Johnny Roche and Castle Curious
Every person should have a dream. Some are even fortunate enough to realise them. One such was Johnny Roche. His dream was to live in a castle.
A son of a carpenter and blacksmith from Walltown, near Mallow, in Cork, like many an Irishman in the 19th century, Johnny upped sticks and sailed to America to find his fame and fortune. Alas, success eluded him and he returned to the Emerald Isle penniless. He turned his hand to running a mill by the river Awbeg and when that failed, he turned to making tombstones. At some point, around the mid 1840s, Johnny decided to make his dreams come true and build a castle by the banks of the Awbeg.
And he did it single-handedly.
Building to his own design and using sand from the river, lime from nearby Mallow, and stone from the neighbourhood, he toiled away for three years. The result was astonishing – a labyrinth of tiny rooms together with a tower some 45 feet tall and 27 feet in length, atop of which were two oval turrets, running at right-angles to the main building.
As the walls got taller, Johnny had to design a special winch to move the stones up to the height required. Quite a crowd would assemble to watch this man on a mission, shaking their heads sagely, convinced that he was mad.
And quite a sight he was too. Naturally, being such a resourceful man he span and stitched the material needed to make his own clothes – long flowing garments and a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low so that all the onlookers could see of his face was his bushy beard.
Johnny’s construction was soon dubbed Castle Curious and it still stands today, although pretty all that is left of the labyrinth is its framework. In 2013 it was up for sale for €130,000. In estate agent jargon it is a “detached three-bay three-storey rectangular house, now roofless..with recessed bowed turrets, crenellations and limestone eaves.” You get the picture.
When it was finished, Johnny, to the surprise of the locals, moved in. Well, why not? It even had its own well so Johnny could pull up the drawbridge and retreat into his own world. One source of annoyance was the pilgrims who visited St Bernard’s Holy Well which was a few yards from the castle’s walls. Johnny would lean over the ramparts of his castle, by now ornamented with gargoyles, and give the worshippers the benefit of his mind. Sadly, they didn’t get the message.
But Johnny was by no means a recluse. He would tour the countryside on a new-fangled bicycle or a decrepit coach, complete with bed and a stove, drawn by two mules. He also developed an unusual range of skills including pulling teeth, playing the bagpipes and the violin, and carving sculptures. His main line of business, though, was building and carving tombstones, which he did with some aplomb.
Johnny’s best friend, a man called Nixon, asked him to design his tombstone if he should go before Roche. He did but whether he would have been pleased with the result is debatable. A flagpole was erected over a stone bearing the accurate but utterly prosaic legend “Here lies Nixon.”
It is no surprise that when it was Johnny’s turn to meet his maker, he had already inscribed his own epitaph; “here lies the body of poor John Roche./ He had his faults, but don’t reproach;/ For while alive his heart was mellow;/ An artist, genius and gentle fellow.” But his plans to have a resting place in the river were scotched by the local coroner, a man by the name of Byrne, who advised Johnny to “Go, rest thy bones in Mother Earth and don’t pollute the river.”
If you are in the area, seek out Castle Curious and marvel at the determination, skill and, yes, eccentricity of Johnny Roche.