Medieval Castles In Ireland-
Why And How Castles Were Defended
On this page I will talk about some fascinating medieval defense systems at the castles in Ireland. Join me on a journey into the past!
Annaghdown Castle, County Galway, at sunrise.
But first things first-
Why Did People Build Fortified Castles to begin with?
The reason castles in Ireland were built between the 12th and the 16th centuries, was not for prettiness or display. That motivation only came later in history.
First and foremost, during medieval times, these castles were badly needed fortifications for those that had something to lose (land, power and wealth), and someone to be afraid of (their neighbours).
In medieval Ireland, there was a lot of conflict between neighbouring landowners, be they Gaelic chieftains or Norman war lords. Essentially, potentially everyone was at conflict with everyone else: Gaelic chieftains were at conflict with one another as well as with the Normans, the Normans were at conflict with the Irish as well as with some of their own.
Allegiances came and went. There was little stability. And the medieval castles in Ireland are a left-over of that time when, for the landowning upper classes, their house was vitally important to their physical safety.
The picture above shows the ruin of Ballinafad Castle, County Sligo, Ireland which played a part in the 'Battle of the Curlieus'.
Now let's talk about how medieval Castles In Ireland were defended...
Medieval castles in Ireland have some peculiar defensive features. You can still notice some of those when visiting a reconstructed castle or even a ruin.
These were the days before the gun of course, as the use of guns and canons rendered most of these ingenious safety features useless eventually. But here they are, and do look out for them on your next castle visit:
The Entrance Door
On the photo below you see the entrance door of Craggaunowen Castle in County Clare. We are looking at the hallway and main entrance door from inside the downstairs room. Notice how small the small entrance hall is? Why do you think that might be the case? Read on to find out why in a moment...but first let's talk about the door itself.
Medieval castle doors and reception halls are full of ingenious defensive features. The door was always made to open INWARDS exactly like on this picture. Reason being?
So that it could be secured with a wooden beam. Before any attackers even made it to the actual timber door, they had to overcome an iron grill or ‘yett’.
The yett was closed from inside the castle after the main door was shut. It was fastened on a long rope or chain that ran through a hole in the wall or in the door jamb that could then be secured inside. You’d have a difficult job trying to get through this door at a time with no explosives to help you!
The next picture shows a murdering hole.
The Murdering Hole
On the above picture you are looking at the murdering hole in the ceiling of the entrance hall at Craggaunowen Castle. What is a murdering hole you ask? What could it be?
The answer is, it does exactly what it says on the tin! The murdering hole was a great piece of medieval-style fun. If an attacker did manage to get through the front door, which they might if using a battering ram, they would find themselves in a tiny entrance hallway (exactly like on the photo further up) with all internal doors shut securely.
Above them, the murdering hole or ‘poll na marbha’ would open to throw rocks or pour hot liquids such as oil or water onto their heads. In some castles, arrows could be shot through the murdering hole. Whatever it took to have the attacker finished off!
Here at Craggaunowen, the murdering hole is now covered with glass as you can see, just in case any visitor might get any strange ideas in their head...
The Bawn and the Castle Wall
A castle was typically surrounded by an enclosure called a bawn which in turn was surrounded by a tall wall. This bawn wall (or castle wall) would be a defended wall, tall enough to make it impossible to mount, and strong enough to withstand a battering ram, for some time at least.
The wall might feature watch towers for guards. On the picture above you can see the castle wall at Athenry Castle, County Galway, Ireland.
Notice the ruin of the watchtower, and the recessed walkway for guards near the top of the wall. Notice that all the window recesses open towards the inside. Why is that? Splayed windows like these are called loop windows and are designed for archers to shoot through comfortably while also being protected.
The Defended Stairway
Generally Tower Houses and other medieval castles in Ireland feature a spiral stairway. Mostly, these were cut-stone stairways as on the photo below. But there were some exceptions, like the timber stairway at Parke's Castle.
The stairway was built in such a way that it could be easily defended by someone moving downwards on the stairs swinging a sword.
In some castles (see Parke's Castle above) the stairway is clearly built for a left-handed owner. It turns in such a way that a left-handed man coming down the stairs could swing his sword. The conclusion? Captain Parke must have been left-handed!
The stairway at Craggaunowen, on the other hand is right-handed as you can see on the photo.
The sword was swung on the wider side of the stairs, of course.
The Batter Wall
On the next picture of Renville Castle, County Galway, notice how the wall widens towards the ground. It sort of 'swings' out. See what I mean?
The name for a wall that swings out like that at the bottom is a 'batter'. What was it good for? Good question.
A batter wall, too is part of the defensive structure. It strengthens the foundations of the castle making sure attackers cannot undermine them.
See a particularly strong batter wall here at Athenry Castle.
A batter also serves to keep attackers at the exact right distance from the keep to be able to throw rocks and hot liquids on their heads from the battlements, or to shoot them with arrows if you had any left. Ingenious indeed. Plus, rocks thrown onto the batter from above would do what? You are right, they would be deflected outwards at the enemy.
The battlements on the roofs of medieval castles in Ireland were designed in such a way that someone shooting always had something to hide behind in order not to get shot.
Notice the pretty up-and-down stone work structure at the top of Claregalway Castle, County Galway, Ireland? Those are the battlements.
Battlements usually featured a small overhang with gaps (machicolations) enabling the defender to throw stones, or even to shoot arrows directed at attackers located directly underneath.
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Battlements were a place for guards as they were high up with a good view. There were very few trees in medieval Ireland, so guards on the battlements would have been able to spot anyone approaching from quite a distance away and mobilize defences if needed.
See another type of battlements here at Annaghdown Castle.
You could see battlements as the 'crown' of the castle. They even look a bit like a crown, don't they? When Cromwellian forces conquered an Irish castle, they decommissioned it by destroying the battlements, and by breaking the defensive spiral staircase, the 'spine' of the castle. Without either feature, the castle could no longer be defended.
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