The Bretts and Ballymote Castle

Finding the Bretts in Ireland wasn’t quite as difficult as I had thought it would be. In fact, some of the family history was right under our noses for several days before curiosity got the best of us.

One day we stopped in Ballymote to pick up food supplies. Although Guinness is the national drink of Ireland, Art bravely wrinkled his little Scottish nose at every offer of the ale. Consequently, in Ballymote, he was on the hunt for a “good” beer (sold by the bottle in grocery stores), while I was deployed to find Battenberg cakes and Kerrygold cheese.

As we exited the store with a 6-pack of dubious samples, I spotted this directional sign to Ballymote Castle and realized it was the umpteenth sign for the castle I’d seen that day. Surely it was worth a peek. The ale would have to wait!


In my very first blog post about the Bretts (“Doire Uan: Wood of the Lambs”), I shared some information about our Norman origins, how the Bretts arrived in Ireland following the Norman Invasion (probably in the 13th century) and were later identified as “Palesmen” – people who lived in the territory called “The Pale”, stretching from Dublin to Dundalk. According to the history books, the Bretts arrived in Sligo in 1610 with their relatives, the Taaffes, who became the largest landlords in Co. Sligo by 1633-35.

The Taaffes became the Barons of Ballymote and Viscounts of Corran and are known to have owned Ballymote Castle from 1610 to 1652, when they surrendered it to Oliver Cromwell’s forces. A plaque affixed to a pole on the castle grounds confirms these facts.


Caught up in the religious and political tensions of the time, many of the “Old English” lords discovered that allegiance to the Crown wasn’t always sufficient protection against land seizure. The Taaffes held onto the castle throughout the rebellions of the 1640s and the land confiscations that followed. However, after King Charles I was put to death and the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell took charge in 1649, the Taaffes lost their lands for a time. During the Restoration under King Charles II in the 1660s, Theobald Taaffe was named the Earl of Carlingford and the family’s lands were restored.

Where do the Bretts fit into this story?

Jasper Brett arrived in Sligo with their relatives, the Taaffes, and built a fortified dwelling at Rathdoony, about 3.5 kilometres above Ballymote. The ruins of the fortified dwelling, called Derroon or “Doire Uan”, have been identified and might form the focus of an interesting adventure for a future trip.

It is likely that the Bretts, like the Taaffes, lost their property as part of Cromwell’s retaliation against those loyal to the king. However, they didn’t go far. After the Restoration, the Bretts and others are reported to have managed the Taaffee lands until they were sold in the 1750s, and the 19th century graves of our Brett ancestors are close by, in Achonry.

Ballymote Castle is an enduring artifact of our Brett ancestry. Its gates are locked but you can walk around the grounds and read a few interpretive plaques.


The main plaque says the castle was built in 1300 by Richard de Burgo, the “Red Earl” of Ulster. It also notes that the castle would become the staging ground, 300 years later, for an Irish army under Red Hugh O’Donnell.

“Though it was probably the strongest castle in Connacht, Ballymote was captured by the O’Connors in 1317 and from then on changed hands many times between the English and the Irish. In 1598 it was sold for £400 and 300 cows to Red Hugh O’Donnell and it was from here that he assembled his army for the ill-fated Battle of Kinsale.”

The Battle of Kinsale (1601-1602) ultimately secured England’s conquest of Gaelic Ireland. Following their defeat at Kinsale, the Gaelic chieftains of the north (Hugh O’Neill, Richard Tyrell and Hugh O’Donnell) fled to Spain, leaving Ulster undefended against the British scheme to settle it with protestant sympathizers.

Only eight years after the Battle of Kinsale, the Taaffes purchased – or came to acquire – Ballymote Castle. Here’s what it looks like today …







2 thoughts on “The Bretts and Ballymote Castle”

  1. Hello, my name is Kody Clark. I have some questions about Jane Brett. I am a distant relative of hers, im 25 live in Ottawa Ontario Canada. Ive traced my lineage back to her and Thomas. If you can email me it would be greatly appreciated. Sorry for the 3rd post. I just seen this recent story of yours.
    Thank you for your time.

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