If you’re going to Ireland, you’re probably going to visit a castle. But which? There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of manor houses and fortresses and citadels and strongholds and keeps and holdfasts and... you get it. So we’ve rounded up those castles you most certainly have to visit, and ranked them from “you should stop by!” to “if you leave Ireland without seeing this one, what are you even doing with your life?”
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14. Carrickfergus Castle
Country Antrim, Northern Ireland, est 1177
Castles are no strangers to battles, but this waterside stronghold played a part in a pretty important one (to us anyway): the American Revolution. Did the battle matter in the grand scheme of the war? Nope. Did it piss off the British a whole lot? It sure did. Upon learning of British ship, HMS Drake, anchored off the coast at Carrickfergus, Scottish-American captain John Paul Jones won America’s first victory against a ship in the Royal British Navy when he lured the doomed vessel away from the castle.
What it’s like today: The castle is open to the public and has a bunch of exhibits if you want to get a feel for the tumultuous lifestyle that was the middle ages, when people wore bitchin’ suits of armor but had no running water, and went to the bathroom outside, and couldn't even Netflix and chill.
13. Cahir Castle
Tipperary, Republic of Ireland, est 1142
If your idea of medieval times was forged in an immersive themed restaurant, you’d better pack your bags -- it’s time for a real education. Situated on a small, rocky island in the River Suir, Cahir Castle is the best preserved medieval castle in Ireland, and your crash course in everything you would have needed to make it in King Arthur’s court. The tinyness of the island made it hard to lay siege to -- that is, until cannonballs became a thing.
What it’s like today: If the fact that Excalibur was filmed here doesn’t move you, the cannonball that’s been stuck in the wall of the northeast tower since the Nine Years’ War might do the trick. Cahir is open to the public and while you’re welcome to visit alone, booking a guide helps get the full breadth of the site’s history.
12. Enniskillen Castle
Fermanagh County, Northern Ireland, est 1567
This castle on the banks of the River Erne played a strategic part in history, as one of the only passes into Ulster during 16th century Irish rebellions against the English. It was also used as an English fort in the 17th century (uhh the rebellions didn’t go so well), and later as a military barracks.
What’s it like today: Enniskillen Castle is home to two museums, the Fermanagh County Museum, which focuses on the county’s cultural, natural, and traditional history, and the Inniskillings Museum, a military museum that displays regimental regalia. The castle is undergoing renovations this year, and is about to get a visitor’s center-- further cementing its role as a gateway to the history of the entire county.
11. Ross Castle
Meath County, Republic of Ireland, est 1537
Ross Castle, often mistaken for the grander castle in Killarney of the same name, may not have towers and turrets and other affectations of grandeur, but it’s got a lot of character. It played host to the legendary Irishman Myles "the Slasher" O’Reilly, who spent the night at Ross before holding off over one thousand British soldiers with his paltry force of 100 men. It also happens to be one of the most haunted spots in Ireland; the spirit of a young woman is said to linger in the tower where she died of a broken heart (her lover drowned when they tried to cross a river to run away together).
What it’s like today: Ross Castle 2016 style is a quaint bed and breakfast with modern amenities. Stay the night next to the rippling Lough Sheelin, where you can fish, sail, and ponder the end of young love in its depths while the wailing of the heartbroken maiden’s ghost lulls you into a terrified sleep in the ancient tower.
10. Ballynahinch Castle
County Galway, Republic of Ireland, est 1684ish
A pirate queen used to live here. Well... sort of. The house belonged to the first husband of Grace O’Malley, the Chieftain of the O’Malley clan. She took on the role of Chieftain after her father’s death, inheriting not only his title but his fleet of trading ships. She would frequently stop ships passing through waters off her lands to extort money or a portion of their cargo for guaranteed safe passage -- earning her the nickname the Pirate Queen.
What it’s like today: If you want to stay at a castle that isn’t as frou-frou as the perfectly manicured Ashford Castle on this list, Ballynahinch is the country-quaint -- but still luxury -- castle for you. Go salmon fishing, bike the country roads, or hike the surrounding trails.
9. Hillsborough Royal Castle
Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, est 1770s
There are lots of Royals in the United Kingdom, but this one houses THE Royals when they come to visit Northern Ireland. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth has probably taken out her rollers in this very complex. The castle is also the official residence of the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland, as well as any visiting international guests of importance.
What it’s like today: The property is undergoing a renovation, called the Hillsborough Castle Project, to polish up The Throne Room, Drawing Room, and Staircase Hall’s original features -- many of which were lost to fire in 1934.
8. Crom Castle
County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, Est 1837
If you can’t live with royalty, will nobility do? Book a long weekend at Crom and the Lord and Lady of this grand Victorian style who live on-site will personally welcome you. Airs of grandeur surround the property, as sections of the castle were worked on by the same architect who designed parts of Buckingham Palace itself, Edward Blore.
What it’s Like Today: Today the castle sees regular visitors, weddings, is the site of the BBC comedy drama Blandings on BBC, and probably more Conan the Barbarian references than anywhere else. You can also visit the ruins of the former castle nearby.
7. Leap Castle
County Offaly, Republic of Ireland, est 1250
The site of many terrified ghost hunters looking into the camera close enough for you to count the beads of sweat on their upper lip, Leap castle has inspired countless paranormal investigation visits because of its bloody history, which just keeps giving. It's built on a site originally used by druids during initiation ceremonies; one brother killed another while he was giving a mass in what is now known as "The Bloody Chapel,” a little girl fell to her death from the battlements, and a resident accidentally summoned some sort of spirit from the underworld that people keep comparing to a sheep. Spooky.
What it’s like today: Still pretty freaking haunted! You can visit the castle by appointment only, but maybe leave the ouija board at home.
County Clare, Republic of Ireland est - originally 1250, current iteration 1425
You’d think a castle would only have to be laid to waste once, or at most twice, before its inhabitants got the message. But the current Bunratty castle is actually the fourth iteration of this fortress, due to warring clans of Irish and English over the centuries. Maybe its existence upon a former Viking trading camp had something to do with all that bad luck.
What it’s like today: There are so many castles in Ireland to see, but not all of them hold the promise of indulging you in a medieval feast. Yup, you can book a banquet at Bunratty, and you’ll be waited on while you sit family style at long tables, ripping into turkey legs, fresh bread, and parsnip soup.
5. Castle Ward House
County Down, Northern Ireland, est 1760s
If you’re a filmmaker looking for a spot to shoot the 80 trillionth Jane Austen-inspired film, look no further than Castle Ward House. The mansion is famous for architecturally being a Frankenstein’s monster type of hybrid, if Frankenstein’s monster was made of fashion models instead of dead peasants, because this place is so dang pretty. Because the lord and lady of the house had differing tastes, the mansion’s outward facade is created in a Classical style complete with columns, while the back of the house overlooking the lake and patched countryside is Georgian Gothic with battlements -- a quirk that also reflects the house’s interiors as well. Marriage is compromise, unless you can get what you want.
What it’s like today: There’s a lot of cool stuff to do around here -- like checking out the old-fashioned laundry, corn, & saw mills, the farmyard, and parkland walks -- but you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor after taking a look at this place first. Oh, and get ready to freak out: the castle’s farmhouse also doubles as Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
4. Dunluce Castle
County Antrim, Northern Ireland, est 1500ish
With the perilously high Dunluce Castle facing steep drops into the ocean on three sides, we hope that once upon a time, no one was banking on sneaking into any towers using human hair. The castle’s history and the sea are intertwined -- take the legend of the entire kitchen falling off into the ocean one night (sorry, midnight snackers), and the very real treasure-laden wreck of a ship, the Girona, from the Spanish Armada crashing on the rocks nearby.
What it’s like today: While the crumbling ruins of Dunluce still stand today, preserved by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, they will surely live on forever through the castle’s own mobile phone app. Yup, this castle has an app with a whopping 500 downloads. For a more personal touch, you can opt for guided tours which can be arranged at the visitor’s center. No matter what you decide, be sure to stay for golden hour, when the sun sets over the ruined towers.
3. Ashford Castle
County Galway, Republic of Ireland, Est 1228
Pristine lawns, dreamy vines crawling up the side, towers and turrets -- yes, Ashford looks like it’s a few singing woodland creatures short of a fairy tale, but keep in mind that the castle changed hands many times over the years in typically bloody, medieval fashion before its genteel reincarnation into a five-star a hotel in 1939. A few big names have had their day here, as the property was once owned by the Guinness family -- yes, that Guinness family. Also, Pierce Brosnan got married there, and your mom was probably really sad about it!
What it’s like today: Nowadays, Ashford is a luxury hotel that is considered the pinnacle of castle living. On Hogwarts Halloween night, kids with allowances as big as your monthly paycheck descend in their wizarding robes for screenings of the Harry Potter movies. For the adults, pretending you’re some sort of king has never been easier because you can practice falconry on the premises.
2. Blarney Castle
County Cork, Republic of Ireland, est 1446
The biggest draw here, obviously, is the allure of kissing the Blarney Stone. There are many different legends as to how the stone made its way to the castle, like the one about the goddess Clíodhna, queen of the banshees, advising the builder of the castle, Cormac Laidir McCarthey, to kiss the stone on his way to court for the gift of eloquence, after which he subsequently incorporated it into the battlements for on-demand good luck. No matter what the legend, everyone’s in agreement that kissing the stone is said to confer Morgan Freeman levels of eloquence.
What It’s like today: You can visit the grounds and the castle and kiss the Blarney Stone yourself, if you’re okay with hanging upside down over a 10-story drop to lay one on the rock. If that sounds horrifying to you and you can afford to skip the gift of smooth-talk, check out the castle’s extensive grounds, which include a garden of toxic plants like opium, wolfsbane, mandrake, and ricin, to name a few. These plants were used for medicinal purposes in the Middle Ages, a time when "it will either kill you or cure you" was a risk worth taking.
1. The Rock of Cashel
County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland, Oldest building established in 1100
If you’re going to go to one medieval castle, you should probably make it the Rock of Cashel, one of the most visited heritage sites in all of Ireland. The Rock is the big one -- a walled complex consisting of a chapel, cathedral, and the castle, all nestled together on a plateau to scratch every medieval castle itch you’ve ever had in one go. There’s a mountain not far away from the castle with a large gap at the base called the Devil’s Bit. Legend has it the devil broke his teeth taking a bite out of the mountain and the Rock of Cashel fell from his mouth to where it stands today.
What it’s like today: The Rock is one of the most visited heritage sites in all of Ireland for good reason; it’s the whole package. The castle grounds are open all year for visitors with free entry the first Wednesday of every month, and is a five-minute walk from the town of Cashel, where you can visit the replica Folk Village depicting early country life in Ireland.
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