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.

Castle Haven

The entrance to Castle Haven. Horse Island is separated from the mainland by the charmingly named Flea Channel.

The entrance to Castle Haven. Horse Island is separated from the mainland by the charmingly named Flea Channel

South West of Skibbereen lies a deeply indented section of the coast known as Castle Haven. It is perhaps best known for the town that clings to the steep hill on its west side – Castletownshend. We have written much about Castletownshend itself, about Edith Somerviille and about the lovely St Barrahane’s Church and its Harry Clarke windows. But the whole inlet is an explorer’s paradise, yielding up its treasure to us on successive visits so this post will be about other things to see around the Haven.

Castle Haven

Catle Haven on a misty day. The inlet was guarded by two castles: this one at Raheen and another at the entrance to the Haven

The Haven is shallow at its top end, but up to the spit of land that runs across it near Reen Pier, it provides a deep and sheltered harbour for boats, and a popular sailing ground. We like to drive down the road that runs above the eastern side of the Haven. It’s twisty and a bit treacherous but at a certain point it presents a view of the whole inlet, dominated by Raheen Castle.

Raheen Castle

This was a castle of the O’Donovan clan, built in the late 16th or early 17th century. It didn’t last long – it was attacked by Cromwellian forces in 1649 and the collapsed upper stories may be the result of cannonball damage.

Raheen Corner machicolation

Continuing to the end of the east side brings you past Reen to the wonderful harbours of Myross and Squince, but that’s a post for another day. Now we’ll return to the west side of the inlet and visit two spectacular archaeological sites, Knockdrum Fort and the Gurranes Stone Row, before proceeding down into Castletownshend.

Knockdrum interior and views to north

The interior of Knockdrum Stone Fort, with square hut site in the middle. The fort commands panoramic views across the countryside and out to sea

To get to Knockdrum Fort, you have to park at the large church about 2km before the village. Walk downhill about half a kilometre until you get to the signposted green road to the fort. A pleasant trudge brings you to a set of steps and these lead up to the site. This is an excellent example of an early medieval stone fort – the kind of fortified homestead that marked the residence of a family of high status before the Normans taught us how to build tower houses.  From this site there are striking views across Castle Haven.

Entrance to Knockdrum

The entrance to Knockdrum Fort, looking towards the entrance to Castle Haven. Outisde the entrance is this large rock, covered in cup-and-ring art

But there’s more to this place than just the fort. There’s an early Medieval cross slab just inside the entrance, and a fine example of 4000 or 5000 year old rock art just outside it. There’s another piece, a cupmarked stone, inside the fort, lying on the ground. All three are here thanks to the activities of Boyle Somerville, a keen amateur archaeologist and brother of Edith Somerville who lived in Drishane House, just below the fort. Farmers who found such items would bring them to him and he placed them here for safekeeping. Also inside the fort you will see evidence of a souterrain – an underground passage used for storage when the fort was active.

Knockdrum cross slab

If you look north across the valley once at Knockdrum you will see a stone row on a nearby hill. These are the Garranes ‘Fingers’. (They are on private land so you should seek permission to visit and make sure there are no bulls in the fields.) The best way to access them is to tramp through the fields across the road from the entrance to Knockdrum. It’s well worth the effort – once you get up to them you will see that more uprights are now lying on the ground. This was originally an alignment of at least five stones, unusually tall and thin, positioned so that they would be visible on the skyline from many directions.

Gurranes Fingers

Drive down towards the village now, until you get to the entrance to Drishane House. To the right of the gate is a bench dedicated to Boyle Somerville. In 1936 he was shot dead by the IRA, who claimed he was recruiting local young men for the British Navy. He was liked and respected locally and, outraged by the deed, the people of Castletownshend raised money for this memorial. If the house is open (there will be a sign) this is a wonderful place to visit. For a small charge you can wander around the extensive grounds and visit the Edith Somerville Museum. We love to go in spring, when the bluebells provide a vivid carpet and a photographer’s paradise.

Drishane house driveway in spring

Drishane House driveway in the spring, with the giant macrocarpa (a Californian cypress tree)

Down to the village now and up to the church. But this time, instead of heading inside to see the Clarke windows, or behind the church to view the graves of Somerville and Ross, cross the graveyard until you find a gate at the far side and head east along the edge of the field towards the water. There you will find the remains of a structure labelled as a star-shaped fort on the OS map. Nowhere near as enormous as the massive star-shaped Charles Fort in Kinsale, nevertheless it is a reminder of a time when the sleepy village was not as peaceful as it is now. Dating to the 1650s, not a lot remains, just enough to confirm that this was a structure built for defence. Along the way you might also see a ruined square tower, known as Swift’s Tower. This was built as a belvedere, (a place to admire the view) and legend has it that Dean Swift visited and liked to write there.

Left is the remains of a bastioned fort, labelled as a ‘Star-Shaped Fort’ on the OS map. Right is the belvedere, where Swift is said to have written

Drive back out of town now and take the left turn after the entrance to Drishane House. Follow this road for about a kilometre to a sharp left turn, just before a small crossroads and turn left down a narrow road that ends at the sea. A tower house used to guard this part of the Haven but nothing remains of it now except a stump covered in ivy and brambles. But wander around the graveyard and admire the picturesque siting of the old church, already in ruins by the mid-1600s. This is a good example of a classic West Cork graveyard. Most graves are marked by simple stones at the head and foot, with no inscriptions. 

Castlehaven Graveyard atmosphere

There are some family plots and some more elaborate memorials, including one for Ellen Buckley, second wife of O’Donovan Rossa (although his name, interestingly, does not appear on the headstone).

Castlehave graveyard, old church

To the immediate left of the graveyard you will find a stile leading to a green path. Take this path and walk up though the luxuriant woods past a rushing stream until you come to a little wooden bridge.

Path by the stream

On the other side is a holy well, cut into the hillside and decorated with ribbons and fishing floats. Make a wish, or say a prayer – this is a special place and still visited and maintained by local people.

Take OS Discovery Map 89 with you. Most of the sites I describe are actually marked on it. But if you get lost, have fun, and let us know what you discovered!

Path through woods