Roscommon Castle

Stout Norman Fortress in Ruins

Roscommon Castle
© Bernd Biege 2016

Roscommon Castle would not be on the list that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of the most famous castles in Ireland – it is far less known than others, and even visitors to Roscommon Town in the Province of Connacht sometimes tend to miss it. Nonetheless, it is impressive and interesting enough to warrant a short visit. And it is surprisingly big. Though the interior is all but gone.

How to find Roscommon Castle

Here’s the crunch – if you are passing Roscommon Town on the N60, you will see the castle, but not the way to it. And if you are in the town itself, you'll see signposts, but no castle, and have to be prepared to take a short hike (or drive there). The castle ruins are to be found on a hillside just outside the town. Now “hillside” is really pushing it, it is a modest elevation. And the castle is now part of the local amenity area called Loughnanane Park, a beautifully landscaped area with a pond (dive for cover when the ducks come in to land), protected by a gate that is open during daylight hours. Easiest access is via Castle Street and Castle Lane, north of the town center.

Roscommon Castle – A Short Description

This fairly large medieval Irish monument is basically quadrangular in shape, utilitarian almost. Once Roscommon Castle featured D-shaped towers at all four corners, each about three storeys high, and a pair of towers to guard the entrance gateway. Only one tower still has the original vaulted roof today, the rest are in various stages of disrepair. Curtain walls enclosed the castle.

Today much of the original architecture of Roscommon Castle has to be imagined – while you'll still see the basic outlines of walls and towers, centuries of neglect (and some willful destruction) have taken their toll. Add to that major conversions in the Elizabethan era (see below) and you'll have modern additions (like windows) confusing the overall picture.

The only help in interpreting the ruins are plaques erected by the Office of Public Works, so you'll have to rely on your knowledge of castles and their architecture to tease out the image.

On the plus side, entrance to Roscommon Castle is free and unhindered (at least during daylight hours), so you can take your time in experiencing the ruins – only the higher parts are off-limits (which makes sense). Don’t attempt some free-climbing here!

The History of Roscommon Castle

The original castle at Roscommon was built in 1269 by Robert de Ufford, on lands seized from an Augustinian Priory – a stout fortification was apparently needed to protect Anglo-Norman interests in the area: The new stronghold was promptly besieged by locals and partially destroyed by Connacht King Aodh O’Connor in 1272, then rebuilt (stronger and better, not to be humbled again) by the Anglo-Normans in the 1280s.

Fifty odd years later the O’Connor’s took again possession of Roscommon Castle and made it their own for around two centuries.

In 1569, however, Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland for Queen Elizabeth I, seized the castle … and a few years later granted it to the new ruler of Connacht, Governor Sir Nicholas Malbie. Not contend with living in a sturdy, yet draughty and hopelessly outmoded pile of stone, Malbie started an ambitious re-building plan for Roscommon Castle. His castle was to be his home, not vice versa. The interior was totally remodeled and light was now admitted through large, mullioned windows, inserted in towers and walls. Thereby diminishing the structural integrity somewhat. Roscommon Castle effectively ceased to be a fortress, modern comforts replacing purely utilitarian design features. Malbie also created walled gardens, parts of which can still be discerned (the wall at least).

But there was no peace for Roscommon Castle through Irish history. Parliamentarian forces took control of the semi-fortress in 1641, four years later it fell to Confederate Catholics, loyal to the English king. After Cromwell re-took possession of the castle in 1562, its days were numbered – parts were simply blown up, the main fortifications destroyed. The final blow came during the Williamite Wars in 1690, when the remaining parts were burnt down and only a gutted shell remained – to be used by locals as a quarry occasionally, and generally decaying.

Today it is classified as a national monument and under the care of the Irish state, but apart from clearing the site, and some necessary work to ensure no further destruction, no changes have been made. It is still a ruin, though an impressive one.

Roscommon Castle – The Final Verdict

A stout fortress, albeit in ruins, and a chequered history – this should make Roscommon Castle interesting enough for most visitors interested in the past. Well worth a small detour if you are in the area (which is not blessed with too many attractions anyway). Visitors with an interest in medieval martial architecture should definitely go and explore the ruins, all others may just soak in the atmosphere of the place, and have a relaxing walk in the adjacent park.

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