No one knows exactly how many castles Ireland has (for no other reason than there’s too many to count), but conservative estimates put it at around 30,000. Some are in ruins, some are intact, and some have been transformed from medieval fortresses into five-star luxury hotels. While choice is nice, it does come with a dilemma – namely, how do you decide which of those 30,000 to visit? Unless you’ve got all the time in the world, you can’t possibly pack them all in, but if you want our advice, these Irish castles are the most unmissable of them all.
20. Kilkenny Castle
As Ireland Travel Guides writes, Kilkenny Castle was originally built in 1195 by the Normans to control a fording-point of the River Nore and the junction of several routeways. Over the years, it’s been rebuilt, extended, and repurposed multiple times, and is now one of the few castles in Ireland to welcome visitors all year round. With fifty acres of parkland boasting lakes, formal rose gardens, and woodlands, it’s ideal for a stroll. There’s also a playground for kids, a tearoom and numerous orienteering trails to take advantage of.
19. Dunluce Castle
If you’ve ever watched “Game of Thrones,” you’ll already be familiar with Dunluce Castle, which served as the dramatic backdrop to many of the show’s episodes. Accessible only by bridge from the mainland, the castle is surrounded on each side by cliffs – something that proved excellent for defense, but less ideal for everyday living, as the resident MacDonnells found to their cost when they lost their kitchen to the ocean one stormy night in the 1630s. Although Dunluce has fallen into disrepair over the years, its impressive ruins and stunning location still make it one of the country’s most impressive castles.
18. Donegal Castle
Donegal Castle was originally built in 1474 by the O’Donnell clan, who once ranked among the most powerful Gaelic families in Ireland. Their power couldn’t stop the castle from being bought to its knees by the Nine Years’ War, but fortunately, English Captain Sir Basil Brooke was on hand to restore it to its former glory. According to Road Affair, it now ranks as one of the best castles in Ireland.
17. Malahide Castle
Located just nine miles north of Dublin is Malahide Castle, a fully restored medieval castle that served as the ancestral home of the Talbot family for almost 800 years. Today, it’s open to visitors – you’ll have to pay a fee and you can only visit as part of a tour, but with so much to see and do, it’s well worth the price. After you’ve explored the interior, make your way to the Talbot Botanic Garden, which boasts an incredible display of rare plants from the southern hemisphere. There are also woodland walks, a sports ground, a cricket pitch, a boules area, a golf course, and a host of other attractions to enjoy.
16. Ashford Castle
Why simply visit a castle when you could stay there? Ashford Castle is one of the very few castles in Ireland to offer guests the chance to stay overnight in one of its five-star, luxurious rooms. President Ronald Reagan has stayed there, John Wayne overnighted there, King George V made it his home for a few days, and John Lennon reputedly had a great time there. As you’d expect, it’s not cheap, but its mix of Victorian and medieval architecture, gloriously manicured grounds, and fascinating history make it worth the blowout.
15. Kylemore Castle
Kylemore Castle is nothing if not impressive. Built for British MP Mitchell Henry and his family in 1867, it took 100 men over 4 years to complete this 40,000 ft2, 70 room granite mega-castle. Along with the castle, the grounds boast a gothic cathedral, the Henry family mausoleum, the Benedictine monastery, Kylemore Abbey, and the largest walled garden in Ireland. To get the full experience, you’ll need to dedicate at least a day to it, although even then you might not be able to pack everything in. The one thing you shouldn’t miss no matter what is a quick pit stop at the abbey’s craft and design shop, which offers some amazing handmade chocolates and a great assortment of gifts to take away as a memento of your visit.
14. Dunguaire Castle
Ever since the Hynes clan built Dunguaire Castle in 1520, it’s been widely considered one of the country’s most impressive castles. The Hynes used it as their stronghold for centuries, but eventually relinquished it to writer, senator, and socialite Oliver St. John Gogarty in the 19th century. Over the years, it’s provided the setting for numerous films, including the 1969 Walt Disney movie “Guns in the Heather” and the 1979 film “North Sea Hijack.” Immensely photogenic, it’s well worth a visit during its opening season of April through September.
13. Birr Castle
Birr Castle is home to Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse. The Earl doesn’t mind visitors but prefers that they restrict their visits from May through August, so time your visit appropriately. If you do, you’ll be treated to a tour of the castle’s opulent interior and its equally impressive grounds. Chief attractions to watch out for include the Great Telescope, which served as the world’s largest telescope from 1845 to 1917, the oldest wrought iron bridge in Ireland, and the oldest photography darkroom in the world.
12. Dublin Castle
Named as one of the best castles to visit in Ireland by Trip Savvy, Dublin Castle has a long and often troubled history. For years, it housed offices for the UK government. When the Irish won independence in 1922, it was handed over to the leader of the Irish Rebellion, Michael Collins. It’s still home to several government offices, but certain areas (including the State Apartments, Medieval Undercroft, and Chapel Royal) are open to visitors.
11. Cahir Castle
Cahir Castle is nothing if not big, and while much of it has fallen into ruins over the years, its defense structures, keep and tower are still amazingly intact. On the northeast tower, you can even see a cannonball that’s been lodged in its wall ever since the Nine Years’ War. Although you’re welcome to explore independently, it’s worth taking the audiovisual tour to learn more about the fortress’ fascinating past.
10. Dromoland Castle
Dromoland Castle didn’t start out as very much. The first building on the site was a tower house built in the 15th century by someone known only as “Thomas, the son of Shane Mac Anerheny.” In the early 1800s, someone decided a tower house wasn’t grand enough so stuck a castle in its place. A couple of hundred years later, another bright spark decided a castle wasn’t profitable enough so transformed it into a five-star luxury hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant and a golf course. Over the years, it’s offered a bed to a huge variety of well-known names, including Muhammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, and several US presidents.
9. Minard Castle
Back in 1650, Cromwell’s army took a dislike to Minard Castle and attacked it. The occupants fled and never returned. Although the tower house is in ruins, the original structure has survived well enough to offer an intriguing glimpse into its former glory. The location is stunning, and was even chosen as one of the locations for the filming of “Ryan’s Daughter.”
8. Lismore Castle
Built in 1185 by King John, the gothic wonder that’s Lismore Castle is now the Irish home of the Duke of Devonshire, who’s precious enough about his privacy not to want the great unwashed snooping around his living room. But while the castle’s interior is off-limits, the grounds aren’t. Divided into a 17th-century walled garden (the oldest formal garden in Ireland) and an informal 19th-century garden with vast lawns and towering trees, it makes for a few hours of very pleasant strolling. While you’re there, be sure to check out the modern art at Lismore Castle Arts.
7. Doe Castle
Tucked away in an inlet of Sheephaven Bay in County Donegal is Doe Castle. According to Heritage Ireland, the castle, which was built in the 1420s, served as the home, refuge, and bastion for at least 13 MacSweeney chiefs. Once considered to be one of the strongest fortresses in the land, it’s now a charmingly rustic place to visit. Its four-story tower is a local landmark, but it’s the gorgeously carved and ornamented MacSweeney grave-slab from 1544 located inside the tower that’s the big attraction. Admission is free, but it’s worth stumping up a few euros for a guided tour.
6. Enniskillen Castle
Enniskillen Castle in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh is one of the most significant castles in Irish history. Originally built in the 16th century as a military barracks and English garrison fort, it stood guard over one of the only access points into Ulster. Today, it houses the Fermanagh County Museum and a museum for the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Both museums offer a fascinating insight into the country’s past, not to mention the chance to snoop at a very fine collection of military memorabilia.
5. The Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel is widely considered one of Ireland’s most dramatic archaeological sites. With its setting on a jutting green hill banded with limestone outcrops and stuffed with ancient fortifications, it’s not hard to see why. Key sites to check out include the 90-foot round tower dating back to 1100, the 13th-century cathedral, and the 12th-century Cormac’s Chapel, which is home to one of the largest and best collections of preserved Irish frescos in the country.
4. Bunratty Castle
Bunratty Castle is built on the site of a 970 AD ancient Viking trading camp. It’s the fourth castle to have sat there, and while we can’t say a lot about the others, the current one is more than a little impressive, boasting a stunning assortment of art, tapestries, and furniture that dates all the way back to the 15th century. If you want to make your visit even more memorable, book a place at one of the regular medieval dinners hosted there – there’ll be mulled mead, turkey legs the size of a man’s head, and lots of serving wenches in traditional dress.
3. Trim Castle
According to Meath.ie, one look at Trim Castle’s “stony outline against a dramatic Irish sky and storybook images of valiant warriors and timid monks spring to life”…which may well explain why it was chosen as the setting for Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” Ranking as the largest Cambro-Norman castle in Ireland, it spans 30,000 m².in total. Although you’re free to wander the grounds independently, there’s so much to see (including lime kilns that date back as far as the 12th century, a very impressive 13th-century great hall, and an imposing defensive tower), it’s worth taking a guided tour.
2. Glenveagh Castle
Times were tough back in the 1800s. If you happened to live on a nice bit of land that someone with money and influence decided would make a good spot for a castle, it was only a matter of time before you were sent packing. In 1861, Captain John George Adair set his sights on 11600 acres of prime real estate in Derryveagh, County Donegal. The fact that forty-seven families already lived there was besides the point. Over 150 children and their parents were ordered off the land so Adair could beautify it in preparation for his new home. According to Wikipedia, it earned him the title of “Black Jack Adair.” It also got him a very nice new home in the shape of Glenveagh Castle, a castellated mansion built in the Scottish Baronial-style surrounded by lakes, forests, and gorgeously manicured grounds. If you want to visit, the castle is open to the public between 9 am to 5 am during the summer months.
1. Blarney Castle
Castles don’t get much better than Blarney Castle. =The castle was built nearly six hundred years ago by one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains, Cormac MacCarthy, and has been attracting attention ever since. In fairness, that has less to do with the castle itself and more to do with the Blarney Stone housed on its grounds in Ireland. According to legend, anyone who makes their way up the 10 story staircase and hangs upside down to give the stone a peck will never be lost for words again. After you’ve finished snogging the stone, be sure to leave plenty of time to explore the castle’s magnificent 60-acre flower garden.