On the site of a fortress built on an Island on the River Suir by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomand in 1142, Cahir castle had 200 years later become the centre of a thriving medieval town.
By this time it had become the property of the Butlers of Ormonde, given to them following the Norman invasion by King Edward III. Apart from two short periods in the early 17th and the mid 19th centuries the Butlers remained in residence until 1961.
The original castle built by Conor O’Bien was at the north end of the present-day castle, the highest point of the island and was probably just a simple fort. It was eventually surrounded by a thick wall and with tours at each corner, as safe a place as it was then possible to construct.
Cahir Castle from the Courtyard by Kevin Lawver
Later, around the start of the 15th century, unusual gatehouse or bailey was added at the south end, which jutted out into the river further protecting the interior from attack.
The Castle Expands
About a century on, the 4th Earl of Ormond commenced a significant rebuilding and extending of the castle, which continued for almost 200 years.
As part of the rebuilding the original gatehouse was expanded to become the main residence, with the gate moved to the east. He also built an outer wall around the castle, enclosing the remainder of the Island, with two further towers to improve visibility over the approaches from the south.
Towards the end of the 16th century an additional wall was created, resulting in a castle which was essential comprised of outer, middle and inner courtyards. The result was pretty much the castle we have to-day – in drawings from the late 16th century exhibited at the castle it looks just as we now see it.
Incidently, the portcullis pictured above makes a wonderful clanking sound as it closes, which you may actually have heard – it appears several times in the movie Braveheart.
Lost, regained and lost again
By the time it was completed the robust construction of the castle and its system of courtyards, each protected distinctly from the others, led to boasts that it was impenetrable.
In 1599 the Earl of Essex, at the head of a force sent by Queen Elizabeth to quell the Norman Irish whose loyalty to the crown was in some doubt, took the castle after a fierce two day battle, causing considerable damage in the process. It fell again to Cromwell in 1650.
However the Butlers, ever the diplomats, repaired relations with the crown after Cromwell’s death and regained possession of their castle. They lived there in relative peace until the mid-1800s, making minor changes and repairing much of the damage the walls and buildings had sustained.
It was not a battle that took it from them a second time but bankruptcy, which forced them to sell both the castle and its surrounding lands. By 1870 they had managed to buy the estate back but did not reoccupy the castle, instead building a large house in the surrounding parkland.
The castle remained in the Butler family until the last Lord Cahir died in 1961, at which point it became the property of the state.
Visiting Cahir Castle
The castle is open to visitors all year round and guided tours are available. There is an entrance charge, but it is free to holders of a Heritage Card.