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A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan

Part 1: Commentary: Castles and Tower Houses: Features of tower houses

I now propose to deal, in general terms, with some of the main features of Tower Houses. However, from the start it must be emphasised that while some variations may exist between the sites the following features are common in most of the Bunratty Lower examples. In Site catalogue 3. each site is dealt with in detail and any variations from the norm are both mentioned and described.

To aid one in this site description I include plans showing the various floors of a so-called “typical” Tower House (Leask, 1941). The following descriptions are based on these.

Click on image for larger version

Entrance into the site was through a cut-stone doorway, with either a round or pointed arch. Examples of such cutstone work is well preserved at Rossmanagher, Ballycullen, Clenagh, Mountcashel, Kilkishen, Mooghaun and Cratloemoyle Tower Houses. Other sites, e.g. Cratloekeel and Drumline, yielded only traces of the original doorway, while at Granaghan More the actual cut-stone doorway was removed from the Tower House and re-erected nearby, to serve as the entrance into a walled garden.

Behind some of these doorways traces of the beam slots, used for closing the timber doors, were noted (especially at Clenagh and Cratloemoyle Tower Houses). These sites also yielded evidence of metal bolts being used in association with the timber beams, for added security.

After passing in under the doorway most sites had a small overhead defensive opening known as a “murder-hole” (see first floor site plan). This added to the security of a site, as even when the main door was broken down the defenders could continue, via the murder hole, directing attacks against the besiegers below. This feature is well represented in Tower Houses throughout the Barony, with good examples to be seen at Clenagh, Kilkishen and Rathlaheen.

Beyond the “murder-hole” one was faced with three further doors, most of them of the round or pointed cutstone type mentioned previously. Generally speaking the cutstone doorway to the right led to a spiral stairway (as at Drumline, Cratloekeel, Kilkishen, Rosroe and Rathlaheen Tower Houses), though in some cases the entrance to the spiral stairway was to the left of the main entrance (e.g. at Rossmanagher, Ballycullen, Clenagh and Granaghan More Tower Houses). Opposite the entrance to the spiral stairway, in all sites, was a small guardroom. This survives in a good condition at a number of sites, notably Kilkishen, Clenagh and Ballycullen Tower Houses.

Beyond the guardroom and the entrance to the spiral stairway one entered the largest room of the ground floor, the cellar. Fieldwork suggested that in most cases this must have been used as a store because of the very limited light available through the three slitted windows. However in a few examples, notably Clenagh, Cratloemoyle, Rosroe and Rossmanagher Tower Houses, the presence of cutstone fireplaces and wider windows suggests the cellar may have been used for habitation, probably by the servants of the Lord of the Tower House.

At some sites (e.g. Drumline and Ballintlea) it was only possible to examine the ground floor area due to the damaged or collapsed condition of the overlying floors and spiral stairway. Fortunately at the majority of sites one could climb to, at least, the first floor area (e.g. Rossmanagher, Ballycullen, Cratloekeel, Cratloemoyle, Kilkishen and, with some difficulty, Clenagh).

Care must be taken when referring to the first floor plan of a Tower House because in reality one is only speaking of half a floor. Due to the height of the vaulted ceiling in the cellar (ground floor) there is no space in the back two-thirds of the first floor for a room corresponding to the cellar below. Thus the actual first floor area is restricted to the site’s front part. It consists of a short passage-way from the spiral staircase into the small room containing the “murder-hole”, reference to which has already been made. This room usually had two cutstone windows, though in cases three were noted.

Here we have a full floor again, though it tends to be in three separate parts. To the front of the site is a small room directly over the “murder-hole”. From here, via cutstone windows, one could see who was approaching or leaving the Tower House. One reached this room via a narrow passage from the spiral staircase.

A second long narrow passage, from the staircase, led to a guardrobe which has survived in a good condition at a number of sites. It is particularly well preserved at Rossmanagher, Cratloemoyle and Ballycullen Tower Houses, while evidence as to its former existence has been noted at Mooghaun and Rathlaheen Tower Houses.

However most of the second floor area consisted of a large room containing a fireplace and wider windows. This was the private quarters of the Lord of the Tower House and it may be examined at a few sites, particularly Ballycullen and Cratloemoyle Tower Houses. In most sites, however, the floor of this room has collapsed (e.g. at Kilkishen, Rathlaheen, Granaghan More and Drumline Tower Houses).

As the site plan shows we have no subdivisions here, just one large room with wide windows and a large fireplace. This was the general living room where the Lord and his family would have dined.

With the exception of two restored Tower Houses (i.e. Mooghaun and Mountcashel) it was not possible to examine this floor in the many Tower Houses throughout the Barony due to a combination of collapsed floors and damaged spiral staircases.

Not one of the Tower Houses throughout the Barony has yielded visible trace of either contemporary outhouses or additions. These certainly existed, as we know from two sources:-
Firstly at two of the Tower Houses, Cratloemoyle and Rossmanagher, an examination of the entrance face shows the outline of former arched structures over the actual cutstone doorway. The fact that no trace of these exists in the field suggests such structures were somewhat flimsy in comparison to the main structure.

Secondly a number of late seventeenth century sketches by Dineley show structures about the Tower House proper. The now levelled site at Stonehall originally had an outwork, or bawn, surrounded by high walls (Site catalogue 3, page 3.74). Ballyarrila or Mount Ievers Tower House was similarly represented, though this also had steps leading up to the site (page 3.76). At Rosroe there is a suggestion of associated outbuildings (page 3.191).

This evidence suggests that most, if not all, sites originally had some associated buildings.



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Reference has already been made to the presence of vaulted ceilings in the ground floor cellars. How was this achieved? The above diagram, (Leask, 1941), shows one the procedure involved.

The first step was to lay long wooden beams on stone corbels against the side walls (A) and cross beams were placed on them at intervals of a few feet (B). On each of these cross beams timber frames of approximately the shape of the ceiling were constructed (C). Over these a large wicker-work mat was placed (E) on top of which a layer of mortar was laid, onto which the stones were placed (F). When the arch had set the timbers were removed leaving the wicker-work in the ceiling. Field examination found that in many Tower Houses traces of this wicker-work mat can still be clearly seen, especially at Rossmanagher and Rosroe.


In times of trouble the weakest point in the Tower House was the area of the main entrance. As the door consisted of timber an enemy would direct all attention at this. While defenders on the battlement could deal with an enemy some short distance from the site it was both difficult and dangerous to lean over the battlements to shoot down attackers trying to break down the doorway. Thus as an extra defence a feature called a machicoulis was constructed projection out from the site’s wall, near the battlement. This stone hoarding, supported by stone corbels, had an opening on the underside through which defenders could fire arrows or pour boiling water or oil down on attackers by the doorway directly beneath. Examples of machicoulis occur at a number of sites (e.g. Mooghaun, Urlanmore) though they are not a common feature of a Tower House.

In many ways this feature is similar to the machicoulis in that it offered greater protection to defenders protecting a difficult area. In this case a stone hoarding was constructed at the corners of the Tower House, out of fear that an attacking enemy would try to undermine the sites important corner stones. Again defenders could shoot arrows or pour boiling water or oil on attackers via narrow slits. Again evidence of this feature occurs at a number of Tower Houses (notably Cratloemoyle) though examples are also scarce.

During the course of the actual site descriptions much more detailed information will be given on features of interest.

We are fortunate in that a number of late-sixteenth and early seventeenth century descriptions have survived and these provide some interesting comments on Tower House life. Generally speaking the lords of the houses were very good hosts but unfortunately conditions within were not to a standard which the visitors expected.

One of the earliest descriptions by Cuillar dates to 1588 and states: “…The Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes, wet with rain and stiff with frost…”
(Quoted by O’Brien, 1977, 22).

A more detailed description comes from the pen of Luke Gernon (1620): “…The castles are built very strong with narrow stayres, for security. The hall is the uppermost room, lett us go up, you shall not come down agayne till tomorrow… The lady of the house meets you with her trayne… Salutations paste, you shall be presented with all the drinkes in the house…you must not refuse it. The fyre is prepared in the middle of the hall, where you may sollace yourselfe till supper time, you shall not wante sacke and tobacco. By this time the table is spread and plentifully furnished with variety of meates, but ill cooked and without sauce… Supper being ended it is at your liberty to sitt up, or depart to your lodgeing… When you come to your chamber do not expect canopy and curtaynes. It is very well if your bedd content you…Breakfast is but the repetition of supper. When you are disposing of yourself to depart they call for a dogh a dores, that is, to drink at the doore, there you are presented agayne with all the drinkes of the house…”
(Source: Harbison, P., 1975, 28-29)

The third contemporary description comes from a French traveller, M. de la Bouillaye le Gouz, 1644:

“The castles of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely high and thatched with straw but to tell the truth, they are nothing but square towers without windows or at least having such small apertures as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in Summer and straw in Winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches”.
(Source: Harbison, P. 1975, 28).

In dealing with the actual defensive-type sites in the Barony of Bunratty Lower (site catalogue 3) the following procedure is followed for each:-

(a) Location of site, from 6” and ½” O.S. sheets.
(b) Site plan, to scale of 1cm. = 1 metre.
(c) Detailed site description.
(d) Field sketches.
(e) Photographs to illustrate text.

The defensive-type sites are dealt with under their respective Civil Parish. These Parishes are, in turn, dealt with in alphabetical order.