Ireland is dotted with castles, and they play a role in its romantic and sometimes turbulent history. Vikings, Celts, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons all ruled different parts of Ireland at one time or another, resulting in a number of smaller kingdoms that were constantly at odds.
Many clans would build a tower house, which was a simple rectangular stone tower residence that provided a safe haven during armed conflicts. The Norman invaders, and later the English, built larger castles, often in a Norman style of four rounded towers and a moat. In later years, the British and local Irish nobility expanded their already extant family homes, or built new ones entirely in new styles like the Victorian and Gothic Renaissance.
The end result is that the castles of Ireland represent a very diverse range of styles. Still, among the most enduring ones are simple stone keeps, which have stood the test of time like lonely stone sentinels by a lake or river, or at the top of a windswept hill.
Where can I see the best castles in Ireland?
The answer, again, is that castles are all over Ireland. No matter where you plan to stay, chances are there will be an Irish Castle to see near you. Let’s take a look at 21 of the most well known castles of Ireland.
The Rock Cashel
The Rock Cashel in Tipperary was the Irish castle from which the King of Munster ruled. According to legend, it is where Saint Patrick converted the King of Munster in the 5th century, but it is also believed that the castle itself stood in Devil’s Bit until Saint Patrick banished the devil from that mountain, whereupon the Rock Cashel landed in Cashel. It is a picturesque fortress with many examples of Celtic and Medieval art and architecture.
Dublin Castle has served as the seat of the British Government in Ireland since the 12th century, during the reign of King John. Though it was built after the Norman invasion and in order to solidify English rule on the Emerald Isle, it was built along the lines of a Norman castle with walls around a central courtyard. It was located next to a dark pool from which Dublin got its name (Dubh Linn).
Blarney Castle near Cork is most famous for its Blarney Stone, a block built into the walls—though precariously separated from the battlements by an opening for throwing stones or hot fluids down onto attackers. Anyone who kisses the stone is said to be blessed with the Gift of Gab, meaning eloquence and flattery. Blarney Castle was originally a wooden structure in the 11th century, but in the 13th and then 15th century it was replaced by a permanent stone keep, the ruins of which have become a popular tourist attraction today.
Lismore Castle in County Waterford was built by King John of England to guard a river crossing, then turned into a monastery which became a center of learning. It then belonged to the Earls of Desmond before transferring to the Cavendish Family, specifically the Duke of Devonshire, who remodeled the castle in the Gothic style by which it is recognized today. It is still in the hands of the Cavendish family.
Bunratty Castle (which literally means Castle at the Mouth of the Ratty) is a tower house dating to the 15th century in County Clare. A tower house is a typical stone structure for both habitation and for commanding strategic points with a small force in a remote area (in this case, a river estuary). They are typical in Ireland and Scotland, though the current manifestation of Bunratty—dating to the 15th century—contains atypical improvements like square towers at the corner and a lead roof.
Carrickfergus Castle (Cairn of the Strong Man) was a Norman castle dating to the 12th century when it was built by the Norman king John de Courcy, whose petty kingdom was taken by another Norman, Hugh de Lacy. The castle was then taken by King John of England. In addition to the English, it has been attacked by the Scottish and French, and remains one of the best preserved medieval structures in Ireland, perhaps in part due to the water that once surrounded 75% of its walls.
Birr Castle in County Offaly remains the residence of the Earl of Rosse, and is not regularly accessible to visiting tourists. However, the grounds are, and there are several notable items on the castle ground: a giant telescope (called The Leviathan of Parsonstown), Ireland’s oldest wrought-iron bridge, and walled gardens with Yew hedges over 300 years old, which are also the tallest in the world. The castle itself also contains one of the world’s oldest photographic darkrooms, photography being a hobby of the 4th earl and his family.
Gleninagh Castle in County Clare is a simple L-shaped tower house overlooking Galaw from a windswept hill, creating a perfectly romantic image of a typical Irish castle. The four story stone keep reaches to a modest hight of around 30 feet and dates to the 16th century, though it has been in disuse since the 19th century. Three of its corners have rounded battlements, and it is fairly well preserved.
Kylemore Castle is actually an abbey of Benedctine Nuns who fled from Belgium during World War I. The crenellated and idealized Gothic revival structure dates to the 19th century, has 33 bedrooms, and took 100 men to build over four years. It is a magnificent building well positioned alongside a lake in County Galway, at the foot of scenic mountains. It’s gardens are open to the public and it partners with Notre Dame University to host academic programs.
Howth Castle and its expansive estates in County Dublin was the ancestral seat of the Saint Lawrence Family since the Norman invasion in the 12th century. The grounds offer stunning views of Dublin Bay and include the island of Ireland’s Eye, along with formal gardens, ponds and streams, and rhododendron walks. The castle and its grounds have recently been sold to an investment group that will convert it to upscale residences by 2023.
Malahide Castle and its grounds, Malahide Demesne Regional Park, sits about nine miles north of Dublin. The English King Henry II granted these grounds to Sir Richard Talbot in the 12th century, and it remained in the family until recent times, when it was sold to the state. The Oak Room, Great Hall, and Botanical Gardens are some of its star attractions, and the Great Hall is available for rentals. Free guided tours of the castle are available.
Trim Castle looks over the River Boyne in County Meath, and is the largest Norman castle in Ireland, dating to the 12th century. It was built by Hugh de Lacy on the site of an earlier ring work fortification, and has a unique shape for Norman castles of a cruciform shape with 20 corners. The castle itself has changed ownership several times, and was once sold by the Duke of Wellington. It was also used in the movie Braveheart.
Ross Castle in County Kerry is a tower house on the edge of Lough Leane, one of the many scenic lakes in Killarney National Park. It dates to the 15th century and was among the last castles to hold out against the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the Irish Confederate Wars, and could only be taken when artillery was brought to the site via boat. According to legend, the original owner O’Donoghue leapt out of a window along with his horse, table, and library, and now lives at the bottom of the lake.
Portumna Castle on the shores of Lough Derg (Lake Derg) was once the grandest home in Ireland, surpassing many other castles and tower houses when it was built by Richard Burke in the 17th century for a cost of around 10,000 pounds. Though its facade is crenelated, it’s much more of a palace than a castle fortress, and modeled along the lines of the Renaissance manor, which was common in France and England but not in Ireland.
Kilkenny Castle has stood guard over a crossing point of the Nore River since the time of the Norman Conquest. Built in the 12th century, its original form of four rounded towers and a surrounding ditch was characteristic of Norman fortifications, though it has been added on to over the years as it passed hands several times. Today it remains a scenic landmark on the skyline of Kilkenny.
Thoor Ballylee is a tower house built by the Anglo-Norman House of Burke in the 15th century. The tower is small, with one room on each floor, four floors, and a single spiral stairwell built into the wall that connects them all. One of its major claims to fame is providing a residence for the acclaimed Irish poet, William Butler Yeates.
Dunguaire Castle overlooks the blue waters of Galway Bay. It is named after the keep (in Gaelic, Dun) of the legendary king of Connacht, Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin. Though it is believed that the 75-foot tower and walls we see today are built on King Guaire’s Dun, the current structure was built by the Hyne family in the 16th century.
Limerick Castle, or King John’s Castle, is a massive keep overlooking the Shannon River in Limerick. The land it sits on, King’s Island, was originally a Viking settlement, until these nomadic warriors were vanquished by the Normans under King John of England. Limerick Castle overlooked the prosperous port of Limerick, and its imposing bulk remains one of the best preserved Norman fortifications in all of Europe.
Ashford Castle is now a luxury hotel sitting on the border between Mayo and Galway. It was originally built by the Anglo-Norman Burke Clan in the 13th century on the edge of a monastery. Later owners, the Browne Family, enlarged the castle in the style of a French Chateau. Ashford Castle then came into the possession of the Guiness Family, who remodeled it in a Victorian and then Neo-Gothic style. Today the unique appearance of the hotel derives from this mixture of architectural styles.
Aughnanure Castle is a tower house in County Galway, built by the O’Flaherty Family, a noteworthy clan from Connacht, in the 16th century. There are actually around 200 such tower homes in County Galway, but Aughnanure Castle is noted for the role it played in the Siege of Galway during Oliver Cromwel’s Invasion of Ireland. Interestingly, Aughnanure literally translates to field of yews.
Donegal Castle sits within County Donegal of Ulster (one of Ireland’s four main provinces). The rectangular tower dates to the 15th century, and was built by Red Hugh O;Donnell, who also built a monastery down the river—and according to legend, a tunnel connecting the two, which has never been found. The additional wing was built in the 16th century in a Renaissance variant unique to England known as the Jacobean. Donegal Castle sat in ruinous condition from the 18th to 20th centuries, but has since been restored by the Office of Public Works and is open to visitors.