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Tower Houses                                   Irish Castles                         Irish Archaeology                       

The most evident archaeological sites in Ireland are old ruined buildings almost square in shape and from seventy to one hundred  feet tall. These are usually referred to as Irish castles but are more properly known as Tower Houses. They can be seen in various stages of delapidation throughout the country, but fortunately a few have been maintained or restored and continue to fascinate those who visit them.  The features of these Irish castles are discussed further down the page. 

During the years after the Normans arrived in 1169 and had begun to move inland, they at first set up the unusual fortification system known as Motte and Bailey. Remnants of these Motte and Baileys can still be seen in Ireland and good examples are at Knockgraffon in South County Tipperary and St. Mullins in County Carlow. The mound or motte was crowned with a timber structure in which the Norman lord lived while the Bailey was enclosed with earth and stockade fencing. These  Motte and Baileys were only in use for a short time and were replaced by large stone castles called 'donjons' which are identified by archaeologists as being the earliest of the tower houses.

 

 

Knockgraffon Motte and Bailey, Co. Tipperary Ireland.  Erected 1192.

On top of this man-made mound the Norman Lord lived in a wooden house.  It would have been surrounded by a wooden stockade.  The Bailey which was the flat area of land attached to the Motte was also surrounded by a strong wooden stockade and in here the rank and file with their animals, etc. lived.

Photo: Permission from  © The Applefarm, Cahir and David Stapleton Photographer.


Tower House  ruins abound in the Irish countrysde and estimates are put at 3,000. Many of the main features can still be discerned. You will need permission to go to many of them, but the best examples are 'family-friendly' and open to the public. Some tower houses have been restored, and if you are lucky enough to get a guided tour of one of these, do take it.  You will see how the leaders of society lived four, five and six hundred years ago.  A guide will also point out features that you might otherwise miss. 

Here is a large file picture showing a wonderful cross section of an Irish Castle / Tower House.

 

One of the most famous tower houses in Ireland is Ross Castle in Killarney. Now fully restored and open to the public, it boasts all the great features of a tower house mentioned below. It is well worth a visit.  Ample car parking is provided, and snacks are available.

 

Ross Castle was built in the late fifteenth century by the O'Donoghue rulers of the district. Their lands and castle were later acquired by the McCarthy clan and chieftain and later on, it was sold to the family of the Earls of Kenmare. It was attacked by Oliver Cromwell's forces in 1652.

 

 

 

Earlier tower Houses had no chimneys. However, this cannot always be used as a dating feature as some tower houses did have chimneys added to them at a later date.  The projection (facing camera) from the corner at top of building is a bartizan.  Through this the defenders of the castle would have poured stinking offal, boiling oil, and shot arrows at any attackers below. 

It is usual to be able to discern just where the stairs are internally by observing the diagonal placement of the windows externally.  As it was not practical to have lamps burning at all times the stairs were lit by these windows.

Ross Castle was particularly well defended by having a lake protecting one side.  However, the Cromwellian forces used floating cannon so theycould attack the towerhouse from all sides.

 

On right is bronze tower house from Ballybeg Village.  It features many of the external features of a real tower house including musket loops (windows), machicolation, roof, crenellations, door, etc. It measures 3.5 inches in height and 1.75 inches at base. It comes with a green felt base.

Crafted and bronzed in Ireland. This is one of a limited edition

The Limited edition Bronze Irish Tower Houses are no longer available.  
 

It is said that there are over 3000 tower house remains in Ireland.  They were built throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.   The earliest were built by the Normans, but the style of house was continued by the Anglo-Irish lords who settled in Ireland and  by Irish chieftains who managed to hold on to or regain their properties.  The construction of the tower house castle reflected the turbulent times in which people lived, and all incorporated certain features which were primarily for defence. Of course the more lowly members of society had to take their chances in the countryside though some would have been able to gain refuge in the tower house bawn.  The 'bawn' is the area contained by a perimeter wall that surrounds the tower house. Here also the cattle would have been taken if an attack was anticipated.

The widest part of the building was at the base and was called the 'batter'.  The lower ten feet of the walls often sloped out considerably and is quite evident where it exists.   Since the tower had to rise seventy feet or more, a substantial base was essential.  The batter also served to protect the house and its occupants from attack as  a favourite means of gaining entry was to undermine the walls and try to knock a portion and gain entry.  If any attackers had the temerity to try burning or battering the front door, they were likely to be attacked from above though the bartizan  or machicolation. These are essentially the same thing except that a machicolation is usually on a flat side-wall while a bartizan is on a corner.  The picture above shows the bartizan on Ross Castle. Rocks dropped from the bartizan would bounce outwards from the 'batter' with great force at the attackers as they neared the castle. 

The walls themselves were usually made of rough stone called 'rubble' while the corner stones were more substantial and cut to shape.  It is not well known that the majority of tower houses were usually rendered in a lime plaster.  Over the centuries this plaster has disappeared. 

This is the famous Blarney Castle in Blarney, Co. Cork.  It is actually a tower house on a large scale.  It is home to the equally famous Blarney Stone, the kissing of which bestows eloquence on the kisser.

The defenders of the castle would have fired muskets through the narrow slit windows known as musket loops.  They would also have fired musket and arrows from the battlements. However, it was an easy enough matter to get to the base of the tower as muskets had to be reloaded after each shot. 

If the attackers successfully made it to the base and gained entry through the doorway they still had several obstacles to overcome before they could get to the lord or chief they had come to attack.  First there was the 'murdering hole'.  This was a hole in the ceiling of the stone vaulted entrance lobby.  Through this hole a soldier could fire  musket balls at the interlopers below. The vaulted ceilings of many tower houses still bear the impressions of the wickerwork which was used as a sort of template when constructing the ceilings.  Those who survived the 'murdering hole' then had to make their way up the stairs.  The spiral stairs were always made in a clockwise fashion so that a righthanded defending swordsman had a great advantage over a right handed attacking swordsman. The stairs also had a cunningly constructed feature in 'uneven steps'.  Living in a particular tower-house for months or years and using the stairs every day built a 'steps-memory' into the brains of those who lived there.  An occasional step would be three inches lower or taller that the others and this would be sure to trip up the rushing attackers. Tripping up while in a swordfight was not a good idea!

The uppermost sections  of an Irish tower house are distinctive and are known as crenellated battlements. The solid upright section of the battlement is called a 'merlon' and these merlons usually have stone caps.  The space between the merlons is called the embrasure. Behind the battlements would have been a walkway where soldiers could have kept watch and from where they could fire their arrows or muskets with some degree of security.

Small toilet rooms were built into the walls of the tower houses and they emptied directly down the side of the building!  These rooms were called garderobes.

 
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