Vintage view: Listen to the whispers of ancient castles

West Tower door, Inner Ward, Cahir Castle, showing hole at top of door for 'yet', arrow loop to right and cross shaped void for shielding archers. Clockwise ästumble stairs' within.

 

Last weekend my I was balancing on a boulder clinging to the bars of an arrow loop. 

The great hall of Conna Castle is in great condition, the fireplace obvious, the upper floors in place. 

With a buffeting wind raking through ragged gaps and squints, I was enjoying the ancient muttering of an ancient evening, when my support rocked sideways and I tottered off.

We are blessed in Ireland to have so many extant castles in our towns and countryside, some in an amazing state of preservation. 

It enriches our understanding and the experience of visiting a castle, to read a little of what the architecture can tell us, allows us into our bloody past.

First of all, is it a castle or the remains of a castle at all? Castles are primarily defensive fortifications to hold off whoever happened to be causing the latest trouble. 

It might be an Anglo-Norman army, it might be a renegade band from your local Gaelic fiefdom — times were tough and allegiances fluid. 

A ‘castellated house’ however ancient it might appear is not strictly speaking a castle, even if it does have pretty, toothed crenelations. 

Real battlements were not decorative. They were designed to peek and attack with arrows and missiles.

In the late 16th century as artillery entered the arena of warfare, being in a thickly walled box without big windows became redundant as a means of defence. With persistence and a strategic aim, cannon balls could eventually penetrate the thickest stonework. 

Most of the castles we see by roads and fields and aggrandised by the OPW, are 12th to 16th century in date, and they are largely very plain buildings by design with minimal windows and doors.

Even the toilets (garderobe) had to be carefully positioned and attended in pairs, if you did not want an attacker who had braved the cesspit and scaled the chamber to pierce your fundamentals with a sword.

One of the most impressive, intact late medieval castles in Ireland, Cahir Castle is worth a visit to see the dedicated layers of impregnable defences muscled up in the 15th century. 

A favourite for movie shoots including Excalibur (1981) and Barry Lyndon (1975), it has some gory survivals including the oubliette, where prisoners were left and ‘forgotten’.

High in the wall of the north eastern tower near to the best example of a portcullis in the country, is a canon ball, left there by the Earl of Essex in 1599. He overwhelmed Cahir in an encounter on behalf of Elizabeth I. 

By the time Oliver Cromwell came knocking in 1650 (his letter to the Butlers is a snarling threat wrapped in purring chit-chat), the family had sense enough to sally fourth and give the warty bully the castle for a time at least.

If the more ambitious soldiery decided to have a go, there were plenty of things the inhabitants could do to stand up against the most feared consequences — being burned alive in perfect stone chimney with few means of escape. 

Everyone would retreat further inside the most highly defended element of the castle itself and away from the normal domestic round of open yards enclosed by the outer bawn wall. 

The arrow loops, those narrow windows that splayed wide inside- were ideal for archers to spray arrows to the outside while preventing all but the most perfect shot from getting in. A simple round or slit opening at the front door could shield archers to dispatch suspicious callers instantly.

If waiting it out didn’t work, supplies ran low and the visitors started chucking the putrefying heads of your friends over the walls — features of the building allowed you to respond in kind. 

First you could hurl every disgusting and heavy thing around the house by sling-shot from the roof and through the machicolations — protruding boxes placed high over the primary doors. Rocks made an instant skull crushing impression, and boiling animal fat worked its way through even chain mail to settle on leather garment underneath, melting them right to the skin. 

That flare (batter) at the base of the walls not only strengthen the foundations, but provided extra velocity for a falling object to fly out and cut the legs from beneath the enemy. A bloated sheep’s carcass would burst, spraying on-comers with bacteria that could lead to sickness and death.

Doors were often low, not because people were smaller, but because the head of a stooping man could be easily hacked off. Notice the indent, a place for the heavy wood beam that would have strengthened an inwardly opening door. 

There may even be signs of a ‘yet’ — an iron grill that fell down over the door in times of trouble. A hole in the wall was used to run a chain to keep it fast.

Entrance halls are often cramped, allowing a poll na marbha (murder hole) in the ceiling to delivery another hot welcome or an arrow to the skull. 

If the door and hall defences gave way, you would by now be pursued by a right-handed soldier (Christian knights fought right handed, as the left was deemed un-godly). Spiral staircases with uneven ‘stumble stairs’ ascending clockwise, forced the invader to put his sword into his less adept, left hand, while the household guards coming down the stair could still use their right. 

This would still be a desperate moment for everyone in the household at a time when the killing of women and children was given little thought.

So, tall, with thick perimeter walls and narrow windows, built on high, even rocky ground and clearly a safe place of retreat-you’re probably looking at a castle dating at least in part from the 12th to the early 1500s.

 Even with most of its primary walls standing, an important castle would still have looked very different five or six hundred years ago. 

It would have been finished on the outside in plaster and painted white or tinted with natural substances enhancing its dominating presence in the wider countryside. It was intended to shout out — ‘behave and back off’.

Do not access castles or any ancient building on private land without permission. Winding stairs, open walls and other obstacles can be extremely dangerous. Cahir Castle €4 for adults, €2 for children with free guided tour (recommended).


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