Irish history is full of notable events and turbulent times – from Vikings to the Norman Invasion. The latter defined the following centuries for the Irish people under the English and later, British, rule. Significant evidence of the times gone by can be found throughout the country.
Irish castles vary from Medieval to late 19th-century residences, and each is as fascinating as the other. Some have fallen into despair and only remain as ruins, others are open to the public, while some are in private ownership or have been turned into luxury 5-star hotels.
No matter the outcome, each tells its own story and pains a picture from the historic times. These 15 beautiful Irish castles are located all across the country and are well worth a visit.
1. Kilkenny Castle
One of the most beautiful castles in Ireland lies only an hour’s drive from Dublin in the province of Leinster – it’s the Kilkenny Castle. A symbol of the Norman occupation, the building of the castle began at the very end of the 12th century.
The first castle, most likely a wooden construction, was built by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow. A square-shaped stone castle with four towers was finished in 1213. To this day, three of the original towers survive.
The majority of the castle these days dates back to the early and mid-19th century when the castle was restored during a large-scale project.
Kilkenny Castle is a significant element in the surrounding landscape, and you can see how the town has grown around it. River Nore flows past the castle, and it is particularly beautiful when you see it appear during a boat ride.
2. Ashford Castle
Many would dream of living in a castle someday and if that’s a bit unrealistic then at least spending a night in one. Unfortunately, in most cases, it’s not possible. The best you can do is visit, have a sneak peek inside, perhaps take a guided tour, and only dream about what it would be like to live in a castle of your own. Ashford Castle in the North-West of Ireland is different. Not only is it a castle but it is also one of Ireland’s finest 5-star hotels.
Despite there being a castle from early 13th century, the one we see today was actually built in the 18th century. Following the style of a 17th-century French chateau, Ashford Castle was a family house and a hunting lodge for the Brown family of the Baron Oranmore and Browne.
Nowadays the castle is a combination of medieval and Victorian architecture.
The hotel rooms and suites embrace the noble history of the castle, and each interior is as kingly as the other.
3. Cahir Castle
Cahir Castle in South-East of Ireland is one of the largest castles in the country. Visually it embodies everything you would expect from a medieval castle and fortress – massive walls, a moat, an impressive keep, and an overall gargantuan and slightly intimidating appearance. Exactly what medieval fortresses were supposed to convey.
The castle dates back to mid-12th century. In 1599 it was heavily damaged by cannon fire after a three-day siege. It was besieged again in the 17th century during Irish Confederate Wars.
Cahir Castle is one of the few castles in the country with a working portcullis.
4. Blarney Castle
Most people will know Blarney Castle due to Blarney Stone, also known as The Stone of Eloquence. The legend has it that if you hang backward and kiss the stone, you will gain the gift of eloquence. Several hundred thousand tourists visit per year. The stone itself lies at the very top of the castle, which is partly in a state of ruins. Despite that, the castle is a noteworthy example of Irish medieval architecture.
MacCarthy of Muskerry dynasty built the keep in the mid-15th century, even though there are records of former fortifications on the same site.
Blarney Castle is one of the castles that was affected by the Irish Confederate Wars and besieged during this time. Over the centuries, the castle belonged to various owners, and currently is in the hands of Colthurst family.
While the castle has an impressive and well-preserved exterior, it is a partial ruin since only a few rooms and battlements are accessible. Anyone visiting can climb the spiral staircase and explore the vast gardens, which contribute to the magical atmosphere of the castle as it features a poison garden with numerous poisonous plants.
5. Bunratty Castle
Bunratty Castle is a beautiful and well-preserved square tower in West Ireland in County Clare. Dating back to 1425, Bunratty Castle is one of the most authentic and complete medieval fortresses in Ireland. There were three other structures built on or around the same site, including an early Viking settlement, prior to the current castle. Bunratty Castle was built by the MacNamara family.
Another castle which was affected by the Irish Confederate Wars, Bunratty Castle held an important strategic position as it controlled the waterways leading up to Limerick. The Confederates ended up taking the castle after a long siege.
In the mid-20th century, the castle was restored by 7th Viscount Gort, who managed to preserve the castle from becoming to ruins. The castle is open to visitors, and the interiors feature 15th and 16th-century works of art, furnishings, and tapestries.
6. Malahide Castle
At the outskirts of Dublin, only half an hour train ride away lies Malahide Castle whose oldest parts date back to the 12th century. The structure changed since its inception, and enlargement works were done in the 15th century during the reign of King Edward IV. The towers were added even later, from the beginning until the mid-17th century. The castle was built by the Talbots, a family with a long and noteworthy history.
Four reception rooms and bedrooms are open to the public. Period furniture and paintings decorate the interiors while setting the tone of times gone by.
Malahide Castle used to be surrounded by a moat and an outer wall as well as a drawbridge, portcullis and a barbican.
7. The Rock of Cashel
In spite of its ruinous state, The Rock of Cashel is one of those castles that leaves an unforgettable impression upon witnessing it in person. Located at County Tipperary, The Rock of Cashel is one of the main focal points in the surrounding scenery, as the castle is located on a hill overlooking its backdrop.
The oldest part of The Rock of Cashel is also the tallest – the round tower is 28 meters high and dates back to approximately 1100. The tower was originally built using the dry stone method, which means that the construction is made solely with stones and no binding agent, like mortar, is used. Nowadays, however, some fillings with mortar have been made to make the structure safe.
One of the most visually beautiful buildings within the complex is the Cormac’s Chapel with its vaulted ceilings and wide arches.
The castle is surrounded by an extensive graveyard, and the whole complex is walled.
8. Donegal Castle
Looking less like a typical castle and more like a traditional late-Medieval/Jacobean country home, Donegal Castle has a very particular and undeniable charm. Located in Donegal Town in Ulster, the castle was in the state of ruins for nearly two centuries until it was almost fully restored approximately 30 years ago.
The castle is made up of an impressive rectangular keep dating back to the 15th century. A Jacobean-style wing was added a little later. Like many castles, Donegal Castle also sits near a river – River Eske that is. A boundary wall surrounding the castle was built in the 17th century. Local sandstone and limestone were used in the building of the castle.
9. Lismore Castle
Lismore Castle in South Ireland is the seat of Duke of Devonshire. Originally belonging to Earls of Desmond, the castle passed in possession of the Cavendish family since the mid-18th century. The castle is nothing short of a royal residence. The large structure features many turrets, towers, and a large inner courtyard. Lismore Castle overlooks River Blackwater.
While the castle is still a private residence for much of the year, unlike many other castles which are open to the public via guided tours, Lismore Castle is available for hiring and can accommodate up to 27 guests. Truly a dream come true for many as the castle offers an unmatched fairytale setting.
10. Dublin Castle
Beautifully stood at the very heart of Dublin, contrasting with modern architecture, Dublin Castle now houses a large part of the Irish government. However, it has always played a role with governing institutions – from British to Irish. In 1921 it was ceremonially passed onto the Provisional Government of Ireland after the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty.
Despite there being a castle on the same site even during the times of King John, the current building dates back to approximately 18th century. When Dublin was still a Norman city, the castle was built to serve a fortifying purpose. Yet over time, Dublin Castle evolved into an official residence.
After being affected by significant fire damage in the late 17th century, the castle was rebuilt from a Medieval fortress into a Georgian palace. Above the ground level, there are no remaining medieval elements within the castle.
11. Dromoland Castle
Dromoland Castle in West Ireland, just like Ashford Castle, nowadays serves as a 5-star luxury hotel. The current building dates back to mid-19th century even though a previous tower house has been on the site from around the 15th or early 16th century. The castle was built in a neo-gothic architectural style.
The baronial-style castle has remained very much the same as it was in the mid-19th century, and no significant changes have been made. The western part of the castle overlooks a lake, making the whole landscape seem like something out of a fairytale. On the south side, there are extensive walled gardens. Surrounded by vast woodlands, Dromoland Castle is not only a gateway into majestic past but also a much-welcomed escape from the buzz of everyday life.
12. King John’s Castle
King John’s Castle in Limerick is a must-see for anyone visiting South-West Ireland. This significant location is not only a remarkable example of Medieval architecture but also one of the best-preserved Norman castles in all Europe since the towers, walls, and fortifications have survived the test of time. Sitting on top of King’s Island on the banks of River Shannon, the castle was in a strategic position historically, and still breathes this historical significance to this day.
King John ordered the building of the castle at the very beginning of the 13th century. Before then there were Viking settlements in the same location since 922.
The castle was built in this strategic location to control any potential Norman rebellions to the east and south.
During the 1642 Siege of Limerick, the castle suffered damage in its walls, and just like many other Irish castles, it was affected by the Irish Confederate Wars.
The castle features impressive rounded and barrel towers and four curtain walls, however, it does not feature a square keep.
13. Birr Castle
Birr Castle, located in Central Ireland in County Offaly, is the home of The 7th Earl of Rosse. A castle has stood on the grounds since the Anglo-Norman times, yet over the centuries numerous changes have been made and little remains from the original structures. Despite that, the current castle is an excellent example among Irish castles.
The castle is only partially available for visitors as it is the residence of The 7th Earl of Rosse, however, the gardens and the supporting park is available for the open public.
Around the early 17th century, the original castle lay in ruins, and it was granted to the Parsons family that added two flanking towers on either side of the Norman gate tower to make the building more liveable. During the Irish Confederate Wars, the castle underwent two sieges.
14. Ross Castle
Ross Castle is stood in a place, where time stands still. Surrounded by a vast and untouched landscape in the South of Ireland, looking at the castle from afar, you could easily imagine being taken back to the Medieval times. Overlooking Lough Leane and Killarney National Park, the 15th-century tower house embodies serenity despite its mammoth appearance.
Originally, Ross Castle was the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan, and during the Second Desmond Rebellion in the late 16th century it changed ownership to the MacCarthy Mór.
The castle is built in a traditional Medieval stronghold fashion – a tower house with square bartizans, and thick walls. The windows on the lower levels are narrow enough to allow people residing in the castle to defend themselves from potential enemies by shooting arrows, however, they were not wide enough to allow access to the castle from unwanted visitors. Even the spiral staircase was built in a way to give an advantage to people defending the castle – anyone heading up the stairs would have their swords on the inner side of the stairs giving them a massive disadvantage.
15. Doonagore Castle
Even though not much is left from the original castle except for a round tower house, it’s an exceptional place to see near the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. The round tower house dates back to the 16th century, and a small walled enclosure is also intact.
A castle was built here around the 14th century. The 16th-century tower house, unlike many others in the region built from limestone, was actually built from sandstone, which is also native to the surrounding area.
An eerie part of the castle’s history dates back to the very late 16th century when a Spanish Armada ship ran ashore just below the castle. The survivors were then hanged at the castle.
The castle has been in possession of a private Irish-American owner since the 1970s, therefore, the castle is not open to the public.