Dunmanus Castle 2: The Castle

Dunmanus Castle stands guard over a natural harbour on the north side of The Mizen Peninsula and is one of the largest of the still-standing Castles of Ivaha.

All of the O’Mahony castles (or tower houses as the archaeologists prefer to call them) were the raised entry type, where the door that gave access to the living quarters of the chief was on the first, rather than the ground floor. There is an entrance on the ground floor, but it allowed access only to the lowest level. While at some of the castles of Ivaha, the raised entry was immediately above the ground-floor entry, at Dunmanus, it is above and to the left of the ground-floor entry: this offset placement probably allowed easier access to the lower entrance.

Dunmanus is the only O’Mahony Castle (as far as we know – several have disappeared) to have an additional turret, this one located at the south west corner. In fact the only other castle like it in this part of West Cork is Kilcoe Castle – see my post about its Magnificent Reconstruction. Jeremy Irons’ restoration also allows us to see what Dunmanus Caste would have looked like in its heyday. 

After the false start at Knockeens (see Dunmanus Castle 1: The Cliff-Edge Fort) the tower house was constructed on the site of an earlier fortification probably called Dún Manus, or the Fort of Manus. It was built by Donagh Mór, a chief of the O’Mahony Fionn (the Fair-Haired) sept, sometime in the 15th century. Donagh Mór had been elected Táiniste (next in line to become Taoiseach, or Chief) but he had to wait over 40 years, until 1473, for his brother to die before he succeeded, and then he only lived two more years. This timeframe fits with the architecture of the castle, which is firmly fifteenth century gothic – the window style below is typical.

Like all the O’Mahonys at this time he was very wealthy, riches that came from his control of both the fisheries in Dunmanus Bay and the resources of the hinterland behind his castle. He could therefore afford to indulge his taste for a high-status residence. While the castle may not have been warm or bright (no fireplaces and small windows) it was certainly a statement in the landscape, designed to impress upon all who saw it that this was the centre of power in this part of the world.

The Castle originally had two floors (ground and first) and a mezzanine under a vault in the main tower. Above this was the principle chamber and above that were the roof and battlements. The floors of the turret (foreground, above) did not line up with the floors of the main tower, but were offset and reached by a series of stairs.

The ground floor was probably used for storage and perhaps public business. It had a wooden ceiling that formed the floor of the room above it (first floor). You can also see the corbels that supported the beams that formed the base for the floor, as well as the large sockets into which the beams were set. If this castle followed the pattern of others, there was no access from the ground floor to any floor above it – no stairway or ladder.

Still visible are the bar holes for the door as well as the spud stone and hanging eye – this was how the door was hung and how it turned. Can you make them out just to the left of the arch above – the spud stone is close to the ground and the hanging eye is level with the top of the arch.

The first floor was a more complex room and it had a mezzanine (you can see the corbels for it) under the vault. From the outside, a set of steps ascended to the raised entry and once you were at this door you could go straight ahead into the first floor room, or turn left and ascend a mural staircase to the floor above the vault. That staircase became spiral further up.

In this first floor room were two other doorways. The first (above), on the west side, was to a mural chamber that included the first floor garderobe or toilet (fifteenth century indoor plumbing!) – more on that later. The second (below) gave onto a short flight of steps leading downward to a vaulted chamber in the turret.* 

This chamber is one of the most interesting features of Dunmanus Castle, because in the floor is a hatch or trap-door which is the only access to yet another small, vaulted windowless cell below.

We know about this cell because there’s a hole in the wall that allows us to see into it – and even go into it. 

Once you’re inside, you realise that originally you would have been in the pitch black and that the only way in or out was the trapdoor in the ceiling. Was this a dungeon? An oubliette? It certainly could have functioned as such, and there are historic accounts of prisoners being confined in such spaces in Irish castles. 

But there are other possible explanations. Mark Samuels, in his Tower Houses of West Cork, speculates that this is in fact a cistern, fed from below, filled in over the years with debris so that it is now impossible to see how deep it went. There are identical features, he says, at Kilcoe and Monteen tower houses. It would have been a significant advantage, especially during a siege, to have a source for water.

However, the best evidence for the use of rooms like this comes from the excavations of Barryscourt Castle, near Carrigtwohill, east of Cork City. Here’s what the authors of this section of the report, Dave Pollock and Conleth Manning conclude about its function.

The ground floor, originally accessed only through a trapdoor in its vault, has in the past been regarded as a prison or dungeon. The more likely explanation is that it was a safe vault or basement strongroom, where cash and records were kept securely, and could be accessed with the aid of a ladder when required. The room above this, referred to variously in other cases as the accounting room or counting house, was where an officer of the Manor called the receiver or cofferer worked. He documented all produce and commodities coming into the castle and made payments as necessary. At Barryscourt this room was only accessible through a small external doorway . . . It is interesting that good examples of accounting rooms with basement strong rooms under them, accessed through trap doors, are found in some late 14th century great towers in England such as Bolton Castle and Warkworth Castle.


Barryscourt Castle Co Cork, Archaeology, History and Architecture, Dave Pollock, ED.
Published by the National Monuments Service, 2017,

There is, of course, no access nowadays to the upper floors of Dunmanus Castle, but we know that the top floor was the ‘solar’ – the largest and most commodious chamber reserved for the Chief and his family. It was also where he entertained, and there are accounts of the lavishness with which guests were received. Take a look at my post, Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of) to see how the brilliant artist JG O’Donoghue, has managed to show us the internal layout of a tower house. Here is his image of the upper floors and wall walk.

From that chamber, a set of stair led up to the battlements, where a wall walk would have surrounded the pitched roof. The wall walk was protected by a set of stepped merlons and crenels in the style known as Irish Crenellations – Kilcoe gets these exactly right.

My final note is on the garderobe, or rather, garderobes, since there was one off the first floor and another at the level of the solar. The chute which served both of them, was divided down the middle by a set of perpendicular slabs set into the inner wall (above and below). 

When I photographed Dunmanus in 2016 these perpendicular slabs were in place. However, as you can see below, by five years later two of them have fallen.

While these particular slabs may not be integral to the cohesion of the building, every stone that falls or slips weakens the overall structure and is another step towards ruination. It would be very sad indeed if Dunmanus Castle is not here in its current state for future generations.

*I am grateful to a friend who shall remain nameless (but who is a relative of Spiderman) for the photographs of the turret room and staircase. Do not attempt to access these spaces.

Dunlough, or Three Castle Head

It’s actually amazing that in all the years we’ve been writing Roaringwater Journal (since 2012), we’ve never written before about Three Castle Head in detail, although we’ve mentioned it lots and visit it often. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful places in West Cork, perhaps in Ireland, and certainly one of the most interesting. It’s one of The Castles of Ivaha.

To come over the brow of the hill on a sunny day and catch your first glimpse of Three Castle Head is breathtaking, so let’s describe first what you actually see in front of you. Instead of three distinct castles, what you see is a long wall, known as a curtain wall, punctuated by three towers. The wall stretches from a precipitous cliff on the south west to a lake on the north east end, and it is this lake that gives this place its Irish name of Dunlough (from Dún Loch, or Fort of the Lake).

The lake may have been held back at one point at the north east end where it drains into the sea – a long wall stretches partly across it here – or this wall may have been part of the fortification system for the whole promontory. 

The curtain wall would have constituted a formidable defence for the area behind it – the cliff makes it impregnable on the west side, while the lake forms a barrier on the east. Our old friend Thomas J Westropp visited Dunlough in about 1914, when there was more to see on the ground of the pre-curtain wall fortifications, wrote up his observations, and supplied a drawing.* More on his conclusions later. For convenience, I will use his terminology for the three towers, although they are not necessarily what a modern medieval historian would use. He called the largest tower, located more or less in the middle of the wall, the Keep; the one immediately to the east the Turret, and the one closest to the lake the Gatehouse. You might like to have a good read of the posts Tower House Tutorial Part I and Part II to help you make sense of what follows.

The wall and the three towers are very finely built, using the rubble construction method, where both sides of the wall are shaped with stones carefully chosen for their straight edges, and the interior is filled with rubble. Mark Samuels, in his discussion of the construction of this tower says:

A proper lime mortar, quite hard, white and capable of adhering to the stones was used in the basebatter. However, at second-floor level, the mortar was little more than earth and the building stands entirely by virtue of the careful laying of the stones. The unusual drystone construction gives it a ‘vernacular’ air which is a peculiarity of this stronghold.

The Tower Houses of West Cork by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, 1998

There is evidence of little mortar being used where the interior of the curtain walls can be seen, so this was a very skilful job indeed of ‘dry stone’ construction. Where mortar is discernible, however, it appears to be the local blue till, rendered into a kind of mud, rather than limestone-based mortar, and this has robbed the walls of some cohesion, so that they crumble more quickly once they start deteriorating. For a fairly thorough outline of what’s involved, see my post Building a Stone Wall. The curtain wall is likely to have had a rampart or wall walk, but no sign of this remains. Our budding archaeologist companions on our recent visit are taking a good look at the construction, below.

The Keep is the kind of tower house that the O’Mahonys were building all over Ivaha (The Mizen) in the 15th century and is typical of those towers, with a few interesting variations. There are two entrances, one above the other, denoting that this was, in common with all the other O’Mahony tower house, a ‘Raised Entry’ castle. However, unlike the others, the entries are surrounded by a small forecourt. Typically, the ground-level entry gave access only to the ground and first floors and there was no access to the upper, or residential floors (those above the vault) from it. The residential floors were accessed by means of a staircase inside the raised entry: it runs inside the wall to the right of the doorway.

Above that floor is the vault, which would have separated the lower floors from the upper floors where the household of the chieftain lived or where they would have entertained visitors. Some of the O’Mahony Castles, where they survive sufficiently to asses them, had a continuous vault, such as the one at Dunmanus. However, in others, and this is the case in the Keep at Dunlough, the Vault is formed by archways, upon which great slatey slabs have been laid to form the floor above. In the Keep, you can still see the impression in the mortar overlaying the arches of the wicker used to build these wicker-centred arches.

There would have been at least one and probably two more floors above the arch/vault – the residential floors. These were not comfortable dwellings – there were no fireplaces and the windows, although bigger than the lower floors, would not have let in much light. Above the top floor, a wall walk would have patrolled by look-outs. 

Westropp christened the middle tower (below) the Turret as it is the slimmest of the three. There is no evidence of a stairway so the floors were reached by means of ladders. Unlike the other two towers, which were built straddling the curtainwall, this one has three of its sides outside the wall, with the entrance through the wall on the north side.

The gatehouse is perhaps the most complex of the three towers. At its base is an arched passageway, now with the collapse of ages completely blocking it.

Because it’s difficult to really see this tower now, I will give you Westropp’s description of it from his 1914 visit:

The entrance had inner and outer arches, which were closed and barred from the inside, I presume lest anyone should get into the enclosed hill, hide till night, and then open the gate treacherously. The outer gate is 6 feet 10 inches wide, the inner, 6 feet 3 inches and 9 feet 8 inches apart ; they have slightly pointed arches. From the interspace a small door opens into a little court, or rather passage, round the other two sides of the gate tower. This turret has a vaulted basement 9 feet by 9 feet 9 inches, and walls 4 feet thick, with a loophole, commanding the outer face of the gate. There are two stories or lofts, reached by a ladder through a trap-door and under another vault. The second floor has slits in each face ; the third, one to the south, and a torn gap westward above the gate. Over the upper vault is a little gabled attic, with an ope overlooking the lake. A small stair runs spirally up the north-west corner. The walls having been very thin there, have fallen, or been broken, down to the basement vault. A short wall runs from the gatehouse out into the lake. 

Westropp, 1915 (see footnote)

The small spiral staircase can be clearly see where the outer wall has fallen away (above).

Several sources tell us that this is the oldest of the O’Mahony Castles, built in 1207 by Donagh the Migratory O’Mahony – there are references in Annals to a ‘castle at Dun Locha’. Modern scholarship on castles tends to agree that there were structures called castells before the coming of the Normans, but it is clear that they did not look like these tower houses. It may be that the reference in the annals is to Dunloe in Kerry, but it may also be that there was indeed a castell here in 1207. If there was, it was not what we are looking at now: any analysis of its construction places it firmly in the fifteenth century. 

Once again, we turn to Westropp. When he  visited Dunlough in about 1914 there was more to see on the ground of the pre-curtain wall fortifications, and he wrote up his observations, and supplied a drawing (above). This was an ancient promontory fort, he said, dating to well before the  castle-building era, and he traced the line of the fort bank through the remains of fosses, or ditches, vestigial but still visible. The next phase was the building of a wall, and this may well have been the castell of 1207. It follows a line south-west to north-east, at a different angle to the curtain wall. He was able to make out a gate feature near the cliff. This was demolished, he said, to build the curtain wall we see today.

I agree with the broad strokes of Westropp’s analysis. Yes this is an old stronghold of the O’Mahony clan – and what you are looking at today was not built in 1207, but built on top of the 1207 fortifications. The O’Mahonys went on a castle-building spree in the 1400s and the Dunlough curtain wall and towers, in terms of their architecture and their similarity with all the other O’Mahony castles, fits with that timeframe. 

But all of that is dry as dust – who can worry about a dating timeframe when what presents itself to your view is so beautiful, so perfectly situated and so hopelessly romantic? So let’s take a vote – is this Ireland most beautiful castle? Hands up who agrees with me!

One last word – for many years Three Castle Head was off limits as a private farm. In recent years the owners have been welcoming visitors and this is gratefully acknowledged. However, the increased footfall is coming with a cost in wear and tear. Look at the walls above – these are fragile ruins: knocking off one loose stone can have a catastrophic effect on the building envelope.

It’s also dangerous to go clambering over unstable ruins like this. So, a heartfelt plea – if you visit, and I hope you do, PLEASE STAY OFF THE WALLS! I was pleased to see a new notice up about this on our most recent visit, and indeed visitors seemed more respectful than they had when I was last there (above). If we stay away from the walls, hopefully they will stand to delight us for more generations to come.

*Fortified Headlands and Castles in Western County Cork. Part I. From Cape Clear to Dunmanus Bay by Thomas Johnson Westropp Source: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: 1914 – 1916, Vol. 32 pp. 249-286, (accessed at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25504178

Kilcoe Castle – A Magnificent Reconstruction

Kilcoe Castle has been wonderfully restored and conserved by Jeremy Irons. His work allows us to see what a 15th century castle would have looked like in the landscape and has saved a precious piece of our heritage. This is important as there are so few castles that have been conserved here and lots that have disappeared or are in danger of doing so. Before you read on you might like to refresh your understanding of our West Cork castles, or Tower Houses, by reading When is a Castle?; Tower House Tutorial, Part 1; Tower House Tutorial, Part 2; or Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of)

First of all, let’s address the issue of the colour of the exterior lime render, since this has been controversial. In fact, the only reason it’s been criticised is that people are not used to seeing castles as they originally stood, since the lime render has long ago disappeared from them, leaving the familiar bare stone walls that people have assumed was how they looked from the start. But all castles were rendered – without that they would have been porous and running with water inside and out.

This is JG O’Donoghue’s reconstruction drawing (used with permission) of what a fifteenth century tower house would have looked like. It was based on Kilcrea Castle. Note the white render and note also that another white castle can be seen in the distance

And the render was coloured! There is evidence of all kinds of additions that would have added colour, including animal fats, blood and hair, flour, shell, sand and stone rubble. The plasterer had his formula and also used what was available locally, materials that would increase cohesion and improve drying time. Irish places names abound in references to coloured castles – just Google the words “castle Ireland” and then put white, black, red, green in front of it and see how many there are. Or look for Irish equivalents, such as Castlederg – for Caisleán Dearg, meaning Red Castle. There’s even a Castleboy in Meath that comes from Caisleán Buí, meaning yellow castle. So the choice of colour was not idiosyncratic or random but well grounded in historical precedents. The render was essential to keep the castle dry and will have to be renewed occasionally as it does eventually wash away – which is why very few examples have survived from the fifteenth century.

The other reason to include colouring elements in the render was to make the castle stand out in the landscape. These were statement residences and the statement was one of power and prestige. They were meant to be seen from a long way off so that nobody could be in any doubt who was the most important person in the neighbourhood. In West Cork, they were also meant to be seen from other castles – those built either by members of the same or another family (the McCarthys, O’Mahonys, O’Driscolls, O’Sullivans or O’Donovans). Kilcoe was a McCarthy castle: the McCarthys were the overlords of all the West Cork clans and this castle was inserted right into the middle of territory controlled by the O’Mahony’s and the O’Driscolls as a constant reminder of the hierarchy. Accordingly, Kilcoe is the largest castle in Roaringwater Bay and has a unique design that incorporates an additional corner tower, distinguishing it from all the other castes around it. There is only one other West Cork castle of the same design – Dunmanus Castle on Dunmanus Bay, a castle of the O’Mahonys.

It was also important that castles could be seen from the water, because control of the fisheries was what gave the great West Cork families their vast wealth. Salted herring and pilchards were staples of the European diet in the Middle Ages because there were so many fasting days on which eating of meat was forbidden and because fresh food wasn’t always readily available in the winter. The O’Mahonys and O’Driscolls catered to the huge fleets of Spanish, French, Portuguese and British fishing boats that plied the waters of Roaringwater Bay, providing, for hefty fees, permission to fish in ‘their’ waters, fish processing facilities and salt in several ‘fish palaces’ along the shore, fresh water, and taverns with fine wines and (sorry) accommodating women. The McCarthy’s must have been involved in this lucrative trade too, but it is also likely that their objective in building Kilcoe was to keep an eye on the the ‘take’ so that they could extract, as befitted those at the top of the food chain, their due share from those who owed them submission and therefore were obligated to yield up hefty donations on a yearly basis.

Castles such as Kilcoe were heavily fortified. Mostly the inhabitants were worried about incursions by other Irish families. It was not until after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 that the forces of the British Crown came to lay siege to Kilcoe. Thanks to its defensive features and siting Kilcoe was able to hold out longer than any other West Cork castle. The McCarthys abandoned it after Kinsale but an O’Driscoll held on until finally surrendering in 1603. What were the features of this castle that allowed it to resist so successfully?

Fist of all, it was sited on a small island. Like a few other West Cork castles, it was connected by a causeway that could be destroyed at will, cutting off access to the castle. It was surrounded by a strong bawn wall, which is clearly visible now as it has been reconstructed. The wall was punctured by arrow loops and had a wall walk at the top where crenellations provided cover for archers. The roof of the tower also had a wall walk and crenellations – in this case they 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. The crenellations have been expertly reconstructed as part of the restoration of the castle.

Heavy ordinance such as cannons were not yet staples of siege warfare in Ireland – it was Cromwell who unleashed their destructive force half a century later. When the castle finally surrendered, it was intact. Over the years, of course, it fell into disrepair and finally into ruin. It was shored up and some work was done by the Samuels family, but when they sold it to Jeremy Irons the restoration program got underway.

What Kilcoe Castle looked like before reconstruction

This is a private home and I have never been inside it. But if you are curious you can see lots of interior photographs here: https://jeremyirons.net/category/kilcoe-castle/. My objective in this post has been to emphasise the importance of the restoration of this magnificent tower house so that it will be a highlight of West Cork heritage for generations to come, as well as to acknowledge the solid research that went into the reconstruction program, resulting in a spectacular structure that is a superb and historically-accurate addition to our West Cork landscape. Thank you, Jeremy Irons and your team, from all of us in West Cork.