Rockfleet Castle, County Mayo

West Ireland's Castles & Ancient Settlements

Castles & Ancient Settlements West Ireland

The West of Ireland is home to perhaps the best evidence of how life was lived before the invasion of the Normans. Prior to Strongbow landing on Irish shores in 1170, Ireland had been ruled from the West, by High King Ruari O'Connor. After the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the 13th century, as Irish power declined, the West became neglected and lawless. It is in the West where the suffering of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849, was most pronounced — parts of the West are yet to recover from the mass migration and death caused by the affliction. On this page you can find the historic battle scars of Western Ireland, as well as some of its ancient wonders of construction.

1 Bunratty Castle

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History & Culture

Found in the village of Bunratty County Clare, between Limerick City and the town of Ennis, Bunratty Castle is a 15th century tower house. There have been three other structures on this site before the construction of the current castle. The first structure was a settlement set up by Norsemen. King Henry III of England was responsible for the building of a motte and bailey castle. Thomas De Clare built the first stone structure on the site and this was occupied between 1278 and 1318. While De Clare was away in England, in 1284, the castle was attacked and destroyed. In 1287, De Clare had the castle rebuilt and this version stood until it was attacked again in 1318. In the same year, De Clare and his son were killed in battle.

Bunratty Castle, County Clare

The present structure was built in 1425 by the MacNamara family. The O'Briens, Munster's most powerful clan, seized control of the castle around 1500. During the Confederate Wars (between 1641 and 1653), Rear-Admiral Penn, whose son William would go on to found the province of Pennsylvania, was in control of the castle before surrendering to the Irish Confederates and being allowed to sail to Kinsale. Bunratty Castle was then past down through the O'Brien family before it was sold to the Studdert family around 1720. When the Studdert family left the estate, to move to the nearby, more modern, 'Bunratty House', the castle fell into disrepair. In 1956 the 7th Viscount Gort and the Office of Public Works restored the castle and in 1960 it was opened to the public. Today the castle and its folk park can be visited for a small fee.

2 Dromoland Castle

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History & Culture

Today Dromoland Castle, located near Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, is a five-star luxury hotel with a golf course and a Michelin star restaurant. Previously on the land, there have been three other houses all known as "Dromoland". The site was home to eight generations of the O'Brien family. The current castle was built in 1835 under the supervision of Edward O'Brien, using neo-gothic designs from celebrated architectures and brothers James and George Richard Pain.

Dromoland Castle, County Clare

3 Ashford Castle

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History & Culture

Ashford Castle is a medieval and Victorian castle found near the town of Cong on the Mayo-Galway border. It has been expanded and restored over the centuries and today stands as a five-star hotel and was once owned by the Guinness family. The Anglo-Norman House of Burke first built a castle here on what was a monastic settlement in 1228. For more than 350 years the castle was under the control of the de Burgos, a name that would become known today as Burke or Bourke, until it was taken over by Sir Richard Bingham, after a lengthily battle, in 1589. Between 1670 and 1678 the Browne family received the property via a Royal Grant and in 1715 established the estate that is today known as Ashford. The estate was bought from the Browne family in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, father of Arthur Guinness—founder of the Guinness stout empire. Benjamin Lee expanded the estate to reach 26,000 acres. Upon his death, the estate was passed onto his son Arthur who in turn added to both the castle and the grounds.

Ashford Castle, County Mayo

Arthur's nephew Ernest eventually sold the estate, in 1939, to Noel Huggard who went on to open it as a hotel. The hotel, in more recent years, has been bought and sold by a number of investors. The hotel was closed down in 2011 for 4 years, during which time it received a massive refurbishment until it was reopened to guests in April 2015.

4 Céide Fields

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History & Culture

Céide Fields, in northern County Mayo, essentially an ancient civilisation preserved under a blanket of peat. It has helped archaeologists understand how people interacted, worked and lived over 5,500 years ago. The Neolithic site was discovered by accident when a schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield, was cutting turf for fuel in the 1930s. He noticed stones, beneath the peat, that was too systematically placed to have been formed by nature. Over the following years, archaeologists were able to learn how these ancient people created arable land, reared cattle and cut and managed timber. These people prospered until, perhaps due to the clearing of the forest canopy to create arable land, raised bogs were formed and the earth became barren.

Céide Fields, County Mayo

5 Poulnabrone Dolmen

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History & Culture

Poulnabrone Dolmen is a portal tomb found in the Burren in County Clare. It is the second-largest dolmen in Ireland, after Brownshill Dolmen in County Carlow. It is made up of three standing stones holding a massive capstone in place. Archaeologists have estimated that its formation dates back to the Neolithic period, between 4200 BC and 2900 BC. It has become the most well known and visited dolmen of the 172 in Ireland. What is visible today is the stone skeleton of what would have been there originally, soil would have been used to cover it into a mound and a cairn or stack of stones would have been used to top the capstone. The remains of around 33 human individuals were discovered when the site was excavated in 1986 and 1988.

Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren, County Clare

In 2005 it was estimated that the Poulnabrone Dolmen attracted 200,000 visitors. A car park was opened in 2007 by the Clare County Council to deal with the traffic issues on the area's small, narrow roads.

6 Dún Aonghasa

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History & Culture

Dún Aonghasa is a hill fort on the island of Inishmore on the Aran Islands of County Galway. While there are several prehistoric hill forts spread across the Aran Islands, thanks to its size and complexity Dún Aonghasa is the most well known. The fort is made up of four dry stone walls atop a 100 metre high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. From overhead the fort is constructed in a semi-circle, opening out to the sea, but this may be due to the erosion of the cliff face and it is more likely that the original design was oval or D-shaped.

George Petrie, the 19th century artist called Dún Aonghasa "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe". Its name, meaning "Fort of Aonghas" in English, is believed to have come from the pre-Christian god Aengus.

Dún Aonghasa, County Galway