Turtle Bunbury

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Castles in the Sky

This article featured in Cara magazine in the February - March 2007 edition.

A Potted History of the Irish Castle

Should you chance to look out the window of this aeroplane while traversing over the Irish countryside, you might amuse yourself by counting the number of castles you can see. This island is awash with castles, arising every which way you look and often when least expected - in wooded glens and on sleepy riverbanks, upon precarious coastal rocks and inaccessible mountain tops, in the dead centre of busy cities and even under the occasional motorway. The 'Annals of the Four Masters', written in the 17th century, records seven stone castles built before the Normans arrived. But aside from that, most people seem to have lived in stone cairns or clay ring-forts, with cattle hides strung along the roof and walls to keep out the draft.

It is not for nothing that castles occupy such a sturdy position on the chess board. Norman castles were not simply strongholds but also where the Barons met to consolidate and plan further conquests. As such, castles were a hot property for warring sides in ancient times. Whoever had the castle had the upper hand. It was Giraldus Cambrensis who advised Henry II 'to sow Ireland with castles at proper places'. Strongbow is credited with the first wooden castle at Kilkenny. In the early 13th century, his son-in-law, William Marshall, a fantastically wealthy Crusader and sometime jousting champion, built a ring of stone fortresses in Leinster, creating a veritable wall of battlements, keeps and turrets. The ruins of Marshall's castles still stand today, with rooks and crows squawking from the tiny slits from which deadly arrows once flew.

Before gunpowder, the only effective way to take a castle was to starve its inhabitants out. And people were very stubborn back then; the occupants of Carrickfergus Castle only surrendered to a siege in 1317 after they'd eaten all eight of their Scottish prisoners. Gunpowder changed the state of play because once impregnable fortresses could now be reduced to rubble by canon fire, as Cromwell proved time and time again. Have a look at the canon ball still wedged into the wall of Caher Castle in Co. Tipperary over four hundred years after the Earl of Essex attacked it.

The victory of the Protestant Anglo-Irish over the Catholic Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689 brought an age of relative peace to Ireland. As the confidence of the new elite expanded, so their castles became more domestic - windows were enlarged, new bedrooms added and the focus became comfort. Palladian mansions like Castletown and Carton soon replaced the medieval notions of castellated forts. But the castle staged an unexpected comeback in the Victorian age when gentlemen sought to create residences with a medieval ambience, their hallways inevitably bedecked in family trees claiming direct descent from Noah. Ashford Castle in Co. Mayo and Humewood in Co. Wicklow are among the new age of Gothic baronial castles whose multi-turreted origins owe more to the Brothers Grimm than to any medieval ancestry.

In the 21st century, Bunratty, Dromoland, Blarney and Kilkenny are among Ireland's best known castles. Here we highlight some others that you don't need a battering ram to gain access.

Historical Castles

Castles, of course, have a tendency to be historical. However, some are more historical than others. The ruined castle on the Rock of Dunamase in Co. Laoise dates to at least the 9th century while n the largest in Ireland is stunning Trim Castle on the banks of the River Boyne in Co. Meath. This began as a timber outpost for the Normans but the native Irish, disapproving of such military carbuncles, kept burning it down. In 1224, a wily warrior named Hugh de Lacy got wind of a revolutionary new concept from Europe - the use of stone for castle construction. Eight hundred years later, Trim's zig-zag bailey walls and castellated towers still conjure up a Camelot so elegant that Mel Gibson used it as a location for 'Braveheart'. As for de Lacy, he was busy erecting another castle at Durrow in Co Laoise when a mason with anger management issues plunged an axe into his back.

Creepy Castles

In the days before television and electricity, Ireland was a bleak old island, especially by night. The pitch-black silence was only broken by the shriek of a banshee. Castles have long been a favoured retreat for banshees, pucks and other disgruntled spooks. If you seek to have your timbers shivered, then there's plenty of knob-spinning options to consider. Malahide Castle, north of Dublin City, has five different ghosts propping up its ancient walls, including a disconsolate jester stabbed though his sweet little heart for falling in love with the wrong woman. Glin Castle, on the banks of the River Shannon, offers a useful selection of poltergeists, while a multi-headed dog howls through the echoey halls of Leixlip Castle. Leap Castle in Co. Tipperary has long claimed to be the most haunted in Ireland but is facing stiff competition, if you will, from Castle Leslie in Co. Monaghan where guests frequently descend for breakfast ashen-faced after nocturnal encounters with a soldier called Norman who was killed in action in the First World War. Ancient curses are likewise to be respected. Should a branch fall from the great elm tree outside Howth Castle, it inevitably means one of the St. Lawrence family has perished.

Culinary Castles

Castles have always been splendid places for enjoying mead-fuelled banquets and that is what Bunratty, Kinitty, Knappogue and Cloghan Castles excel at today. But it hasn't always been fun in the kitchen. In 1639, the Earl of Antrim and his wife were sitting down to dinner in Dunluce Castle on the coast of Antrim when they heard a loud crash. To their horror, the kitchen wing had plunged into the frothy ocean below, taking with it all seven cooks - not to mention pudding. For a less turbulent experience, try a stint at the excellent catering schools now running at Belle Isle Castle in Fermanagh's Lough Erne and at Castle Leslie in Co. Monaghan.

Romantic Castles

Over fifty years have flown since Ava Gardener and Robert Taylor chased each other around Luttrellsstown Castle, Clonsilla, Co. Dublin while filming 'The Knights of the Round Table'. But Irish castles are still every bit as romantic as they were. One of the merriest for young lovers is Glin Castle, a 19th century Gothic beauty which overlooks the River Shannon and is home to the 29th Knight of Glin and his beautiful daughters. For a genuine fairytale castle, consider Killyleagh Castle on Strangford Lough, Co. Down, the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland where you can now stay in a battlement apartment.

Titbits from the Turrets

1. For many centuries, Carlow Castle was one of the most powerful examples of the Norman empire in Europe. It survived endless rebellions and assaults until 1814 when a well-meaning physician attempted to create an underground passageway with dynamite. Two thirds of the castle duly collapsed.

2. In 1967, the Butlers sold their ancient interest in Kilkenny Castle to the state for 50 pounds - on the understanding that the parklands would be preserved for the people of Kilkenny and never developed.

3. Ferrycarrig, near Wexford, is probably Ireland's oldest Norman castle, dating to 1180.

4. The telescope at Birr Castle in Co. Offaly was the biggest in the world for nearly a century.

5. Sir Walter Raleigh once owned gorgeous Lismore Castle on the River Blackwater, now home to the Dukes of Devonshire; Fred Astaire and Sir John Betjemen were frequent visitors in the last century.

6. Tullynally Castle in Co. Westmeath is home to the Pakenhams, a family possessed of remarkably literary prowess and including both Thomas and Valerie Pakenham, Antonia Fraser, Elizabeth Longford and the late Lord Longford. Another famous was Sir Edward Pakenham, killed leading his men at the battle of New Orleans in 1815 and shipped home for burial preserved in a barrel of rum. Contrary to some tales, there are sadly not thirty bedrooms in Tullynally named after a defeat suffered in battle by the Pakenhams!

8. Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Pirate Queen, was given the four-storey Rockfleet Castle near Newport in Co. Mayo following her marriage to Sir Richard Bourke. Her life story goes musical on Broadway, starting Feb 23rd.

9. As a baby, the 1st Earl of Kildare was rescued from certain death during a fire at Kilkea Castle by an ape which his father had brought home from his travels in Europe. The ape holds pride of place on the FitzGerald family motto and on the gates of Kilkea today.

10. If there's one thing likely to impress a passing monarch, it's the size of a man's castle. Black Tom Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde, certainly had this in mind when he added a swanky Tudor manor to his magnificent family castle at Carrick-on-Suir. He hoped it would ignite the passions of his virginal cousin, Queen Elizabeth. She never visited but you can and you should.

11. Three centuries later, the Marquess of Conyngham spent a colossal fortune employing James Wyatt, Francis Johnston, Thomas Hopper and Capability Brown to renovate and enlarge his home at Slane Castle, Co. Meath, in anticipation of a Royal visit that never happened.

12. Slane Castle suffered a disastrous fire in 1991 but has since been restored. It is one of Ireland's leading venues for summer rock concerts with the Rolling Stones lined up for August 07.

13. Glenveagh Castle in the hills of Donegal is a Victorian Gothic gem, gifted to the Irish State in 1983 by Henry McIlhenny, former President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and owner of that fine Tabasco sauce of which three to four drops should be added to create a perfect Bloody Mary.