In the very heart of the county town, towering over the River Eske, stands Donegal Castle. Red Hugh O’Donnell himself built it as his personal fortress in the fifteenth century. It is said that, leaving to seek succour in Spain in the wake of the Battle of Kinsale, Hugh determined to make sure his castle would never ever fall into English hands – by setting it on fire.
But he was to be disappointed. English captain Sir Basil Brooke became the castle’s new lord in 1616. As part of a massive programme of improvements, Brooke built a handsome manor house beside the tower. He also commissioned the magnificent chimney-piece, finely decorated with carved fruit and his own imperious coat of arms.
The building complex fell into ruin in the twentieth century, but was brought back to its former glory in the 1990s. Currently, a suite of information panels illuminates the chequered history of the castle and its disparate owners.
Desmond Castle Kinsale
Desmond Castle in Kinsale dates from around 1500. It is a classic urban tower house, consisting of a three-storey keep with storehouses to the rear.
Maurice Bacach Fitzgerald, the earl of Desmond, originally built the castle as the customs house for the town. It served as a prison in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because it usually held French inmates, as well as Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch and Americans, it became known locally as the French Prison and carries that name to this day. The building was co-opted as an ordnance store during the momentous Battle of Kinsale (1601) and served as a workhouse during the Great Famine.
Desmond Castle certainly had a colourful history and this continued into the twentieth century. In the early 1900s it was used as a venue to host local Gaelic League meetings. Finally, in the 1930s, a thriving undertaking business operated from within the National Monument.
As one of the country’s largest military installations, Charles Fort has been part of some of the most momentous events of Irish history. During the Williamite Wars, for example, it withstood a 13-day siege before it fell. Later, in the Civil War of the early 1920s, anti-Treaty forces on the retreat burned it out.
Charles Fort is a massive star-shaped structure of the late seventeenth century, well preserved despite its history. William Robinson, architect of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, is credited with designing it. Its dimensions are awe-inspiring – some of the outer defences are 16 metres high.
The view from the ramparts looking out over Kinsale Harbour is spectacular.
Barryscourt Castle was the seat of the great Anglo-Norman Barry family and is one of the finest examples of a restored Irish Tower House. Dating from between 1392 and 1420, the Castle has an outer bawn wall and largely intact corner towers. The ground floor of the Tower House contains a dungeon into which prisoners were dropped via the 'drop-hole' located on the second floor.
The Barrys supported the Fitzgeralds of Desmond during the Irish rebellions of the late sixteenth century. To prevent it being captured by Sir Walter Raleigh and his army, the Barrys partially destroyed the Castle.
During the Irish Confederate War of the seventeenth century Barryscourt Castle was once again successfully attacked. Cannon balls lodged in the wall above the Castle entrance bear witness to this conflict. The last head of the Barry family was Lord David Barry.
Barryscourt Castle has been extensively restored. The Main Hall and Great Hall have been completed and fittings and furnishings reinstated. Within the Castle grounds, the herb and knot garden and the charming orchard have been restored to their original sixteenth century design.
The O’Briens of Thomond, who once ruled much of north Munster, founded this medieval Franciscan friary. It grew quickly into a huge foundation, with 350 friars and a famed school of 600 pupils by 1375. It was the very last school of Catholic theology to survive the Reformation.
The building contains an exceptional wealth of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculptures carved in the local hard limestone, including one of St Francis himself displaying the stigmata. An arch between the nave and transept bears a remarkable image of Christ with his hands bound.
Don’t forget to visit the sacristy, an impressive structure with a ribbed, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Take especial note of the beautiful east window, with its five lancets, as it lights up the chancel.
A large and beautiful estate covering 16 hectares in total, Altamont Gardens is laid out in the style of William Robinson, which strives for ‘honest simplicity’. The design situates an excellent plant collection perfectly within the natural landscape.
For example, there are lawns and sculpted yews that slope down to a lake ringed by rare trees and rhododendrons. A fascinating walk through the Arboretum, Bog Garden and Ice Age Glen, sheltered by ancient oaks and flanked by huge stone outcrops, leads to the banks of the River Slaney. Visit in summer to experience the glorious perfume of roses and herbaceous plants in the air.
With their sensitive balance of formal and informal, nature and artistry, Altamont Gardens have a unique – and wholly enchanting – character.
Pearse Museum – St. Enda’s Park
The Pearse Museum in St Enda’s Park is where the leader of the 1916 Rising, Patrick Pearse, lived and operated his pioneering Irish-speaking school from 1910 to 1916.
Set in nearly 20 hectares of attractive parkland in Rathfarnham, Dublin, the museum tells the story of Patrick Pearse and his brother Willie, both of whom were executed for their part in the 1916 Rising. Here you can peruse a fascinating exhibition on Pearse’s life and wander through the historic rooms where he, his family and his students once lived and worked.
The romantic landscape surrounding the museum contains a wild river valley, forested areas and some enchanting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century follies.
If you are interested in the park’s varied wildlife, you will find information about it in a dedicated room in the courtyard – where you’ll also find the Schoolroom Café.
National Botanic Gardens
The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, just 3 kilometres from Dublin city centre, are renowned for the exquisite plant collections held there. They are home to over 15,000 plant species and cultivars from a variety of habitats from all around the world.
The jewel in the gardens’ crown is a set of exquisitely restored and planted historic glasshouses. Most notable among these are Richard Turner’s Curvilinear Range and the Great Palm House, both winners of an award for excellence in conservation architecture.
Conservation plays an important role in the life of the gardens and Glasnevin is home to over 300 endangered plant species, 6 of which are already extinct in the wild.
The gardens have been closely associated with their counterpart in Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow, since 1854. Unlike the Wicklow branch, though, they provide a calm and beautiful green space in the midst of the nation’s capital.
Kilmainham Gaol is one of the largest unoccupied gaols in Europe. It opened in 1796 as the new county gaol for Dublin and finally shut its doors as such in 1924. During that period it witnessed some of the most heroic and tragic events in Ireland’s emergence as a modern nation.
Among those detained – and in some cases executed – here were leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916, as well as members of the Irish republican movement during the War of Independence and Civil War.
Names like Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin and Charles Stewart Parnell will always be associated with the building. Not to be forgotten, however, are the thousands of men, women and children that Kilmainham held in its capacity as county gaol.
Kilmainham Gaol is now a major museum. The tour of the prison includes an audio-visual presentation.
The imposing complex of Government Buildings on Upper Merrion Street, next door to Leinster House, was the last major public building the British constructed in Ireland. It was intended as accommodation for the Royal College of Science and various departments of the administration.
Fortuitously, it was complete by 1922. When independence dawned, the new Free State government moved in.
In more recent times, Taoiseach Charles Haughey converted and entirely refurbished the building to form state-of-the-art accommodation for a number of departments, including the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Office of the Attorney General. Despite criticism of the expenditure involved, the renovated building won awards for its architectural design when it opened in the 1990s.
There are free guided tours every Saturday, although they are subject to occasional cancellation for urgent government business.