As anyone who’s ever travelled around Ireland will tell you, there are castles EVERYWHERE – in the middle of grassy fields, along the jagged coastline, guarding lonely bridges, and often right in the middle of busy cities, where their forbidding bulk sits surprisingly comfortably with the offices and coffee shops that characterise the modern urban landscape.
Estimates vary greatly on just how many castles there are in Ireland but it’s safe to say their numbers run to thousands. They range from massive medieval fortresses to tower houses that have been converted into unexpectedly cosy living spaces. While many have fallen into ruin such as Inch Castle in County Donegal (pictured above), more have found new purpose as opulent castle hotels, museums, visitor attractions and simply as family homes.
We’ve collected these picturesque images of Ireland's castles here to show you just what to look out for on your next castle-spotting trip to the island!
1. Carrigadrohid Castle, County Cork
There are strong Game of Thrones® vibes from this 16th century tower house sitting on a rock in the River Lee in County Cork. This type of castle was often built at river crossings by local lords to control movement of people and trade. Think of it like a scaled-back version of the Twins from the hit TV series.
2. Castle Roche, County Louth
Who doesn’t love a castle with a ghastly ghost story attached? In the case of Castle Roche in Ireland's Ancient East, the ghastly part comes from Lady Rohesia de Verdun and the ghost is her bridegroom whom she pushed out a window of the castle on their wedding night. The ruin of this once-mighty castle now dominates the countryside from its rocky hilltop.
3. Dunluce Castle, County Antrim
Dunluce Castle, former home to the Earls of Antrim, has everything you could ask from romantic castle ruins in Ireland. A dramatic cliff-top location (on the famous Causeway Coast), a tragic backstory (lives were lost when the kitchen simply fell into the sea on a stormy night in 1639), ghosts (the cries of the ill-fated kitchen staff can sometimes be heard), and a place in rock history thanks to its appearance in the artwork of Led Zeppelin’s album Houses of the Holy.
4. Glenarm Castle, County Antrim
Want to know where the Earls of Antrim live now? It’s here, in the much more civilised surroundings of Glenarm Castle. Famous for its walled garden, tulip festival and being one of the few country estates on the island still in private ownership, Glenarm is open to the public with guided tours led by George, the castle’s butler.
5. Kildavnet Castle, County Mayo
Every castle needs a queen and when that castle is located on the rocky Atlantic coast of Achill Island, it needs a pirate queen. And that’s exactly what it got in the shape of Grace O’Malley, a sea-faring, swashbuckling political rebel, who owned several such strongholds along the County Mayo coast in the 16th century.
6. Ballyportry Castle, County Clare
And now for a glimpse of modern castle living, brimming with laidback cool. Ballyportry Castle is a 15th century Gaelic tower house in County Clare that is surely one of Ireland’s more unique self-catering properties. While the castle is fitted with all modern conveniences including underfloor heating and a dishwasher, it remains true to its medieval roots with linen and wool furnishings, huge open fireplaces and exposed oak roof trusses.
7. Belfast Castle, Belfast
By any standards, this ornately carved, Italian-style serpentine staircase at Belfast Castle is an impressive present. Gracefully linking the castle’s main rooms with the manicured gardens, it was added in 1894 as a gift from the Earl of Shaftsbury, the castle’s owner, to his mother. From the top, you’ll get panoramic views of Belfast city and lough.
8. Classiebawn Castle, County Sligo
Idyllically positioned on Sligo's Mullaghmore Peninsula, Classiebawn Castle overlooks the dramatic bulk of Ben Bulben, Yeats’s beloved mountain. Built in the 19th century in the Scots Baronial style, it’s distinguished by its conical roofed turret, which along with its dream location, gives it a fairytale appearance.
9. Duckett's Grove, County Carlow
Arguments could be made that this is not a castle but one of Ireland's most picturesque mansions. However, with its turrets and castellations, Duckett's Grove in Ireland's Ancient East is castle enough to be included here. In spite of its ruined state, it’s one of the most photographed buildings on the island, thanks to its slightly eerie atmosphere (supernatural rumours abound) and still-beautiful silhouette.
10. Enniskillen Castle, County Fermanagh
For 600 years, Enniskillen Castle has guarded the crossing point on the River Erne. In its time, it’s been a medieval fortress, a military barracks, a storage depot and now a museum that houses artefacts from County Fermanagh’s social and military history. But it’s the 17th century Watergate with its twin turrets that make this one of the most iconic castles in Northern Ireland.
11. Bunratty Castle, County Clare
If you want to know what life was like in an Irish castle in the Middle Ages, Bunratty is the place to come. This 15th century stronghold in County Clare was rescued from ruin in the 1950s and restored to its former glory. It now boasts one of the finest collections of medieval furniture on the island. Not to mention its resident Irish wolfhounds Meabh and Saoirse. While you’re there, you can also pay a visit to the Bunratty Castle Folk Park, a reconstruction of a typical 19th century Irish village.
12. Leap Castle, County Offaly
Who wouldn’t want to drink their morning coffee looking out over this view? But would you feel the same if there was a ghost staring over your shoulder? Leap Castle in County Offaly may be the “most haunted castle in Ireland” but it’s also a comfortable family home where musician Sean Ryan and his family live in perfect harmony with the Priest, the Red Lady and the castle’s other assorted spirits.
13. Narrow Water Castle, County Down
Blessed with a stunning location on the banks of the River Newry, Narrow Water Castle is one of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable castles. Like many medieval tower houses, its ground floor entrance is protected by a murder hole (a hole in the ceiling through which rocks, arrows or scalding water could be dropped on unwelcome visitors below). You’ll find a considerably warmer welcome at nearby “new” Narrow Water Castle (completed in 1836), where you can enjoy a 5-star self-catering stay.
14. Trim Castle, County Meath
A glimpse inside the towering walls of Trim Castle, Ireland’s largest Anglo-Norman castle which has stood on the banks of the River Boyne in County Meath since the 12th century. The huge stone keep was further defended by a ditch, a defensive curtain wall and a moat. No wonder it took over 30 years to build.
15. Ross Castle, County Kerry
A starry night at Ross Castle on the shores of Lough Leane in Killarney National Park. This 16th century tower house in County Kerry was built by O’Donoghue Mór, the chief of the O’Donoghue clan. Legend has it that he sleeps under Lough Leane, awakening every seven years to rise from the waters on his white horse and ride around the lake. Keep watch if you visit – a glimpse of O’Donoghue Mór will bring you good luck for the rest of your life.