Irish Tower Houses: a Spotter’s Guide
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
W. B. Yeats, The Tower
Perhaps the most iconic archaeological features of the Irish countryside are the numerous tall tower houses dotting the rural landscape, dating from 1400-1650. They are a particular category of small castle, said to originate in a £10 subsidy granted by statute of Henry VI in 1429 to any Palesman who would build a castle within 10 years. The purpose was to defend the English settlement around Dublin, and the money was to be raised by levy within the counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin or Kildare—the old English Pale. The measurements were to be 20 feet by 16 feet, and 40 feet high (6.1m x 4.9m x 12.2m). In fact, tower house building was well underway in the Pale already during the early 15th century. This simple form would spread from the Pale to the Anglo-Irish lordships of the south and west, eventually becoming common among the Gaelic chieftains as well. As their usage spread westward over the 16th century, tower houses became larger and more sophisticated. Their sheer density goes a long way toward dispelling any lingering mental image of 16th century Ireland as a land of endless oak forests and quaking bogs. Over 3,000 were built (some estimates going as high as 7,000), Ireland becoming the most castellated part of the British Isles by the 17th century. The distribution map below shows they were never as common above the lake and drumlin borders of Ulster, reflecting both an environment that favoured the continued use of crannogs, and less openness to English cultural influence. (Incidentally, the relative scarcity of tower houses in Ulster casts doubt on the idea of their being influenced by the Scottish ‘Peel Tower,’ which had a similar function, but different design.)
Tower houses were at least four stories high, the ground level being a storage room, often with a vaulted ceiling in 15th century examples in the eastern part of the country, to guard the upper stories against fire. The first floor in the illustration above is sleeping quarters for the ward and servants, with a kitchen on the 2nd floor, and the chief's living space (the ‘solar’) on the 3rd, with the hall being topmost as usual in the 16th century, located directly over the vaulted ceiling. The hall being located topmost became a feature of the newer Gaelic tower houses of the midlands and west. The hall’s high wooden ceiling and flagstone floor with (originally) a central hearth, gave a sense of occasion that was central to its function.
The castle proper could be surrounded by a bawn (from the Irish bó dún, a cow enclosure)—either a masonry wall, or a ditch and hedge. Cattle could be driven into the bawn at night for safekeeping. (A Civil Survey of the 1650’s only mentions bawns for about 20% of the listed tower houses. About 25% of surviving tower houses show evidence of a masonry bawn.) Some castles (like Aughnanure) had separate halls built alongside the tower house for receptions and banqueting, sometimes of stone, sometimes of wattle and daub or sods with thatched roofs. It is not clear what relationship these external halls had to the hall proper within the castle. Possibly the external hall was a ‘communal hall’ while the castle hall was the ‘lord’s hall’. But the owners would choose to sleep in the tower for security.
The key features were identified by H. G. Leask in 1941 as:
• a vault constructed on wickerwork centering
• punch-dressed stone for window surrounds and door jambs
• ogee-headed windows and angle loops
• box machicolations atop the walls over the doorways
• battlements with ‘Irish’ crenellations of stepped merlons
Stepped merlons are a distinctively Irish form of crenellation, and are found as well on 16th century churches and bridges (as at Tintern abbey in Wexford). Outside Ireland, they appear elsewhere only in contemporary Scottish Highland tomb sculpture, though not in surviving structural examples (below). The peculiarly Irish stepped merlons are not an isolated case, northern Italy having a distinctive style of crenellation as well (which has been used to identify where the mysterious Voynich Manuscript was produced!)
The Gaelic tower houses of the west and midlands often date to the 16th century, and are distinguished by the more frequent use of bartizans, machicolation and gun loops, with vaulted ceilings being on an upper storey where present. The vaulted ceiling was constructed on a framework of temporary timber supports holding up a wicker matting over which the lime mortar bed was laid. When the supports were removed, the wicker matting was often left in place. Today, the impression of the wicker matting can be seen in the vault ceiling—and sometimes the embedded matting itself remains. This may be the explanation of the curious observation of the French visitor, Boullyae le Gouz (1644), who said: “ . . . and many of them ornament the ceilings with branches.”
Who Built Castles?
Castles were constructed for chieftains and other leading members of the local ruling family or clan. Regional overlords would also maintain castles within the territories of a sub-king or ur-rí (urraight). Tower houses were also built for galloglass captains, poets, and other members of the professional classes, as well as bishops (such as the infamous Miler Magrath). Interestingly, Coole castle in Co. Offaly was built (1575) by John MacCoghlan specifically for his wife, according to the date stone. And incoming planters in the early 17th century continued building in the tower house tradition when establishing new settlements.
In urban settings the tower house saw use by merchants as a kind of city row-house, serving as living quarters in its upper stories, with the commercial space at street level having a separate entrance. Examples survive in Galway (Lynch’s castle), and Carlingford (Taffe’s castle, and the Mint).
Building the Castle
The castle was the single largest outlay an Irish lord or freeholder would incur in his lifetime. Around the year 1600, the German planter Mathew De Renzy estimated the ‘meanest’ tower house would cost £600 or £700. However, as De Renzy noted, this cost would be ‘upon the country charge as their custom is, so that he (MacCoghlan) laid out no money’.
An interesting agreement exists for the building of a 16th century tower house (see appendix for full text). In 1547, a castle was built for Richard Butler in return for lands he had given to the Earl of Ormond. The agreement states that the castle shall have;
• three floors, with a vault over the ground floor.
• Walls were to be six feet thick below the vault, and four feet thick above.
• The height of each floor is prescribed.
• A slate roof and two chimneys.
• The door to be protected by an iron grate (yett).
• A ‘berbikan’ (gatehouse) and doors, windows and all things necessary to a castle.
Derby Ryan was to supervise the work along with the treasurer of Lismore, who would employ a master-mason and a master-carpenter. Labour for this purpose was listed among the customs due to O’Reilly from his tenants in Cavan in 1585; ‘all manner of charges both for workmen, stuff, and labourers, and victuals, for the building and maintaining of his castle of the Cavan’. Ireland had good and highly mobile masons, of whom ‘Forty masons of the west’ were ‘taken up for the service of Berwick’ in 1561, and sent from Dublin in February by way of Chester. Again, in December of 1561, a further ‘200 good and fit masons and hewers of rough stone’ from Ireland were to be employed in the fortification of Berwick. We are told that for their return home, they purchased honest English clothing, including civil caps. Skilled workmen occasionally came from abroad—in May of 1561 James M’Donnell is reported to have ‘many carpenters come out of Scotland to build him a house in the Red Bay.’
Tower houses are commonly built on bedrock foundations, and often strategically sited to guard river crossings, bridges, and passes. The original tower houses of the English Pale were constructed along the borders with Offaly to stem the incursions of O’Connor Faly, and they became part of the larger network of ditches and palisades guarding the Pale. While strategic considerations may be evident, many tower house locations are not particularly strong in terms of their landscape setting. A clan often had a network of castles (such as the O’Malleys in Mayo, or the O’Flahertys in Galway), and in more densely occupied areas like Clare or Limerick, tower houses could constitute individual nodes on a defensive network, often being built within sight of one another. A chief would often build additional chiefry castles on his demesne lands which would assert his control, and provide residences for members of the senior line of the clan.
Tower houses are strongly associated with rivers and waterways in particular, and frequently occur in proximity to salmon weirs and fish ponds. Waterways were an important means of communication, as well as a source of income, and tower houses could help dominate both. (O’Donnell was known as ‘king of fish’ and the salmon so prominent in the arms of the O’Neill lordship is said to reflect their exploitation of the Bann fisheries.)
Mary O’Dowd looked at the tower houses of the Gaelic O’Connor Sligo lordship, which she found to be the normal residence of landholding families, two or three members of the family sometimes owning the tower house together. The O’Connor tower houses were strategically located, some around the Sligo coast and Ballysadare Bay, others guarding bridges or river crossings leading into their territory. She notes the wall walk around the roof of the house was a look out post as well as acting as a gutter.
The castellated landscape along the south bank of the Shannon estuary in north Co. Limerick and Kerry was studied by Margaret Mac Curtain. A network of Geraldine castles secured the area, from the old O’Connor stronghold of Carrigafoyle in the west, to the walled and castellated city of Limerick further east (with its many urban tower houses). From their main seat at the great Norman keep of Askeaton, the semi-Gaelicised Geraldine Earls of Desmond oversaw a realm that included strongholds held by their sub-lords, the ‘three knights’; The White Knight (Kilmallock), the Knight of Glin (Glin, Ballyguiltenane), and the Knight of Kerry (Lixnaw, Listowel and Beale). It was at palatial Askeaton in 1579 that Gerald, the 15th Earl, briefly rested before taking to the Slieveluachra mountains to become an outlaw among his Gaelic supporters. Carrigafoyle, having been occupied by the Geraldines, acted as a customs house where duties were levied on goods shipping upriver. Goods could then be landed at Tarbert, or further upriver at Limerick itself. The coastal tower houses of Doon and Beal acted as beacons, alerting the Earl of his right to treasure trove in case of shipwreck. Running east-west along the Shannon estuary, the Geraldine castles form three successive lines of defense, supporting one another.
Tower houses were primarily living spaces, the lower storey having a porter’s lodge by the entrance, with the rest of this level being devoted to storage. The hall (for communal activities like audiences and feasting) was usually located above the vaulted ceiling—which after 1500 is often an upper floor. As noted earlier, this is a feature of western tower houses, often of Gaelic origin. The stone floor above the vault was more suitable since the hall frequently contained a central floor hearth, mural fireplaces being added later.
The principal living quarters (the ‘solar’) are often found immediately below the hall in these post-1500 tower houses. In the pre-1500 examples of the east, the vault often has several floors above it, in which case the living quarters may be located on the floors above the hall, which is immediately over the vault. Based on these considerations, Rory Sherlock has devised five categories of tower house, his dating aided by radiocarbon samples from hazel twigs from the wicker found in some castle vaults!
The lime rendered walls of the living chambers could be enlivened with wall paintings, which was probably fairly common though only four examples survive. Higher status tower houses might also have paneling and stucco plaster work to accentuate the hall, which do not survive. The hall frequently had a timber partition supporting a loft in which musicians or singers could perform.
Rory Sherlock has explored some of the nuance to be discerned in how differently space might be used in outwardly similar tower houses. Evidence for suites within a single tower house being owned by different individuals occurs only in Gaelic areas and is a late feature, occurring roughly 1598-1650. This practice is associated with the discontinuance of the hall as a communal social space within the castle, with the hall itself being partitioned into separate living accommodations and even subdivided vertically with the addition of a new floor in place of the once spacious but smoke-filled ceiling area. This was made possible by the replacement of the central hearth with mural fireplaces. The abandonment of the hall signals the end of the old communal social life of the Gaelic castle and the transition to a more hierarchical social structure, with greater privacy for the lord in what was now really a house.
The ‘ward’ was the term for a castle’s garrison in Tudor Ireland. Galloglass seem to have been the usual ward during most of the 16th century, though firearms were present early on and took over by 1600. In our review of the MacDonnells of Leinster, we saw that a number of galloglass—either nine or twelve—were specified for each land holding, quite possibly representing the ward of the associated castle. In 1536, at the breaking of O’Brien’s Bridge (a bridge castellated at either end), ‘both the castles were well warded with gunners, galloglass and horsemen.’ The gunners manned a ‘ship’s piece, a portingal (Portuguese) piece, hagbusshes (arquebuses) and hand guns’. Irish horsemen were armoured in the manner of galloglass, and we find them dismounted to take up defensive positions alongside galloglass on several occasions during the 16th century. By the end of the century the ward are entirely arquebusiers and are called ‘the shot’. The shot are listed among the immediate household of the chief, and like the galloglass in earlier days, probably lived within the tower house.
Tower houses were built for defense, but while they could rebuff the attentions of raiding parties, they were not ideal for withstanding a siege. Therefore, they were occasionally razed by their owners when their defense became strategically untenable. Less drastically, the tower house’s defenses might be ‘slighted’ for this purpose instead—i.e, the crenellated parapets thrown down. Duncan Barryman has focused on the door—the only entrance—as central to the tower house’s defense. Doors were generally protected on the outside by box machicolation overhead, with a ‘murder hole’ in the interior ceiling just above the lobby providing means to defend against intruders who had breached the door. Murder holes are often small enough that their main function may have been communication between the lord upstairs and the ‘porter’ at the door below, concerning admittance to the tower house.
The porter, or door-keeper, was stationed in the ‘porter’s lodge,’ a small chamber immediately adjacent to the doorway—usually to the right as you came in. In the evening the porter secured the door with a wooden drawbar that recessed into the surrounding masonry. A bolted door just opposite the porter’s lodge gave access to the spiral staircase leading to the living space upstairs. At Cratloekeel Castle in Co. Clare, masonry evidence shows that this front door drawbar was locked in place by a secondary drawbar pushed against the end of the primary drawbar to secure it, and which was operated from within the bolted stairwell door. Thus the secondary drawbar was only accessible to persons living upstairs, behind the bolted stairwell door. This provided a fail-safe against any treachery by the porter!
The most effective door defense was probably the yett, a hinged iron grill or grate that closed
over the tower house door. The yett was secured with a chain drawn through a slot in the masonry door jamb, and it protected the door from attack with battering rams, much like the portcullis of a larger castle. Even if the door was burned, the yett could deny entry. However, only about 20% of tower houses were fitted for a yett, a fact which has been taken to indicate that defense was a secondary concern to living space. Experimental archaeology by a team from Queen’s University Belfast (see Barryman) reconstructed two tower house doorways. Fire destroyed one door within 40 minutes, while a battering ram broke the second door, drawbar and all, in a matter of minutes, thus underscoring the importance of a yett for serious defense.
Appendix: Full Agreement of 1547 for Castle Bretasse
From the Calendar of Ormond Deeds, 15 April 1547,
Richard is hereby awarded a castle to be built on the land of Bretasse, ‘the
same castell to be of thre loftes besides the rofe, and the same substancially
builded; the first loft to be with a vault and to be xiiii fote hy, and the other ii
lofts to be every of them x fote hy; and the rofe to be substancially covered
with slate and the gutters with gutterstone well embatelde; and to be furnisshed
with a chymney in both of the ii over loftes and a substanciall persoum (?)
with drawghtes accordinge; the same castell to have a goode substanciall
berbikan of stone as is at Pollywherie, and to the neither gate of the castell
to have a goode grate of iron; and the said castell to be substancially buylded
with goode lyme and stone, the walls to be vi fote thick undre the vault and
iiii fote above, and furnisshed with dores and wyndowes and all other things
necessarie to a castell, as shalbe thought goode by the iudgement of Mr.
Derby Ryan and the tresoror of Lismore, calling to them one mason and one
Breen, M., and Ua Cróinín, R., 2020, Securing Against the Unfaithful Steward, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 24 No. 1.
Berryman, D., 2011, The Defensibility of Irish Tower Houses—a Study, The Castle Studies Group Journal No 24: 2010-11.
Leask, H., 1941, Irish Castles and Castellated Houses. Dundalgan Press, Dundalk.
Mac Curtain, M., 1988, A Lost Landscape: the Geraldine Castles and Tower Houses of the Shannon Estuary, in Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland, Boethius Press, Kilkenny Ireland.
McNeill, T., 1997, Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic world. London.
McAlister, V., 2019, The Irish tower house: Society, economy and environment, c. 1300–1650. Manchester University Press.
Salter, M., 1993, Castles and Stronghouses of Ireland. Worcester.
Sherlock, R., 2010, The Evolution of the Irish Tower House as a Domestic Space, NUI, Galway
Sweetman, D., 2005, The Medieval Castles of Ireland. The Collins Press, Cork.
Swift, D., 2005, The Tower House in Ireland: Origins, Dating and Function.
For a very well done 3D tour of an Irish tower house, visit East Carolina University's Centering Spencer's Kilcolman.