Castle of the Week 120 – Cahir Castle, Tipperary County, Ireland
Cahir through the Ages
Described to Elizabeth I as “the only famous castle in Ireland which is thought impregnable,” the aptly named stronghold at Cahir (cathair means “stone fort”) boldly commands its water surroundings as it would have done during the queen’s reign. Erected on an island in the River Suir, which was navigable to this point by boats and small ships, Cahir Castle provided a crucial link between Waterford and Limerick. Within 200 years of its founding, the castle developed from a rudimentary stone fort into one of Ireland’s largest and most impressive medieval fortresses.
Cahir Castle is a fascinating site consisting of three main areas, each representing a different phase in its history. Now encompassing the inner baily, the 13th-century Norman castle occupied the highest point on the limestone island. Always the most complex part of the development, the inner bailey featured strong towers at each corner and an enormous gatehouse that overlooked the southern side of the island which was not yet fortified.
Commanding the north-western corner of the Norman castle, the three-story keep acted as the original strongpoint. Fitted with latrines that dumped into the river and private accommodations on the upper levels, the imposing rectangular towers suited the military and domestic needs of the lord. Stairs next to the square northeastern tower led down into the round well tower, a curious structure that projected outwards from the curtain wall to penetrate the waters of the Suir.
In the 15th century, James “the Foreigner” Butler altered the layout of the fortress and converted the rectangular gatehouse into a primary residence, akin to a keep-gatehouse. Separating the rectangular twin towers, the central passageway originally allowed access into the inner bailey from the south. When Butler gained possession of Cahir Castle, he blocked the gate and moved the main entrance to an arched gap just to the east. At the same time he also enclosed the remainder of the island creating a spacious outer bailey with two round towers to watch the southern approach. During the 16th Century, the lords of Cahir added a cross-walk to the northern end of the outer bailey. The newly enclosed open area became known as the middle bailey.
Damage, Disrepair, and Debt
Despite contemporary boasts of impregnability, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (from 1556-1601), who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers, damaged the formidable castle in a 10-day siege in 1599. The castle was repaired little until the 1840s when the tattered stronghold experienced a renaissance. Richard Butler, the 1st Earl of Glengall, began to restore his ancestral home. However, the Butlers found themselves in serious financial straits by the end of the decade and were forced to declare bankruptcy and sell off much of their property, including the castle, to cover the debts.
In the late 1870s, Lady Margaret Butler Charteris reacquired the Cahir estates, and the empty castle remained with the family until 1961. While modern development has consumed much of the town, the fully consolidated castle at Cahir remains the Butler’s lasting and grandest legacy. Its militarized façade contrasts with the softer, more regal appearance presented by the Butler’s Castle at Kilkenny. Today Cahir is managed by Dúchas-The Heritage Service, and is open throughout the year for an entrance fee.
Write-up provided by Sir Hugh.