The countryside and coastline of Ireland is dotted with castles, from wistful ruins to ancient looking towers and the occasional stately sprawl and luxury castle hotel. Ireland's castles are filled with history and charm and some, it is said, are filled with character or characters of an otherworldly kind.
Most castles you'll see in Ireland are less than ostentatious, often stark, timeworn and battle scared. You see Irish castles weren't really built to be the royal palaces, like those you'll find in neighbouring England. Irish castles were fortified homes for chieftains, or Anglo Norman settlers and were designed for defence against attack by neighbouring clans or disgruntled natives. Many of these castles are medieval in origin, and illustrate Ireland's turbulent history between the 11th and 16th centuries, with power struggles between Irish Chiefs and Anglo Norman settlers and the continued dominance of Britain proving bloody and violent.
In later years Ireland's castles became more elaborate and elegant as the country's landed gentry set about restoring their ancestral castles and building their own personal palaces in which to display their wealth. Castles like these often boast flamboyant Georgian features and splendid Victorian neo gothic turrets and are largely preserved as luxury hotels or private homes. While other castles are open to visitors and offer a range of entertainments, from dining without cutlery to kissing slabs of stone.
Ireland's two most popular castles are Bunratty Castle and Blarney Castle. Close to the River Shannon in County Clare, Bunratty Castle dates back to the 14th Century and once belonged to the O'Brien Clan, who were then the High Kings of Munster. Today the castle forms the centrepiece of an excellent Folk Park outlining Ireland's history with a recreated 19th Century Irish town. Bunratty Castle is famed for its medieval banquets, which, providing you don't mind eating with your fingers, are a great night of music, mead and entertainment - and someone always gets thrown in the dungeon!
Would you climb 150m up a narrow staircase to kiss a stone that has seen more lips than a plastic surgeon? Well if the answer is yes (you dirty devils!), then head to Blarney Castle in County Cork, home to the famous Blarney Stone. The castle dates back to the 15th Century and belonged to the MacCarthys, and though Blarney Castle is a ruin, it's a romantic one, set within beautiful grounds. But what about the stone? I hear you say.
Well legend has it that if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you'll be bestowed with the gift of eloquence and Irish charm - or as we say, ‘the gift of the gab'. But you'll have to climb to the top tower of the castle, prostrate yourself backwards over a gap in the floor and pucker up.
Most of Ireland's residential castles are now lavish hotels and Ashford Castle and Dromoland Castle lead the way as two of the most luxurious hotels in the world.
Overlooking the shimmering waters of Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle is a majestic sprawl of Victorian neo gothic architecture. Though the castle's history dates back to 1228 when it was founded by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family. Ashford Caste was also owned by the Guinness family and has hosted the Prince of Wales George V and President Ronald Reagan. Ashford Castle is the very image of a gothic palace and offers the up most in luxury and service, it simply can't fail to impress.
Dromoland Castle is equally impressive, situated in exquisite grounds (with golf course, naturally) in County Clare. Dromoland's impressive history dates back to the 16th Century and it was once the ancestral home of Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland. Like Ashford, Dromoland Castle offers the very best in five star luxury and is steeped in character and charm. And like Ashford, Dromoland has hosted a US President, when George Bush (jnr), chose Dromoland Castle for his state visit to Ireland. It was probably the golf that swayed it!
A lesser known but nonetheless luxurious castle hotel is Glin Castle on the banks of the River Shannon. This elegant 18th Century castle is home to the Knight of Glin, and has been the ancestral home of the Fitzgerald family for over 700 years. Thankfully they have opened their doors to guests who can enjoy fabulous hospitality in graceful surroundings, filled with various object d'art, through the Knight of Glin's association with Christies of London.
Kilkea Castle is another lesser known luxury castle hotel with an enigmatic resident; his name is Gerald and he is a ghost. Dating from the 12th century, Kilkea is the oldest continually inhabited castle in Ireland and has a long and often bloody history to go with it. Kilkea was once home to the Earl of Maynooth, who was into the black arts apparently and it is his ghost that haunts the castle, rising every seven years to rid Kilkea of its enemies. Thankfully this doesn't seem to include hotel guests.
Ireland has quiet a few haunted castles, some you can visit, some you can stay in and some you'd maybe rather stay away from!
Situated along the scenic Antrim coastline Ballygally Castle dates back to 1625. The central tower of this stark and austere castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Isobel Shaw, who plays tricks on guests by knocking on bedroom doors at the dead of night. Kinnitty Castle in Co. Kildare was built on a druidic site and is said to be haunted by a group of Druids who can be seen in their long white robes, walking through the grounds at dusk.
But the most haunted castle in Ireland is Leap Castle in County Offaly, which is regarded as one of the most haunted places in Europe. Leap Castle has been the subject of various research projects and has featured on several television programmes.
Throughout its 400 year history Leap Castle has witnessed a number of dastardly deeds and horrific events. One of the most famous events concerns the ‘Bloody Chapel'. Leap was the stronghold of the O'Carroll Clan and when the chieftain died n 1532 a power struggle broke out between his sons. One was a priest and as he was saying mass in the chapel one Sunday, his brother stormed in and slew him on the altar. This shocking act is the story behind the castle's main ghost, that of the priest who walks the halls.
But it gets worse - when workmen renovated the chapel in the 19th Century, they uncovered a new horror. They found a hidden room behind the altar, with a trap door, underneath which there was a spiked oubliette. Unsuspecting victims would fall through the door to their deaths on the spikes below, those that survived were left to rot and starve to death. When the workmen found the room, they recovered three cartloads of bones!
In 1599, another deadly deed occurred at Leap Castle. Charles O'Carroll, the last chieftain at Leap, was at war with the Earl of Tyrone and hired the MacMahon clan, from Monaghan as mercenaries. After they had fought for him, O'Carroll held a feast for his mercenaries, and then had them murdered in their sleep. The MacMahon clan are said to haunt the great hall at Leap Castle.
Many strange incidents have been witnessed at Leap Castle, including apparitions, eerie lights and unexplained ghostly noises. One of the most widely reported was when one owner Mildred Darby, an amateur occultist, held a séance at the castle. She found herself confronted by a ghostly inhuman figure and the smell of a decomposing corpse.
In the 1970s a new owner brought in a white witch to exorcise the castle. When she finally emerged she said the spirits were no longer malevolent, but they will not leave the castle. Today the Ryan family own Leap Castle and live happily alongside the ghosts - for now... (add ghoulish, Vincent Price laugh here!)