Visitors to Ireland are always enchanted by the idea that every city or large town has at least one sprawling medieval castle on its doorstep. A drive through the country reveals a landscape that’s dotted with hundreds of compact, tower house castles at regular intervals - usually in the middle of grassy fields with cows and sheep grazing nearby, and usually at least 250 years old (often a lot older). Recently a giant mural was created on the side of one such castle outside Galway as part of the Marriage Equality Referendum campaign, and it inspired us to take a look at some of the most beautiful and historic castles in Ireland.
Types of Castles in Ireland
Most of Ireland’s castles date from the Middle Ages, particularly the 11th -15th centuries, although plenty were rebuilt or expanded in subsequent centuries. The first human made structures on the island were ‘motte and bailey’ castles made from wood and clay - not the best defensive materials to use, for obvious reasons! When the Vikings settled in Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries they established commercial centres which were to become Ireland’s first cities. The Normans followed them from around the year 1250 AD, and with them they brought their masonry talents. Ireland’s vast collection of castles began to built in the areas where they settled (which eventually ended up being most of the island). The majority of these castles were built with defense rather than style and appearance in mind. So instead of the stately palaces for royalty seen in the UK and mainland Europe, these were compact stone towers with turreted roofs, small slit windows, and defensive stone walls around them. They were placed in strategic locations; on high ground, beside rivers, or in easy view of towns to afford the nobility who lived within them the best chance of defending their territory. As they also had a purpose to intimidate any potential attackers (who at that time would mostly have been the native Irish), they usually had a deliberately austere and uninviting look to them. Over time as their influence and power increased and tools and building methods developed, the lords and ladies added more defensive features, more buildings, or in some cases whole new castle complexes on a much bigger scale. For that reason there are two types of Irish castles; the simple, early tower-house keeps and the larger, more ornate fortresses usually found in bigger towns.
A castle has existed on this site since 1170 (the present structure dates from (1620), and for almost 500 years it was the seat of the O’Carroll family. When the last O’Carroll died it was transferred to Sir Laurence Parsons, who built the present castle - his descendant, the 7th Earl of Rosse, still lives there today. The grounds are open to the public and the castle also houses Ireland’s Historic Science Centre, which contains the ‘Great Telescope’ (the biggest and best in the world when it was built in the 19th century).
One of the most popular visitor attractions outside of Dublin, Blarney Castle is famous for one thing in particular; the Blarney Stone, which bestows the gift of everlasting eloquence to anyone who’s willing to bend over backwards across a sheer drop to kiss it. It is probably the most ‘typical’ medieval castle you could picture, rising tall with a typical walled roof. Although parts of the structure are now in ruins, the rest is still quite well preserved and well worth a look if you happen to be down in county Cork.
Another tourist hotspot is Bunratty Castle in county Clare. This site has a long history of Norman invasion and Irish attack, and the castles that were built there were destroyed several times over the centuries in various conflicts. The present structure dates from 1425 and was the fourth to be built, eventually falling into the hands of the powerful O’Brien dynasty. In the 1950s it was restored and furnished with antique 17th century furniture, and now holds infamous medieval banquets.
Dating from the 13th century, Cahir castle in Tipperary is best known as the seat of the Butler family. The exterior of the castle and its defensive walls are remarkably well preserved - so much so that it was used as a location in the film Excalibur. The complex includes turrets, extensive walls, and a large central keep - in other words, the perfect medieval fairytale castle!
Definitely one of the most picturesque castles in the entire country, Donegal Castle was fully restored in the 1990s and features both a 15th century keep and a later ornate Jacobean style wing. It was the seat of the powerful O’Donnell clan, one of the few Gaelic families to hold on to significant power after the Norman invasion. In 1607 they left Ireland during the Flight of the Earls, damaging the castle as they went to prevent it being used against other Gaelic clans. It was granted to an English captian named Basil Brooke, who restored it and added the Jacobean features.
Of course, one of the best castles in Ireland has to be the one situated in the heart of its capital. Dublin Castle has an extensive history as a government complex both under British and Irish rule, and is still an important administrative centre and ceremonial site for the present government. A castle has stood on the site since 1228, with the landmark Record Tower still surviving from then. Today it houses state apartments and meeting rooms, the Chester Beatty Library, and various government offices.
Dungaire Castle in county Galway simply had to be included in this list because of its stunning location; on the shore of Galway Bay at the edge of the picturesque seaside village of Kinvarra. Definitely one of the most beautiful spots in all of Ireland! It was the home of King Guaire, legendary King of Connacht, who was said to be so generous that even after his death, his skeleton would hand out gold coins from his grave.
The atmospheric ruins of Dunluce Castle in county Antrim looks as though it’s about to drop off the sheer cliff it stands on and fall into the waters of the Irish Sea! In fact that did happen at one point, with part of the kitchen collapsing and only one kitchen boy surviving. A must see if you’re travelling along the Causeway Coast, Dunluce Castle dates from the 13th century and was the seat of the McQuillans and later the MacDonnells.
Right in the centre of the medieval capital of Ireland, Kilkenny Castle is probably the most stately entry on this list. Still exquisitely preserved, it was the seat of the all powerful Butlers of Ormond for some 600 years until they moved to London and left it largely abandoned. it fell into disrepair, but to save it they sold it and the surrounding grounds to the Castle Restoration Committee for just £50 so that it could be enjoyed by the people of Kilkenny ‘in all dignity and splendour’.
Although now an abbey, the breathtaking structure at Kylemore was originally built as a castle residence for Mitchell Henry, an English doctor turned politician, and his family. Sitting at the foot of a glassy lake with hills rising up behind and forest all around, it’s hard not to be blown away by the sight. Dating from 1867, it took four years and 100 men to complete and (before it was sold to Benedictine nuns and converted into an abbey) featured 33 bedrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a gothic cathedral and a family mausoleum.
The opposite of Kylemore, Lismore Castle started out as an abbey before a castle was built on the site by Prince John in 1185. It was acquired by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589 and then passed ownership to Richard Boyle, who made it his principal seat and transformed into a sprawling stately residence. in the early 19th century it was rebuilt again in the gothic style it still has today. The gardens are open to the public although the castle itself sadly is not.
Rock of Cashel:
Built on a site of enormous historical importance, the Rock of Cashel has served time as both a castle, monastery and fortress over the centuries. Once the seat of the Kings of Munster, it was donated to church by the king after the Norman invasion. Most of the buildings still surviving date from soon after this time, including the king’s chapel, a cathedral, round tower, and graveyard. It sits on top of a craggy hill that seems to be appear from nowhere as you approach - definite horror movie material!
In the picturesque surroundings of the Lakes of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, Ross Castle is a 15th century tower house style castle that was the seat of the O’Donoghue clan and later the Browne family. The Brownes later built a mansion house near to the castle and resided there, using the castle as a military barracks instead. The spiral staircase in the castle is interesting; it was built in a clockwise direction so attackers holding their sword in their right hand would be impeded, and the steps are deliberately at uneven heights to further disorient them!
One of the main filming locations of Braveheart, Trim Castle is the largest Norman castle in Ireland. It was built over 30 years by Hugh de Lacy and his son from 1172 onwards. At its peak it was not only the home of the most powerful family in the region, but also the administrative, political and economic centre of Meath. It takes up on area of 30,000 square metres, most of which is fully accessible to the public.
You may recognise this castle from Game of Thrones; it was the real life location of Winterfell. As you might have guessed, it was the home of the Ward family. Their architectural tastes were so different however that the various buildings on the grounds are completely different in style; even the main mansion house has one facade in Palladian style and the opposite in Gothic!
Carriagafoyle Castle in Kerry... Just had to include this picture I took on my last visit. Well worth a trip. Just over 100 steps to an amazing view.