeper of the Royal Treasury under both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. The Welsh Celtic Evans family settled in Ireland in 1599, subsequently becoming strong supporters of the Protestant ascendancy during the 17th century upheavals.
In the early 1700’s, The Hon. John Evans, younger son of the 1st Baron Carbery, married Grace Freke, who subsequently became heiress to Castle Freke. When Grace’s brother, the 3rd Baronet of Castle Freke, died without issue, John took the name Sir John Evans-Freke, Baronet, of Castle Freke, ultimately bringing together two substantial family patrimonies whose title “Carbery” became one of the richest baronies in the land for over 150 years.
Castle Freke and the Famine
During the Great Hunger when the Potato Famine struck in 1845, according to local lore passed down through the generations, no one on the Castle Freke estates died of starvation – in terrible contrast to the suffering and deaths in Skibbereen and further west between 1845 and 1852.
Unlike most of the landed aristocrats of the time, the Carberys stayed in residence and worked hard to look after their people and create employment, including building schools, churches, bridges and causeways in the area.
Abandoned Then Reclaimed
In 1919 when the Irish War of Independence started, the young 10th Baron Carbery, John Evans-Freke, openly supported the independence movement. He was a close friend of Michael Collins’ older brother and a strong supporter of Michael’s political goals. He was also a pioneer aviator, the first man to land his plane in Munster, and gave flying displays around the region with the proceeds going to the Cause. However, a bitter feud between John and his mother Mary Carbery over her treatment of his new wife led to John selling Castle Freke and the remaining Irish estates in 1922, and departing to the United States.
Castle Freke became a forlorn ruin.
Upon John’s death in South Africa in 1970, his nephew Peter Evans-Freke succeeded him as the 11th Baron Carbery. In 1999, Peter’s youngest son, Stephen Evans-Freke, returned from the U.S. where he had bult his career, bought back the abandoned structure of Castle Freke and commenced its still ongoing restoration in 2004.
A Family of Wolves
The Freke family name is of Viking origin. Freke (pronounced “freek” today, but originally “frecka”) is an old Norse word meaning wolf or wolfman. Odin, the king of the Viking Gods, was always accompanied by his shadows, his two monstrous wolf spirits Freke and Gere, who
sat either side of him at banquet and ate all his meat, since Odin consumed only wine.
The Freke family first arrived in West Cork 400 years ago when they initially leased and then purchased Rathbarry Castle, located just a few miles from what is today Rosscarbery, and 10 miles from Clonakilty. Captain (later ‘Sir’) Arthur Freke purchased the fortress and surrounding lands from Lord Barrymore, head of the important Barry clan who had held substantial holdings in the region since the early days of the Norman conquest of Ireland.
Freke Ties to King Henry VIII
Sir Arthur Freke and his father came to Ireland from the West Country of England in the late 1500’s; their immediate forefathers served as Keeper of the Royal Treasury under both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, allowing the family to accumulate great wealth during that
epoque. The family were also connected by marriage with Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork, who by the end of the Elizabethan era was the most powerful man in Ireland and went on to become one of the richest individuals in Europe.
Rathbarry Castle Under Siege
During the Irish Rebellion of 1641 Arthur Freke withstood the longest siege in Irish history, with a garrison of some 300 men defending against a large force of Gaelic clansmen, before being relieved by Sir John Vavasour with a force sent from Bandon. Rathbarry Castle was assaulted again in the mid-1600’s and finally in 1688 was again burnt by Jacobite forces due to Sir Percy Freke participating in the Williamite cause over 1688-90. In the two decades following the Battle of the Boyne, Sir Piercy and his son and namesake the second Baronet were able to expand their West Cork holdings to over 15,000 acres, including the town and port of Baltimore.
Enter the Evans Family
The Evans side of the family came from an ancient Welsh Celtic lineage dating back to the Princes of Powys and of Fferles in the 9th and 10th centuries. During that time wars broke out between the old Celtic ruling houses and the encroaching Viking and Anglo-Saxon forces from
England. Eventually, King Edward I and his Anglo-Norman forces completely suppressed the Celtic elite, eventually leading to this branch of the Evans clan’s move to Ireland. The first Evans to come to Ireland under the reign of Queen Elizabeth carried a letter of recommendation from his cousin, the then Earl of Carbery, to the Earl of Essex, during the
latter’s second Irish campaign. Evans became Legal Secretary to Essex until the latter’s recall to face treason charges and subsequent execution. Evans stayed in Ireland and established his family in Co. Limerick, his descendants becoming strong supporters of the Protestant ascendancy during the 17th century upheavals. Evans’ grandson Colonel George Evans PC became an early and important supporter of the Williamite cause. Once the Jacobites were defeated, George Evans become Privy Councillor and for a time the King’s Representative in Ireland; he was also a key draughtsman of the Treaty of Limerick enshrining for the first time the rights of Catholics in Protestant-ruled Ireland.
Evans Marries Freke; the Carbery and Freke Estates Merge
Colonel Evans was offered a peerage by King William, and then again under Queen Anne when the Earldom of Carbery title became vacant, both times declining the offer on the grounds that he didn’t care to be associated with the “gentlemen” in the Irish House of Lords. Instead the Carbery title was given as a Barony to George’s eldest son who became the 1st Baron Carbery in 1715. In turn, his younger son The Hon. John Evans married Grace Freke, who after the death of her two brothers became sole heiress to her brother Sir John Redmond Freke, 3rd Baronet, of Castle Freke. Upon Sir John’s death in 1764, John Evans took the name Sir John Evans-Freke, Baronet, of Castle Freke, and then in 1804 succeeded his cousin as the 6th Baron Carbery, thus bringing together the substantial patrimonies of both families in Ireland and England, and making Carbery one of the richest baronies in the Three Kingdoms for the following 150 years.
Starvation Hits Ireland
When the Great Famine of 1845 struck, caused by the failure of the potato harvest over that year and the next six years, the majority of the great Irish landowners of the time retreated to their English estates. This left their mostly debt-ladened Irish estates and their tenants to the not at all tender mercies of their Estate Managers and Bailiffs. The Carberys stayed in residence at Castle Freke, working hard to look after their people and create employment with construction and land improvement initiatives, such that nobody reportedly died of the Great Hunger on the Evans-Freke estates – in terrible contrast to the suffering and deaths in Skibbereen and further west between 1845 and 1852.
Abandoned Then Reclaimed
In 1919 when the Irish War of Independence started, the young 10th Baron Carbery, John Evans-Freke, openly supported the independence movement, formed the local Clonakilty brigade of Irish Volunteers, gave flying displays all over the south of Ireland with proceeds going to the Cause, and flew the illegal Independence flag from Castle Freke. He was a close friend of Michael Collins’ older brother and a strong supporter of Michael’s political goals. However, a bitter feud between John and his mother, Mary Carbery, over her treatment of his new wife led to John selling Castle Freke and the remaining Irish estates in 1922, and departing to the United States. Subsequently he renounced his title and moved to Kenya, where he became one of the largest landowners in the country and a somewhat mythic figure in the controversial stories and lore of colonial East Africa over the decades until Kenyan independence in the 1950’s, featuring in the iconic movies Out of Africa and White Mischief. In the meantime, Castle Freke became an abandoned and forlorn ruin. Upon John’s death in South Africa in 1970, his nephew Peter Evans-Freke succeeded as the 11th Baron Carbery, and in 2012 his oldest son Michael succeeded as the 12th Baron. In 1999, Peter’s youngest son Stephen Evans-Freke returned from the U.S. where he had bult his career to buy back the ruined structure of Castle Freke, and commenced its still ongoing restoration in 2004.