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Irish Tower Houses – A Brief History

Any guest visiting Ireland will observe the numerous Castles located throughout our Island. Many of these old stone structures were originally built by the Anglo Normans, after their Invasion of Ireland, in 1169. However a large number of smaller Castles, known as Tower Houses, were constructed by Irishmen.

These Irish Nobles, as they liked to call themselves, received a grant of £10 from the reigning English Monarch to construct a ‘defensive style’ family home. The programme of awarding grants for the Building of Tower Houses was initiated by the first Tudor King, Henry V11, in the 15th Century. The Lancastrian Leader, Henry V11, rose to power following the defeat of the Yorkist King Richard 111, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This event brought to an end the ‘War of the Roses’.

A Typical Tower in Ireland

Later the bestowal of ‘Titles’ by the English Monarch, upon an elite group of Irishmen, became a common feature of Irish life. This magnanimous gesture, by the English Head of State, had a ‘not so transparent price tag’ which the ordinary Irish Citizen would later pay handsomely for, in terms of taxes and land confiscation.

‘Good’ King Henry V11 would eventually become one of the richest Sovereigns in England’s History. Irish nobles, on receipt of their titles and grants, swore allegiance to the Crown and collected taxes, which funded the King’s lavish lifestyle. Serious divisions arose between Irish Landowners and the occupants of Tower Houses which manifested itself in violence; Hence the need for a Defensive Tower to seek sanctuary in!

In effect, the Tudors successfully played out in Ireland the strategy of ‘Divide and Conquer,’ after appealing to the sense of greed of some unscrupulous powerful Irishmen.

Features of Tower Houses: A rectangular stone building with very thick walls in excess of 4feet at base level. Tower houses were usually 4 to 5 storeys high. Entrance was via an Arch Doorway made of Oak. Located within the entrance doorway were three more oak doors with a ‘Murder Hole’ above, for dispensing hot oil or arrows. Beyond these three inner doors lay a guard room and spiral stairways, set in clockwise orientation. Clockwise design of stairways was to facilitate better defence, as attackers would be forced to use left handed sword thrusts. The lower level windows of the Tower House were of the arrow slit variety. At the upper levels windows were slightly larger to facilitate daylight. The two upper levels of the tower house were primarily reserved for the Lord and his family. Crenelations at the upper portion of the building gave the structure that distinctive castle like appearance and also provided further defence for the lord’s private guards in times of attack.

Irish Tower Stairwell

Exterior Features sometimes included a Moat with Drawbridge surrounded by a large earthen ditch. Some Tower Houses also had the added defensive characteristic known as Machicoulis, which protruded from the upper level of the castle. This extra facet allowed the defenders to rain down, upon their attackers, all sorts of material, including hot oil and excrement.

Whilst Tower Houses were undoubtedly more comfortable than regular Irish family dwellings, they were still rather cold and dark places and not very salubrious, which conflicts with their romanticised depictions in modern day films. Most of the occupants had a constant companion in the form of lice. One the methods used to counter the effect of this nasty pest was to hang ones clothing over a cesspit, whereby, the ammonia filled fumes of the excrement, would keep some control on these wretched little insects.

Oil referred to was Boiled Goose Fat or Pig Fat.

All Tower Houses were white washed both on the interior (to provide extra light) and on the exterior to demonstrate that a powerful family controlled the territory.