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Castles of Ireland:
Part I

kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle

by Suzanne Barrett

Castles exert a kind of mystique, one that makes us long for the days when knighthood was in flower. Despite the knowledge that medieval times were hard times, especially if one wasn't noble born, we still long to discover that romanticized part of a country's past.

Ireland was--and is--home to many castles. Some are in ruin, others have been restored to their greatness and serve as museums and/or posh hotels. In this short feature, we'll learn about some of them.

Bunratty Castle stands upon what was formerly an island. Its strategically important site commanded all medieval water traffic to Limerick, which was the gateway and port of the southwest of Ireland. The road that passes it today, however, is of more recent construction. The present castle is the latest of four which have stood on this spot. It was built by Sioda MacConmara in the middle of the fifteenth century, and by the year 1500 had become one of the strongholds of the O'Briens (kings, and later earls) of Thomond.

Between 1558 and 1640 the castle's ceilings were richly decorated with stucco work, and elaborate gardens were laid out. The Papal Nuncio to Kilkenny visited in 1646 and declared Bunratty the most beautiful spot he had ever seen.

Parliamentary forces occupied Bunratty in 1646. Admiral Penn, father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was in charge of defense but was forced to surrender his troops.

Cahir Castle PortcullisBunratty today appears much as it might have done in the fifteenth century. It is administered by the Shannon Development Company who have gone to considerable lengths to increase its attractiveness to tourists. Early furniture, tapestries, and art works recreate an authentic fifteenth century atmosphere. In summer a medieval banquet by candlelight is staged and guests are entertained by costumed minstrels and musicians. Adjoining the castle is a folk park where "Irish nights" take place--a simple meal with dancing, music, and storytelling.

Bunratty Castle is open 9:30am until 4:15pm daily. The Folk Park opens 9:30am until 7pm and is closed 23-26 Dec. Admission for the day activities is €10.00. The Traditional Irish Night at the Folk Park costs €40.00 per person and the Medieval Banquets in the castle (May until October) are €50.00 per person.

Birr Castle in Co. Offaly stands on a small eminence above the Cam-cor river. The town of Birr originally clustered around the castle and demesne for the protection it afforded them. The castle was rebuilt around a medieval keep in 1620 by Sir Laurence Parsons. It withstood two sieges; even today, traces of the trenches from which it was bombarded are visible in the park.

In the late eighteenth century, Sir William Parsons constructed the lake and began to lay out the gardens. Several of the beeches, limes, and chestnut trees he planted are still growing today. He may also have planted the thirty-five foot tall box hedges in the formal gardens.

The present appearance of the castle is due to his son and successor Laurence, Second Earl of Rosse. He was an amateur architect who was largely responsible for the layout of the town as it is seen today. His son William, the third Earl, was the builder of the Great Telescope, a 72-inch reflector--the largest in the world until a bigger one was developed at Mount Wilson in 1917. For years, the telescope lay dismantled and decaying until the seventh Earl of Rosse began a restoration project which culminated it its resurrection and reopening April 1997.

Birr Castle is the home of the seventh Earl of Rosse and his family.

Birr Castle Demesne is open every day of the year from 9am until 6pm during summer time and 9am until 4pm during winter. Admission is €9. for adults, €7.50 for seniors and students. The telescope is operated several times a day, weather permitting.

Malahide Castle was the seat of Lord Talbot de Malahide and until 1973 was one of the oldest inhabited baronial castles in Ireland. It was founded by Sir Richard de Talbot around 1180. Talbot received the barony from King Henry II for "warlike services in the conquest of Ireland." For over seven centuries, a male Talbot heir held the estate. Lord Milo Talbot de Malahide cultivated an 8-hectare (20-acre) garden with 5,000 species of plants and trees. The Railway Museum has historical exhibits and more than 300 model trains. When Milo Talbot de Malahide died, the castle and demesne was turned over to the Dublin County Council. Further information on Malahide and the castle may be found at Malahide On-Line.

Malahide Castle Demesne is open every day, Mon. - Fri. 10 am until 5 pm, and Nov. - Mar. Sat., Sun. and Public holidays 2pm until 5pm., April - October Sat. 11am until 6pm, Sun. 11:30am until 6pm. Adult admission is €7.50 for adults. For further information, telephone +353-1-8462184 or email

Kilkenny Castle was erected in the thirteenth century on high ground beside the River Nore, replacing an earlier mote fortress built by Strongbow. It has been much altered over time, notably in 1660 and in the early part of the nineteenth century. Three of the original four round towers stand, and the structure retains the lines of a medieval fortress.

Another feature details much of Kilkenny's medieval history.

From the fourteenth century Kilkenny Castle was the chief seat of the Butler family, earls and dukes of Ormonde. It reached an epitome of lavish splendor in the late seventeenth century when the Butler Duke of Ormonde was Viceroy of Ireland. Butlers lived in the castle until 1935. Since 1967, when the Sixth Marquess of Ormonde presented the castle and part of the grounds to the people of Kilkenny, the castle has been open to visitors. One of the more interesting tourist attractions is the long gallery where hang portraits of the Butler family dating back to the fourteenth century.

Kilkenny Castle is open March 9:30am-5pm, April-May 9:30am-5:30pm, June-August 9am-5:30pm, Sept daily 9:30am-5:30pm. and Oct-February 9:30am-4:30pm. Closed Good Friday. €6.00 adults, €4.00 seniors, students €2.50, guided tours only. The castle's kitchen is a tearoom in summer.

Cahir CastleCahir Castle in County Tipperary, a mainly fifteenth century structure, has been restored by the Office of Public Works who provide guided tours. It is in excellent preservation and is the largest of its period in Ireland. It has a massive keep, high enclosing walls, and spacious courtyards and hall.

Erected in 1142 on an ancient site, this castle came into possession of the Butlers when James, Third Earl of Ormonde was granted the lands of the district in 1375. The Butlers sided with the Irish in the Elizabethan Wars. The Earl of Essex took the castle after a siege in 1599 in which the walls were breached by English artillerary. In 1647, the castle was surrendered to the parliamentary commander, Lord Inchiquin. It was surrendered in 1650 to Cromwell. In 1693, Butler was restored his estates.

When I last visited the tour was free, however, it is recommended that you purchase a guide booklet.

Next week we'll continue our tour with visits to Dublin Castle, Dunguaire, Knappogue, Howth and others. Join me again as we look into the medieval history of 'The Castles of Ireland.'

See Castles of Ireland, Part II.

Until next time.

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