Sure, big screen stars Colin Farrell, Liam Nesson and Michael Fassbender are lighting up Hollywood at the moment, but there are other big screen regulars doing just as good a job: Ireland’s castles.
What’s not to love about castles? Gigantic, hulking structures, shrouded in mystery and built centuries ago in some seriously dramatic scenery. Movies often do fantasy and escapism, so it’s no wonder that Hollywood sets up camp and goes on location to .
My favourite aspects of castles are the arrow slits, murder-holes, battlements, moats and drawbridges. The more savage, bloody, and epic the history, the better. It seems many movie and TV location scouts are on my wavelength too.
So, let’s take a gander at some of Ireland’s castles that made it onto screens big and small. First stop: County Meath.
Trim Castle: ‘The King of Irish Castles’
Trim in may seem like an unassuming place, but scratch the surface and a less-than-tranquil history reveals itself. This history is embodied perfectly in stone in the form of the colossal . Built by Hugh De Lacy in 1173 on the banks of the River Boyne, Trim Castle is the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. It served as giant sentinel on what was once the border between the Pale (Anglo-Norman base of power centered in Dublin and surrounding counties) and the outer, hostile world of the Gaelic Irish. Trim Castle served as a reminder of who held the power in the region, and it did its job well. Countless attacks by the native Irish smashed like ocean waves against its stonewalls.
Seen on screen: Mel Gibson liked the look of it enough to use it in his Oscar-winning blockbuster ‘Braveheart’. Trim Castle was gussied up to look like the English town of York, which William Wallace lays siege to in the movie. The walls of Trim were decorated with gruesome severed heads (prosthetic, of course) and the interior was given a bustlingly, squalid makeover. The Curragh in served as the site of the gushingly bloody Battle of Stirling scene.
Cahir Castle: Arthurian Legend
In County Tipperary, on an island along the banks of the River Suir, you’ll find . Once the stronghold of the famous Butler family, Cahir Castle consists of a keep, a tower and outer defensive structures. This late medieval castle was notoriously hard to storm on account of its wickedly clever defensive position – on an island. In the year 1599 Queen Elizabeth’s forces laid siege to Cahir Castle for three days when the garrison of the castle refused to surrender to the Earl of Essex. The Queen’s forces battered the castles walls with thunderous cannon fire, until the garrison finally surrendered. One of those same cannonballs is preserved in a wall of the northeast tower today.
Seen on screen: In the 1981 fantasy movie ‘Excalibur’, the critical battle scene in which the hero Arthur kneels to be knighted amidst the carnage by Uryens was shot in Cahir Castle.
Dunluce Castle: Yes we Jackie Chan!
Perched precariously atop a headland 100 feet above the roaring ocean stands the ancient Dunluce Castle in . The strategical genius of Dunluce’s location is obvious (sheer cliff drop on one side). The castle dates largely from the 16th and 17th centuries and is thought to have been built by the Earl Richard De Burgh. Hidden in the northeast tower of Dunluce lies a concealed entrance to tunnel which leads down to an isolated beach below. The ‘Mermaid’s Cave’ also lies beneath Dunluce; a massive chasm running into the cliff and under the castle where many a smuggler and intrigue was harboured. Once upon a time a huge section of the castle kitchen (which was full of servants busy at their daily work) broke off and fell hurtling into the ocean below.
Seen on screen: One unexpected visitor to Dunluce Castle was the martial arts master himself, Jackie Chan. Jackie dropped by Dunluce Castle during filming of his 2003 action-comedy romp The Medallion. The castle was used as the lair of the movie’s villain – a role as mystic and dramatic as only Dunluce Castle could fulfill. Interestingly Dunluce was also used in the sleeve artwork of Led Zepplin’s 1973 monster album ‘Houses of the Holy’.
Shane’s Castle: The Hand’s Tourney
Our final castle of call brings us to County Antrim. A member of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster first built Shane’s Castle in 1345. A castle with a troubled history, Shane’s Castle has been laid under siege and was even burned to the ground in 1816. A whole load of creepy, gruesome stories surround the castle; one such tale mentions chess sets made entirely of human bone, another tells of the ghost of a tragic lady dressed in white, who’s spirit used to stalk the halls on certain nights.
Seen on screen: George R.R. Martin’s gritty fantasy epic ‘Game of Thrones’ (GOT) has been brought to shield-crunching life by HBO, and one of their favourite filming sports is Northern Ireland. Shane’s Castle story was the setting for the elaborate Hand’s Tourney. Fans of the books and the TV show will undoubtedly remember the gruesome sight of Gregor Clegane near-decapitating his stallion after the poor beast lost him a joust against the sprightly knight of Flowers.
Castle Ward: Winter is coming
Those HBO fellas sure liked our stately homes. in was transformed in Game of Thrones into the snow beaten, frost ravaged town of Winterfell, home to House Stark. This 18th century grand house has both Gothic and Classical styles of architecture; which is fine and dandy, but the fact that its exterior was used as the courtyard for the scene where the cocky Lannisters and fat King Robert make their regal entrance into Winterfell for the first time, is so much cooler. Plenty of fake snow and frost were used to decorate Castle Ward in the garb of winter, giving an authentic Winterfell feel. King Robert’s arrival to Winterfell ultimately spells bad news for poor old Ned, but the good news is Castle Ward is open to the public, has a restaurant, manicured gardens, a theater and a working corn mill. GOT fans will salivate at the thought of seeing the very spot where Joffrey and Sansa first laid eyes on each other. is also in County Down. It was in a lonely, dead pocket of this otherwise lovely forest that we were given our first glimpse of the horror that is a Whitewalker. Fans will recall this memorable scene from the book and episodes prologue, where the cocky young Black Brother gets what’s coming to him.
So now you now have another excuse to see – to re-live your favourite TV and movie moments.
Read more about Game of Thrones on location in Northern Ireland on the NI 2012 blog.
Have we got your castle juices flowing? Read more about Ireland’s Castles that you can sleep in.