We’ve talked about visiting the birthplace of Guinness beer and Jameson whiskey, and some of the pubs that offer the atmosphere to go with these fine beverages – time to talk about the castles of Ireland. We couldn’t possibly tour every castle in the country, but we did manage to experience or see about a dozen ancient castles and numerous ruins during our short stay. We started in the south with Blarney Castle, made our way north to Cahir Castle and the Rock of Cashel, west to Bunratty, and lastly to Malahide, north of Dublin. We also walked around the grounds of Dublin Castle, climbed through the ruins at Hore Abbey, and walked or drove by many, many crumbling towers and churches.
If you ignore the hype about hanging upside down kissing some bit of stone, this castle and the grounds around it have a lot to offer. Like many others in Ireland, the castle is quite impressive. It features several floors and you can still see the chutes that would have allowed defenders inside to pour boiling water (or whatever else they chose) down on attacking forces. You can see where the grand halls were located, although many of the floors and the original wood roof are long gone; fortunately the stairwells remained intact although very steep and narrow! The view from the battlements (top level) is quite stunning, and it is here people line up to connect their lips with the fabled Blarney Stone – after all, can all the movie stars, politicians and other celebrities who have pressed their flesh against this famous rock be wrong? In a courtyard at the foot of the castle is an interpretive display with a timeline and history of the castle and area. In front of the castle is a tall guard tower, and around back is a cave that is said to have provided the castle occupants with an escape route during at least one ancient siege. We didn’t take the time to walk the trails or visit the restored stables, but one could easily spend 2 or 3 hours here.
We wonder if the people who live or work in the village give much thought to the fact there is a 700-year-old castle across the street from the cafes and stores they visit or work in every day. Coming from a city (Vancouver) where there are only a few structures more than 100 years old, We’re struck by the apparent ordinariness of walls and cemeteries and buildings that are several centuries or even a thousand years old. This is a modest castle, originally built around an even older tower in the late 13th century and expanded in 1375. Unlike many castles in Ireland, this one survived intact because it surrendered to Oliver Cromwell ‘s forces rather than face partial or complete destruction. The chapel was being renovated when we visited, so we were allowed onto the grounds for free but there was much to see and a great view of the village and countryside from the main building.
Rock of Cashel
No matter from which direction you approach the Rock of Cashel, you cannot help but be struck by the strategic location this massive shell of a castle occupies – the only piece of high ground for miles around. This means of course that from the castle, you have an awesome view of the surrounding countryside, including the ruins of Hore Abbey in the valley below (and a short walk away if you have the time). The main section of the castle, which eventually served as a high-ceiled church, collapsed centuries ago but work is proceeding on repairing and restoring parts of the structure – in fact a large portion of the ruins are hidden behind scaffolds and tarps. Just the same, the building is impressive and the view is breathtaking. It’s also worth the time to wander around the cemetery behind the castle; lots of ancient markers, Celtic crosses, and monuments from centuries past.
The usual image we have of a castle is something grand and imposing with long and thick walls, numerous round watchtowers, and a drawbridge or two. Well, not Bunratty – instead it looks like a gigantic stone block has been dropped into the landscape. On one side of this castle, built around 1425, there is indeed an entrance that once featured a drawbridge, but other than that, this building is imposing simply for the huge square “blockiness” of it. Reading up on the castle later, we learned that when it was constructed, it was on an island in the river that now runs just east of the castle grounds. Inside there are many floors and numerous private rooms for the successive Earls of Thomond and their families, rooms for the guards and guests, a kitchen, chapel, and most impressive, the Great Hall. This is where the Earl received visitors, sat in judgment, and gave orders. According to the costumed guide, there was always a fire going in the very centre of the room, and visitors did not come closer than this to the Earl. When leaving, you moved backwards so that the Earl never saw your back. Adjacent to the castle is the Folk Park, a re-creation of life in the area over the past century or so. More period-dressed guides describe the buildings and the lives and livelihoods of the people who used to live or work inside.
We didn’t go inside this castle, but wandered through the grand entrance arch into the courtyard and around the main buildings. The oldest structure on site is the medieval Record Tower, dating from 1228 although many of the buildings are from the 18th century with a few newer ones filling in the spaces. The complex served as the seat of government in Ireland for centuries, and until 1922 was the base for the UK administration of Ireland. It currently hosts State ceremonies and visiting dignitaries, tourists, and conferences. You can certainly see the changes in architectural styles over the past few centuries, and if we had more time that day we might have gone inside to see the reportedly lavishly appointed State Apartments and Throne Room.
Malahide Castle and Gardens
Malahide Castle is renowned for having remained in the same family for more than 800 years, despite being on the losing side of the conflict that took the lives of many, many members of the extended family in 1690. Now owned by the county and operated by the same people who run Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher Centre, the grounds are well maintained and the tour through the castle itself interesting and informative. We learned much about the various iterations of the Talbot family, the expansion of the castle over the years, and the stories behind the wide range of furnishings and paintings acquired over the centuries. We were too early in the season for the flowers to be in bloom, but it is easy to imagine the gardens would be quite magnificent.