Tower of song — Frank McNally on a musically inspiring Kilkenny castle

Thomas Moore’s The Last Rose of Summer may have been a victim of its own success for a while

I spent a pleasant night recently in the Kilkenny castle where, among other historic events, Thomas Moore wrote The Last Rose of Summer.

Or at least I stayed in the general environs of where the song originated. Strictly speaking, it was in a predecessor of a predecessor of the current building that Moore was resident in 1805, when he wrote what is probably his most famous lyric.

And it being January, there were no summer roses to be seen while I was there. Even the last mushroom of winter had faded from the adjoining woods.

Jenkinstown House, as the modern name suggests, is not exactly a castle these days. It’s a castellated manor. But on the plus side, it is physically self-supporting, which is more than can be said for its grander forerunners.


When a castle was constructed on the site of the existing house in the early 19th century, by William Robertson, it quickly developed structural problems.

So another architect, Charles Frederick Anderson, was hired to rebuild it. But then his tower fell down.

One structurally compromised castle might be considered unfortunate, to paraphrase Wilde. Two looked like carelessness. Anderson had to emigrate to America in a hurry. Meanwhile a more modest, sustainable mansion emerged from what remained.

Under the current owners, Caroline Dillon and her Irish-Egyptian daughter Karima, the house now doubles as a family home and a tourist attraction, including self-contained “glamping” cabins in the back garden.

Rose-less as my visit may have been, so of course is Moore’s song, at least by the final verse. Not content to leave the last rose pine alone – plot spoiler alert – he commits a mercy killing, plucking its petals and scattering them on the graves of their dead comrades.

Then he thinks about scattering himself: “When true hearts lie withered,/And fond ones are flown,/Oh! Who would inhabit/This bleak world alone?”

Mournful even by Irish standards, the song nevertheless became vastly popular, used or referenced by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Gounod among many classical composers, and covered by singers as different as Bing Crosby and Nina Simone.

It may even have been a victim of its own success for a while.

By the time George Eliot wrote Middlemarch (1871), clearly, the strain on well-bred young ladies having to perform it constantly had begun to tell.

Hence Dorothea Brooke expressing relief at her fiancé's dislike of piano music: “If he had always been asking her to play the ‘Last Rose of Summer’, she would have required much resignation.”

In keeping with his admiration for roses, of course, Moore had a thorny side too.

Soon after he wrote the immortal song, he took exception to a negative write-up on him in the Edinburgh Review and came close to plucking the petals of its editor, Francis Jeffrey.

The two faced off at the London duelling ground of Chalk Farm in 1806, before police intervened. Happily, while explaining themselves at the station, the pair became friends and remained so for life.

Among the art works in Jenkinstown House today is one that features both Moore and a modern-day Irish songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy, who owned and refurbished the place before selling it to the current residents.

MacCarthy is more often associated with a different Moore – Christy, who turned his ballad Ride On into a big hit. But he too has made a notable contribution to the genre of classic Irish rose songs: Bright Blue Rose (most famously sung by Mary Black) being one of his finest works, alongside Mystic Lipstick and No Frontiers.

Even allowing for the changing fashions of intervening centuries, MacCarthy is arguably a more sophisticated lyricist than Thomas Moore ever was.

I used to think Ride On was a simple break-up song, albeit with an equestrian metaphor (perhaps inspired by the composer’s early years as a stable boy in Ballydoyle, where he may occasionally have had to shout “ride on” to dawdlers on the gallops).

But then there’s that surprisingly violent line: “Run your claw along my gut/One last time”. And now I see that MacCarthy has occasionally hinted a deeper theme to the song involving political as well as romantic differences between the protagonists, one of whom has chosen a path of militancy which the other cannot follow.

In any case, none of the aforementioned titles were written in Jenkinstown. As MacCarthy has also mentioned in interviews, his precarious early years in music did not lend themselves to property ownership. He had to serve a long apprenticeship in the Tower of Song (copyright Leonard Cohen) before acquiring and renovating towers of the stone variety.

Speaking of precarious musical livings, when I sang the praises of the Rye River Band and their free fortnightly residency in Dublin’s Brazen Head pub earlier this week (Diary Wednesday), I implied they would be on again this Saturday. In fact, there is a three-week hiatus between their January concerts. The next is on the 27th. It’ll be fortnightly after that.