Vintage View: What was domestic life like in an Irish castle?

Picture: Martin Janowski |

Kya deLongchamps gives a glimpse of domestic life in and around an Irish castle.

Like many viewers, I was amazed by the glittering interiors of Belvelly Castle shown on Great Island, County Cork, in an episode of The Great House Revival (RTÉ1/Animo TV) in April.

Garry and Anne Wilson, and their architect Peter Plaskitt, have produced an urbane domestic dreamscape, elegantly inserted within the tower house walls. Belvelly has the new “strength and energy” of revival. Nobody in their right mind would want to live an authentic, upper-class 13th-century castle existence.

In medieval times, if you were lord and lady of a castle, you might have enjoyed a solar — sometimes referred to in large Irish castellated manors as the grianán or sunny room. This was essentially an inner sanctum for the ranking members of the family. A sophisticated household might have also had a lady’s day-room for her personal use.

The best beds had leather and rope stringing to support a feather mattress. Surrounded on all sides by a heavy frame they featured linen privacy sheers and heavier drapery to keep the sleepers out of draughts as they nestled down under furs and blanketing.

Crucially, the solar would have had its own fireplace and as the name suggest it had an attractive south inclined aspect where possible. Human beings need warmth and we all love a view. In a crowded medieval community, having dedicated, private chambers was an immense privilege.

Bunratty Castle has a particularly beautiful solar — the South Solar — which features a vaulted ceiling and fabulous stucco plasterwork dating from the time of the Earls of Thomond. Dressed for estate business and relaxation, it retains an ancient atmosphere. With the immense fire ablaze, it must have been genuinely comfortable by day compared to the darker, Antarctic areas of the building. Tripping in and out under the feeble glow of rush lighting — most servants returned to dank, rush-strewn beds.

The castle also has 15 privees (garderobe) — which in medieval and early modern Ireland was a measure of the family’s civility and means. Even the castle gentry were forced to wrap up and perch on a wood or stone bench over the cesspit at ground level. With no corridors between rooms in the domestic quarters as they opened one to the other, solitude during this intimate process was rare.

A trusted servant might be allowed to sleep in the same chambers as the lord and family — obviously not in the same manner. Still, this sort of position would have carried considerable status within the population of the bawn (raised bank protecting the entire community of the castle and its associated buildings).

Castles were built on rises not just for defensive strategic reasons but to deliver a cowing topographical phallus, reminding the locals daily who was in charge. Consequently, they provide some of the most incredible perspectives of the Irish countryside — with elevated views reaching for miles.

Next time you’re in Conna, County Cork, just take a walk up to the Fitzgerald Castle in the town, lean against the sun warmed batter, and take it all in. Imagine what that’s like from the ramparts? Sadly, when the building burned in 1653, the architecture acted as vast chimney, killing three daughters of the steward.

The walls of any desolate castle were — and still are — damp and cold and largely shaded from the sun by the necessity for narrow upward thrusting windows through the walls (embrasures). They were designed to be provide both firing positions (arrow loops) and to make it difficult to penetrate the building with projected weapons.

The higher the family chambers were the less reason there was for defensive windows.

Take a set of binoculars with you when visiting even any ruined National Monument — you can see some gorgeous and generous mullioned examples on the extreme upper floors with elaborate carved mouldings. When the sun came through the small “quarries” of geometric-shaped glass, it would have hit the stones on the facing internal walls — creating radiant warmth.

Tapestries helped to hold some of the heat that might otherwise have gone straight into the clinging, damp stone. Imported largely from the Flanders, they were a sign of immense wealth. Made popular by royalty and churches, embroidered hangings also cheered up the otherwise drab, shadowy surroundings with their bright colours and dramatic, story-telling content, much of it taken from exciting cartoonish passages of the Bible.

Other noble families (Anglo Irish or Gaelic landowners) slept in part of the great hall close to where they ate and entertained, and as this was the fulcrum of all domestic life, they would not have been alone. Their private quarters would have been at the same end as the raised dais, a sort of timber stage from where they hosted and feasted and might have been a room or just an area shielded by a heavy curtain and further divided for inter-generational living-space by walls or partitions.

A protected wing was sometimes designated as the family rooms, and most tower houses and castles show a layout floor-to-floor of a larger room with satellite rooms off them — passage to the stairs, storage and sleeping. Cahir Castle is arranged around an outer, middle and inner courtyard.

Wandering its great hall and second- and third-floor chambers now set sparely with appropriate oak furnishings, you really can imagine everyday household activity and socio-political dramas taking place here. There might well have been noble young hostages living in the castle with the family — affably or not.

Despite well-recorded and famed hospitality, the merrymaking and conditions of an Irish castle did not impress every visitor. In 1620, the Justice of Munster, Luke Gernon, having admired the muscular architecture, wrote of his stay in an Irish castle in A Discourse of Ireland:

“When you come to your chamber do not expect canopy and curtaynes. It is very well if your bedd content you. Breakfast is but the repetition of supper.”

An even more snarky account by François de La Boullaye de la Gouz in 1644, in his Tour of the French Traveller notes “nothing but square towers, poorly lit, with little furniture and with floors covered in rushes a foot deep of which they make their beds in summer, and straw in winter”. François clearly needing putting out into the woods, and given Gernon wrote of Irish women that they were “soone ripe soone rotten”, he should have gone with him.

It’s easy to forget when you look at the architectural machinations (defensive aspects of a castle) that these buildings were fortified homes to not just the noble family, but a wide entourage of dependent followers languishing under the shadow of the keep, sleeping in the castle itself or surviving in leaking huts and tents. No wonder the masses huddled — just being warm could be the difference between life and death in a bad year.

Just like today, heat, light, sanitation, good food and cheerful family life with some entertainments, were the central tenets of a happy household. Dropping the defensive elements (the emergence of artillery meant that walls were no longer any real use) castles would give way to less defensive, bright, warmer and more comfortable buildings from the 1600s.

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