Roscommon Castle is not necessarily the first structure that comes to mind when listing the most famous castles in Ireland. The castle 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. In fact, the castle is surprisingly large, even if the interior is all but gone.
How to find Roscommon Castle
Reaching Roscommon Castle can be a bit confusing. If you are passing by Roscommon Town on the N60, you will see the castle, but not the way to it. If you are in the town itself, you'll see signs for the castle, but not the building itself. In fact, in order to reach the castle, visitors have to be prepared to take a short hike (or drive there).
The castle ruins are located on a hillside just outside the town. The hill is very modest, so the prospect of a short walk should not put anyone off. The castle is now part of the local recreation area called Loughnanane Park. The park is a beautifully landscaped area with a pond filled with local ducks and protected by a gate that is open during daylight hours. The easiest access is via Castle Street and Castle Lane, north of the town center.
What to See
This fairly large medieval Irish monument is basically quadrangular in shape and is almost utilitarian looking. Roscommon Castle once featured D-shaped towers at all four corners, each about three stories 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. Another feature that has now been lost are the curtain walls which originally 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 because centuries of neglect (and some willful destruction) have taken their toll. There were also some major conversions to the castle in the Elizabethan era and you will also now see 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 visitors will have to rely on their personal 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). Please do not attempt to climb up to the upper levels.
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. The first version of the castle was a stout fortification which was 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.
About 50 years later, the fearful O’Connor clan took possession of Roscommon Castle again 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. A few years later, Roscommon Castle was granted to the new ruler of Connacht, Governor Sir Nicholas Malbie. Not content with living in a sturdy, yet drafty 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. The addition of windows was practical for day-to-day, but compromised 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 of the castle were simply blown up, and the main fortifications were 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.
Why to Visit
Roscommon Castle is a stout fortress, with an interesting and checkered history. This history should make Roscommon Castle interesting enough for most visitors interested in the past. The castle is 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.