Cantwell Fada

Cantwell Fada of Kilfane

Eamonn Kiely

The Cantwells were a Norman family, originally from Suffolk in England. They built several castles in Kilkenny and Tipperary. In Tipperary their best known castles are at Moycarkey, Dromineer and Mellison while in Kilkenny Kells, Rathcoole and Kilfane belonged to the Cantwells. The best known of the family is undoubtedly Cantwell Fada of Kilfane near Thomastown. His effigy in the local ruined church is said to be the largest of its kind in Britain or Ireland at almost 8 feet tall.
He is cut in limestone in a standing position. He is depicted in chain mail carrying a shield bearing the Cantwell coat of arms,. His legs are depicted in a walking pose, allegedly denoting his having gone on the Crusades.
Paris Anderson, one of the founders of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, wrote about him in his Warden of the Marches. He sets his story around 1335. He claims Cantwell was the terror of some of the Irish families such as the O’Brennans, O’Nolans and MacMurroughs . Cantwell is said to have been morose and gloomy, the result of an unhappy marriage to Beatrice Donati in Florence. He had met her on his way to the Crusades. He brought her back to his castle in Kilfane but before long their initial passion waned and she found other company in Kilkenny. She befriended the notorious Alice Kyteler who was shortly after arrested for witchcraft at the behest of Bishop Ledrede. The bishop displayed a fanaticism that would have made him feel at home in Salem in a later generation. Shortly after Beatrice was arrested and placed in the dungeons of Kilkenny Castle.
Amazingly her gaoler was her husband Thomas Cantwell. Beatrice with an accomplice De La Freine managed to escape and got to Graig Abbey where they were given sanctuary. About five months later Cantwell managed to capture the two – De La Freine being killed while being captured and Beatrice was back in custody. She was being brought to the fortress of Rathcoole , Cantwell’s Court near Gowran. Bishop Ledrede was at the height of his witch hunt at this time and Beatrice was a likely candidate.She managed to stab her husband, who had captured her, in the heart with a gold bodkin – something of a hairpin. The stab was fatal. Beatrice however did not escape and was placed in Kilkenny Castle. She faced two charges, one of murdering her husband, the second of heresy. She pleaded guilty to the first but not the latter. She died in custody before her trial – it is said a victim of her own passions. This is probably shorthand for suicide.
Thomas Cantwell was certainly unlucky in love but is well remembered with the beautiful effigy near Thomastown. Anyone seeking to visit this fine memorial will be directed there by first finding a fine hostelry – The Long Man of Kilfane nearby. The great antiquarian of Kilkenny Rev James Graves had four copies of the effigy made in 1852 – one is in the Royal Irish Academy. Should any harm befall the celebrated memorial at least there is a copy. Those concerned with its preservation would probably advocate the placing in a museum of the original while the replica could take its place in Kilfane.