Trip idea: Ireland's extraordinary castles

Blarney castle
Driving Driving
870 Miles

Medieval marvels, elegant family homes and dramatic ruins: discover Ireland's remarkable castles

Down through the centuries, Ireland's beautiful countryside has proved irresistible to the wealthy and powerful who wanted to leave their mark. Whether they were Norman knights, eccentric aristocrats or gamblers-made-good, their castles still dot the landscape.

Ireland's extraordinary castles

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From the country’s historic seat of power, head north and contrast Norman might with elegant 18th century comfort.

A driving 34 mins
Dublin Castle

A symbol of power

If castles are seats of power, they don’t get any mightier than Dublin Castle. It’s more a series of rambling buildings than a contained stronghold, but it dates back to the 13th century and was actually built on a Viking site. In its time, it has been a prison, police headquarters and law courts – authority has soaked into its very stones. Nowadays it is where state visitors are welcomed and presidents are inaugurated. See the state apartments, the Chapel Royal, the Undercroft and the beautiful grounds, beneath which lies the "dubh linn", or dark pool, that gave the city its name.

B driving 30 mins
Malahide Castle

A plant-lover's paradise

The oldest parts of this mighty dwelling stretch back to 1175 – and it’s still looking pretty good. Close to Dublin, the castle played a major part in medieval Ireland. It was owned by Richard Talbot, a Norman who was given the land by King Henry II in 1185 as thanks for his help in conquering Ireland. The family lived here for 800 years (with a short break, courtesy of Oliver Cromwell). In the mid-20th century Lord Milo Talbot, a passionate plant collector, brought specimens from all over the world to populate the 22 beautiful acres of gardens, which you can still wander around today.

Ardgillan Castle

A stunning prospect

Head to north County Dublin and you'll find a very different kind of castle. Ardgillan started life as Prospect House, named for the gorgeous views out to sea and to the Mourne Mountains in County Down. This pretty, castellated structure was built in the mid 18th century, and inside is like a grand but comfortable home, rather than a creepy, draughty castle. Its grounds are equally gracious, comprising both formal gardens and stunning parkland. As you wander through the rose garden, look out for the impressive Victorian glasshouse, which once graced the nearby home of the Jameson family (yes, the whiskey people) before being donated to Ardgillan.

Northern Ireland

Expect the unexpected here, with an eccentric two-faced marital home, a Scots baronial pile, a fairytale ruin and a hulking riverside watchman.

D driving 1 hr 7 mins
Castle Ward

A castle with two faces

If quirkiness is your thing, then Castle Ward is a must. When husband (Lord Bangor) and wife (Lady Ann Bligh) couldn’t agree on what sort of house to build, they didn’t fall out over it, but nor did they compromise. They built both. One side (her) is all gracious Palladian geometry; the other (him) is a gothic confection that overlooks Strangford Lough. The distinction isn’t skin deep either - the inside of the house is split down the middle, with the interiors matching their relevant facade.

If you have more time

Castle Ward has been a key filming location for Game of Thrones® and at Winterfell Tours, located in the courtyard of Castle Ward, fans can experience everything from medieval banquets to archery lessons.  

E driving 1 hr 9 mins
Belfast Castle

Discover the secrets of the Cat Garden...

One of the real joys of a visit to Belfast Castle, a solid, 19th century Scots baronial pile, is the view. From its lofty position on Cave Hill, a local landmark named for the five caves located on the side of its cliffs, you get the most fantastic views over the city and Belfast Lough. When you've looked your fill, head to the offbeat Cat Garden, where nine replica cats hide in plain sight, disguised as everything from shrubs to sculptures. How many will you find?  

F driving 2 hrs 16 mins
Dunluce Castle

Clifftop drama and ghostly tales

If it’s fairytale, folklore and myth you’re after, head for Dunluce. Perched on a remote and rocky outcrop along one of the most beautiful coastlines in Ireland, this is about the most romantic spot you can imagine. The tales of banshees and fairies, unearthly beings and bloody feuds hang in the air (the McQuillan and MacDonnell clans fought over the castle for years), and there’s even said to be a ghost of a young woman who died while eloping. It was enough, apparently, to inspire CS Lewis when he was inventing the royal castle of Cair Paravel in his Chronicles of Narnia.

Enniskillen Castle

A riverside fortress

From any angle, Enniskillen Castle is big, but seen from the waters of the River Erne, where it sits right at the water’s edge, it looks dauntingly enormous. No one is quite sure when it was built, but chronicles suggest the 1420s. The turrets and solid walls have guarded the town for centuries, and have been a tempting stronghold for invaders. Nowadays, appropriately, it houses two museums: Fermanagh County Museum and The Inniskillings Museum. The Fermanagh County Museum tells the story of this region from ancient times, while the Inniskillings Museum offers weapons, uniforms and military equipment from the 17th century.

Wild Atlantic Way

Wealth and power inspired the builders of these mighty structures, which have stood firm through the centuries.

H driving 4 hrs 33 mins
Glenveagh Castle

Hollywood glamor

It’s not just Norman invaders who built homes to impress others. An Irish-born speculator, John George Adair, made a fortune in the US and returned to build the remote, Balmoral-style idyll of Glenveagh Castle near the Derryveagh Mountains in the late 19th century. His wife designed the beautiful gardens, and a later owner, wealthy Irish-American Henry McIlhenny, not only added to the castle but invited some of Hollywood's biggest stars to come and stay, including Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. The setting is breathtaking – 40,000 acres of glens, mountains and woods – and there’s even a herd of deer wandering the grounds. Get the shuttle bus in from the visitor center and soak up the glamour.

I driving 21 mins
King John's Castle

Medieval marvels in Limerick city

With its huge stone walls and round towers, the hulking mass of King John's Castle dominates the medieval heart of Limerick city. Its location was first chosen by Vikings in 922, before King John, brother of Richard the Lionheart (and well-known villain from many a Robin Hood tale), had another castle built in 1197. Many of the original features still stand, along with centuries of additions and repairs. In the courtyard there are reconstructions of a medieval campaign tent and a 17th century siege (the castle got badly knocked about in the Siege of Limerick in 1642). It’s an atmospheric spot, and not just for history fans.

Bunratty Castle

Bringing history to life

For full-on and authentic reconstructions of times past, head to Bunratty Castle in County Clare, between Limerick and Ennis. There were earlier structures built on this site, but the current castle dates back to 1425 and has been meticulously restored with tapestries and furniture that breathe life into its history. Book in for one of the medieval banquets held in the evenings and live like a medieval lord or lady for the night.

If you have more time

In the grounds of Bunratty Castle you'll find Bunratty Folk Park, where you can walk around a 19th century village with houses, a pub and a shop, all in working order.

Ireland's Ancient East

Norman strongholds cast their spell over the busy towns at their feet, while one family dreamed of scientific discovery and sought out wonders.

K driving 1 hr 4 mins
Blarney Castle

A castle with the gift of the gab

There might be lots of tall stories and jokes about Irish blarney, but the sight of Blarney Castle itself will wipe the smile off your face – if you’re part of an invading army. Terrifyingly high, sheer walls would defeat even the hardiest attacker, not to mention the three hidden tunnels through which the wily castle dwellers could escape if things got too hot. Kiss the Blarney Stone and take a walk around the gardens, which have a slightly eerie air, thanks to the prehistoric druidic remains and the ancient oaks and yews that were sacred to druidic traditions.

L driving 1 hr 1 min
Cahir Castle

Defensive genius

If it’s invaders you’re worried about, take a look at Cahir Castle. It is superbly designed for defense, seated on a great platform of rock that could withstand just about any onslaught, and did. In fact, it has only been captured three times in its history, which goes back to the 13th century and is inextricably linked with the all-powerful Butler family. There are guided tours and a film show describing the castle’s history, but just walking around it gives a mighty sense of the past.  

M driving 1 hr 17 mins
Kilkenny Castle

An arts and crafts castle

Looking out over the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle is right in the heart of Kilkenny city. The inhabitants busily go about their day in streets that come right up to the castle walls. The city still has strong sense of its medieval past, with narrow, friendly streets and historic buildings still in use. Parts of the 13th century castle still stand, but have been integrated into a solid, functioning whole that belonged for 600 years to the Butler family before it was sold to the people of Kilkenny for the princely sum of £50. Now small, artistic businesses and galleries flourish within its walls and yards.

N driving 1 hr 25 mmins
Birr Castle

Scientific delights in Birr

The castellated bulk of Birr Castle houses a fascinating family – the Earls of Rosse. Over the centuries their passions – for astronomy, technology, science and horticulture – have been indulged and shared with the world. First stop is the Leviathan, the huge telescope built in the 1840s that was for a long time the biggest in the world. The earl’s wife, meanwhile, was a pioneering photographer and their son experimented with electricity. Their interests are honored in the Science Centre. Later generations were gardeners, creating the enchanting grounds that still lure visitors with rare plants, a lake, fernery and formal gardens.

Trim Castle

A Norman stronghold

The largest Norman castle in Ireland, Trim Castle is a far cry from the refined, intellectual world of Birr. These imposing walls have withstood many attacks, sparked by its strategic position on slightly raised ground at a ford across the River Boyne. Its strength and central position beside the then-navigable river gave Trim Castle royal approval, and in its long history, it's played many roles, including prison, family home and film set – Mel Gibson filmed Braveheart here in the 1990s. Visits into the keep are by guided tour only but you can wander the lush surroundings at your leisure and enjoy the idyllic riverside setting.

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