You might be one of the many who imagine that life in a medieval Irish castle was quite romantic.
If so, brace yourself- you might
be shocked to hear what I am about to tell you!
On this page, find
out what castle life was really like in medieval Ireland.
The example discussed here, famous Cahir Castle seen above, is located in County Tipperary, Ireland.
This is is one of the best preserved castles in Ireland and has featured in films such as Excalibur, and TV series such as the Tudors. Look familiar?
Here comes the truth about medieval Irish castles.
Medieval times did not make for what we would call
luxurious living. Not for most, not even for most of the rich and powerful. For all
of society in medieval Ireland, standards of hygiene were poor and there was
virtually no privacy.
The great hall at the medieval Irish castle in Cahir.
The outer courtyard of an Irish castle was a
very busy place with lots of trades people doing jobs- for example fletchers
making arrows, leatherworkers making saddles and bridles, a blacksmith shoeing
horses, perhaps a cooper making barrels, and there were kitchens where meals
for the workers were prepared. There were also storage areas for grain and
firewood and there were, of course, stables.
Cahir Castle then has an inner courtyard, the super-protected
area beyond the portcullis, was the main residential area for the family and
There are two residential halls in the main keep which were
inhabited by the family and their servants, all living in a big hall together, imagine.
A total lack of privacy- but that was pretty much the standard at the time.
Residential hall at Cahir Castle.
Not only did
they have to share the space with lots of other humans. The ground floor of the
keep housed animals! Why? Animals
gave off heat, and people liked to sleep in the rooms directly above where
animals were kept to benefit from the heat produced. But animals of course,
produced waste and smells. People simply
had to live with that.
In fact, the
entire castle and castle grounds were very
smelly in medieval times.
then simply got used to living with this level of ‘smell-pollution’. They might
have tried to improve it, maybe by using herbs, but basically, heavy smells were everyday
Having grown up in this environment, you probably didn't even notice them. Realizing that just shows you how relative standards really are.
Humans will always adapt.
they do with the human waste? They had a fascinating medieval waste
system. You will have picked up by now that in researching the subject
of medieval life, I have developed a small personal obsession with these toilets called garderobes.
The seats of the garderobes at Cahir Castle provided space for two people to use them at the same time.
Not a bother to medieval castle residents to have another witness one of your
most private moments. Not a concept we can easily understand today though, is
One of the six garderobes at Cahir Castle. This one drained into the town.
had six different types of garderobes,
all emptying in different ways, let your fantasy play! Some of these emptied
into the river Suir, or just onto the outside of the castle wall into the town.
But a couple of the garderobes at Cahir Castle emptied into hollow spaces-
pits, inside a tower of the castle building itself. The human waste was stored
there. The smell that came from these would have been quite overbearing.
These pits of
human waste were emptied out by hand only a couple of times a year. For the
rest of the time, they let it build up. Why,
you ask? Good question. They used the smell to sort of ‘disinfect’ their
clothes by hanging them above the garderobe (hence the name), hoping that bugs
and lice would dislike the smell enough to leave!
Imagine the beautifully whitewashed outside of your castle.
you dare, visualize the garderobe draining waste over the freshly
painted surface. I know what you are thinking- not a good image. But not so for the medieval mind.
medieval times, not only were people not bothered by having the brown
stuff run down the castle walls, but in fact it was a bit of a status
You put your dirt on show in order to demonstrate to the
competition just how much feasting was going on at your abode.
didn’t bathe or even wash very often top to toe, maybe only once or twice a
year. Believe it or not, this included the rich and powerful.
The height of hygiene was to wash one’s hands before a meal. Some believed that washing would damage the skin or that contact
with water would lead to disease. They mightn’t have been too far off actually
because the water supply was used for waste disposal quite freely. This was one of the
reasons why so much ale was consumed in medieval times. Ale was safer to drink
This medieval woodcut by John Derrick shows servants cooking for an Irish chieftain, a MacSweeney, and enetertaining him during the outdoor feast. He is being entertained by a harper, a bard, and a bragatoir (far right), a 'professional farter'.
big meals to be held in the banqueting hall of this Irish castle was done in a
detached kitchen building over big fires. It involved an army of servants to do
all the tasks required from starting the fire to serving the food and
everything else in between.
They didn’t have large pots as such, but instead
they used large pouches made from animal skin to cook dishes like pottage- a
stew eaten by the commoner containing grain as well as some meat and
vegetables. One of the lifestyle advantages of the upper classes was a varied
diet. The upper classes ate a lot of meat, often spit-roasted, but they also
had access to fruit and plenty of vegetables supplied to the castle by local
Find out why Cahir Castle was thought to be the strongest castle in the country.
Find out the history of Cahir Castle.
Read about our castle visit here, including our opinion and special tips.
Hi there, hope you enjoyed reading about medieval Irish culture at Cahir Castle! It was fun, wasn't it?!
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