Irish Historic Buildings
Ireland has numerous castles spread across its four provinces. Many are merely preserved ruins, some have been adopted by the Office of Public Works and restored to high levels of craftsmanship, and others transformed into luxurious hotels. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they are steeped in history, with some dating back to the Middle Ages. Ireland once had its own noble system with dozens of High Kings – the last of whom was Brian Boru, who died at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 – however, neither he nor his predecessors will ever have lived in a castle.
It wasn’t until the Normans captured and invaded Ireland in the late 11th century that castles emerged. The Norman invaders mainly consisted of Earls and Barons, and their castles were built as symbols of status and power. Possession of a castle, a wife of fine-breeding, a few good horses and a pocketful of golden coins reflected a high position in society.
The castles varied in architectural design but the turret (a tower where servants or soldiers kept watch) was a common feature in all of them. Ireland was a very rough and disordered society back then in what would later be described by historians as a cruel and violent age. The castles served as fortresses for protection against enemies and often functioned as prisons, where prisoners were kept in overcrowded, dark dungeons and made to sleep on bare earth with little food. This would be in contrast to the nobility upstairs where wood fires burned, comfortable straw beds were slept on and the finest venison, pork or beef was served for dinner, washed down by generous amounts of ale prompting laughter and song to echo round the castle walls.
Whilst some had to wash in rivers, the aristocracy had their servants boil water for them. Some ladies will have enjoyed the luxury of soap, but overall, personal hygiene was often neglected and some never even washed.
By the 14th Century, society became increasingly sophisticated, which meant the aristocracy wanted more comfort. Many castles were restructured and had glass windows installed to improve warmth. Interiors became grander and beautiful tapestries adorned the castle walls. By then, castles were centres of administration for the wealthy landowners and a hive of activity where farmers went to pay taxes. They were no longer useful as fortresses because of the advent of gunpowder, and instead, gradually became domestic homes – with the retained castle features illustrating the occupants’ wealth. Others were abandoned and never occupied again.
The Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, however, saw a rise in the number of castles bought by wealthy manufacturers or businessmen who restored them into grand places of residence. By the 20th Century, some of the larger castles were sold and turned into hotels. Whilst this entailed extensive building work, some of the original stonework was often retained, and the majority kept the turret – a symbol of its past history.
Irish Catholic Churches
These holy places of worship have seen generations of families pass through their doors. Some of these buildings will have borne witness to thousands of happy and sad occasions throughout the last century. The sanctuary lamp perpetually lit as a reminder of being in God’s house. Those arriving with a heavy heart find respite from their troubles. The walls hold many secrets from… both the living and the dead. Shame, fear and guilt experienced by our ancestors for perceived transgressions are no longer viewed in society as wrong. Prayers will have changed radically over the years. Most of what people prayed for eighty or even fifty years ago is unrecognisable in today’s world, although petitions for good health and fine weather remain the same.
Since the 1990s, church attendances have slowly dwindled in the aftermath of clerical child abuse scandals. The crimes of a minority of priests helped tarnish the reputation of many good men who had devoted their lives to the priesthood. Despite smaller congregations and notably fewer young people attending Sunday Mass, the Catholic custom still remains in place for a great number of families. Some traditions will never be lost because there is still something beautiful, peaceful and reassuring about entering a Catholic church. I personally feel that no matter how long I leave in-between my visits that I sense a welcome, a familiarity that I don’t feel anywhere else. I guess that is what makes our faith so special.
Old Irish Houses
These houses were once the pride and joy of their owners. Imagine the happiness experienced when they moved into their new home. The busy time spent unpacking, arranging furniture and objects whilst open turf fires provided warmth and a picture of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece assured protection.
The remains of these houses now ache with memories of the days when laughter was heard from adults and children alike from within their walls. Where prayers were said as a family, where children completed their homework, where neighbours came to pass the time of day or play cards, where fiddles and flutes played with dancing in tow and where home cooked meals and freshly baked bread scented the air.
These houses will have witnessed the events that shaped many Irish lives – First Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and wakes as well as the birth of grandchildren. They will have held the secrets, fears and desires of people who longed to be accepted for who they were. The battle against the elements, the harsh frosts, wind and rain, will also have been fought bravely.
And then time drew to a close and the end came. In each of these houses somebody will have closed the door for the last time. Somebody will have slept there for a last night. Marking the end of an era, a sense of abandonment set in and gradual decay came about until, what was a once a home, became but a shell of its former glory.