After a bit of a disappointing visit to Blarney Castle, and having already visited Kilkenny Castle and Rock of Cashel, I did wonder if maybe we had overdone it a little on the castles all in a row, despite my love for them. I hoped all the castle hopping wouldn’t take away from Ross Castle and lessen my enthusiasm for it. I need not have worried. Ross Castle is a great place to visit and I’d definitely recommend a stop if you are in the Killarney area.
History of Ross Castle
Built for the O’Donaghue Chieftains during the early 15th century, Ross Castle is a typical tower house battlemented in the Irish fashion. It is one of the approximately 3,500 tower houses built in Ireland in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the 1500s the castle was contained within a strong stone bawn wall, outside of which would have likely been an earthen bank and wooden palisade which enclosed a courtyard. There were thatched houses in the area that were likely the homes of the O’Donaghue’s servants or hired soldiers.
In the 1700s the castle changed hands twice when the O’Donaghues were allied with the Earl of Desmond during his failed rebellion, and it finally fell into the hands of the McCarthy Mor family. At this time the large windows and bartizans were likely added to the structure. It was then granted to an English land surveyor named Sir Valentine Browne who, in 1688, built the fortified house against the side of the castle, of which you can still see the remains of the roof line ridge on the castle wall.
In the 1800s Ross Castle became a garrison, most of the bawn walls were removed, and the house Valentine Browne built was demolished. A barrack block was built, along with some other accommodations on the west side, all in preparation for an attack the English were expecting by the French after the 1798 uprising.
Today Ross Castle sits peacefully beside Lough Leane , which in Irish is Loch Lein meaning Lake of Learning. It is aptly named as it offers us a chance to learn about life in typical Irish tower house.
The only way to visit Ross Castle is by guided tour, but you’ll be quite pleased this is the case if your tour is as well done as the one we took. Our guide , Claudia, was excellent and really took the time to explain all the rooms, each of their parts, along with what life would have been like living in a castle such as that.
Starting on the Ground Floor in a guard room she talked about the great thickness of the walls and doors, along with the direction of the spiral staircase, all purposely built the way they were for defense. We then started climbing the quite steep and narrow staircase to see each of the rooms where the people actually lived. Right before we reached the first floor there is a little room with the infamous “murder holes” above the entrance. Can you imagine all the nasty and harmful stuff that would have been poured on to intruders’ heads in those days? Everything from heavy stones to molten lead to rotting corpses! Not exactly a welcome mat at the door eh?
On the First Floor there was another small room for servants to sleep but there wasn’t a fireplace and they had the unfortunate location of being near the (not so pleasant smelling) “garderobe“.
Up to the Second Floor where the family would have lived and life was a little better, though even up here the smell likely wouldn’t have been so great with so many people living in cramped quarters, along with the ever present dampness. Today when we visit castles they typically have these beautiful stone floors that have been swept clean, but in those days to help with insulation the floors would have been covered with rushes and straw and even that would have been contributing to the smell. And they sure didn’t have any Glade PlugIns for that fresh Hawaiian Breeze scent!
On the second floor we explored the Main Bedroom with its simple furniture, along with the Justice Room which was basically like the home office of the Lord of the house. It was here that he conducted all his private business.
Our final stop on the tour was the Top Floor which is where all the action and fun really happened. There was a great room that would have been the Main Hall used for eating and entertainment. Musicians would have been brought in to play and they even had their own gallery to play from. Under the gallery was a little pantry used for food prep and storage, but all of the cooking would have been done in the fireplace out in the Main Hall. Having the Main Hall up this high was no coincidence either- this was the furthest point from attackers!
Now you might be thinking, well that isn’t much to see. And really, no, for such a big building on the outside there really isn’t that much to see inside, but the guide made it so interesting that before we knew it we had climbed to the top of those very narrow stairs and had spent about 45 minutes learning about life in the castle. Looking out the big windows on the top floor are also great views out over the grounds and across Lough Leane to the mountains in Killarney National Park.
Visiting Ross Castle
Because the tours are guided only, you may want to plan a little in advance so you don’t have to wait around too long for the next tour after you arrive. But don’t fear. Even if you arrive a little too early for one tour there is a little room near the reception area that is worth checking out. In this room you’ll find a model of the castle clearly labeled and explained, along with lots of information about Ross Castle and tower houses in general. It was here that I learned a little about the differences between tower houses vs. other castles. Shall I share what I learned? You know I will!
Tower houses were built for local conflict only so defense was compromised a bit for convenience. For example, the entrance door was on the ground floor, instead of the first floor like earlier castles, which made it easier to attack but also a lot more convenient for everyday use. Also the gate of a tower house is very simple as compared to earlier castles that would have had an outer tower or “barbican” to defend the gate. Tomorrow when I show you around Trim Castle we’ll see an example of one such castle that has a barbican and a door that was very high up!
To read more about our adventures on our Ireland Road Trip, please feel free to check out these posts:
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