Ireland’s unmissable castles

Legend, lore and lavish surroundings have ensured that Ireland’s castles never fail to capture our imaginations.

With over 3,000 castles dotted across the island of Ireland, it would be impossible to visit them all. Here we take a closer look at six castles that are open to the public that you must see on your Ireland vacation.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

1. Dunluce Castle

At the tip of the Antrim coast sits the sprawling Dunluce Castle, looming over the sea atop a dark basalt outcrop. Once home to the feuding McQuillan and MacDonnell clans, this is the quintessential medieval Irish castle. From rebellion to fire, mermaids to banshees, Dunluce has seen its fair share of drama. No wonder, then, that this enchanting location is said to have inspired C.S. Lewis to create Narnia’s hallowed Cair Paravel, and now features in Game of Thrones.

With the white chalk cliffs of Portrush sweeping away to the west, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time. But don’t get too close to the edge – local legend says the castle kitchen once collapsed into the sea, dragging seven cooks with it!

Glenarm Castle
Glenarm Castle

2. Glenarm Castle

While the present castle has stood since 1636, there has been a castle at Glenarm since the 13th century. Once stretching all the way up the northern coast of Antrim, today’s Glenarm estate is now much smaller, housing an organic farm instead of an original deer park and a charming Tea Room where the 19th century Mushroom House once sat.

Though still a family home, guided tours of the castle are available at selected times. The grounds are a hive of activity, hosting an annual Tulip Festival (May), as well as the 10-mile Wilderbeast trail run (June) and the Highland Games (July) for the past number of years. And, with the seaside a short stroll away, what more could you want?

Tullynally Castle
Tullynally Castle

3. Tullynally Castle

Occupied by the same family since the 17th century, Tullynally Castle is linked to one of Ireland’s most loved legends, the Children of Lir. Indeed, visitors reported that a ‘fairy land’ had been constructed on the site in the 1830s, when Lady Georgiana remodeled the grounds. Although everything from a llama paddock to a Tibetan Garden has since been added, the castle itself has remained mostly unchanged.

Centuries later, the flawless acoustics of Tullynally’s magnificent Great Hall hosts regular music events, while visitors to the expansive gardens can often catch a plant fair or owner-led spring walk. From summer fêtes to Halloween Terror Trails, Tullynally truly is a castle for all seasons.

Birr Castle
Birr Castle

4. Birr Castle

The Third Earl of Rosse was an innovative gent. His Leviathan telescope, still in working order at Birr Castle, was once the largest in existence, and his wife Mary created one of the world’s first darkrooms in the estate stables. It’s not difficult to see why – Birr Castle Gardens are some of the most stunning in Ireland. Endless exotic flowers enliven the grounds in a rainbow of color, while waterfalls and lakes are home to otters, herons and kingfishers.

Within the castle, visitors are guided by descendants of the Earl and his wife, whose portraits still adorn the great Victorian dining room. The view from the spectacular, octagonal Gothic Saloon drinks in the River Camcor, from where the couple’s son once harnessed the current to provide Birr with electricity.

Blackrock Castle
Blackrock Castle

5. Blackrock Castle

Cork’s coat of arms heralds the city as a “safe harbor for ships”, but this wasn’t always the case. The formidable limestone outcrop of Blackrock Castle was built in the 16th century to protect one of the deepest natural harbors in the world from pirate and naval attacks – and to protect the nobility from the rowdier factions within the Rebel County.

Twice destroyed by fire, the castle was faithfully restored by the people of Cork. Today, it is home to the invaluable astronomical research center of the nearby Cork Institute of Technology. Its award-winning interactive astronomy exhibition, Cosmos at the Castle, is the first of its kind in Ireland.

Ballynahinch Castle
Ballynahinch Castle

6. Ballynahinch Castle

Tucked away among 445 acres of rugged Connemara landscape, Ballynahinch Castle Hotel is a safe bet for those seeking a relaxed setting and the opportunity to actually stay in an Irish castle. In its old age, the estate has mellowed, but half a millennium ago, it was home to some of the most infamous figures of Irish legend. Pirate queen and chieftain, Grace O’Malley, and the ‘Ferocious O’Flaherty Clan’ all graced its halls.

The grounds of Ballynahinch can be easily enjoyed on horseback or on foot, while seasonal woodcock shoots and a trip to the deserted Inishlacken Island are particular visitor favorites. Those who prefer to appreciate the historic surroundings from a more comfy location can cuddle up in a fireside armchair.

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