Howth Castle is a magical place, mainly because of its general flavor of something like “genteel decay”, that presents itself to the visitor. Yet the casual visitor to the picturesque Howth, a peninsula in the Northern part of Dublin Bay, may be excused for failing to spot Howth Castle at all. Because the (originally) medieval edifice is neither properly signposted, nor is its existence immediately noticeable from the road.
All that may well be owing to the fact that the castle still is a private residence and generally not open to the public.
On the other hand, Howth Castle has observed an "open door policy" for centuries. Due to a pirate queen's drastic intervention. So head up the drive and have a good gawk at the outside at least, a wild mixture of styles.
A Short History of Howth Castle
In 1180 the St. Lawrence family has been granted the title of Lords of Howth - and almost immediately set about building a castle there. Alas, this is not really what we see today: Almeric, the first lord, erected his timber castle on Tower Hill, overlooking Balscadden Bay. A generation or two later the family moved. A deed records that around 1235 another castle had been built, this actually was on the present site of Howth Castle, but again more than likely constructed in wood.
Stone came later, but the chronology is a bit hazy here.
It can, however, be said that the oldest still existing parts of Howth Castle were built around the middle of the fifteenth century. As a stout fortress, with comfortable living quarters almost an afterthought.
Obviously that would not do in more refined times. Howth Castle was partially rebuilt and extensively adapted and altered by later generations.
It was in the year of 1738 when the house actually gained most of its current appearance. Then in 1911 the renowned English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was tasked with renovating and extending the structure. Many of the alterations are still traceable today, and it is often possible to extrapolate the original layout. This gives a remarkable insight into how historic houses evolved in Ireland over the centuries.
Howth Castle Today
Howth Castle still is the private residence of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family, descendants of Almeric St Lawrence, and not open to the public. Generally speaking, though the castle website gives details on how to arrange for a visit (or even rent the larger rooms for events).
A recent venture is the "Kitchen in the Castle Cookery School", which uses the original (but totally renovated) Georgian kitchen for a number of cookery courses and demonstrations.
Also in the grounds, using some agricultural buildings behind the castle, is the National Transport Museum of Ireland.
The once famed landscaped gardens were, however, largely destroyed to make room for the Deer Park Hotel and a golf course. There are still wild rhododendron gardens (open to the public in summer), and some of the oldest beech hedges, planted at the start of the 18th century.
The Legend of the Open Door
Legend tells us about two traditions connected to Howth Castle, both of which had their origin in an aborted visit by notorious pirate "Queen" Gráinne O'Malley in 1576. She wanted to pay a courtesy visit to Baron Howth, but was curtly told that the family was at dinner, and thus the castle gates were to remain closed. Fuming about such an affront, Gráinne swiftly abducted the grandson and heir.
He was only released upon the condition that the castle gates were to be open to unexpected visitors at all times - and that an extra place should be set at every meal, just in case. It is said that the occupants of Howth Castle even honour this today, certainly access to (but not into) the castle is always possible. I am not sure about the extra plate, though.
Howth Castle in (Popular) Culture
There certainly is another Dublin Joycean connection to be found here - the novel Finnegans Wake (1939) is set in "Howth Castle and Environs", the environs meaning Dublin in general.
Initials to this effect (HCE) also make a frequent appearance in the book. Most obviously (once you know it) in the name of the main character, one Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker.
Horror movie aficionados may know Howth Castle in another context - it was used as "Castle Haloran". A location of note in the 1963 B-movie "Dementia 13" (alternative title "The Haunted and the Hunted"), a work by Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola. I would not recommend visiting Howth Castle in darkness after watching the movie ...
Visiting Howth Castle
As it has been said before, Howth Castle is not open to visitors. But visitors have access to parts of the grounds and can have a good look at the outside of the castle - not necessarily a "must see" when visiting Ireland, but a pleasant add-on if you are visiting Howth anyway.
There are no formalities to be observed, just drive up the hill from the main road (if you are coming from Sutton you have to take a right just before Howth Railway Station), following the signs for the Deer Park Hotel. The drive will take you through impressive gates (open, as per tradition) and after a few hundred meters Howth Castle will be to your right. Park in a convenient place and explore on foot.
And please observe any signs as to restricted entry - after all, you wouldn't want people intruding upon your family home either, would you?
Howth Castle Essentials
- Website: howthcastle.com
- Directions: Howth Castle is situated just shy of Howth Harbour, the easiest access is by the R105 from Sutton and entering the demesne at the signs for Deer Park (Golf and Hotel). There is parking at the castle and the National Transport Museum. No other facilities are provided for casual visitors.
- Public Transport: Howth Railway Station (terminus for the DART service) and Dublin Bus stops are near the entrance to the demesne.