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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Medieval Irish Castles

cahir castle

Cahir Castle, Co. Tipperary - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Castles in Ireland were almost entirely an Anglo-Norman invention, and were, to a large extent, built of earthwork and stone. Prior to 1169, the early Irish used for their defense, bogs and woods. But with the landing in Bannow Bay of Robert FitzStephen, his knights, men at arms, foot soldiers, and archers, a great political change spread over the land. By the time Prince John arrived in 1185, the cities of Dublin, Waterford, and Cork were already strongholds of the king. The ability of FitzStephen's men and those who followed to rapidly construct earth and timber castles in strategic locations ensured their conquests.

Henry II visited his Irish kingdom in 1171 and was handed the city of Waterford which Earl Strongbow surrendered. Wary of Strongbow's strength and loyalty, he instead granted Meath lands to Hugh de Lacy, a marcher lord. Though De Lacy would not occupy the lands for another four years, he had major earthwork castles built at Trim and Duleek. According to Gerald of Wales, an historian of the time, de Lacy, who was also appointed justiciar and constable of Dublin, expanded his holdings to include earth and timberwork fortifications in Dublin, Meath, and North Leinster, while another Norman knight, Roger de Courcy, conquered Ulster and erected castles throughout that province.

By 1186, foreigners and castles filled the country. Only West Ulster, North Munster, and Connacht remained unconquered. At this time large stone castles made their appearance. Between 1169 and 1600, many types of fortifications appeared in Ireland. Most are ruins, a few have been preserved. We'll discuss each type and list some of the more interesting to see on your travels.

Earth and Timber Castles

Two types of structures predominate: the motte (a mound of earth upon which the tower is built) and the ringwork. These can be further divided mottes with or without baileys (a courtyard inside the castle walls), ringworks with or without baileys, and ringworks and mottes within earlier earthworks. Because little of the ringwork remains, it is difficult to distinguish from ring forts; also, some ringworks are squared off rather than circular.

Mottes are found almost exclusively in the eastern half of the country, and there are an estimated 340 of them throughout the country with 275 being located in Leinster. Some identifiable surviving mottes are located at Callan, County Kilkenny, Cloncurry, County Kildare, and Shanid, Co. Limerick. Clonmacnoise is a fine example of an earthwork defense.

Other ringwork ruins may be seen Castlerahan, Co. Cavan, where a church and graveyard may be seen within the bailey, and Loughcrew, Co. Meath. Trim Castle, one of the largest and finest surviving castles was built originally as a ringwork pre-dating the stone fortification.

Stone Fortresses

Stone fortress building in Ireland took place between 1175 and 1300 and replaced the hastily built earth and timber structures. Trim is the earliest and most impressive of these and clearly shows the domination of the Anglo-Normans. Several attempts have been made to classify the castles in Ireland, but the list is still incomplete, due as much to the difficulty in classifying as in agency limitations. County Louth has the only detailed survey with drawings and descriptions of nearly every fortification.

The development of stone fortresses has been linked to the men in power at the time. Hence Trim is de Lacy's most impressive structure and in the North, Carrickfergus Castle, on the shores of Belfast Lough, is de Courcy's. These stone fortresses were strategically placed near the water, an indication that they may have been built on earlier ringwork foundations where control of a crossing was necessary to strengthen the lord's position and to keep his enemies at bay. An example is King John's Castle at Limerick, built perhaps in the first decade of the thirteenth century and used to control the Shannon River traffic as well as defend the walled city. Recent excavations reveal traces of an earlier ringwork dating to 1175.

Dublin Castle is probably the only true King John's castle, mandated by John in 1204 to safeguard the treasury. Maynooth Castle in Co. Kildare was built between two streams, and Dunamase occupied a large outcropping of rock. Most early thirteenth-century castles had twin-towered gateways, a moat and drawbridge.

Kilkenny Castle, partially excavated originally had six towers. Only four remain today. It appeared to be similar to Dublin Castle in its construction with (missing) twin D-shaped towers at the gateway. However, much of the medieval fabric of Kilkenny Castle has been removed or overlaid with later construction. Other stone fortress castles to visit include Adare Castle, Co. Limerick; Carrickfergus Castle, Co. Antrim; Dungarvan Castle, Co. Waterford; Castleroche, Co. Louth; and Ferns Castle, Co. Wexford.

There's more to fortification than outer defenses. Many late twelfth and early thirteenth-century castles also had an inner strong tower or keep. Learn about donjons, keeps, and great towers on page two.

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