Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland

Twomileborris Castle

The drive from Cork to Dublin used to take four hours; now it takes two and a half on a speedy motorway. As you drive along, tantalising glimpses are offered of castles, a round tower, those brown signs that point to ancient monuments. If you’re not in a mad hurry, why not do some exploring? This post is about one stretch of the old road, running parallel to the motorway, where you can have a medieval experience, great coffee and cake, and rejoin the motorway when you’ve sated your curiosity. You can take a few hours and do everything on this list on one day, or you can do one or two each time you travel.

Twomileborris Gravslab and Castle

The castle and old graveyard at Twomileborris offer lots of opportunities for exploration. Above, the castle looms over the graveyard, but note the white gravemarker with the head above a stylised fleur de lys – similar to many such markers set into the floor of St Canice’s Cathedral. It’s much earlier than anything around it

I am assuming you are coming from Cork and are dying for a coffee about the time you see that turn-off for Horse and Jockey. The busiest spot in all Ireland, nevertheless we always find a corner on a comfy couch and relax with a coffee and goody before we continue. But don’t go back to the motorway – The Horse and Jockey Hotel is right on the old Cork to Dublin Road, now called the R639, so head north on it and go exploring. I’ll provide directions but a good map will come in handy, as will stout shoes for some of the sites.

Two Mile Borris 1777 gravestone

A 1777 gravestone in the Twomileborris graveyard

First off – Twomileborris. You’ll see the sign just after Littleton and you’ll spot the castle as soon as you approach the village. Park just beyond the castle and take the path to the old graveyard – it affords good views of the castle, which is on private land. Head for the old part of the graveyard and have a good wander – you will find fine examples of gravestone that date back to the 18th century. As you leave, take a good look at the top of the castle and observe all the architectural features I’ve been telling you about in the Tower House posts. For this one, have a quick read of Tower House Tutorial Part 1.

Liathmore churches

The churches at Liathmore. The round feature is a modern wall built around the stump of the round tower

Proceed through the village and you will rejoin the R639. Turn left and less than a kilometre down the road look for the National Monuments brown sign to Liathmore Churches and follow the signs to the site. This a complex site with early and later churches. The first, right beside the track, is one of those early-medieval churches with the projecting antae that Robert wrote about in Molaga of the Bees. It probably dates to the same period as the round tower – unfortunately there’s not much of this left, just a stump that was found during excavations.

Liathmore Early Medieval Church

The Early Medieval church (8th to 11th century) at Liathmore

But as you head over to the later church look around the field at all the bumps and hollows and enclosures – you are looking at what was probably a medieval settlement, long deserted. The second church was built and modified and re-modified over several centuries. It has an intact vaulted chancel – the plaster work is extensive and still bears the marks of the wicker scaffolding that was used to build it. Here and there, inside and outside, carved pieces of stone have been inserted into doors, windows and walls. You can easily miss these so let your eye rest on each section of the building. The Sile na Gig is sideways in the door nearest the round tower.

At some time in the past, pieces of carved stone were inserted into walls and doorways. Here are two examples – the one on the left has a carved creature and the one on the right is a síle-na-gig. Below I have turned the photographs to facilitate viewing of the figures

Back on to the R639 now and continue north, though Urlingford and Johnstown and about a kilometre out of Johnstown take the left turn at the first crossroads. You’ll go across the M8, turn right and another kilometre or two will bring you to Grangefertagh Round Tower. It is clearly visible in the landscape so if you miss it just follow your nose until you get there.

Grangefertagh round tower and church

Grangefertagh site is visible from the M8 – haven’t you always wanted to stop off and find it? Take a look at the church – what’s that modern-looking wall doing on top of it?

Once again, this is a site with multiple periods of occupation. You can’t climb the round tower, as you can in Kildare and Kilkenny but it’s nice to be able to get up close to one. Robert has a post on round towers, High Drama!, so have a quick read on your phone if you don’t already know all about them. Two aspects of this site are especially intriguing. The first is that, at some point in the past, the medieval church was turned into a handball alley! Hard to fathom how this could have happened, but no doubt the handball players who did it had great bad luck and never won a tournament.

Grangefertagh church and handball alley

The interior wall of the church has been rendered and old gravestones have been used to create a flatter wall. Outdoor handball alleys were once common but most are now disused and crumbling

The second is the effigy tomb – these are relatively rare in Ireland this is a nice one, although the figures are weathered and lichen-covered. The tomb commemorates John Macgillapatrick, Brian his son and Honora, Brian’s wife and is dated to about 1537.

Grangefertagh effigy tomb

Right – we’re going to finish with a couple of castles, so turn right now and it will lead you back under the motorway to the R639 where you turn north again. After another kilometre or so you will see an imposing tower house on the right. You can drive up to the farm and observe this more closely. Since it’s on private property you must ask permission to go beyond the farm gate, but you’ll get a very good view from outside.

Glashare Tower House

Glashare Castle

It’s remarkably intact and from your browsing of the Tower House Tutorial Part 1 you will be able to admire the loops – unusual corner loops in this one, as well as cross shaped loops. This castle has render on the outside, but how old the render is, or what material, I have not been able to ascertain.

Glashare Tower House windows and arrow slits and render

An amazing variety of opes – windows and loops

The final stop of this tour is Cullahill Castle – turn right at the small village of Cullahill, which is 4 or 5 km beyond Glashare. This one you can wander around. It was reputedly destroyed by Cromwellian cannon, and so you get a wonderful cross-section view of the interior. Tower House Tutorial, Part 2, will tell you exactly what you are looking at, or have a read of Illustrating the Tower House to see how JG O’Donoghue shows us exactly how the interior of a tower house would have been constructed and used.  You can rejoin the M8 by proceeding to Durrow and following the signs from there.

Cullohill later fireplace

Cullahill Castle – a unique opportunity to look at a cross-section of a tower house

For those of us who travel the M8 regularly it’s great to know that we can take a break along the way and catch up on our history and archaeology at the same time. Let us know if you deviate from the M8 to visit any of these sites, or if you have your own favourites along the motorway. 

Grangefertagh 1741 graveslab

A gravestone from Grangefertagh

Tower House Tutorial, Part 2

Oooh, it open - let's go inside!

Oooh, it’s open – let’s go inside!

It’s time to move inside! Now that you are all experts in tower house construction from the outside, let’s go into one of these small castles and see how they were built.

Remember that a tower house was all about defence and thus many of the features you will find inside have much to do with an expectation of attack and little to do with comfort. This was all fine, of course, as long as weapons consisted of bows and arrows, swords and spears, and even muskets. But as soon as cannon appeared on the scene the tower house was doomed – even its thick stone walls were no proof against such a bombardment.

Raheen architecture

Ironically, having a wall or two blown away by cannons, as at Raheen Castle (by Cromwellian forces), above, allows us to see the internal construction of the castle. In the case of Raheen the lower floors were separated from the upper floor by an enormous barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Dunlough Castle - note the projecting corbel denoting a wooden floor, and the imprint of the wicker scaffolding on the ceiling mortar

Dunlough Castle – note the projecting corbel denoting a wooden floor, and the imprint of the wicker scaffolding on the ceiling mortar

These vaulted ceilings were wicker-centered. A scaffolding of wicker was erected first and a layer of mortar laid on top of that. Ceiling stones were laid on the scaffold and mortared into place and then the stone work was built up to provide the floor of the next story. When the scaffold was dismantled the impression of the wicker was left on the mortar – clearly visible in several of our examples here.

Floors were supported using projecting corbels and beams which fitted into sockets

Floors were supported using projecting corbels and beams which fitted into sockets

The entrance was often a raised entrance (see When is a Castle..?) with access via an outside wooden stairs that could be pulled up when necessary. Tower houses where the entrance was on the ground floor needed a defended access and this was often in the form of a small lobby, externally (as at Dunlough Castle) or internally, as at Kilcrea Castle. The door was secured with a heavy wooden bar, slotted into a bar-hole.

Look for a bar-hole behind the main door

Look for a bar-hole behind the main door

At Kilcrea we see that the lobby could be defended from each side and also from above, with the addition of a murder hole – literally a hole through with the inhabitants could throw rocks or boiling water down on those trapped in the entry.

Each floor was accessed by a stairway. Although some very basic castles may have relied on internal wooden stairs leading from one floor to another, most staircases were accommodated inside the walls – thus they are called mural stairs.

Dún an Óir Castle on Cape Clear Island. The mural stair can be clearly seen

Dún an Óir Castle on Cape Clear Island. The mural stair can be clearly seen

Stairs were both straight or spiral and some castles had both. A straight set of stairs didn’t need a very thick wall, but a spiral stairs needed either very thick walls or a corner tower or projection. Building a set of spiral stairs was a highly-skilled task and not just because of the inherent difficulty of working with intractable stone.

Castle Donovan spiral staircase

Castle Donovan spiral staircase

They were usually built so that you ascended them clockwise, thus presenting more of yourself to defenders above, who could hold onto the newel post with their left hand and wield a sword in their right. It was important to make the steps slightly uneven too, so that an ascending attacker could trip easily if he didn’t watch carefully.

Dunlough spiral staircase

Dunlough spiral staircase

Windows had to be inserted to light the way but these could only be slits, to be used as arrow or gun loops when necessary. A cross-shaped loop was called a crosslet.

This crosslet provides light for a spiral staircase and allows an archer to shoot from inside the castle

This crosslet provides light for a spiral staircase and allows a defender to shoot from inside the castle

spiral stairsOne of the most beautiful examples of a spiral staircase we have come across is at Kilcrea Castle, near Aherla in Cork. While all such staircases* are impressive, the one at Kilcrea is a work of art. All the wall and sill stones are dressed to conform to the shape of the spiral and the sinuous progression of the newel and the steps is a joy to behold.

Kilcrea spiral staircase

The beautifully constructed spiral staircase at Kilcrea Castle. All the stones are dressed to fit the contours of the circular stairwell

The walls hold other items of interest too. Mural chambers, for example, may have served a variety of purposes from storage to dressing – some have loops for lighting but many have not. Cupboards were built into the walls to hold lights and valuables – a mural cupboard is called an aumbry.

Two mural chambers: left is a rectangular chamber with two aumbries (cupboards) and right is an L-shaped chamber light by a loop

Garderobes (indoor toilets) are usually enclosed in a mural chamber for privacy (although not always!), with the garderobe chute extending down the wall to an external exit.

Dunmanus Garderobe chute
Upper: The garderobe at Ballinacarriga. Lower: Dunmanus Castle showing where the garderobe chute exits at the base of the castle

The lowest floor was often used for storage or for cattle and hence the floor was sometimes left in a natural state.

Castledonovan ground floor

Castle Donovan ground floor

The next floors were for administration and daily living activities of castle inhabitants and workers. Floors were wooden – corbels and beam sockets to support the floors show where the next level began.

Cullohill Castle - floor levels clearly visible, plus the addition of a later firepalce that obscures a window

Cullohill Castle – floor levels clearly visible, plus the addition of a later fireplace that obscures a window

Fenestration (the arrangement of windows) was organised to emphasise defence – small windows and loops on the lower floors, larger on the top floor or solar. This was the private living quarters of the lord and his family, and a place where the women of the household could enjoy privacy and peace.

A fireplace from Castledonovan

A fireplace from Castledonovan

It was sometimes the only room in the castle to have a fireplace and generally speaking was the most comfortable room and therefore also used for entertaining.

Top floor, Kilcrea - the only floor with sizeable windows and more finely finished than the lower floors

Top floor, Kilcrea – the only floor with sizeable windows and more finely finished than the lower floors

If this floor had more than one room, the other might be called the great hall and be the entertainment space.

The Great Hall at Ballinacarriga. But what are we all looking at?

The Great Hall at Ballinacarriga. But what are we all looking at?

Ballinacarriga is unique in West Cork in that there are several carved window embrasures.

From the solar a stairway led to the battlements and wall walk. The roof could be made of timber, slate, or even thatch. The wall walk at Kilcrea had specially designed weepers to carry water away from the roof.

The wall walk at Kilcrea - note the weepers

The wall walk at Kilcrea – note the weepers

So there you are – next time you wander around a deserted castle in Ireland (we specialise in them!) you will be able to rattle off the proper terms for everything you see. The more you know, the more you appreciate the genius of our Medieval castle-builders.

Ballinacarriga Great Hall

Ballinacarriga Great Hall

I’ve learned so much doing these posts on castle architecture I am tempted to move on to abbeys – what do you think?

* The illustration of the newel stairs is from the Castles of Britain website. I believe it is from an Irish castle. That site also has an excellent glossary.