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.

The Hallowed Fortress

The first sight of Kells Priory is breathtaking

The first sight of Kells Priory is breathtaking

Our West Cork castles, or tower houses, can be impressive, built as they are to be dominant and defensive. But imagine a place where there are not one, but seven tower houses, all connected by a high stone curtain wall with defended gates. A medieval fortress? No – a monastery! Welcome to thirteenth century Kilkenny!

Each one of the 7 towers at Kells Priory is as large as one of our West Cork Castles

Each one of the 7 towers at Kells Priory is as large as one of our West Cork Castles

Kells Priory (not the Kells in Meath that Robert is writing about this week) in Kilkenny is a truly awe-inspiring site. A combination of monastery and walled refuge, it speaks directly to the history of Kilkenny in the 12th to the 15th centuries. This was a time when the Anglo-Normans had established themselves as the lords of Ireland, dividing the land between them. They built castles to establish their military dominance and churches and monasteries to receive the tithes that came with ownership of vast tracts of land – and to save their souls. Although there was probably an older smaller church on the site, the current priory was established when Geoffrey fitzRobert invited Augustinian Canons from Cornwall to settle in Kells in 1193. The Augustinians, unlike the enclosed Cistercians, functioned as parish priests who tended to their congregation, hosted travellers, ministered to the sick, and assisted the local economy by providing mills, and sometimes bakeries and breweries.

Monastic Precinct. To the right is the Prior's Tower. Over the reredoter is the water tower and far Burgess Court

Monastic Precinct. To the right is the Prior’s Tower. Over the reredoter is the water tower and beyond is the Burgess Court

The initial phase of building included the area now known as the Monastic Precinct. A church, chapter houses, stores, a refectory and a mill were built and added-to over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries. This precinct was surrounded by a wall, which included some mural towers, but it was not primarily defensive. 

The construction of the enclosed area known as the Burgess Court dates to the 1460/70s. Warring factions among the Anglo-Normans, constantly invading each other’s territories, sacking and looting, created a climate of turbulence and insecurity. In the absence of a resident and powerful defender of the people of Kells, the Priory took it upon themselves to provide a refuge.

The Fortified Gate, from the outside (note the machicolation above the arch) and the inside (note arrow slits on either side).

The curtain wall and its mural towers constitute an impressive defensive system. Each tower was based on Henry VI’s ‘£10 Castle’ plan, with stores and administration rooms on the lower floors.  Living quarters occupied the upper floors which had fireplaces and garderobes. The crenellated battlements supported wall walks, and here and there were machicolations, murder holes and copious arrow slits. We can imagine the townsfolk of Kells flocking to the Burgess Court with whatever they could carry as a succession of marauding knights advanced and retreated. The priory was burned and sacked in 1262, and twice in the 14th century.

Inside the Burgess Court. The curtin wall had arrow slits all around it, as well as the towers

Inside the Burgess Court. Besides the mural towers, the curtain wall itself had arrow slits all around it

The Prior added a fine new tower for himself around this time too – well crafted and recently stabilised. Improvements and enlargements to the church were undertaken and a new belfry was added. When times were peaceful it must have been a bustling and thriving place, a welcome sight to weary travellers.

The Prior's Tower. Beautifully built, but still emphasising defence against attack

The Prior’s Tower. Beautifully built, but still emphasising defence against attack

Left, a sedile (seat) and piscina (for washing vessels) inside the church. Right, some recent reconstruction demonstrates what the church would have looked like.

The monks had a cloister, of course, for prayer and contemplation. Their refectory was above the store house and featured a lavabo, for hand washing, at the entrance. A small canal from the river provided water for the mill and also carried away the waste from the reredoter, or necessarium – the communal latrine.

Cloisters

The Cloister. The Prior’s Tower and Cross Tower in the background

Lavabo. Note the drain.

Lavabo. Note the drain

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, under Henry the VIII, spelled the end of Kells Priory as an active monastery. All its lands were confiscated and it gradually fell into ruin. Unlike other religious ruins, the walls and towers remained reasonably intact, indicating that they were probably used as farm buildings and perhaps garrisons, over the centuries.

Southeast Tower. Three different windows and a guarderobe chute

South-east Tower. Three different windows, arrow slits, and a garderobe chute

To learn more about Kells Priory, take a tour through this brilliant website. Written by Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler, and illustrated with his plans and drawings, it is a mine of information and a virtual course in medieval history and architecture. I gratefully acknowledge that this post owes much to the treasure trove of detail it contains.

© Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler

© Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler

You’ll find Kells Priory about 10km south of Kilkenny City. It’s well signposted. While you’re there, make a side trip to Jerpoint to see the medieval carvings that Robert illustrates in Medieval Feast. It would make a grand weekend outing from Cork!

A Grand Outing!

A Grand Outing!