Medieval Castles in Ireland

Medieval Castles in Ireland

Medieval Castles are one of the most visible characteristics of the Middle Ages (circa AD 700-1500) in Europe. No matter where you travel on this continent, chances are you are not far away from the remains of one. The same is true of Northern Ireland, indeed of the whole island. Here we will tell you briefly their story and give you a list of castles in Northern Ireland.

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List of Early Modern and Medieval Castles in Northern Ireland

Belfast Castle

Belfast Castle Weddings

Carrickfegrus Castle

Castle Weddings and Birthday parties

Dromore Mound

Dunluce

Dunseverick

Dundrum

Enniskillen Castle

Hillsborough Castle

Kinbane Castle

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Why Medieval Castles?

The history of the castle is closely connected to feudalism. Under the feudal system, kings gave lands to their barons and lords. They in turn might keep some lands for themselves to be cultivated by villagers.

These villagers called serfs were tied to the land and to their local lords and barons. Their freedoms were curtailed. They could not travel freely and even for such things as marriage, they had to ask the lord’s permission. The lands that the lords did not keep for themselves they might parcel out among their knights who in turn would get the local villagers to work them.

In return for their work the serfs received (hopefully) the lords’ and knights’ good will and protection. To protect themselves and their serfs from other land hungry lords nearby, lords needed fortifications. And thus the story of castles began.

The earliest Medieval castles were little more than an area enclosed by a palisade. Often they were built on hills because hills offered better protection and a better view of the surrounding countryside. An approaching enemy could be spotted quickly.

Medieval Castles in Ireland - Motte and Bailey

Motte and Bailey castles were a type of fortification or castle popular in the 11th and 12th centuries during Norman times. The name comes from the French word “motte” which means a “mound”. Motte and Bailey castles consisted of an earthen mound, sometimes natural, more often artificial. On top of the mound knights would build a defensive building or tower, the Keep.

Beneath the mound on the flat ground there would be an enclosed courtyard which served as an area for the castle's daily activities and as a first line of defense. In the courtyard the attendants of the lord of the castle would both live and work. Initially the courtyard was surrounded by a palisade, or wooden fence, but with time palisades were replaced with stone walls which provided much higher levels of protection.

Medieval Castles in Ireland - Switch to Stone

The weaknesses of wood soon became apparent. It burned easily, or could be chopped down. The richer lords began to build stone castles. Soon, everyone was building them. Wood had fallen out of fashion.

Castles dotted the landscape and remained the focus of life during times of both war and peace throughout the Middle Ages. The arrangement was as follows.

Medieval Castles in Ireland - what was life like?

On the high point of the grounds stood a strong tower, the Keep. On the top floor of the Keep lived the local lord and his family. This place was called the Solar. The floor beneath the Solar would be used as a reception room were notable visitors were received, cases judged and audiences offered. War councils would be held here and the lord would party with his knights during the long winter nights, when campaigning against other lords was out of the question due to weather. Musicians provided plenty of music and jokers entertained them with juggling acts and jokes. During the day they would often hunt with dogs and hawks.

The basement of the Keep would be used for storing supplies. Castles had to be well stocked to be able to withstand long sieges. Usually they would have enough supplies to last them for months. If they could hold out for the summer, chances were that the enemy would go home once the winter colds came.

The grounds around the Keep would be a beehive of activity. There was a chapel where people could pray and attend religious services, workshops for metal smiths to make their weapons, carpenters to fix furniture or other equipment, masons to expand the castle and plenty of food vendors. A castle would often have at least one well, maybe two, to ensure a supply of fresh water.

Around the grounds would be the outer walls of the castle. Smaller towers than the Keep would be in place at regular intervals in the wall. They offered extra protections and a longer field of vision. Soldiers would patrol the walls in times of tension and there would be look outs even in times of peace. There would usually be one main gate with a strong tower about it and a portcullis, two gates one after the other. Sometimes they would open the outer gate and once enemy soldiers passed it towards the inner gate, they would close the outer gate trapping the enemy soldiers in between the two.

Medieval Castles in Ireland - the Decline Begins

As the Middle Ages were coming to a close in the 1400’s, castles began to loose the importance and central role they once held. Three things happened to change this situation. First, the advent of canon meant that even the stout stone walls of castles could be broken down with relative ease. Castles therefore ceased to be the safe places they used to be.

Second, from the 13th century onwards, the decentralized nature of feudalism began to slowly give way to more centralized governments, governed by a king. They didn’t want strong barons in strong castles, because they might challenge their authority. As kings grew more powerful, they built their own bureaucracy, their standing armies, their police force. The world became a somewhat safer place, lords and knights stopped fighting local skirmishes for small plots of land and the need for castles for everyone became redundant. Lords and knights were more likely to join the king in fighting a distant war than to attack each other.

Third, as Europe grew more affluent, refined ladies and rich lords decided they wanted their comforts. And while Medieval Castles were good for defensive purposes, they were small and crowded, smelly and dirty and didn’t afford many creature comforts.

As the Middle Ages were drawing to a close, it was becoming evident that the days of the castle as the mainstay of defensive warfare and the centre of society were fast coming to an end. Don’t get me wrong, castles continued to be built for centuries to come. In fact, some were built even in the 19th century, maybe even in the 20th. But the newer castles were different. There was less emphasis on defense and more on comfort and elegance. Newer castles, unlike their medieval predecessors, were more like palaces with splendid landscaped gardens and glorious views. Defense, in many cases, was just about the last thing on their mind.

How About the Medieval Castles in Northern Ireland?

A country with as rich a history as Northern Ireland not surprisingly has many medieval castles. Depending on what you include (early modern ones) there are as many as fifty or more.

The earliest date from Norman times like Dundrum Castle near Newcastle in County Down. Such will give you an idea of how medieval Europe castles looked like.

Others were built in relatively modern times like, for example, the delightful Hillsborough Castle.

Some were built for defensive purposes and have seen their share of wars and battles. An good example is Carrickfegrus Castle.

In fact, Carrickfergus castle is in such a good condition, it is frequently used for Castle Weddings and Birthday parties or Wedding photography shots.

Others functioned as stately homes and are more elegant than fearsome, like the famous Belfast Castle.

Some are in excellent state of preserve, like Enniskillen Castle.

Others are in complete ruins, like Dunluce, Dunseverick or Kinbane Castles in the Antrim Coast, or Dromore Mound in Dromore.

Depending on how much history fascinates you, you can decide how many to visit. But a tour of Northern Ireland would not be complete without at least a casual viewing of some of them.

History often developed around them and though no longer in the mainstream of political developments, the stout architecture and often dramatic locations of older ones as well as the refined elegance of some of the newer ones will give you a good overview of the rich history of this glorious land.

In my-secret-northern-ireland.com you can read descriptions and see photos of some of the better known Northern Irish castles. Our list is by no means complete. But we plan to build and expand it. So take your time, read through the relevant pages, plan to visit them and come again to our website to learn more as new pages on the castles of Northern Ireland are added.

'till then, happy exploring!





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