As soon as the Normans arrived in Ireland (1169) they set about building enormous fortifications, the like of which had never been seen in this country before. Dublin Castle was typical, but not a lot remains to be seen of the original shape. More accessible is Limerick Castle – a space enclosed by imposing stone walls with corner towers and a strong gatehouse. Few of these very early castles remain. Leask, in his Irish Castles, termed them keepless castles, since they had no central tower houses or keeps. (Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal will recall several earlier posts about castles – these refer almost exclusively to the much smaller tower houses, most of which date to the 15th century and later. See When is Castle…? Tower House Tutorial Part 1 and Part 2, and Illustrating the Tower House.)
Trim Castle in Co Meath is one of our best examples of an early Norman castle with a central keep
Alongside the keepless castles, and gradually taking over in popularity, were built those in which a tower, or keep, was the dominant feature located inside those high curtain walls. These great Norman castles were the predominant form during the late 12th and early 13th century. However, in the late 13th century, for some reason, keepless castles experienced a resurgence and several were built around the country. Most of these are in a ruined state and of course some have entirely disappeared or been so altered as to be unrecognisable.
In the middle of the village of Liscarrol in North Cork – this!
But there’s one (and only one) in Cork and it has has retained all its magnificent features. On a recent trip to Duhallow (mostly looking for holy wells with Amanda and Peter of Holy Wells of Cork) we rounded a corner on a country road approaching the village of Liscarrol and there it was – as unexpected as it was jaw-dropping!
Note the splayed base batter of the walls, providing a solid foundation
Liscarrol Castle was probably built in the mid-13th century by the De Barry family but eventually passed into the possession of the Percevals in the 17th century. It was besieged by an Irish army of loyalists in 1642, but was eventually subdued and retaken by the parliamentarians under Sir Hardress Waller, whereupon it was again occupied by the Percevals who owned it into recent history. James N Healy, in his magisterial The Castles of County Cork provides a detailed account of the back-and-forth sieges of the 1640s, as well as a charming sketch of the castle as it was in the early 1980s, when the key could be obtained from a local pub.
It was extensively repaired and stabilised by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on several occasions in the 20th century. The sad state of the walls can be seen in a picture from The Illustrated Dublin Journal of 1862.
The Illustrated Dublin Journal is available online through the kindness of the University of Illinois
There are several older illustrations of Liscarrol Castle and they show two features that are no longer obvious today. The first is a moat, which must have been drained a long time ago as the ground is dry around the walls.
The second is an outermost fortification known as a ravelin – a triangular projection that would have been the first line of defence in front of the entry tower.
Both illustrations above are courtesy of the National Library
A section through the wall showing the rubble construction between outer facings of worked stone
How did a keepless castle work? Quoting Prof Tadgh O’Keefe of DCU, the description of Roscommon Castle (another of the keepless castles) has this to say:
Earlier on in the 13th century, two Royal castles in Ireland at Dublin and Limerick were built- the first castles in Europe that were built as keepless castles with an encircling wall that included towers. The emphasis in castle design here was on the encircling curtain wall. This wall included large barrel towers used as storage and partly living space, with emphasis on a residential gate house.
The enclosure of these castles then contained further buildings, possibly built from wood or mud. The move to a keepless castle design seems meaningless to us today until we start thinking about the difference this would have made in terms of castle defence.
The interior of this enormous enclosure is now home to some bullocks
In a castle with a keep, the attacker would have stormed and overcome the walls first, and then attacked the keep where all defenders would have withdrawn to now. Defending the keep was dependent on a single gate/ door holding up, and the bawn then had to be re-captured as well. In a keepless castle, defenders withdrew into the super thick walls themselves, supported by food storage and living space in the towers. The walls contained arrow loops facing both sides of the walls, meaning both the bawn AND the outside of the castle could be defended at an advantage. So, in fact, the move to a keepless castle design was an ingenious innovation providing super safe castles.
The entrance tower would have provided living space for the De Barrys and the Percevals. Note the garderobe chute high on the walls, and the entrance off the battlements
The entrance is one of the most impressive aspects of the castle. Many defensive features were deployed, including murder holes and a portcullis.
Some modifications to the earlier structure are visible here and there, although on the whole it remains truly a thirteenth century stronghold.
Windows were widened, probably in the 15th century – the ogee heads are a dead giveaway
The only problem with Liscarrol Castle is that it is accessible solely on the outside – the inside was occupied by a small herd of young cattle. Given the amount of public money that has been spent on it, this seems an immense pity. Duhallow and its towns and villages are doing a great job at putting together interesting tourist experiences: Liscarrol Castle, unique and awe-inspiring, could be a jewel in its crown.
And to finish off in good old Irish tradition – there is, of course, a tune called The Walls of Liscarrol. Have a listen.