The Top Castles, Fortified Houses and Ruins In County Laois
While there are many spots in Ireland claiming to have castles, most of these places use ancient buildings to promote them as castles. The precise meaning of the word Castle is used to refer to a fortified residence that remains private. County Laois has around 40 ancient structures some of which fit the exact definition of being a castle, while others are termed castles when in reality they are forts (like the fort in Dunamese) or mansion houses (like Castle Durrow).
County Laois has a mixture of castles, mansions, forts and old structures that are now in ruins but are still worth visiting. Some of these structures have been taken over by private companies and individuals who have decided to invest heavily into refurnishing them and turning them into hotels that allow travellers to get a feel for what it is like to live in a castle hotel. However County Laois has lost a couple of ancient buildings such as Coolkerry Castle and Ballybrittas Castle which have not been able to stand the test of time.
If you are interested in visiting County Laois, then some of these should be on your list of places to see.
What are The Most Fascinating Castles in Laois?
The Rock of Dunamase - the most popular tourist destination due to surrounding beauty and historic significance. Ballaghmore Castle - one of the oldest castles in County Laois. Castle Durrow - one of the top ten castle hotels in the world by TripAdvisor. Ballyadams Castle - a great place to take photos with the castle in the background. Cullahill Castle - one of the lesser known castles, but has a rich history.
This is one of the oldest castles in County Laois and was named after Bealach Mor, which was an old road that lead to Munster, the place where the castle is located. The castle was constructed by Mac Giolla Phádraig in 1480. He was an Irish chief whose name in the English language meant a son of the servant of Patrick, an Irish saint. The castle was damaged significant in 1647 when Cromwellian forces stormed County Laois and tried to tear the castle apart.Instagram
Richard Ely when scouring the castle in the 1800s found a huge cache of gold which he decided to use to renovate the castle and repair the damages caused by Cromwellian forces. Ely made changes to the castle as he planned to live in it after the work was completed but never got the chance to do so as he was murdered in the castle after being shot by an angry tenant in 1836. His memory is still very evident in the castle as one of the flagstones in the castle still retains traces of his blood marks.
The castle was left untouched for centuries as there was too much word to be done to restore it. It was used temporarily as a granary before it was abandoned and started to fall apart. The castle was purchased by Grace Pym in 1990 who would invest heavily into restoring and furnishing Ballaghmore Castle. Grace and her daughter Sorrell Lambton have turned a portion of the castle into a hotel where guests can stay and enjoy the experience of living in a castle.Instagram
One of the interesting facts of Ballaghmore Castle is the carving of Sheela na Gig, which is a depiction of an evil looking woman, whose face is contorted and has a vagina which is fully exposed. This Sheela na Gig depiction used to be used by a lot of Irish castles and churches in ancient times to ward off evil spirits.
Castle Durrow is not as old as Ballaghmore Castle but is still one of the most popular destinations in County Laois. Castle Durrow was built in the 18th century and was owned by the Flower family for over 200 years. The house was used as a school in the 20th century and was later purchased by Peter and Shelley Stokes in 1998 after they fell in love with the mansion. The Stokes never really had the funds to make the purchase but they desperately wanted to convert the house into a hotel and share it with the rest of the world.
The house has been transformed into a hotel that has modern day amenities but still retains the feel of an old mansion. The rooms at the hotel are very spacious, have great views and antique furniture that gives you the feeling of being in an Anglo-Irish culture. All the rooms have an individual design to it and Shelley Stokes has spent a lot of time making sure that the castle hotel provides guest with the best hospitality and an experience that they will not forget.Instagram
Castle Durrow has been rated by TripAdvisor as one of the top ten castle hotels in the world. The ranking was given based on hotel reviews from travellers from across the globe. Guests who stay at the hotel can enjoy a quiet and peaceful time walking around the demesne. There are a number of great reviews on the walking travels around Castle Durrow and one of the best reviews can be found at Everytrail.com. The restaurant at Castle Durrow serves up some quality Irish food and is a great way to replenish your energy once your walk is completed.
Castle Durrow has a magnificent setting and has become a popular spot for couples to get married. The hotel offers a great package to host weddings and a lot of locals take full advantage of these great deals. The castle is a great spot for wedding pictures as both indoor and outdoor locations provide a unique feel to the wedding party.
The hotel also provides the newly married couple with a special luxury hotel room offer as a complimentary stay.
Ireland has a lot of ancient buildings which are now in ruins and County Laois is no different. However the ruins at County Laois still has a number of interesting facts that make it popular with tourists.
This ancient castle was built in the 15th century and has deteriorated over time and is now in ruins. This massive castle was once owned by John Thomas Bowen who was popularly referred to as John of the Pike since he was always seen with a pike. He took ownership of the castle in 1551 and many years later it would go to Katherine Bowen.
The present owners of the castle are direct descendants of Katherine Bowen who have turned the castle into private property and have a huge sign displayed which says "Danger, Keep Out".
However it is still a great spot to visit as once can see just how massive the castle is. It is also a great place to take photos with the castle in the background.
Yet another castle that stand in ruins. The castle was popular in ancient times as it was depicted on the old maps of Offaly and Leix. The castle was probably used in times of old as a fort against invaders and was owned by a number of families including the O’Dowlings who were natives of Laois and considered to be a part of the royal family. The castle was also once owned by the Harterpoles who moved from England to Ireland and Robert Hartpole was known for carrying out a number of cruel acts during the Elizabethan wars against the Irish people.
This was a beautiful castle in County Laois and considered to be a great part of the local heritage. The castle slowly deteriorated over the years and was severely affected by Storm Darwin that left it in ruins. The castle was demolished in 2014 due to safety concerns and is now just a memory in County Laois’s history. The castle’s hall house was one of the most popular parts of the castle as it was constructed way back in the 13th century.
The demolition of the castle caused a lot of controversy in County Laois and the locals felt that it was a hasty decision. The storm caused a lot of destruction and forced the National Monuments Service (NMS) to send across two archaeologists to conduct a survey of the castle and confirm if it was a safe place to visit. The archaeologists felt that the storm had turned the castle into a dangerous place and suggested that certain parts of the castle be levelled.
The NMS decided to act on these suggestions and asked a demolition team to level the unsafe parts but in the end the entire castle was demolished and left the people of County Laois seething with anger. An investigation was launched to get to the bottom of what exactly happened when the bulldozer went into the castle but at the end of the day, the castle is no more.
The only good thing that came out of the demolition of the castle was the fact that the NMS and other castle owners in County Laois will be a lot more careful when attempting any demolition work at these ancient structures.
This is one of the lesser known castles in County Laois but has a rich history to it. The castle was constructed by Finghin MacGillapatrick back in 1425 and was used by the MacGillapatrick family of Upper Ossory as a stronghold. The castle was attacked repeatedly over the years and proved to be a great defence for its occupants. However the constant barrage against the castle took its toll and was significantly damaged during 1650 when Cromwell’s forces lodged a vicious attack against Cullahill castle.Instagram
The castle also had a Sheela na Gig monument mounted behind the chimney to ward off evil attacks. The castle has since been purchased by new owners who have turned it into private property. The ruins of an old chapel can also be found a few feet away from Cullahill castle. This chapel was once used as a private chapel by Upper Ossory Catholic Lords.
The Rock of Dunamase
Easily one of County Laois’ most popular tourist destinations due to its surrounding beauty, historic significance and the fact that it overlooks the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The Rock of Dunamase is about one hundred and fifty one feet above a plain that’s flat and also has the ruins of the Dunamase castle. Historians believe that the rock took its place somewhere in the 9th century, while the castle was built during the end of the 12th century and was often used as a stronghold and defence tower against marauders.Instagram
The castle at Dunamase once belonged to the first Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal who was a strong ally to King John (the Magna Carta was sealed during the reign of King John) and the ownership of the castle changed hands frequently as centuries rolled on. There is no clear indication as to who owned the castle between the 10th and 11th century.
The Normans were known to have used the castle as a stronghold for a number of centuries. The castle was gifted by the King of Leinster, Diarmuid Mac Murrough as part of a dowry payment to the Norman conqueror Strongbow back in 1170 after he married Aoife, the daughter of Mac Murrough.
Mac Murrough and Aoife’s daughter Isabel would later go on to marry William Marshal and the castle was once again given as part of a dowry settlement. It is believed that Marshal made a few constructions on the rock where he lived during 1208 to 1213.
The castle was taken apart according to historians sometime during 1651 by Reynolds and Hewson, Cromwellian generals who took over the castle and then blew it up. While there is no official history to confirm these acts, it is the most plausible explanation as to why the castle is now in ruins. The castle was later acquired by Sir John Parnell during the end of the 18th century and he took it upon himself to try and restore the castle. There was a lot of progress made during this restoration and the banqueting hall received special attention although it was never fully finished.
Sir John Parnell wanted to re-build and furnish the castle completely so that he could convert it into a residence. He used some of the stones and material from the ruins to incorporate it into the restoration of the castle as he wanted windows and doors to be framed from medieval cut rock. However Sir John Parnell died before the entire restoration was complete and nobody took it upon themselves to complete the restoration. The castle and its ruins at Dunamase continues to stand today and serve as a popular tourist attraction in County Laois.
The Rock of Dunamase is a great place for tourists to just hang out and take in the rich Irish history and also to spend a little time and have a picnic at the ruins. The surroundings make it a great place to take pictures and the Slieve Bloom Mountains can also be seen from the Dunamase. There is no entrance fees to get up to the Rock of Dunamase and many tourists use it just chill out, get some quiet time and enjoy the beauty of nature.Instagram
There are also instances of marriage proposals being made at the Rock of Dunamase as it provides an enchanting environment and the ruins and church in the background makes it an experience one will never forget.
The Rock of Dunamase is visited by thousands of tourists every year and based on the reviews they post online, this is considered to be one of the best castle ruins to visit.Instagram
The site is located just a kilometre away the N80 and is situated between PortLaoise and Stradbally making it very easy to locate.
County Laois is separated from the Ossory by the Gully River and right at the end of this river you can find Gortnaclea Castle. The castle just like most of Ireland’s castles was built centuries ago and has a rich history which has been well documented. The first owner according to records was lord Donyl Fitzpatrick. One of the most memorable incidents at the castle was when the Black Earl of Ormond and a lord Treasurer of Ireland, Thomas Butler was taken as prisoner and held at the castle.
Butler was known to have a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth I and as a result invoked the wrath of a number of Irish lords and the Fitzpatricks who were fighting hard to make Ireland independent.
This castle according to historic records was first built in 1260 and over the centuries ownership has been passed around a number of times. The last inhabitant of the castle was Charles O'Dempsey who took ownership of the castle in the 18th century. The O'Dempsey family had also owned Lea Castle on two separate occasions between 1284 to 1329 and then again between 1422 to 1452. Charles O'Dempsey is believed to have been final descendant of the Chiefs of Clanmaliere, who commanded huge respect during the early centuries.Instagram
The castle has been damaged significantly over the years especially through fires and now has been completely destroyed and only ruins remain today of Lea Castle.
Robert Hartpole built Shrule Castle sometime between 1600 to 1640 pretty close to the Barrow river in Couty Laois, a few kilometres from Carlow town. Hartpole was the governor of Queens County and also the constable of Carlow castle. The castle was infamously known as the castle on the bloody stream due to the fact that Hartpole had a reputation of shedding a lot of blood during the Elizabethan wars and was responsible for a number of violent acts against the Irish people.
There are old wives tales that give the castle an eerie feel and one of them revolves around a time when Hartpole slaughtered a catholic Irish priest within the castle and never even gave him the privilege of saying his final prayers. However many believe that this is nothing more than a fable because Hartpole was not a protestant but a catholic himself. Over the years, the castle fell apart and was eventually abandoned after. The castle was acquired by the Lecky family in the 19th century and they found it difficult to restore the castle and preferred to build a house next to the Shrule castle. The house was eventually destroyed in 1940 after it was severely damaged by a fire.
The Shrule castle although abandoned at this point of time is not yet repair. The right investor will be able to turn this castle into an extremely popular castle hotel, similar to County Tipperary’s Grantstown Castle and County Laois’s Ballaghmore Castle.
This castle was built by Eoin Carragh MacDonnell, otherwise known as John the Scabbed back in 1450. The castle was built on a site that once had another castle and Tinnakill castle was also called Tigh na Coille which in English means House of the Wood. Historical records from 1659 state that the last person to own Tinnakill castle was James MacDonnell.
The castle was significant when it was owned and run by the MacDonnell family as they were a popular family because Eoin MacDonnell and son Tirlough MacDonnell were considered to be a part of some of the finest infantry deployments in Ireland. Both father and son were killed on the battle field.
Fortified house in Castlecuffe
The house is located in a field and in days of old was known as Pairc na Sagairt, which can be translated as the priests field. The building was purchased by Sir Charles Coote in 1560 from the O’Dunnes family and a new building was constructed and named after Sir Charles’s wife, Dorothy Cuffe who hailed from Cork.
Although the fortified house is now in ruins, it is not open to the public and a huge sign makes it clear that it is private property and trespassers are not welcome.
This is yet another fortified house in County Laois that has been portrayed as a castle. It was built by the O’Duigen family back in 1636 and can be found pretty close to Ballaghmore village.
The house has been through a number of battles over the years and two specific battles resulted in severe destructed to the property. The first was when troops from Cromwell decided to set the house on fire and the second was during the 1798 upheaval when Yeomen attacked the house and caused a lot of destruction to the property.
Visitors who would like to check out Cloncourse castle can do so free of charge. They will do well to wear walking boots as the trail up to the castle can be rather difficult. The spot is a great place to relax and spend time with the family. The only thing one needs to keep an eye out for is cattle, which freely roam near the castle.
Derrin "Castle" is neither a castle nor a fortified house. This building is just a simple good old Irish house that was built during the 1600s and due to its heritage has become a part of the Archaeological Inventory for County Laois. The owner of Derrin was Dorothy Hedges who is believed to have lived in the house from 1600 to 1675. Once she passed away, the house has remained largely unoccupied and has fallen apart over the years.
There is nothing spectacular about the house nor the ruins and the only thing of interest could be the number of rabbits that freely roam the old house.
This is one of the oldest forts in County Laois and is located in Portlaoise. The fort was one of the key reasons why a town was established after the then parliament under the reign of Queen Mary decided to make the town official in 1557. The county became Queen’s County to pay tribute to the Queen Mary.
Maryborough fort has a lot of history to it as it was built way back in 1548 by English settlers. The fort played a big role after a rebellion was carried out by the O'Connors of Offaly and was also nicknamed as Fort Protector, a name derived from the Lord Protector of England.
The fort changed ownership quite frequently depending on who won each battle. Catholic forces took ownership of the fort in 1641 and Cromwell’s forces took over the fort in 1650. During their time in County Laois, Cromwell’s forces raided a number of castles and fortified houses in County Laois causing much destruction and the Maryborough fort was also one of the buildings that was damaged.
The fort was also the place where Colonell Lewes Moore, the leader of the Irish side decided to surrender to the British Parliamentarians. The fort has fallen apart over the years and all that is left now is two short pieces of wall that were used as a defence and one small tower in the corner. The Maryborough fort is considered a monument to Portlaoise and is now one can find Colonel James Fitzmaurice where the fort once used to be.
It is a great place to visit and take pictures and since there is not a lot of things to do in Portlaoise, spending some time at the Maryborough fort is a great way to catch up on some ancient history.
Another fortified house in County Laois that is still known as a castle. It was built during 1580 before being completely destroyed by a Cromwell invasion in 1640. There is very little left of even the ruins of Morett castle for one to see how it was built. But what is interesting is the beautiful paintings of the castle that were painted in the 18th century.
These paintings do a good job in capturing the beauty of the old ruins as they show a significant portion of the building which was left standing back then.
Aleksandr Siling, 2018