Ormond Castle, today tucked away in a public park in Carrick-on-Suir, is reputed to be the best preserved Elizabethan manor house in Ireland - in fact, there are not many buildings from the Tudor period as intact as this. Slightly hidden away in plain sight (you have to know where to go, essentially, or trust the signposts), it is the main tourist attraction in the area, and an important site of County Tipperary as well.
A Short History of Ormond Castle
Ormond Castle as seen today was built by Thomas, 10th Earl of Ormond, around 1560. An older building was, however, used as a basis - the mid-15th century walled bawn, complete with corner towers, can still be identified. But Thomas changed the character of the castle completely, losing most of the defensive structures and instead creating an imposing family home. Thus Ormond Castle is Ireland's only major unfortified dwelling from the Tudor period still in existence. The original castle was established sometime before 1315, when it fell to the Butler Family, later known as Earls of Ormond.
Around 250 years later Earl Thomas spent some years (and a small fortune) at the court of his cousin Queen Elizabeth I - they were related through her mother's, the headless Anne Boleyn, family. Inspired by the “typically English” Elizabethan architecture, he proceeded to add an imposing Tudor manor house to the old-fashioned and utilitarian Ormond Castle. Avantgarde at the time - in fact, Thomas' stunning project was the first proper Tudor manor house in all Ireland.
Though the house was a favorite residence of James Butler, the “Great Duke”, in the 17th century, the family left and abandoned Ormond Castle after his death (1688). And while it remained in possession of the Butlers, it was allowed to decay, and even partially fall apart. Finally, in 1947, Ormond Castle was handed over to the Irish state. Later a (partial) restoration began.
Ormond Castle Today
Visiting Ormond Castle is a two-step experience - you are free to enter the grounds and exhibition but will have to join a tour (duration around 45 minutes) to see the state rooms. Depending on your interest in the Tudor period, in architecture, or the television spectacle “The Tudors” (parts of which were actually filmed here) you may pick and choose.
A stroll through the courtyard and around the house will give a good impression of Elizabethan architecture and you will discover interesting small details. Look out for the oriel windows of the porch in the center of the facade and the fine mullioned windows on both floors. During the summer you will have to look out swallows flying through some gateways with the determination of kamikaze pilots. Be prepared for near misses.
The exhibition of the charters is most interesting, some very fine examples are on view. Unfortunately in very low light to protect them from too much exposure to ultra-violet rays (wait for a few minutes until your night vision kicks in). Here the state could do more ... when we visited one of the splendid waxen seals on the charters was actually melting away, to allow the loss of such treasures seems to be extremely careless and callous.
More care is invested into the state rooms, undoubtedly the highlight of Ormond Castle with some of the finest decorative plasterwork in Ireland. A laudable restoration job has been done on the Long Gallery on the first floor where the ceiling had collapsed during the centuries of neglect. Once hung with rich (and warming) tapestries, this room now seems a bit bare. But it still has a gorgeous limestone fireplace (dated 1565). There is also stucco portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, flanked by allegorical figures of Equity and Justice. This was included in honor of Thomas Butler's cousin, the Queen, and to prepare for her promised visit (which, incidentally, never came to pass).
Ormond Castle - Worth a Visit?
Definitely yes if you are in the vicinity and worth a bit of traveling if you want to see largely unspoiled Tudor architecture. It may not be Ireland's most impressive castle, but it was innovative architecture at its time and is one-of-a-kind today. If you are heading to Tipperary for the Rock of Cashel, make sure to take in Ormond Castle as well.