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 

TowerInterio65-Internal

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

Garderobes

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.

Revisiting

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!

When is a castle..?

Leamcon Castle

Leamcon Castle (Black Castle)

…not a castle?

Answer: When it’s a Tower House. Maybe.

Harold Leask first published his classic Irish Castles in 1941, and it was subsequently revised and reprinted several times. My own copy was bought in the late 60s and accompanied me to Canada and back. Leask’s book was the first comprehensive work on the subject – a work of erudition but thoroughly readable with charming pen-and-ink illustrations. 

Leask insisted on the use of the term tower houses for small simple castles and described them thus:

They are simple oblongs with four walls, subtly battered, rising sheerly from a bold base-batter, to parapets which are crenellated in the Irish fashion. A small turret, at one corner, generally above the staircase, rises to a greater height than the rest of the building, while within the parapets are the two gables of the roof. Very often a small machicolation projects from the parapet and commands the entrance doorway below…

Ardintenant Castle

Ardintenant Castle (White Castle). It sits on top of an earlier ring fort.

In researching for this post the other main source I consulted was a doctoral thesis by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, The Tower Houses of West Cork. More recent (1998), it concentrated on the castles of this area and is packed with detail about the ones we see around us here in Roaringwater Bay and on the Mizen Peninsula, from Baltimore (Dún na Séad) in the east, to Cape Clear Island (Dún an Óir) to the south and Three Castle Head (Dunlough) to the west.

Dunlough Castle, known as Three Castle Head

Dunlough Castle, at Three Castle Head

These simple towers were quite different from the enormous and elaborate military castles that cemented Anglo-Norman power all over Ireland after the invasion of 1169, such as Trim in County Meath, or Cahir in Tipperary. Tower houses were built in what Leask calls a ‘great building revival’ from about 1440 into the 1600s. In what may be the forerunner of the European Grants system, Leask says many of the earliest ones were built as ‘£10 Castles’. A statute of 1429 offered every liege man of our Lord the King…who chooses to build a castle or tower sufficiently embattled or fortified..to wit twenty feet in length sixteen feet in width and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower ten pounds by way of subsidy. Although this statute seems to have been applicable only in certain counties (mainly around the Pale) it established a pattern for tower building which was adopted, with variations, all over Ireland.

Dunmanus Castle

Dunmanus Castle

The Roaringwater Bay and Mizen towers fit this pattern very well. They were not, however, built by the Anglo-Normans – West Cork was too remote and beyond their reach. They were built by the great Irish chiefs of the O’Mahoney, the McCarthy and the O’Driscoll clans and probably replaced earlier strongholds such as promontory forts (as at Dunlough), large ring forts (Ardintenant) and stone forts/cashels (such as the one at Knockdrum). These chiefs became wealthy through their control of the fisheries, through piracy, and through tribute exacted from those who occupied their traditional territory. At least one of them (Rossbrin) became famous as a centre of learning and scholarship during this time. Of the ones I will describe in this post, all are situated at the sea. or close to it, with commanding views over their territory and sometimes within sight of each other.

Leamcon, known as Black Castle

Leamcon, known as Black Castle. Notice the base-batter in this picture and the first one below.  The lowest level is the widest (battered) with the walls sloping in above this base

The power of these great Irish households lasted until the 1601 battle of Kinsale when the Irish forces under Hugh O’Donnel and Hugh O’Neill (with Spanish help) were defeated and an enormous re-conquest and re-colonisation began under Elizabeth and continued unabated under the Stuarts and, most disastrously, under Cromwell.

Each tower in this area was built in the same manner, which Samuel refers to as the Raised Entrance type of tower. There were two entrances, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The ground floor room was for cattle and the doorway was therefore as wide as would admit a cow.

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

The raised entrance (directly above it, or staggered to the left or right) was only wide enough to admit one person at a time – a defensive feature. This entrance either led into the first floor room or (since the ground floor room could have a lofty ceiling) onto a landing where a staircase led up to this room and then continued up through the wall (usually the thickest wall of the tower) to the upper floors. The first floor room was mainly used for storage and had either no windows or very small slits.

Dunmanus, with its additional turret. The top windows were always the largest.

Dunmanus, with its base-batter and additional turret. The top windows were always the largest

The second floor room was often the principle chamber, where all the main activities of the family took place – living, eating, meeting, administrating, celebrating (music and poetry were highly prized by these chieftains). If there was a third floor it contained the solar, or private chambers for the women of the household.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Construction techniques varied – some were superbly constructed of cut stone while others used a lot of rubble to build up the insides of walls. Putlogs, or holes where scaffolding timbers were insert, are clearly visible in several of the towers. The lowest floors were of course the thickest – the base-batter provided a solid foundation and the walls sloped inwards from it. The top of the tower allowed for thinner walls, and therefore also bigger windows (although none were large).

A garderobe (toilet) was a feature of the top two floors, with a chute out to the outer walls. In towers with additional turrets (Kilcoe, Dunmanus, Leamcon) the garderobe and sleeping chambers were sometimes contained in that turret, or the spiral stairs wound up through it. While most towers had stone spiral or straight staircase, some appeared to access each floor by means of ladders – there is no evidence for permanent wooden staircases.

The ground floor room (the byre) was often vaulted and this feature is still clearly visible in the most intact towers. Above that, the floors were of timber, sometimes with trapdoors for lifting up supplies. Presses (cupboards) consisting of niches in the walls may have contained lanterns or have been used to store valuable items.

There were no fireplaces in these towers. Fires were lit on flagstones laid on the wooden floors and the smoke rose to the tall ceilings and escaped out the small windows. In addition to this level of discomfort there is a contemporary account (quoted by Leask) which describe the primitive living arrangements in some of the towers: They have little furniture, and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in summer and straw in winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows [embrasure floors?], and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.

But not all chieftains lived in a primitive way. Samuel uses the available evidence to construct a picture of life at Togher, one of the towers he studied, and it’s not hard to picture Fineen O’Mahoney, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, in such a setting.

We can form a picture of the principal chamber in use: Tadhg an dúna or Togher’s principal chamber was probably furnished with imported furniture, pewter plate and cutlery and was panelled with ornately carved timber. His family, his bard, …clerk, lawyer, priest and physician, as well as members of the derbfine [extended clan] such as cavalrymen could eat there. They could sit with the chieftain to one side of the principal salt cellar, while others sat ‘below’ it… Servants prepared food out of sight ‘below stairs’. Bardic musicians, soothsayers, gamblers and others would be admitted as honoured guests, but the household ward and servants ate in the kitchen/ward room.

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Similarly, Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels) Castle in Baltimore, seat of the wealthy O’Driscolls (they also had Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold) on Cape Clear Island), was

a centre of administration for trading activities and collection of taxes from foreign traders frequenting the port. In the middle and later-middle ages therefore, the O’Driscolls enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle. Lavish gatherings took place in the ‘great hall’ of Dún na Séad castle and a well-documented feast in 1413 is said to be one of the earliest records of people dancing in Ireland. This documentary evidence is supported by archaeological finds from recent excavations of the Dún na Séad site, which reveal the presence of late twelfth to fourteenth century pottery from the Saintonge region of France, and reflect the lucrative trade links between Baltimore and Europe at this time.

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore. Note corner machicolation.

Defensive features were built into all the towers. Besides raised and restricted doorways and hard-to-manoeuvre narrow or spiral staircases, all had a roof ‘wall walk’. Three of the towers (Dún an Oir, Kilcoe and Leamcon) are either inaccessible or accessible by a bridge and there is evidence that connecting ground was deliberately demolished to accomplish this. Windows were small and could be boarded up. Projecting machicolations, especially above entrances or at corners were used, as can be seen at Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore. Crenellations (notched or serrated ramparts) look like our traditional ideas of battlements. At Kilcoe they may have helped that castle withstand over a year of attack and siege after the Battle of Kinsale.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof

So, should we call them Tower House, or Castles? How about £10 Castles? Archaeologists and historians prefer the more exact phrase tower houses, but castles they are on the maps and in our everyday speech. And if, like us, you are lucky enough to have one in your view, castles they are in our hearts and minds.

Our view to Rossbrin Castle

Our view to Rossbrin Castle