CASTLES (Medieval Ireland)

Castles emerged with the new aristocratic society of Europe in the tenth century, providing lords with secure centers from which to control estates of land. From the start they were characterized by defensive features, both for use against attack and as a display of wealth and power. By the eleventh century, these defended residential power centers were being constructed to articulate the lands of kings, major aristocrats, and landed knights. As the competition for power developed, they grew more elaborate and required greater resources to construct; from the twelfth century they could also display an increasing elaboration of provision for ceremony and the life of a large hierarchical household. The study of castles leads us directly to the resources and priorities of their aristocratic or royal builders.

The system of lordship which required a castle was different from the traditions of early medieval Ireland. Castle lordship was based on a spatial organization and stability that saw the enduring control of land as the primary core of power, rather than personal relations between lord and man. An estate organized around a castle imposed its own order on the landscape and those who lived in it; the focus of the castle made a ready center for other activities. Possession of a castle was clear evidence of possession of the lordship, and it could therefore be transmitted more easily from a lord to his successor than traditional Irish lordship. Castles in Ireland show how the new order of feudal Europe differed from the early medieval polity. Because of the investment required to build castles, they are good guides to the real intentions of the lords who built them. Castle designs show the balance of lords’ provision of accommodation, display, and defense and suggest their priorities. In Ireland, it has been suggested that castles may have been constructed before the arrival of English lords in 1169, just as in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066; in both cases this implies a change in traditional lordship. These are either remains of stronger fortification than was normal in early medieval Ireland (Downpatrick, Duneight, Dunamase, or Limerick) that could be attributed to the period, or else to references to sites called castles in contemporary documents. Unlike pre-1066 England, the sites are extensions of Irish royal power rather than the organization of lesser estates.

Between 1169 and the crisis of the mid-fourteenth century, castles are overwhelmingly associated with English lordships. From the start, castles were built either of stone and mortar or of earth and timber, or a combination of both. The choice of medium was dictated by resources (stone castles cost at least ten times as much) or the need for speed (earth and timber buildings could be erected in one year, not ten or twenty); one of the most enduring misconceptions is that earthwork castles were more primitive and earlier than stone ones. The early construction in stone is a clear sign of the new lords’ commitment to remaining in Ireland. Trim has been extensively excavated, showing how the stone great tower was inserted into an earthen enclosure. The tower (three periods of construction: 1180s, 1195-1196 and 1203-1204) was a magnificent building, providing suites of rooms for the lord and members of his household. The approach to the castle from Dublin was marked by a gate tower of a French design unique to the British Isles. Defensively, however, the great tower was not particularly effective by the standards of the day. The great round tower at Nenagh looked, like the Trim gate, to Pembroke and France for its inspiration. Carrickfergus was much simpler, a tower for the lord’s household and a small courtyard with the public hall, chapel, and kitchen. The bulk of castles of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were of earth and timber, and the great majority of these apparently were mottes, erected where speed was important or where the lord was prepared or able to commit fewer resources. The distribution of mottes in Ireland is surprising, in that they are not evenly spread over the earlier English lordships. The conclusion from the study of the castles of the first two generations of English lordships is that they were built overwhelmingly by lords to celebrate their seizure of land, not to conquer it nor to hold it against potential or actual rebellions.

Most of the castles, and all of the most elaborate ones, put up before 1200 were built for aristocrats, not for the king. Neither Henry II nor Richard I seized much land or built significant castles to assert their power; only with John, who built strong castles at Dublin and Limerick after 1205, did royal castles join the first rank. The weakness of the English king in terms of power on the ground lasted throughout the medieval period; power, land, and castles were indis-solubly linked. Castles also changed the landscape of settlement. Major castles formed the centers of new towns (Carrickfergus and Carlingford were linked to new ports). Some, like Trim, were founded on monastic sites that could be easily developed as towns, perhaps because they were already centers of population. No evidence has yet been noted for the management of the rural landscape, through parks or routes, for castles in Ireland as it has in England, but this may be the result of the lack of looking rather than true absence.

The story of castles in the 150 years from around 1200 is one of steady development along preexisting lines—castles that usually reflected contemporary English (rarely French) practice, although there are signs of variations by Irish masons. Some of the major stone castles show the successive additions that resulted from their continuing positions as chief places of lordships: Trim (new hall range) or Carrickfergus and Dungarvan (twin-towered gate house). Probably because of the relative lack of resources, castles with additions are the exception; most lords seem to have been perforce content with the buildings they inherited. New lordships, of course, required new castles. The expansion of his family in north Connacht caused Richard de Burgh to construct Ballymote and Ballintober, while his ambitions in western Ulster produced Green Castle, County Donegal. The royal weakness in castle building continued after John’s reign. Roscommon was a major castle, but the next largest project was at modest Roscrea. Limerick was left unfinished, and there was little work at Dublin. This is the period when the towered enclosure dominated by a grand gatehouse holds sway in European castles. In Ireland we see the prevalence of the twin-towered gatehouse: Castle Roche (1230s), Roscommon (1270s), and Ballymote (after 1299). Even if the model is grand, however, the scale of castles in Ireland tended to be more modest. Green Castle, in Donegal, reflects Edward I’s great castles in north Wales, but at half scale. This is not a question of a lack of awareness of developments elsewhere (Roscommon foreshadows Edward’s castle of Harlech ten years afterward), but of a lack of resources. The overall design is usually simpler, and economies are made in the accommodation of the households, but not in the lord’s rooms. The defensive strength of castles in Ireland is similarly severely reduced in comparison with Europe; lords in Ireland do not seem to have anticipated much warfare. Some major buildings (Swords or Ballymoon), provide elaborate accommodation for the lord and his household, while remaining essentially undefended enclosures.

Lesser castles are elusive in the thirteenth century. The principal remains appear to be individual stone buildings. These are often interpreted as hall-houses, which implies that one building may combine hall, chamber, and stores, but there must have been other elements: kitchens, farm buildings, and so forth. Some buildings (Witches Castle, Castle Carra) are too small for halls, and it is more likely that they were chamber towers attached to wooden halls. Few display strong enclosures; in documentary accounts of manorial centers they may be described as surrounded merely by a hedge. By contrast, some borders in Ireland were marked by small, stone-built enclosures, lacking towers or gates, and apparently offering simple shelter for small (c. 20-50 men) bands stationed there to protect against raids. Until the mid-fourteenth century, there are few cases of Gaelic Irish lords constructing castles. A number of motte castles in mid-Ulster and some in Connacht, but only one or two stone castles, may be suggested as their work.

The fourteenth century saw a considerable change in castle building. The great castles seem confined to a few major lords, principally the great earls of late Anglo-Ireland: Kildare, Desmond, and Ormond. The finest surviving example is Askeaton castle, built for Desmond during the fifteenth century; a window in the great hall is very similar to one in the nearby friary founded in 1389. There is a great hall in the outer court; more-privileged visitors could penetrate to the inner court, where the earl and his immediate household were accommodated in a great tower with major state rooms and private chambers. Apart from being set on an island in the River Deel (which is not difficult to cross), the castle is weakly defended, without towers along the perimeter or (apparently) a gate house. Other castles such as Newcastle West (also Desmond), Adare (earl of Kildare), or Granny (Ormond) show the same pattern of fine domestic accommodation for the lord but provision for smaller households and weak defenses. Even the larger castles were slow to provide for the deployment of guns. Unlike the earlier castles, it is not easy to find close parallels in England or France for either the architectural details or the overall design.

The vast majority of castles from after the mid-fourteenth century—several thousand were built—were tower houses. As the name implies, the key to them is a stone tower, although in some cases at least a hall and other buildings of less-substantial material were attached. The accommodation is modest, suited for a family in the more modern sense rather than a large household. They have defensive features, but careful analysis often shows these to be (even more than is usual among castles) more gestures of display than effective defense, even against low-level violence. For example, there are flanking towers that do not cover the ground floor doors. In different regions of Ireland (Co. Limerick or Co. Down) they have been shown to be built to a common pattern, which contrasts with normal castle building, wherein each castle emphasizes its originality. Their builders seem to be stressing their adherence to a common group. Tower houses are common in Scotland and the north of England as well as Ireland, and seem to be associated with particular groups of people and their lifestyles. The core of these groups consisted of new gentry who prospered in the conditions of the weakened power of the great lords during the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Irish lords could associate themselves better with this sort of castle than the more elaborate earlier designs, and with them castle building first became a common feature among the Gaelic Irish. Tower houses also found favor among town merchants and rural priests. Tower houses are the key feature for the detection and understanding of settlement after the Black Death.

The final building of castles in Ireland came in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As well as the continuing construction of tower houses, there were a number of more or less fortified houses constructed, to which contemporaries gave the name of castles, especially if they were combined with a strong enclosure or bawn. They often provided a display of gables and corner towers, and the defensive features of gun loops combined with elaborate machicolations and fake battlements. The most interesting set of these castles or strong houses is associated with the Plantation of Ulster, where the castles or houses (contemporaries use both words) use a variety of features derived from the Irish, English, and Lowland Scottish architectural repertoires. English planters tended to build in English style and Scots in Scottish style, but both used Irish workmen.

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