4 Castles to Visit in and Around Dublin
Castles hold a powerful attraction on me still today. They are the most poignant testimonies of our past and capture people’s imagination like no other. Visiting them is always high on my checklist whatever destination I’m travelling to.
With a violent history of foreign conquests and nobles competing with each other for power, Ireland is dotted with hundreds of castles built to ensure protection and control of the land. Others more recently were built as lavish residences for the rich and famous of Irish society.
Dublin and the surrounding region are no exception. I’ve travelled in and around Dublin to find the most inspiring of these castles. No doubt in my mind they are also among the best castles to see in Ireland.
Dublin Castle looks very different now from how it used to. In 1684 a terrible blaze broke out in the Castle. The fire threatened to engulf the Powder Tower and blow up the whole city. The big blast was narrowly avoided but this dark, cold 13th century Norman fortress was (“conveniently” one would say) reduced to ashes. Times had changed and Dublin needed a brand new swanky castle anyway.
With little political violence to worry about and a desire for lavish lifestyles, Dublin Castle got a long awaited upgrade. The old fortress transformed into an opulent Georgian residence hosting the Lord Lieutenant’s apartments.
The successive Representatives of the English King in Ireland encouraged the Protestant ascendancy to take part in Viceregal Court life. Dublin Castle became the focus of the social life of the wealthy and powerful, the primary venue of “seen and be seen” events attended by the cream of Anglo Irish society.
The “Social Season” was without contest the highlight of the year in Dublin Castle. The Lord Lieutenant and his wife hosted débutantes balls, banquets and drawing rooms during a six week festive period. It all culminated with St Patrick’s Ball on St Patrick’s Day, March 17th.
Horse-drawn carriages passed through Cork Hill Gate. They took their passengers in their expensive outfits to the castle’s neat Georgian Upper Yard. Inside, a grand wooden red-carpeted staircase led the convives to the ballroom: the impressive St Patrick’s Hall where you can’t help but feel dizzy.
Dancing the waltz or the Quadrille surrounded by this ostentatious decor, the guests competed in their display of wealth: gentry in uniforms and fine silk stockings, corseted ladies in satin and glittering diamond earrings. The richest men of Ireland were here. Among them the Duke of Leinster, who ordered the construction of Leinster House, Dublin’s biggest mansion; Lord Powerscourt, owner of the Powerscourt Estate and 200 km² of land; the powerful Duke of Ormonde, master of the beautiful Kilkenny Castle.
Privileged women as young as sixteen were presented as débutantes to the Lord Lieutenant in the castle’s burgundy-clad, mirror-adorned Drawing Room. Then they could officially join the marriage market that St Patrick’s Hall truly was. Dubbed “The Muslin Martyrs” by George Moore in his novel A Drama in Muslin, they competed for a match, sometime desperately.
Great splendour is also to be found in the white and golden Throne Room built for the occasional visits of the King or Queen of England. An intricate brass chandelier commemorating the 1801 Act of Union delicately hangs from the high ceiling. The large throne built for the visit of King George IV in 1821 is a hommage to his just as large character. He landed drunk in Ireland…
Extreme poverty was rife in Dublin. Hungry mobs attacked bakeries during the 1740-41 famine that killed around 450 000 people. The Great Hunger in 1845-1849 didn’t stop the lights from shining as bright as ever in St Patrick’s Hall. 1.5 million people died in those years.
A revolution eventually sounded the knell of the “Social Season”. The music faded away in 1922 with the end of British rule and the abolition of the Lord Lieutenant. St Patrick’s Hall now hosts important State events.
Address: Dame Street, Dublin
Tip: Includes a guided tour. Cheaper admission available for self-guided tour.
Malahide Castle & Gardens, 800 Years of Prestigious Family History
Richard Talbot was a knight who arrived in Ireland with the Norman invasion. He was granted the Lordship of Malahide from Henry II in 1184. The family first settled in a typical Norman Motte and Bailey fortification nearby before moving to the site of the present-day castle, possibly around the 14th century.
The Talbots embellished their residence as they rose into prominence. They became the 4th most powerful family in Ireland, symbol of the Anglo Norman dominance over Ireland. They extended the tower house, making space for the most admirable, “touch-with-your-eyes-only”, medieval looking, 16th century Oak Room. The smooth, richly carved panels made of oak depict biblical scenes inspired by Renaissance frescos in the Vatican. The large latticed 19th century windows overlooking the park injects much needed light into an otherwise dark space.
Upstairs the bedrooms give a more intimate picture of the Talbot family. Antique toys remind us that children grew up on this grand demesne. Lord Richard Talbot had sixteen children with Margaret O’Reilly, whom he married in 1765. Where did they all sleep, I don’t know!
Sir John Talbot is remembered as “The Terror of the French”. He fought during the Hundred Years’ War and rose to the position of commander of the entire English army. He was finally defeated by dear Joan of Arc (I can’t help but feel patriotic for a second). His lucky cameo in Shakespeare’s Henry VI ensured that his name would never be forgotten.
However, the family’s loyalty to the crown led the Talbots to the edge of extinction at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The enormous painting of the battle dominating the Great Hall is no match for the scale of tragedy that struck the family. England was embroiled in a war of succession between the Catholic James II and his Protestant nephew William of Orange. Catholic and personal friend of James II, made Duke of Tyrconnell and Chief Governor of Ireland, Richard Talbot sided with the Catholic king. Fourteen members of the extended Talbot family took their breakfast in the Great Hall on the morning of the battle never to return home by its end.
By 1975, another Talbot had departed the castle for the last time, the final member of the family to ever do so. When the property was sold to the state Dublin native, Rose Talbot relocated to Australia, to their Malahide estate ‘down-under’, closing the doors of an 800 year old family history.
Address: Malahide, North County Dublin
Tip: Get on the Luas to Malahide. The castle is just 10 minutes outside the station. Easy peasy.
Ardgillan Castle, a Life of Leisure in the Irish Countryside
I catch up with the tour guide as she shuffles a group of visitors into the first room for a little introduction. Originally from England, the Taylors set up in County Meath where they built Headfort House in the 17th century. They were part of a new landed class called “New English”, a new ruling class that tended to replace the “Old English” aristocratic descendants of the Norman settlers like the Talbots of Malahide. Reverend Robert Taylor, son of Baronet Thomas Taylor, erected in the 18th century a country-styled house in Ardgillan. It was then called “Prospect House”.
Things got more exciting and lively when Robert’s grandnephew, Reverend Edward Taylor and his wife set home in Ardgillan in 1807. Prospect House was embellished and extended with the west and east wings added in the late 1800s. It became “Ardgillan Castle”.
In 1982 the original furniture had been sold before Dublin City Council could buy Ardgillan. Antiques have been donated to breathe life back into the two reception rooms filling up the entire east and west wings.
There was life in Ardgillan Castle. The Talbots of Malahide were frequent guests of the Taylors. With other important families they attended balls given at the property. The Taylors were invited to Dublin Castle’s Social Season where they socialised with the rich and powerful Protestant ascendancy.
A stairway takes the visitor from the pantry down to the large, cold kitchen. Light barely finds its way through the window as the kitchen is located underground. Boys as young as seven or eight worked long hours here, their little hands cleaning countless dishes at the sink.
The visit wouldn’t be complete without a stroll around the demesne. Even more than the Castle’s interior, the breathtaking view on the Irish Sea and the exceptional beauty of the gardens makes a visit to Ardgillan Castle worthwhile.
Walking around the meadow surrounding the Castle, I can’t decide on the best view. The palatial alley of yew trees shelters and embellishes the Castle’s south side while the Castle dominates the open view on the Irish Sea on the north side.
The Taylors enjoyed this fantastic view for more than 200 years. As the family fortune dwindled and costs to maintain such a grand domaine rose, the property was eventually sold in 1962 to a German industrialist. It was then bought in 1982 by Dublin City Council and open to the public.
Address: Balbriggan, Co. Dublin
Tip: Access to the castle is by guided tour only. You can access the gardens for free.
Surviving Medieval Ireland in Drimnagh Castle
The castle was the property of De Berneval, an Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland with the Norman conquest in the 12th century very much like the Talbots of Malahide. It remained the Barnewall’s (the name later anglicised) property for nearly 400 years.
But the Norman conquest of Ireland was not a smooth stride. The invaders faced resistance from Irish chieftains. In the late 13th century the O’Byrnes of Wicklow launched a raid on Drimnagh Castle that destroyed the wooden structure. A stone castle was then built to replace it. The O’Tooles, a leading Irish family fiercely opposed to the Anglo-Norman domination, frequently attacked the castle from their position in the mountains of Wicklow.
The Norman knights had to defend their people from the Irish clans. A moat was dug to enclose the castle, its yard and its gardens; the little river Bluebell supplied the water which flushed into the nearby river Camac. Drimnagh Castle is today the only castle in Ireland which has retained a flooded moat, much to the delight of local ducks.
The stairs that lead up inside the late-16th century, 17-meter high tower are narrow, the steps uneven. These are again defensive features to slow down the advance of attackers. The narrow stairway doesn’t allow the intruders to swing their swords with ease while the stairs’ uneven surface makes it difficult to keep their balance.
The basement or “undercroft” is the oldest part of the castle. It was a storage room for food also used as a refuge for people and cattle in case of an attack. Its semi-vaulted ceiling is made of stone to avoid catching fire which could have been disastrous for the entire building.
Within those remparts, the 15th century great hall is astonishing. It is the result of a 10 year restoration project completed in 1996. 200 workers took part in the repair of Drimnagh Castle, including stonemasons, woodcarvers, metal workers, plasterers, tilers and artists.
Outside the restoration work saw the creation of a beautifully maintained 17th century formal garden. No knights or ladies ever walked these perfectly symmetrical alleys but no one will deny that it fits in rather nicely.
Drimnagh Castle has something very picturesque that captures your imagination like no other castle around Dublin. Movie production companies have well grasped its capacity to transport the visitor back in time. Scenes from the BBC series “The Tudors” were shot here and the great hall served as a movie set for Anne Hathaway in “Ella Enchanted”. But the time has come to walk through the gate and rejoin the hum of the modern world, leaving behind a place out of time.
Address: Long Mile Road, Dublin
Tip: From Dublin city centre, get on bus 151 in Dame Street.