Ireland’s verdant green countryside is dotted with castles, from imposing stately edifices to atmospheric ruins, and no visit is complete without climbing to the turret-top of at least one of these beauties. Whether you’re looking for weekend activities to keep the kids busy, or you fancy swatting up on your Celtic legends and Irish history, here’s my pick of the best castles in Ireland:
There may be no turrets here, and not even a hint of a moat, but this collection of historic buildings in the heart of the Fair City is still well worth a visit. Wander at will around the outside of the Norman Tower, the nineteenth century Chapel Royal and 18th-century Bedford Hall, or take the tour of the State Apartments. It’s the perfect place to get some culture in before you hit the bars.
Once you’ve experienced the best of Dublin, head nine miles north to the 12th-century Malahide Castle. In addition to the castle and gardens, the parklands are full of things to do for the whole family. A tour of the castle will give you glimpses of beautiful rooms like the Oak Room and the Gothic Great Hall as well as a substantial painting collection and gorgeous period furniture. After you’ve toured the castle, take your pick of everything from shopping around the museum shop and retail store to exploring the walled Talbot Botanic Gardens or taking a bicycle tour.
For over 800 years until 1976, the Talbot family home was Malahide Castle, on the edge of a handsome suburban village in north County Dublin. The three-storey tower house is the only bit that remains of the original castle, built in 1185; much of the rest was added in subsequent centuries, including the 18th-century drawing rooms and the Gothic revival corner turrets, built according to 19th-century fashion. The 45-minute guided tour takes you through much of the house to the Great Hall, where 11 members of the Talbot family ate supper before dying at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Ireland’s largest Cambro-Norman castle, measuring a massive 30,000 m². You can opt for a to check out the 13th-century great hall, lime kilns dating between the 12th and 19th centuries, a defensive tower, and several other surviving structures. I would highly recommend a guided tour of the three-story keep instead of wandering around the grounds yourself.
Persian rugs, French tapestries and fine Jacobean architecture unrivaled in beauty and style by any other of its kind in Ireland; it’s hard to imagine that before the 1990s Donegal Castle sat in ruins. Now, proudly restored and standing tall on the banks of the River Eske, it makes for a fascinating visit in the heart of this pleasant little town.
Commanding a crossing on the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle dominates the eponymous city and demands a visit. Restored to its 1830s glory, the interior is truly lavish and on a tour here you’ll see the library, the drawing room and the impressive Long Gallery, which occupies an entire wing.
You’ve heard of the Blarney Stone, of course, but there’s much more to this castle than just the chance to grab the “gift of the gab” by kissing the legendary Stone of Eloquence. Keep your hands to yourself in the Poison Garden and stick to the boardwalk through the bog, before climbing the steps to the stone (you know you want to) and joining the queue to lean backwards off the parapet and kiss the stone. Save this until late in the day or arrive early to avoid the crowds.
Suggested Reading: 10 things to do at Blarney Castle in Cork
The Rock of Cashel
You get plenty of bang for your buck at the Rock of Cashel, the rearing outcrop of limestone home to a full crop of medieval buildings including a twelfth century round tower, thirteenth century gothic cathedral and a fifteenth century castle. There’s plenty to see here, but perhaps the best moment comes when you take a step back, and admire the collection of turrets, towers and crenellations from afar. You also won’t notice the numerous coach parties from a distance!
Location-wise, Dunluce is a stunner – a ruined castle perched on a stone crag overlooking the sea. It was built in the early 16th century by the McQuillan family before it was seized in 1550 by the MacDonnell clan, who later took on the title of earls of Antrim. The castle has known its fair share of drama: the Girona galleass was wrecked on the rocks beneath it during the Spanish Armada of 1588, with only nine survivors among its crew of 1300; 51 years later, part of the castle collapsed into the sea along with seven servants. It is thought that Dunluce was the inspiration for CS Lewis’ castle Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia
This fairytale-perfect 13th-century castle was once owned by the Guinness family (of stout fame) and is now a five-star hotel with 82 guest rooms, including the Presidential Suite with original fireplace, luxurious spa, its own cinema and views over Lough Corrib.
Lough Eske Castle
Lough Eske Castle looks like it came straight from the pages of your favourite fairytale storybook. Located just outside Donegal town, this historic estate sites serenely on the shores of a lake, offering stunning views. Lough Eske Castle is the only 5-star castle hotel in Donegal County and has received several awards including luxury hotel of the year 2017. Whether you are interested in taking advantage of Country Donegal’s adventure activities, or looking for a quiet and relaxing break, Lough Eske is a perfect fairytale castle hotel.