An unofficial count estimates that Ireland has more than 1,000 castles. Scattered throughout the country, most of the medieval castles were built as defensive homes by the island’s most powerful families. Unfortunately, most of the castles were abandoned and left to lie as ruins. However, many of the fortified palaces have been restored to their former glory and can be explored by visitors. Whether you want to seek out deserted countryside homes, kiss the Blarney stone, or sleep in luxury — here are the best castles in Ireland:
Bunratty Castle: Co. Clare, Ireland
Bunratty Castle is one of the most beloved and well-known castles in Ireland. Though there were earlier settlements on the same spot, the castle as it stands today was built in the 1400s. It is a fortified tower house located in County Clare which was fully restored in 1954. The gray stone castle has been furnished with antiques from the 15th and 16th centuries to show what life would have been like when it was built by the powerful MacNamara family. It is possible to visit the castle and to book tickets for the medieval banquets that are held there almost every day.
The Rock of Cashel: Co. Tipperary, Ireland
There are many myths associated with the large castle known as the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. According to the legend, this is where Aenghus the King of Munster was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick in the 5th century. The High Kings of Ulster ruled from the castle here and later donated the site to the Catholic Church. Most of the buildings in the large castle complex date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It is possible to walk through the castle and admire the beautiful medieval architecture that makes the Rock of Cashel one of the most visited sites in Ireland.
Dunluce Castle is an abandoned medieval castle set on the top of a cliff overlooking the sea in County Antrim, Northern Ireland that has been featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones. The dramatic setting is surrounded by steep drop-offs on every side and the castle can only be reached after crossing a bridge from the mainland. Dunluce was first built by the MacQuillan in the early 1500s but was taken over by the warrior MacDonnells in the 1550s. The clifftop location was ideal for defenses but proved a bit unstable — and part of the kitchen fell into the ocean during a stormy night in the 1630s. The castle passed hands to the Earls of Antrim but left to fall into disrepair. Today there is a visitor center at the castle to stop into before wandering through the ruined walls which still stand.
Blarney Castle: Co. Cork, Ireland
Blarney Castle is a medieval fortress near Cork, Ireland that is surrounded by a large garden and set next to the River Martin. The castle dates back to the early 1200s, though the stone fortress as it stands today was built by the McCarthy family in the 15th century. It is still possible to visit some of the rooms of the castle and to seek out the main attraction – the Blarney Stone. The stone at the top of the castle is believed to give the gift of the gab to anyone who leans over the sharp drop off to kiss it.
Ashford Castle: Co. Mayo, Ireland
While some of Ireland’s castles lie in ruins, the gorgeous Ashford Castle has been converted into a luxury hotel. The castle was first built in the 1200s, and its fortified walls were expanded over the centuries when it served as the location for fierce battles. After a truce was agreed, the castle eventually became a hunting lodge before being purchased by the member of the Guinness family in 1852. The famous Irish beer family expanded the castle and built new wings, before selling the property in the 1930s. A mix of Victorian and medieval architecture, the beautiful ivy-covered Ashford Castle now has 83 guest rooms and has been featured in film and television.
Ross Castle: Co. Kerry, Ireland
Rent a bike to cycle from the town of Killarney to the picturesque Ross Castle. The medieval fort was built by the O’Donoghue clan on the edge of Lough Leane in what is now the Killarney National Park. Surrounded by extensive trails and plenty of picnic spots, Ross Castle is a popular stop for a day out. It is possible to take a guided tour of some of the castle, but many visitors also enjoy the view of the stone tower house from the outside while taking a quick walk around the grounds.
Dublin Castle: Co. Dublin, Dublin
Located off Dame Street in the heart of the Irish capital, Dublin Castle has a long political history. The castle served as the location of the United Kingdom government offices for hundreds of years until Ireland gained independence in 1922 and the castle was ceremoniously handed over to Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Rebellion. There are still important government offices inside the complex, but the castle is also open to the public to visit the State Apartments, Medieval Undercroft and Chapel Royal seven days a week.
Dunguaire Castle: Co. Galway, Ireland
Dunguaire Castle in County Galway is a fortified tower house dating back to 1520 that is built on the edge of Galway Bay. The castle was built by the Hynes clan and named after their ancestor Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, a legendary king of Connacht. After passing through different families over the centuries, the castle was eventually purchased by Oliver St. John Gogarty, a doctor, write and senator who often invited famous Irish authors like W.B. Yeats to stay. Today the castle has been restored and it is possible to visit the exhibits as well as to book tickets for the medieval banquets that are held inside the castle halls from April through September.
Cahir Castle: Co. Tipperary, Ireland
Cahir Castle is one of the largest castles in Ireland and almost seems to grow out of the rocky island it is built into in the River Suir. Located in County Tipperary, the castle was built by the O’Brien family in the 13th century. It has survived over the centuries thanks to its defensive design which withstood several sieges and battles though it was ultimately taken over by Cromwell’s army in 1650. Located close to the village of Cahir, the castle offers an audiovisual experience to teach visitors about the long history of the fortress.
Malahide Castle: Co. Dublin, Ireland
Found a 30-minute train ride from Dublin, pretty Malahide Castle is a fully restored medieval castle that was home to generations of the same family for almost 800 years. The castle is surrounded by a large park as well as a botanical garden which includes many rare and tropical plants. It is possible to take a guided tour of Malahide Castle, and its Great Hall can even be rented out for special events.
Minard Castle: Co. Kerry, Ireland
No one has lived at Minard Castle since it was attacked by Cromwell’s army in 1650. The military destroyed parts of the tower house but three stories of the original structure are still standing. The pretty location on the edge of a quiet beach filled with boulders makes it worth a short detour down a country road to the abandoned castle in County Kerry. There is no visitors center, but it is possible to climb up the small hill and walk around the historic stone walls that overlook the Irish sea near the town of Dingle.