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.
Nestled in an inlet of Sheephaven Bay in County Donegal, skirting the wild waters of the Atlantic, stands Doe Castle – the medieval stronghold of the MacSweeneys.
The fortress was built in the 1420s. For almost 200 years it served as home, refuge and bastion for at least 13 MacSweeney chiefs – some of whom were party and witness to the most seismic events of Irish history.
For example, MacSweeney chief Eoghan Og II gave shelter to survivors of the 1588 Spanish Armada fleet at Doe. The last chief of the castle, Maolmhuire an Bhata Bhui, marched out with Red Hugh O’Donnell, lord of Tyrconnell, to the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.
An exquisite carved and ornamented Mac Sweeney grave-slab, dating from 1544, is on show inside the tower house. Display panels onsite chronicle the castle’s history in fascinating detail.
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.
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.
Glebe House and Gallery
This elegant Regency house, dating from 1828, is set in woodland gardens near the town of Letterkenny in County Donegal. The celebrated painter Derek Hill lived and worked here from the 1950s until the 1980s, when he presented the house to the Irish state – along with an extraordinary collection of art.
Hill was a man of exquisite taste. The house itself, is as he left it – beautifully decorated with William Morris textiles and furniture of oriental design. His collection includes hundreds of works by some of the leading lights of the art world, such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Louis le Brocquy and Auguste Renoir. There are also choice pieces from further afield, including Japan and the Islamic world.
Hill’s studio, which adjoins the house, has been transformed into a modern and stylish gallery, which now plays host to changing exhibitions.
The magnificent Skellig Michael is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Republic of Ireland.
On the summit of this awe-inspiring rock off the Kerry coast is St Fionan’s monastery, one of the earliest foundations in the country. The monks who lived there prayed and slept in beehive-shaped huts made of stone, many of which remain to this day.
The monks left the island in the thirteenth century. It became a place of pilgrimage and, during the time of the Penal Laws, a haven for Catholics.
Following in the monks’ footsteps involves climbing 618 steep, uneven steps. Getting to the top is quite a challenge, but well worth the effort.
As well as the wealth of history, there is a fantastic profusion of bird life on and around the island. Little Skellig is the second-largest gannet colony in the world.
Listowel Castle stands on an elevation overlooking the River Feale, above the location of a strategic ford. Although only half of the building survives, it is still one of Kerry’s best examples of Anglo-Norman architecture.
Only two of the original four square towers, standing over 15 metres high, remain. The towers are united by a curtain wall of the same height and linked together – unusually – by an arch on one side.
Listowel was the last bastion against the forces of Queen Elizabeth in the First Desmond Rebellion in 1569. The castle’s garrison held out for 28 days of siege before finally being overpowered by Sir Charles Wilmot. In the days following the castle’s fall, Wilmot executed all of the soldiers left inside.
Right next door to the castle is Seanchaí – the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre – where you can journey through the fascinating history of the castle and the region.
Portumna Castle and Gardens
Built by the fourth earl of Clanricarde, Portumna Castle was the de Burgo family power base for centuries.
The castle is a unique example of the transitional Irish architecture of the early 1600s. Its bold design combines elements of medieval and Renaissance style that complement each other perfectly.
A major fire in 1826 left the castle a roofless shell, but the state began to bring it back from ruin in the 1960s. Restoration work continues to this day.
The dramatic walk up to the building includes charming formal gardens, which create an enchanting sense of the original seventeenth-century setting. The walled kitchen garden is particularly memorable.
The castle enjoys a sensational view of Lough Derg. The ground floor is open to the public and houses an exhibition that brings the story of the castle and the de Burgo family to life. It is right beside the River Shannon and Portumna Forest Park, which makes it a great choice for a delightful day out.
Perilously perched on a sheer sea-cliff, Dún Aonghasa defiantly faces the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest of the prehistoric stone forts of the Aran Islands.
The fort consists of three massive drystone defence walls. Outside them is a chevaux-de-frise – that is, a dense band of jagged, upright stones, thousands in number. A devastatingly effective way to impede intruders, the chevaux-de-frise surrounds the entire fort from cliff to cliff.
Dún Aonghasa is over 3,000 years old. Excavations have revealed significant evidence of prehistoric metalworking, as well as several houses and burials. The whole complex was refortified in AD 700–800.
The visit involves a short hike over rising ground and rough, natural rock, so come prepared with boots or strong walking shoes. Be careful, too, when walking near the cliff – there is no fence or barrier at the edge of the 87-metre drop.