Ireland’s lush green landscape is littered with a wide assortment of castles, from throughout history. From imposing military tower, to romantic ruins, to stately homes for the nobility, each and every castle has its own unique history and heritage. These castles are now among Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, and many are now also hotels. We explore ten of the most impressive, imposing and beautiful castles in the country.
Constructed by the Anglo-Norman nobleman Hugh de Lacy and his son Walter, Trim Castle is the largest Norman castle built in Ireland. Located in county Meath, the castle became an administrative centre of local governance set up by King Henry II following the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th century. In more recent times the castle was used as a filming location by Mel Gibson for his 1995 Scottish epic Braveheart. The castle is open to the public from 10am in exchange for a small entry fee.
This imposing tower house and keep, built on the shores of Lough Leane, within the vast and beautiful Killarney National Park in county Kerry, dates back to the latter half of the 15th century. The castle is notable for being one of the last strongholds in Ireland to hold out against Oliver Cromwell’s conquest in the 17th century, finally falling in 1652. This very busy site is fully open to the public, and guided tours are readily available. You can also stay in the nearby Ross Castle B&B.
Dating back to the Elizabethan era, Rathfarnham Castle was built as a residence for Archbishop Adam Loftus, who played a key role in establishing Trinity College Dublin. The castle was later transformed into a Georgian manor house in the 18th century by Sir William Chambers and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, two of the most renowned architects of their day, who did away with earlier fortifications and defenses. The castle is now open to the public between May and October, and is still under active conservation.
Initially built in 1228 on an old monastic site by a prominent Anglo-Norman family, Ashford Castle was expanded upon greatly after it was bought by the Guinness family in the 19th century and sold to the Irish state in 1939. The castle, along with the nearby village of Cong, later became the setting for John Ford’s sentimental, heartfelt and hokey tribute to Ireland in The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. In the 1970s the castle was expanded yet further and today it serves as a five star luxury hotel, attracting many internationally famous guests including Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan.
Located in the heart of the nation’s capital, Dublin Castle was the centre of British rule in Ireland until 1922. The castle now hosts two museums, two cafés, two gardens and an international conference centre. The public are free to roam the grounds, but you must take a guided tour if you wish to see inside the State Apartments. The castle is within easy reach of other tourist attractions in Dublin, such as Temple Bar and the Guinness Storehouse, which makes it convenient for visitors to the city who wish to see a castle but do not have the time to get out into the countryside.
This beautiful 16th-century tower house, built by the O’Hynes clan, can be found on the south-eastern shore of Galway Bay, near the small port village of Kinvara, and easily reached by walking from the town. Dunguaire Castle was restored in the 20th century by Oliver St. John Gogarty, a prominent literary figure, and became a venue for meetings of Celtic literary revivalists such as William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. The castle is now owned by the government and is open to the public all year round, with additional local entertainment and lavish banquets provided during the summer months.
This relatively modern castle, now a luxury hotel, was constructed in the early 19th century in a style deliberately reminiscent of earlier Norman architecture. It can found in a quiet south-eastern corner of the largely rural county of Cavan, near the border with Meath. Cabra Castle is an ideal spot for those looking to relax and unwind in both luxurious and natural surroundings. Weddings and other memorable public functions are also often held on the grounds.
Another Norman castle, this formidable structure was built by the First Earl of Pembroke in 1195 as a means of fortification and to consolidate Norman power in Ireland. Now owned by the Irish government and open to the public, Kilkenny Castle underwent considerable restoration in the latter half of the 20th century, and it now houses the prestigious Butler Gallery. This impressive collection of art showcases some of Ireland’s best artists, including Jack Butler Yeats and Louis le Brocquy.
Malahide, an affluent suburb of Dublin that is easily accessible through public transport, plays host to this impressive 12th century castle. The castle and the surrounding gardens were built by the Talbot family, who arrived from England following the Norman Conquest. Malahide Castle was sold to the Irish state in 1975 and is now open to the public all year round. The ornamental gardens span an area of some 22 acres and contain more than 5000 different species and varieties of plants.
King John has a rough reputation, largely due to his portrayal as a villain in the Robin Hood legend and because of his despotic rule that led to a revolt and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. He was nicknamed ‘Lackland’, as he was not given the land rights to any continental provinces by his father, King Henry II – John had to make do with ‘only’ the rights to Ireland. King John’s Castle, situated in a central area of Limerick known as King’s Island, was built on his orders in 1200. It was constructed on top of a pre-existing Viking settlement which dates back to the tenth century, and today stands as one of the best preserved castles dating from the Norman period in Europe. It more recently underwent an extensive redevelopment between 2011 and 2013, resulting in the creation of a new visitors centre and a modern café.