How many medieval Irish Castles are there? Too many to count. There are some large, significant and well-known ones such as Bunratty Castle in County Clare, or Blarney Castle in County Cork. But many people don't realize that beyond those large visitor attractions Ireland is actually peppered with smaller local castles! Many of the medieval castles are ruins of course, but others have been lovingly restored. In this section, let us introduce you to everything we know about these medieval Irish Castles.
Later on, other types of castles were built in later architectural styles. We are discussing those as 'Big Houses'.
Before the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, the prevailing style of building fortifications was the building of different types of forts, such as the gigantic stone forts on the Aran Islands, or ring forts forts made by piling up earth. Gealic clans used to live in wooden or wattle and daub housing inside the protection of these forts, and there was enough space for cattle as well.
When the Vikings started to settle in Ireland in the mid-eighthundreds, they, too started building wooden fortifications, so called longphorts. At the Viking settlement in Dublin they built a wooden fortification on the site of what today is Dublin Castle.
Why did they need fortified residences in the first place you might ask. Well, in those days there was a lot of conflict between neighbouring families or tribes. You could never be sure to be safe. This continued to be true into medieval times and was the reason why fortified Irish castles were built by the Normans.
Parke's Castle in County Leitrim is beautifully restored and a great example of a late medieval castle worth the 25 minute trip from Sligo town.
The story of Irish castles as such starts with the Normans. They arrived first in 1169 AD. Because they had better war technology than the Irish who did not have armour at the time, and used inferior weapons such as axes compared to the invaders, the Normans were very successful. Many Irish chieftains had to accept the Normans as overlords and pay them dues while existing side by side.
The Normans were extremely adaptable.
Wherever they went, they became fully integrated into the country within a
couple of hundred years. Once in Ireland, some Normans started adopting the
customs of the Gaelic tribes. They might have started to speak Irish, too.
Other Normans spoke Welsh, French or English. There was quite a cultural
melting pot there among the Normans and with that it was no surprise that
wherever they went, they picked up technologies and brought them with them.
Among the technologies the Normans brought to Ireland was the building of
cut-stone fortified Irish castles. The building of these castles started about a generation after their arrival.
The castle at Shrule, County Mayo on the photo above was built by Normans in 1238 and held out through many a battle.
After conquering enemy territory, the Normans would first erect a wooden fortified structure, a Motte and Bailey, surrounded by wooden palisades for additional layers of defense. This would later be followed up by building a fortified castle.
These castles started to appear in Norman
strongholds in Ireland from the 13th century. You will find them in
fortified towns, with good and relatively intact examples being Trim, County
Meath, Kilkenny, Ballymote in County Sligo and Athenry in County Galway, see also the photo above of Shrule Castle in County Mayo.
So called Norman tower houses, a form of fortified country residences, which is peculiar to Ireland and Scotland, started to appear in Ireland in the 13th and 14th centuries. But although it had been the Normans that introduced the technologies of building castles, the Gaelic tribes adopted them as well. The Gaelic O’Flaherty’s in Galway, for example built a fine tower house, Aughanure Castle, in Oughterrard.
With the existing war technologies of the time, these castles were very defendable. After the invention of guns and canons however, fortified castles became obsolete. These were gradually introduced in Ireland throughout the 17th century. During the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland which started in 1649, heavily fortified towns such as Waterford and Wexford were won with heavy assault guns.
It became clear that castles could no longer be defended against an army. You might just about be able to defend against an angry mob of peasants!
The conclusion was that you might as well live comfortably and show off your wealth. This idea formed the beginning of a new era, the era of Irish big houses.
Ballycurrin Castle and Ballycurrin House in County Mayo, Ireland. Castles were often abandoned once the family's big house was built and subsequently fell to ruin.
After that time, residences of the gentry started featuring bigger
windows and displaying the wealth of the owners. With the onset of the 18th century a new ascendancy that had come to power as a result of the Cromwellian invasion was building a new style of residence- the Big House. See Strokestown Park House on the next photo, a Palladian mansion built in the 1740ies.
The styles of big houses and Irish castles from then on reflected the prevailing building styles that existed in England at the time. Again, the current invaders set the standard. Every new style of the Irish castles, usually named after English monarchs, such as 'Tudor', 'Victorian' and 'Georgian', brought a new style of architecture.
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Many thanks, Colm and Susanna
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