There are hundreds of things to do in Ireland, like learn about its history, discover your ancestors, hoist a pint at a pub, enjoy Irish music and dancing, play golf, and visit mystical places. The country is also home to a seemingly endless supply of castles and tower houses. Driving through the countryside you’ll find castle ruins atop hills in every corner of this bucolic land.
Remaining castles come in all shapes and sizes, with some reduced to a pile of rocks in a field and others miraculously well-preserved after centuries. Castles were fortified residences for the ruling clans and for the Anglo-Norman and English lords of Ireland. Some were simply stone “Tower Houses,” while others were much larger military installations, and both were used to convey the occupants’ power and control over the surrounding lands.
No trip to Ireland is complete without a stop at least one castle, so here is my list of the top 10 castles in Ireland.
Dunluce Castle, Antrium, Northern Ireland
Located on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, this impressive ruin is located on a rock outcrop and joined to the mainland by an arched bridge. The location is attractive for a castle because the outcrop is bordered by ocean on one side and steep drops on the other sides. The castle is larger than it looks, but you don’t realize this until you cross the bridge from the visitor center. Make sure to check out the Mermaid’s Cave beneath the castle, where it is rumored treasure from the Spanish Armada was brought to the castle in secret. Local legend also states that in 1639, the Countess of Antrim demanded the family move from the castle because part of the kitchen (and seven cooks) fell into the sea one night during dinner. You might also recognize this castle as the House of Greyjoy in the “Game of Thrones” series.
Trim Castle – Trim, Co. Meath, Ireland
It’s no surprise that the makers of the movie “Braveheart” used Trim Castle as a movie location. The largest Anglo-Norman Castle in Ireland, this impressive structure is a classic example of a castle that comes complete with a massive three story keep, an equally massive twenty-sided tower, curtain wall and moat. As part of the tour offered at the castle, youhave access to the top of the keep where you can view the town and the impressive yellow steeple on a ridge opposite the castle. You will also see large scale models inside the castle built to show you what the castle looked like in its heyday.
Rock of Dunamase – Aghnahily, Co. Laois, Ireland
The “Rock” is a 150-foot high outcrop topped by a ruined castle, and is a place of great natural beauty. It completely dominates the surrounding countryside and has spectacular views. Over time, it has been the scene of many battles, including an attack by the Vikings in 843 AD. The Rock was the site of a fortress long before the Vikings arrived, and references to a fortification began as early as the second century AD on a map made by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy.
Blarney Castle – Blarney, Co. Cork, Ireland
Many come to kiss the Blarney Stone, but there is more to this site than a stone kissed by hundreds of tourists every day. The view from the battlements is one, and the beautiful grounds are another. The Badgers Cave, through which the garrison fled when the castle was under siege by Cromwell’s army and the dungeon underneath the castle are a few more.
Aughnanure Castle – Aughnanure, Oughterard, Co. Galway
Located in an out of the way spot between Galway City and Connemara, close to the shores of Lough Corrib (Lock Car-Rib) in County Galway, Aughnanure castle is a well-preserved example of an Irish tower house. It stands on a low cliff on a rocky peninsula, which made it easier to defend.
The property consists of the remains of a unique double bawn (double enclosure), a six-story tower house, watch tower, gatehouse, drawbridge, and banquet hall. Due to its off-the-beaten-path location, it will be less crowded with tourists.
Clifden Castle – Clifden Demesne, Co. Galway, Ireland
If you are looking for a classic style castle in an out of the way place set into a hillside that overlooks the ocean, then look no further than Clifden Castle. Make sure to wear “stout shoes” for the rocky 15-minute walk from the road to the castle ruin.
Dunguaire Castle – Kinvarra, Co. Galway, Ireland
Built in 1520 on a rocky outcrop in Kinvarra on the shores of Galway Bay, this is another fine example of an Irish Tower House. You can walk around the edge of the walls that surround the keep and from the top of the tower there are nice views of Galway Bay and the surrounding area.
The castle is also noted for its Medieval Banquets held throughout the Summer. Guests are greeted by a costumed hosts with a cup of mead and treated to a night full of the same food, merriment, music, poetry, and storytelling enjoyed by the Irish Chieftains of old.
Rock of Cashel – Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland
The Rock of Cashel is certainly one of the “must see” castles in Ireland. Located on a 200-foot outcrop of limestone, the Rock of Cashel towers over the town and surrounding countryside. Originally the home of the Kings of Munster, it became the seat of the archbishop in the 1100’s when the O’Brien clan king gave it to the church to keep it out of the hands of a rival clan. Legend also states that St. Patrick put his staff through the foot of the clan king accidentally during a ceremony, and the clan king, thinking it was part of the ceremony, and not wanting to make waves with his new God, said nothing. Such was the power of St. Patrick. The Rock consists of a large cathedral, a smaller chapel, round tower, enclosing walls, and a corner tower.
Insider Tip: Take a short walk down the hill to Hore Abbey, a ruined Cistercian Abbey below the Rock of Cashel in a nearby pasture. Bring your camera, because Hore Abbey is spectacular in the late afternoon sun.
Kylemore Abbey – Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland
Despite its name and the fact that it serves as home to the Benedictine Community of Nuns, this magnificent property started out as a Baronial Castle built in the 1860’s by Mitchell Henry as a gift to his wife. A beautiful six-acre Victorian walled garden, Gothic church, oak plantation and many hiking and walking trails are also part of this 1000-acre estate. You could spend an entire day walking the lakeside trails, wandering around the walled garden, having tea in the tearoom or taking a guided tour of the castle. Kylemore Abbey is located on the banks of the scenic Pollacappul Lake in the Connemara countryside of Galway.
Malahide Castle – Malahide, Co. Dublin, Ireland
Located just 30 minutes north of Dublin center, Malahide Castle is unique in that it was occupied by the same family for almost 800 years. It is rare to find a castle in as good condition with this many paintings and furnishings from the same family. The Talbot family, who were the owners of this land between 1185 and 1976, played an important role in the history of Dublin. In addition to the well-preserved castle, you will find one of the finest private collections of plants in Ireland in the Botanic Garden. It is an impressive and well-maintained site.
Insider Tip: Once you finish your wander around Malahide Castle and Gardens, take a ten-minute walk to the Town of Malahide, where you will find shops, pubs, restaurants, a marina, a beautiful beach and a fine view of Ireland’s Eye, a small uninhabited island in the harbor. To get there, you just follow the signs to the “Village.”
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