castle road trips in Ireland
From the rocky wilderness of The Burren to the craggy Atlantic Coast, County Clare is the perfect place to embark on a five-day castle road trip. Take in panoramic views over Galway Bay, and visit some of the best preserved medieval strongholds in the UK.
Begin your journey on the south-eastern shore of Galway Bay, located to the south-west of County Galway. Here you will find Dunguaire Castle: a 16th century tower house commanding sweeping views over the North Atlantic Ocean.
Dunguaire Castle is a 16th-century tower house, built by the O’Hynes clan in 1520. The site is believed to have once been the royal palace of Guaire Aidhne, the legendary king of Connacht and progenitor of the clan. Although no important medieval history was made here, the stronghold contributed heavily to Irish culture. During the Celtic Revival – a 20th-century trend which renewed interest in aspects of Celtic culture – Dunguaire Castle was used as a venue for meetings of the literary revivalists, such as W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
Dunguaire Castle is one of the most visited and photographed castles in the country – and it’s easy to see why. From April to October, medieval banquets are held nightly, where merriment and music abound. Guests gather in the Great Hall to be welcomed by costumed entertainers, who recite Irish literature and serve goblets of mead.
Before settling down for the night, it’s worth making the trip westbound to O’Brien’s Tower. Perched on a headland at the Cliffs of Moher, O’Brien’s Tower commands breath-taking views over Hag’s Head and Doolin.
This whitewashed structure was built in 1835 by Cornelius O'Brien, a descendant of Brian Boru, as a way to attract tourism to the area. Cornelius was clearly a man ahead of his time, as tourists still flock to the area to photograph Loop Head and the Mountains of Kerry.
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The following morning, head east via the N85 and make a stop at Craggaunowen: a 16th-century castle and award-winning archaeological open-air museum. This large expanse of parkland is a living museum of homesteads and artefacts that illustrate what Celtic life might have been like 1,000 years ago.
Travel back in time and visit The Brendan Boat: a vessel made of hide in which Tim Severin sailed from Ireland to the United States. Experience first-hand how the Celts lived on their reconstructed lake-dwelling, and visit the Ring Fort: a true reproduction of a farmer’s house, dating from the 4th or 5th century.
Craggaunowen Castle itself is a typical example of a fortified tower house, built around 1550 by John MacSioda MacNamara. This was the ordinary residence of the gentry at the time and stands strong today. Visit the reconstructed cooking site and see how hunters whittled wooden goblets and cooked venison during the Bronze Age.
In the afternoon, travel 10 miles south to Bunratty Castle, passing Finn Lough and Rosroe Lough. Built circa 1425, Bunratty Castle boasts a rich collection of tapestries, art and period furnishings.
The four flanking towers consist of three storeys, which house a number of small chambers and 15 privies. Explore beyond the castle walls and take in Bunratty Folk Park: a 26-acre plot complete with farmhouses, a church and an enchanting walled garden.
Bunratty Castle is famous for hosting nightly medieval banquets. Cross over the drawbridge to the sound of a kilted piper playing a welcome tune. Dine on sumptuous food and honey mead in the Great Hall, and relax to the sound of harpists serenading you by candle-light.
Want a royal experience in County Clare? Bunratty Castle also offers luxury accommodation and indulgent spa treatments.
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Follow the N24 and N74 south-east for 48 miles and make your next stop at the Rock of Cashel. Situated at the heart of the Golden Vale – an area of rolling pastureland - on an outcrop of limestone, the Rock of Cashel commands bewitching views over Tipperary.
Rising from a grassy plain, this archaeological site is brimming with ancient fortifications: a 12th-century round tower, a Gothic cathedral and a 15th-century residential castle. You will also find Cormac Chapel: a 12th-century Romanesque sanctuary, home to decorated arches, carved corbels and beautiful frescos.
Commissioned by the King of Munster, Cormac Mac Cárthaigh, Cormac Chapel was a major Christian centre in the early 12th century. However, the Rock of Cashel dates back much further. In the 4th century, this strategic hill was chosen as a base by the Eóghanachta clan from Wales, who went on to conquer much of Munster.
Enter through the Hall of the Vicars Choral: a 15th-century building containing a small museum of artefacts excavated from the site. The round tower nestles into the cathedral’s north transept and rises 28 metres high with six well-preserved floors.
From here you can enter Cormac’s Chapel and study beautiful paintings which depict scenes from the Nativity. At the west end of the chapel is a sarcophagus believed to be the tomb of Cormac himself, decorated in beautifully carved beasts and serpents.
The grounds around the building are perfect for long walks and include an extensive graveyard. Amidst the graves are a 19th-century high cross and mausoleum for local landowners, the Scully family. Walk to the west side of the Rock and try to spot the ruins of Hore Abbey: a monastery given to the Cistercian monks in 1272.
Begin the penultimate day of your castle road trip at Cahir Castle, just 12 miles south of Cashel. This fortification was built in 1142 by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond, on the site of an earlier fort.
Nestled between the swirling River Suir and Cahir Park, the imposing stronghold has been the setting for a number of sieges and bombardments. Although the castle was considered the strongest in the country, the Earl of Essex took Cahir in only a few days during the Nine Years War. James Gallda Butler, the castle occupant at the time, famously jumped in the River Suir and fled to safety. During the Irish Confederate Wars in 1647, Lord Inchiquin besieged the castle once more. And so too did Oliver Cromwell, in 1650.
The castle that we see today is an amalgamation of architecture from different periods; many of the courts were rebuilt and expanded by the Butlers. The castle’s defensive walls and well-preserved tower make for great photo opportunities. Take an intimate guided tour and find an excellent audio-visual show which informs visitors about the history of the castle.
In the afternoon, visit one of the most famous landmarks in Ireland: the Blarney Stone. For over 200 years, this legendary stone has been kissed by world statesmen, literary giants and millions of tourists. The Blarney Stone is a single block of bluestone: made from the same material as the megaliths of Stonehenge.
The Stone’s origins are hotly debated, but one common tale is that it is half of the original Stone of Scone, upon which the first King of Scots was seated during his coronation in 847.
Once upon a time, visitors wishing to kiss the Stone had to be held by the ankles and lowered head first over the battlements if they wanted to acquire “luck” and “power” from the mythical stone. Today, it is a lot safer: guests lean backwards (holding onto an iron railing) from the parapet walk.
Blarney Castle itself is fit for exploration. Visit the Badger’s Cave, where the main garrison fled from Cromwell’s army; crawl down to The Dungeon and explore underground passages; and find stunning open vistas at the top of the battlements.
Children will love wandering down the Wishing Steps and entering the Witch’s Kitchen: a dank space believed to be home to the very first Irish cave dwellers. If you arrive early in the morning, you could see the dying embers of a fire said to be lit by the Blarney Castle witch.
Before embarking on the final day of your trip, get a good night’s rest at Blarney Castle Hotel. This charming hotel boasts old world charm, a traditional Irish welcome and is only a short stroll from Blarney Castle.
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For the final leg of your journey, head to Blackrock Castle: a 16th-century castellated fortification situated a short distance from Cork city centre.
Commanding stunning views across the River Lee, Blackrock Castle is home to an interactive astronomy exhibition. Combining the past and the present, visitors can enjoy daily planetarium shows and tours of the castle dungeons.
Blackrock Castle was built in 1582, after the citizens of Cork appealed to Queen Elizabeth I to build a fort as defence against pirates and the Spanish. The watch tower - which still stands today - was used as a sentinel to safely guide shipping to and from the port.
Blackrock Castle is referenced in Cork City’s crest, which reads in Latin: “Statio Bene Fida Carinis”, meaning “a safe harbour for ships”. In 1827, the castle was destroyed by fire following the annual Corporation banquet. Two years later, it was rebuilt and enlarged in Gothic Revival style.
‘Cosmos at the Castle’ will captivate young explorers. This award-winning show takes guests on an exciting tour of the universe, using large cinema screens and individual touch screens. Send an encrypted message to a distant planet using the Pan Galatic Station, and save Blackrock Castle from an impending comet!
Beyond the castle walls, Cork is brimming with activities and attractions. Fota Wildlife Park, a 100-acre zoo for endangered animals, is close by, while Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture.