Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?

Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of)

Tower House Full View

There’s this brilliant young man, JG O’Donoghue, who combines the best qualities of researcher and sketch artist to produce outstanding illustrations, especially of heritage subjects. I’ve been a fan of his on Facebook for a while, but recently I saw the full extent of his talent.

Path to a Castle

Kilcrea Castle, Co Cork

You see, he’s done this job on tower houses. I’ve been studying tower houses for a while, especially the tower houses of West Cork (see my posts here and here and here) and recently I gave a talk about them in Ballydehob. So I recognise accuracy when I see it, as well as a meticulous attempt to be true to both published accounts and his own close observations. He has generously allowed me to use his drawings in this blog post, as well as his own words, slightly edited to fit the length of a blog post. So this is not my post, really – it’s his, as you’ll see if you head on over to his own blog, or follow him on Facebook. Since much (but not all) of what follows is based on Kilcrea Castle, Near Ovens in County Cork, I have included some of my own photographs of that site, to give you a sense of what it looks like on the ground.

Above the main entry

JG Writes:

The Tower House

Tower houses are a type of late medieval Irish castle, believed to have originated around 1300, or sometime within the 14th century, but most are probably from the 15th to the 17th centuries. By the 17th century, this would have made Ireland the most heavily castellated part of the British Isles. The tower house signifies changes in Ireland: on one hand it shows a resurgence in Gaelic power in the west after years of decline following the coming of the Normans in the 12th century. On the flip side it is a sign of the collapse of centralised power in the form of the English monarchy and a rise in decentralisation.

Tower House Closer View

One tower house in five has a bawn wall in Ireland. The bawn is the external wall you see attached to the castle shown here. The actual design of the tower house itself though is nearly entirely based on Kilcrea tower house, in Cork, my favourite tower house and one which I have visited a few times and read extensively on. The only changes to the overall design of Kilcrea was the inclusion of a second chimney for the kitchen room inside, and the machicolation. I added these elements so the castle would be more representative of tower houses as a whole. Also the crenellation (the regular gaps in the walls at the roof & bawn, which provided cover for archers) in the castle are a style specific to late medieval Ireland. The bawn crenellations are based off Blarney Castle.

Bawn Corner Tower

The bawn walls and corner tower

Notice as well how white the tower house is? This is probably how most tower houses would have looked, as they were coated with a substance called harling, a mixture of limewash and crushed pebbles. Because of this, commentators at the time often mention the white gleaming castles of the Irish, as you can imagine these would have been visible for miles around and been quite a symbol of power and prestige. You may also see the little figure on the dark side wall of the tower house: this is a sheela-na-gig, a type of sculpture common in Ireland at the time, this one is based off the one in Ballynacarriga Castle.

Ballynacarriga Sheelanagig

This is the sheela-na-gig from Ballynacarriga

Tower houses are believed to have been surrounded by mixed farming, some cereal with animal husbandry too as shown in the illustration. Often they are found associated with churches and friaries, some were even built attached to churches, and some probably weren’t too far from some sort of clustered settlement. Note as well the dry moat. Not all tower houses had moats, but some did, like Kilcrea, so I included it here.

Moat at Kilcrea

Notice also the slight batter (where the wall comes outwards at the bottom to defend against a battering ram), also in the bawn towers, which is based on Kilcrea & Barryscourt.  As you can see though, the real bling in the tower house is the top of it, this is where most showing off happened with turrets, crenellations, chimneys, gabled/pitched roofs and machicolations, as shown here. Another place they showed off was the ashlar (fine finished masonry) windows. The top floor in Kilcrea was believed to be the hall, with the floor directly below the lord’s chambers. Hence they have the nicest windows, especially the hall floor, which had 4 large windows as shown.

Great Hall Window

One of the windows on the top floor

Also notice the variety of windows: some were narrow slits just for archers to fire from inside, others have the addition of a cross slit, which could be used by crossbows too and then there were others with either triangular or circular holes, these were for later fire arms. Some windows even had all three as shown here in the 1st floor window in the dark side of the tower house, the one closest to the light. All these windows, except for the decorative ones on the top floors, would have been splayed inwards allowing maximum cover for archers.

Inside the Tower House 


Ground Floor – here is a cellar, as in Stanihurst’s “house and castle” account of Mallow castle, 1584, “lower rooms whereof ar sellors vaulted over”. Here various food and drink would have been kept, perhaps not just for the castle itself but for the wider community, acting as a safe house for everyone’s goods in case of raids. The floor surface here is very basic and is just beaten earth.

Lower floors

1st Floor – I have made into a sleeping quarters. There is mention in the historical recorded accounts of tower houses that they were used for sleeping and that there were beds without curtains, and you could sometimes fit three people into them. So here I have shown some rudimentary beds, not just for guests, but also for the guards and servants. The 2nd & 1st floors are also covered with reeds, this would have often been what medieval floors were covered with according to medieval accounts, which then on occasion would have been swept out and replaced. This room also doubles up as a guardsroom, as this floor was probably the last line of defence before the attackers get into the rest of the castle, so I’d imagine weapons would have been kept here for ease of access.

Kilcrea murder hole

Entrance lobby with murder hole above it

Murder Hole Room & Lobby – you will notice small rooms off both ground and 1st floors. In the ground floor this was the lobby, where for defence purposes, once you were past the main front door, you were greeted by two other strong doors, one to the rest of the tower house, another to the ground floor. Above this was the murder hole room, essentially a room with a hole in it, the reason for the dramatic name is that while you were trapped in the lobby between the two strong doors, you would be fired upon from above by muskets (apparently unlike what movies would have us believe, hot oil was rarely used). But in the day to day, these were probably used as a kind of door eye hole.

Mural stairs from Ground Floor

The mural stairs leading up from the main entrance. The bar across is said to be there to prevent a re-occurence of the time a cow wandered up to the second floor

Stairs – in a tower house usually started as a mural stairs to the left of the lobby entrance, these were then carried on by spiral staircases from the first floor up to the 4th floor, which then had another set of straight stairs leading to a small spiral stairs to the wall walk area. This was probably defensive in nature, so it was harder for the attackers to take the spiral stairs and wall walk. This last set of stairs was usually hidden within one of the window embrasures at the top floor, this was a common feature in southern Ireland.

First floor window and corbels to support second floor

The ground floor with window embrasure to the left. Above it you can see the corbels which would have supported the first floor

2nd Floor – shows a kitchen with some sleeping quarters off in the mural chambers around the main room, these were L shaped rooms and could be accessed via the window embrasures of the main room. You can see one person leaning out of one such a door, having a word, while another person is sleeping inside another L shaped room.

Access to Mural Chamber, 2nd floor

Entrance to one of the mural chambers

Kilcrea’s main room was probably more sleeping quarters, but in some other tower houses which had fireplaces at this level there is speculation that these were the kitchens. Most kitchens would probably have been external though.

Upper floors

3rd Floor – Here I created the lord’s room: situated between two floors with fireplaces, this would have been quite a warm room. It shows a typical late medieval bed, chests used for storage and a Savonarola chair, or X chair, in front of the bed, these were quite common throughout Europe at the time, made in Italy. The third floor has its floor boards shown rather than covered, with the occasional fur. Also note the paintings on the wall. There is mention in some written sources that the Irish decorated their walls with branches: I found a piece of metalwork from late medieval Ireland with this very design, the Clogán Óir Bronze Bell shrine of St. Senan, which was early medieval with later alterations in the late middle ages. One side had a pair of dragons with floriated tails and above, branch and leaf ornament along the top, so I used that here, while the knot-work is based off other metalwork at the time.

4th Floor – This was the dining room. In the earlier periods there was always a large external hall to the tower house, made of non stone material, but as time moved on more and more of the the hall activities were taking place within the tower house. This dining room floor in Kilcrea had lovely large windows, not all of them surviving, some with double lights with ogee heads, as shown. I added a transomed triple ogee headed light as shown in the window on the left, which is typical of a late medieval tower house. These windows must have created quite a bright room. Rooms of this stature were probably decorated with ornate wood panelling as shown. No such panelling survives in Ireland, so these are inspired by ones in Britain. Generally tables at the time were long with benches and only really the lord would have had a separate chair. People ate with their hands, there were no forks yet in Europe and everyone had a personal knife with which to cut their food.

Kilcrea Great Hall

Roof – the 4th floor in Kilcrea had very thin walls, in comparison to the rest of the tower house, most likely to give it more space and air. The roof wasn’t gabled but hipped, resting on cornices as shown above the wood panelling. The roofs were often covered with tiles but many were probably thatched too. On the wall walk level, in the front, you can see there were holes at the bottom of the parapets. In Kilcrea some of the wall walk flagstones had chutes carved into them to drain away the rain. The other side (the shadow side) shows wall walk machicolations, which were extended floors with holes in the ground: these are based on Blarney Castle with its pointed corbels. Chimneys were also on the wall walk level and were to become display features in their own right, rising to great heights to carry smoke away but also to show everyone around how well the castle was heated (in later periods castellated houses had lots of chimneys as an extra form of bling).

Wall walk

The Wall Walk, with flagstone chutes designed to carry off the rain


Usually tower houses had 2 garderobes, as did Kilcrea, one for public and another for private use. In the case of Kilcrea both were probably public, but the upper one accessed from the dining hall had 3 holes in it, so probably had wooden seats with three holes for 3 people to use at the same time.

Tower House Garderobes

This upper garderobe chamber also had a window with a slop stone, which were small drainage basins underneath windows, which were essentially urinals (often found on stairs). The garderobe on the 2nd floor, is one of the 3 L shaped chambers off the main room. Garderobes were normally at the ends of passages in both Anglo-Norman castles and tower houses, to give more distance between the rest of the house and the toilets.

Inspector of Drains

Inspector of Drains

Thank you, JG – for your talent in representing medieval life and for your generosity in allowing me to feature your incredible drawings! Go raibh míle maith agat!

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.

Tower House Tutorial, Part 1

Ross Castle, Killarney

Ross Castle, Killarney

Can you distinguish between a crenellation and a machicolation? How about a bartizan and a barbican? By the end of this tutorial on the architecture of tower houses you will amaze your friends at dinner parties by casually dropping such terms into the conversation. (Of course you might also be labelled as a hopeless nerd.)

Rincolisky or White Hall Castle in West Cork - a good example of a basic tower house

Rincolisky or White Hall Castle in West Cork – a good example of a basic tower house

Start by reading, or re-reading, When is a Castle..? It goes over the basics of how the tower houses of West Cork were constructed and lived in. Essentially tall, square stone dwellings, they were built more for defence than comfort. Let’s look more closely at how exactly Medieval architecture coped with making such massive structures stable and workable. We’ll start with the outward appearance – walls, windows, roof and bawn. (In Part 2 we’ll go inside.)

Like many West Cork Castles, Castle Donovan is built on a rock outcrop

Like many West Cork Castles, Castle Donovan is built on a rocky outcrop

In West Cork, there’s a noticeable preference for building tower houses on rock outcrops. Since these are massive, heavy structures, building on rock is a good idea. The downside of that has been well expressed by Peter Somerville-Large in The Coast of West Cork: “Contrary to what may be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rock have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory.” Somerville-Large reminds us that there were once castles at Ballydevlin, Castlemehigan and Crookhaven of which no trace now remains.

Ballinacarriga Castle. Note the splayed base batter and the unusual second floor bartizans

Ballinacarriga Castle. Note the splayed base batter and the unusual second floor bartizans

To support the tall walls, the lowest level was the thickest, splayed outwards in what is termed a base batterThe walls were constructed of stone and mortar. The mortar was lime-based – it wasn’t totally impermeable so these tower houses were damp places. Generally speaking, the cut stones were reserved for the outer and inner facings of the walls in fine castles, and in more basic ones they were reserved for quoins – the stones that were used in the angles or corners.  

A vestige of a tower house at Abbeymahon, near Courtmacsherry, shows the best cut stones reserved for the quoins

A vestige of a tower house at Abbeymahon, near Courtmacsherry, shows the best cut stones reserved for the quoins

Where walls have collapsed it is often obvious that the interior of the wall could be filled with rubble, with the best stones with the flattest faces, or the cut stones, being reserved for the outside. Cut stones were, of course, prized and many have disappeared over the intervening years, adding to the potential instability of some tower houses.

At Carriganass Castle most of the quoins have disappeared

At Carriganass Castle most of the quoins have disappeared

The walls were rendered with plaster on the outside. They could be whitewashed, which made them visible from afar. One of our local castles is known as White Castle, another as White Hall – perhaps these were originally whitewashed. The plaster could also be tinted to produce various colours – Kilcoe Castle is a good example of a tinted render based on research into this practice.

Glashare Castle in Kilkenny still shows the rendering on the outside. Note the unusual corner arrow loop

Glashare Castle in Kilkenny still shows the rendering on the outside. Note the unusual corner and cross-shaped arrow loops

The walls were pierced at various points with opes – a technical term that simply means an opening of any kind. Opes came in three varieties: doors, windows and loops. We talked about doors (raised entrances) and windows (smallest at the lowest levels, largest at the top) in When is a Castle..? Loops, arrow loops or musket loops, were always small from the outside, presenting a tiny target to attackers and preventing anyone from squeezing through (think about the origin of the word ‘loophole’). Muskets had totally replaced longbows and crossbows by the end of the 16th century so any castle built after that time had gun loops, and some even had larger cannon loops.

Carriganass Castle has many loops - the tiny one in this pictures seems to small to be useful

Carriganass Castle has many loops – the tiny one in this pictures seems too small to be useful

Inside, the loops were deeply splayed to allow the head and shoulders of the archer/shooter into the space, or embrasure. Loops could appear in the walls of the castle, or of the bawn.

A deeply splayed gun embrasure at Carriganass

A deeply splayed gun embrasure at Carriganass

At the top of the tower was the roof and the battlements. The roof was made of various materials – slate, wood or even thatch. Between the roof and the outside wall was a wall walk, protected by a parapet.

Dún an Óir, or the Fort of Gold, on Cape Clear Island. The wall walk can be clearly seen

Dún an Óir, or the Fort of Gold, on Cape Clear Island. The wall walk can be clearly seen*

In Ireland, this parapet most often took the form of what became known as Irish Crenellations. These were stepped or ‘toothed’ battlements, with tall parts (merlons) behind which defenders could take cover and shorter parts (crenels) for shooting from.

A good example of Irish crenellations from Kells Priory in Kilkenny

A good example of Irish crenellations from Kells Priory in Kilkenny

Another defensive feature was a platform that projected away from the walls, called a machicolation.  Defenders used the opening between the wall of the machicolation and the castle wall to hurl things down on attackers. Machicolations are often located above doorways, but also at corners which afford a view of two sides. When they are on corners they are called bartizans.

Corner machicolation, or bartizan, at Tocher Castle, north of Dunmanway

Corner machicolation, or bartizan, at Togher Castle, north of Dunmanway

The machicolation was supported by corbels which could be simple triangles or carved stone elements.

Shrule Castle in Mayo has decorative corbels. Note also the rounded corners of the castle which did away with the need for quoins

Shrule Castle in Mayo has decorative carved corbels. Note also the rounded corners of the castle which did away with the need for quoins

The bawn is the courtyard immediately surrounding the tower. Bawns could be restricted in size – little more than the immediate courtyard of the castle – or extensive. They are sometimes known as wards. The bawn wall was often fortified with loops and a wall walk.

The bawn wall of Carriganass Castle at Kealkill hovers picturesquely over the river

The bawn wall of Carriganass Castle at Kealkill hovers picturesquely over the river

Bawn walls are often called curtain walls, but this term is also appropriate when the wall does not actually enclose a bawn, as at Dunlough Castle at Three Castle Head. Because the towers are situated between the lake and an impregnable cliff the curtain wall provides a barrier behind which defenders can shelter.

Dunlough, or Three Castles. The curtain wall presented a formidable barrier to attackers

Dunlough, or Three Castles: the curtain wall presented a formidable barrier to attackers

In the next tutorial we will cover the inside of the tower house. Meanwhile, here’s a pop quiz. Take a look at this photo of Ross Castle and see how many features you can identify. 

Ross Castle, in Killarney, is also built on an outcropping rock base

So – how did you do?

*Thanks to Lisa Scarff for the Dún an Óir photograph.


You Favourite Facebook photo - Ballydehob's 12 Arch Bridge

One of your favourite recent Roaringwater Journal Facebook photos – Ballydehob’s 12 Arch Bridge

We’re taking a blogging break for a couple of weeks. Since we won’t be posting during that time, here are a couple of your favourite posts from times past, to keep you going! 

You loved the traditional shops that are still to be found here and there in West Cork. Our Shopping for Memories post features Miss Evans’ shop in Bantry.

Evans Interior

Castles fascinate us all and you liked the post about the tower houses, When is a Castle… and the one about fortified houses, Trading up in Tudor Times. From the second one, here is Coppinger’s Court.Coppinger's Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Michael Davitt struck a chord with many readers. We are still looking for heroes, and this was a man worthy of the name.

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him

Finally, to celebrate the Chief O’Neill Festival, just on last weekend on Bantry, here is our post on that wonderful event, from last year. Timmy McCarthy was an imposing figure as the Chief himself.Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

Be back in a couple of weeks with new posts!