Ireland’s castles look like they’ve been here forever, but they’ve barely been around for the bones of a millennium.
Arriving with the Anglo-Normans, these castles began as earth and timber structures, but by the late 12th century, were increasingly being replaced by a more permanent material: stone.
After the Norman fortresses came defensive tower houses, Elizabethan manors, Victorian, Baronial and other flights of fancy in both new buildings and adaptations of original structures. The result? A motley collection of crumbling ruins, medieval mash-ups and pristine stately piles that seem purpose-built to surprise you at the most unexpected times.
Take Malahide Castle. Not many families can say “we lived here for 800 years,” but it’s true of the Talbot family, who occupied this north Dublin jewel until 1973. The castle dates from the 12th century, was enlarged during the reign of Edward IV, and had turreted towers added in 1765.
The latest refurbishment brings a spanking new food hall, although some things haven’t changed... namely the castle’s mischievous ghost, a 16th-century caretaker named Puck.
Heading northwest, the hulking pile of Enniskillen Castle is the former seat of the Maguires, local bigwig chieftains who had their own private navy of 1,500 boats to patrol the waters of Upper and Lower Lough Erne. Today, it houses the Fermanagh County Museum and the regimental museum of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The view still impresses.
Elsewhere, County Antrim’s Dunluce Castle is straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. Imposing entrance? Check out that rock bridge. Impressive location? Just sidle up to the edge of the basalt cliffs on which the 17th-century ruins teeter and look down to the booming surf below.
Keeping it in the family
And what about castles that remain in the family? The Plunketts, Lords of Dunsany, have occupied the gem that is Dunsany Castle in Meath for almost eight centuries. It’s a home and it feels like one, with its impressive private art collection, architectural quirks and historical treasures (in fact, it’s said to be the longest-occupied home in Ireland).
The more you explore, the more there is to explore
Did you know that Lismore Castle was once home to Sir Walter Raleigh, said to have brought the potato to Ireland? Or that Cahir Castle in County Tipperary featured in the opening scenes of the film Excalibur?
Have we mentioned that kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in Cork imparts the fabled “gift of the gab”?
Keep it in mind. You may need it to share your Ireland adventures.
3 to see
Bunratty Castle, County Clare
Fancy settling down for an evening of mulled mead in a traditional banquet hall? Bunratty is where it’s at. But there’s more to this place than a night of medieval knees-up. The castle was built in 1425, and is the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland.
Wander around and enjoy over 450 items of historic furniture and artefacts or explore Bunratty Folk Park in the surrounding grounds, with its reconstruction of 19th century homes and farmhouses.
Carrickfergus Castle, County Antrim
This Norman stronghold is one of the most incredible castles in Northern Ireland, with a dramatic location on the shores of Belfast Lough. Over its 800-year history, Carrickfergus has been besieged by the Scots, Irish, English and the French. During WWII it was used as an air raid shelter. Today, though, it enjoys a far more peaceful existence with a great visitor centre, audio-visual theatre and guided tours.
Trim Castle, County Meath
If you think you’ve seen Trim Castle before, you’d be right – the stony pile once starred in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Rising imposingly out of the landscape, 12th-century Trim Castle is the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland and was built on the site of an earlier wooden structure. The big attraction here is the massive three-storey and 20-sided keep, access to which is by guided tour only. If you can’t arrange that, don’t worry. Just looking at this place is enough.