Castles and Tower-Houses
One of the typical images of Ireland is surely a stark and imposing castle set against a green hillside. Visiting castles in Ireland is a great way to learn about the country's history while at the same time soaking in amazing views. Ireland has a vast number of castles, from romantic ruined castles and towerhouses, to the fine stately castles of Irish Chieftains and Castle Hotels. Castles, stone towers, walls and other fortifications can be found all over Ireland. Some have been lovingly restored and others lie in ruin, a broken mass of ruble the only testament to their former greatness and importance.
Earthenwork and Timber Castles
The first series of castles in Ireland consisted of earth and timber features. They began appearing near the start of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 A.D., which brought such leaders as Strongbow in Leinster, Hugh de Lacy in Meath, John de Courcy in the north, and others in Louth, and lasted steadily until 1225. These castles were built hastily to establish territorial claims and were later replaced by stone castles. Two types of structures predominate: the motte (a mound of earth upon which the tower is built) and the ringwork. Mottes are found almost exclusively in the eastern half of the country, and there are an estimated 340 of them throughout the country with 275 being located in Leinster. Some good examples of mottes are located at Shanid, Co. Limerick, Callan, Co. Kilkenny and Cloncurry, Co. Kildare. In Clonmacnoise is a fine example of an earthwork defense structure. Ringwork ruins may be seen Castlerahan, Co. Cavan, where a church and graveyard may be seen within the bailey, and Loughcrew, Co. Meath. Trim Castle, one of the largest and finest surviving castles was built originally as a ringwork. After new lands were conquered, inexpensive structures were quickly built to mark the territory and guard important routes. Only after these new owners had better organization, funding and security they could begin building stone castles.
The next wave of castles was brought about by an era of true military expression, inspired by the Anglo-Normans, beginning around 1180 and lasting until approximately 1310. The stone castles varied greatly in size and layout, depending on strategic requirements, building materials, and resources of labor and funding. The large stone walls were a defense against invaders but also against the weather, offering a place of security for the kings, the lords, and their families. The ruler's power and prestige were displayed in the originality of the building; uniformity was not the aim.
The best and largest castles were built in the east, and the first of these castles was in Trim. Built by Walter de Lacy in County Meath on the west side of the River Boyne, Trim Castle is the largest Anglo-Norman fort in Ireland, enclosing over three acres of land. The first building phase began in 1175 with the donjon, or large central keep, the northwest gatehouse, and a few towers. The thick walls of the towers (up to eleven feet) allow passages and stairways to access different floors. The main keep is square with four smaller square towers projecting from each corner.
Dublin Castle is probably the only true King John's castle, mandated by John in 1204 to safeguard the treasury. Maynooth Castle in Co. Kildare was built between two streams, and Dunamase occupied a large outcropping of rock. A well-known ruined castle with a polygonal keep is Shanid in Co. Limerick. The remains of a keep with a circular interior can be found on a pre-existing motte, which is surrounded by a fosse and outer bank. Only four towers of six remain today in Kilkenny Castle. It appeared to be similar to Dublin Castle in its construction with (missing) twin D-shaped towers at the gateway. However, much of the medieval fabric of Kilkenny Castle has been removed or overlaid with later construction. Other stone fortress castles include Carrickfergus Castle, Co. Antrim; Dungarvan Castle, Co. Waterford; Adare Castle, Co. Limerick; Castleroche, Co. Louth; and Ferns Castle, Co. Wexford. Remarkable stone castles became more frequent as settlements appeared and lords needed more protection or a stronger private residence. These castles also served as a show of allegiance to the English crown; some think this shows an effort of England to conquer Ireland, but through this period, Ireland was given an outlet to be tied to the social and economic lifestyles of Western Europe.
The tower-house is the most common, but probably least understood, classification of Irish castles. The origin of this structure is a questionable matter. The most recognized cause of the spread of the Irish tower-house dates to 1429, where King Henry VI made an offer of ?10 to any man in Pale (Dublin, Kildare, Louth, and Meath Counties) who wished to build a castle within the following ten years. Furthermore, the dimensions of this structure were to be 20 ft. by 16 ft. with a height of at least 40 ft. Coincidentally, there are many examples of such tower-houses in the east half of Ireland, while the west often bears larger, more complex ones. However, it must be recognized that tower-houses have been dated as far back as the early 14th century. Additionally, the majority of the 14th century examples are found in strategic locations of the Pale, making it evident that these were intended for defensive means as well. It has been contended that the tower-house served as a less expensive compromise between large stone castles and manor houses. The tower-houses provided means for storage, heating, waste management, and living accommodations. Tower-houses date no later than the very beginning of the 17th century, giving approximately 300 years to the construction and widespread occupation of over 1000 such buildings. The tower-house appears to have served as a small, yet relatively well-defended, residence for wealthy landowning families of Gaelic and Old English decent.
Co. Louth is the smallest county in Ireland yet with 26 standing remains of tower houses. Laois, which is almost twice the size of Louth, has 29 tower houses. Offaly is of much the same size as Co. Laois and has some 43 tower houses. The almost 50 examples of tower houses in Co. Meath are typical of the Pale castles of the 15-16th centuries. There are only 8 tower houses in Co. Wicklow and most of these are in rather poor condition. Wexford has over 60 tower houses, a considerable number of which have substantial standing remains. Co. Waterford, almost as large as Wexford, has only about 30 tower houses and most of these are in a very ruinous condition. In Co. Cork there are over 125 tower houses, 31 of which have bawns. There are a small number of circular tower houses such as Mahon though they date to the 16-th century. There are over 200 tower houses in Co. Galway. The Galway tower houses have much in common with those found in Cork, Limerick or Tipperary.
A new type of castle, the fortified house, appeared at the close of the sixteenth century which also signalled the end of construction of the tower house. They were usually symmetrical, with large mullioned and transomed windows, multiple lozenge or diamond chimney stacks and consisted of 3 storeys and an attic. Although rectangular form still held the norm, L- and U-plans are seen as well. Bartizans at the corners and machicolations over the main entrance lingered, while most other defense mechanisms moved outward to the bawn walls with an accompanying gatehouse and mural towers. Although the area of direct occupation increased, the structure itself is lacking with regard to the complex integration of living and defensive features seen in the tower-house design. While fortified houses still kept sufficient defense capabilities, such features were placed further away from the main residence than at the time of tower-houses. This brief period served as a transition from the well-fortified castles to more domestic manors of years to follow. The trend of increased luxury and limited defenses gives evidence for the decrease in enacted unrest and general lawlessness of Ireland at that time. Rathfarnam Castle in Co. Dublin was one of the earliest fortified houses. There are the standing remains of 22 fortified houses in Co. Cork. Mallow Castle and Coppinger's Court, dating from 1625 and just outside Rosscarbery, are well worth the visit.
Amongst the most popular in Ireland:
- Bunratty Castle, County Clare. Alongside the castle is an extensive folk park, particularly popular with families, tourists and schools.
- Blarney Castle , County Cork. The castle is now a partial ruin with some accessible rooms and battlements. At the top of the castle lies the Stone of Eloquence, better known as the Blarney Stone.
- Johnstown Castle, County Wexford. The Castle itself is not open to the public.
- Kilkenny Castle, Co. Kilkenny. It was a symbol of Norman occupation and in its original thirteenth-century condition it would have formed an important element of the defences of the town.
- Knappogue Castle, County Clare. Built by Sean MacNamara in 1467, it is a good example of a medieval tower house.
- Dunguaire Castle, County Galway. A Medieval Banquet is held in this 16th-century tower house with costumed performers who recite Irish literature and play traditional Irish music.
- Dysert O'Dea Castle, County Clare. The Castle and Archaeological Centre in Corofin is known for its wealth of historical and archaeological remains.