A towering achievement: Exploring Irish castles and beautiful buildings

Tarquin Blake’s history of Irish castles charts beautiful buildings and a grant-aid culture that goes back six centuries, writes Tommy Barker

An aerial shot of Dunluce Castle from Tarquin Blake's latest book, 'Exploring Ireland's Castles' by the Collins Press.

AX breaks for building? Pshaw. Nothing new under the sun.

We’ve been doing it for years, centuries even, in Ireland. Five hundred years ago, a statute issued by Henry VI allowed £10 for every fortified tower built here, as he tried to keep the quarrelsome Irish at bay.

That £10 back then equates to €60,000 today, and as a result of this subsidy, up to 7,000 tower houses were built. The countryside was all but littered in them.

We became the most castellated country in Europe, by the 16th century, even if most were squat structures, and almost windowless, (clearly, there was no grant for aluminium windows in the 12th century). That fascinating historical snippet is offered up in writer, historian and photographer Tarquin Blake’s latest, lush and learned publication, Exploring Ireland’s Castles from Collins Press.

Now, a photo book on Irish castles might be expected to be of variable quality, and the less-successful example might quickly stack the shelves of visitor centres up and down the country, at knock-down prices. It’s an obvious market, right?

But, with Tarquin Blake, and in this 220-page book we’re in good hands. As the author and snapper of Abandoned Mansions of Ireland 1 and 2, (as well as the creator/curator of the moody archive that is www.abandonedireland.com) he’s as sharp with a camera as he is with a pithy observation, historical oversight or the condensing of centuries’ of lived languid lives and the odd bit of eccentricity, into biographical sketches.

If you were to visit any of the 36 Irish castles he features in this fresh and informative book, Blake is the guy you’d want along to dish the dirt and the scandal (or the praise), of the people who commissioned, created and celebrated Irish castles and endured lives and turbulent times within their ancient stone walls.

Geographically, the selection leans towards the south and the west, ranging from ‘pokey’ grant-driven tower houses, to fortresses, fortified houses and grand Gothic piles of the more recent centuries, some of which are now plus-five star hotels such as Ashford and Dromoland.

Others, like Limerick’s Castle Oliver, linked to one of Europe’s most famous courtesans Lola Montez, have gone back to private homes, while ostensibly at the opposite end of the moral spectrum, Kylemore Abbey is now an income-earning visitor attraction for a religious order.

Image-wise, the spread spans aerial and drone photography for locational purposes, atmospheric and infrared-filtered black and whites, mossy and ivied takeovers of ruins, and crafted and recreated interiors. Included are old lithographs and depictions of artefacts and ancestry.

Within, there’s tales of treachery, scheming, inheritances gone wrong, accidental shootings, and questionable conceptions. Check out Galway’s Dunguaire Castle’s script, for example and the origin of the nickname ‘Sponge Baby’ for a 20th century scion’s birth to an allegedly never-consumated marriage.

This well-researched, well ferreted out publication (castle folk were the Hello! Magazine tribe of their day, remember) is an engrossing condensing of centuries of Irish castle life and death.

Tarquin Blake shows in sterling imagery the precarious setting of Antrim’s Dunluce Castle. It had a chunk fall into the sea in 1639, with loss of dinner, tables, silverware and, oh, staff (nine victims), thanks to coastal erosion and a cliff-top setting.

Much of Dunluce Castle’s stones remain standing, but shifting, perhaps, is Blarney Castle’s famous stone’s schtick.

Delving into Cork’s Blarney Castle — (surely one of the world’s most famous castles?) he points out at there’s a bit of dispute as to whether or not the many thousands of stone-kissing suitors in search of the gift of the gab are smacking their lips on the wrong receptacle.

There is, it would appear, a muck-stirring tabloid hack, buried (shallowly) in Tarquin Blake’s own bones, and he has close on a thousand years of Irish castle dynastic skullduggery to delve into. His exploring Ireland’s Castles should run, and run.

Exploring Irish Castles Collins Press, 220 pages €29.99



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