The main period of building of Anglo-Norman stone fortresses in Ireland was between 1175 and 1310. The earliest castles were built by just a few powerful knights. These knights such as Hugh de Lacy, John de Courcy, and William Marshal established their authority with earth and timber castles and than consolidated it with permanent and more spectacular stone structures. Quite a number of these stone fortresses were built on existing earth and timber castles which had originally been sited in strategic locations and near large rivers. Just as everything evolves and changes over centuries, so did castles. As English rule was spread over the entire country so castles evolved to the less serious threat of attack. By the end of the seventeenth century the fortified house was what offered protection and the era of the castle was over.
Motte and Bailey castles were built in Ireland by the Normans. After their conquest, fortifications had to be hurriedly built and the easiest way to do so was using the motte and bailey. A raised earthwork known as a Motte was built surrounded by a deep ditch. A wooden or stone structure, known as the Keep, was built on the Motte and an enclosed space was built next to the Motte and was known as a Bailey. Most of the Motte and Bailey castles were built on top of Iron Age Ring Forts. Once the conquest was consolidated the Norman lords could start building more permanent structures of stone. The design remained the same. A heavily fortified stone keep with an open courtyard built beside it remained the template for the new permanent castles. The aerial photograph of Carrickfergus Castle seen below illustrates this very well.
King John’s Castle in Limerick City is a beautiful example of a Norman castle. It was built between 1200 and 1202 during the reign of King John. It is built on Kings Island and is five – sided. The castle is built on the site of a Viking settlement. One side of the castle is built directly on the River Shannon. It was built to protect a strategic crossing point on the river which also gave it a supply of water. In 1369 it was captured by the O’Briens and MacNamaras and was in the care of the mayor and citizens of Limerick by 1423. The castle changed hands three times in the 17th century. In 1641 it was captured by the Catholic Confederation. In 1651 Oliver Cromwell’s army, under the command of General Ireton took it. In 1691 the army of William III, under the command of General Ginkel captured it after the second siege of Limerick. By the 18th century it was being used as a barracks. Today King Johns Castle is a major tourist attraction and has been extensively restored.
Cahir Castle is a 15th century castle built on an island in the River Suir at Cahir, Co. Tipperary and constructed by the Butlers of Ormond. It was built on the site of a 13th century Butler castle. Like King Johns Castle it was built to guard an important crossing point on a river. Defensively it was built in an excellent location but it was captured during the Nine Years War by the Earl of Essex using siege artillery. Oliver Cromwell took the castle without a fight in 1650. In 1961 the castle reverted to the Irish State and today it is yet another fine example of a medieval castle which is open to visitors. It also has the only working portcullis in Ireland.
Carrickfergus Castle was built by John De Courcy in 1177. De Courcy ruled as a petty king in eastern Ulster until he was ousted by Hugh De Lacey. King John laid siege to the castle and captured it in 1210, bringing it back under his rule. The castle protected an important landing point for supplies to English armies for centuries and it was here that William III landed in Ireland. It has been used variously as a prison, an armoury, and an air raid shelter. It was garrisoned continuously for 750 years until 1928 when it was handed over from the British Army to the Northern Ireland Government. It is preserved as an ancient monument and is open to the public.
Trim Castle is an Anglo-Norman castle in Co. Meath. It was built by Hugh De Lacey after Henry II granted him the Kingdom of Midhe, modern day Co. Meath. The castle took 50 years to build and was strategically located guarding a crossing on the River Boyne. Three of the four original towers still survive. In the Middle Ages Trim Castle marked the outer northern boundary of the Pale. The castle was owned by the Dunsany Plunketts until 1993 when it was sold to the State and major restoration work has been carried out since. It is now open to the public.