Cahir Castle, Ireland

Cahir Castle, initial construction began in the 12th century, much of its construction dates to the 13th century and later, County Tipperary, Ireland


Additional resources

More on Cahir Castle from Heritage Ireland

Tadhg O’Keeffe, Medieval Irish Buildings, 1100–1600 (Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2015).

Clare Downham, Medieval Ireland (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Cahir,”]

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re standing in the oldest part of Cahir Castle, one of the largest and best-preserved castles in all of Ireland. This castle was initiated in the 13th century but became very famous in the 16th.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] Much of what remains actually is datable to the 13th century, although it was expanded and additions were made in pretty much every century since the 13th century. But when it was constructed, it was at the forefront; it had cutting-edge defensive designs, and we can still see how that is arranged here on site.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] In this oldest part of the castle, we have an enclosure that is bound by walls, defensive towers, a great hall, and a keep.

[0:45] Even though much of this is original, we can see alterations. For example, the great hall is shorter and lower than it was originally. You can see the original roofline against one of the corner towers. You can also see that it would have originally extended further to the left, to enclose a large fireplace that’s still visible, but now on an outside wall.

[1:06] The reason for many of these changes is that this structure fell to the Earl of Essex in the 16th century. Although this castle had been considered impenetrable, new innovations in artillery brought it down.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:19] When I think of medieval castle, this is exactly what I think of. We have buildings that have defensive crenellations on them.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] That is, the alternation between solid and void at the topmost edge. This allowed for archers to hide and to shoot.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:35] Similarly, we have small, rectangular windows that are defensive windows that you could shoot arrows from, or other types of weapons, that are not really intended to let light in.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] What I think is perhaps most fascinating are murder holes, that is, overhangs that allow for objects, and potentially hot liquids, to be poured onto invaders who come underneath.

[1:58] But what’s so interesting is that this was an innovation that began in an area that we now call the Middle East. It was a kind of Islamic architecture that was noticed and adopted first by crusaders who were building their own castles in the Holy Land and then brought back to Europe, even as far away as Ireland.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:16] Well, it was such an effective design for defensive structures like castles. We also see the remains of postholes and other projections that indicate that there would’ve been places in the castle that would’ve had multiple levels that no longer exist, possibly with ramps or other types of walkways for people to move about the castle.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] Of course, the siting of the castle was critical. This castle was sited on one side of an island; it is completely surrounded by water, but that is immediately so on three sides. This was a naturally defensible position.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:49] It functions in some ways like a moat. The castle itself, the structure includes a dry moat, and beyond this inner enclosure that we’re standing in, the oldest part, in later centuries, in the 15th and 16th centuries, you had additional outer enclosures added to make this an even more defensible structure.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] When you think about the labor that’s required to build a defensive structure such as this, it makes it immediately evident how dangerous a world it was that this much treasure and this much labor and time would be expended to produce something that might eventually become useful.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:23] There are hundreds and hundreds of castles dotting the landscape of Ireland still today, some in better condition than others.

[3:29] Cahir happens to be in especially good condition, but it is a testament to the rival kingdoms and families, but also the result of Viking invasions, of the Anglo-Norman invasions, of later the English invasions and colonists and settlers, and the different factions and shifting political alliances [that] made the need for defensible structures of paramount importance.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] This castle held strong until the Earl of Essex came with the largest army that had ever come to Ireland, and although that army was much reduced by the time it came into contact with the rebels who held this castle, it was taken thanks to advances in artillery that were able to undermine the walls and the towers.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:12] Despite falling in the 16th century and despite successive downfalls later on, because it still retains so much of its original 13th- and 14th-century structures, it has served as the backdrop for a number of shows and movies in pop culture.

Dr. Zucker: [4:28] It is everything we could want from a medieval castle.

[4:31] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Cahir Castle, Ireland," in Smarthistory, November 14, 2022, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/cahir-castle-ireland/.