heritage ireland

One of Ireland's best medieval castles was the scene of a bitter showdown between two brothers

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores Cahir in Tipperary, home to one of Ireland’s best-preserved medieval castles.

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, I have more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

In this edition, we explore the historic town of Cahir in Tipperary to see one of Ireland’s best-preserved medieval castles.

Cahir Castle, Tipperary 

For around 800 years, Cahir Castle has stood proud, strategically positioned on a rocky island surrounded by the swirling River Suir.

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It was first constructed in the 13th century on the site of an earlier Irish stone fort known as Cathair Dún Iascaigh (the Stone Fort of the Fortress of the Fishery). According to the 17th century historian Geoffrey Keating, the stone fort of Dún Iascaigh was one of the ancient royal residences of the kings of Munster before the arrival of Christianity. It is from the word ‘cathair’ that the modern name of the town is derived.

The castle that we can see today dates from many different periods. It is possible that it was originally built by Philip de Worcester in the middle of the 13th century, though for much of its history it has been in the possession of the Butler family. They descended from Theobald FitzWalter, a favoured supporter of King Henry II.

FitzWalter was granted the prestigious title of Chief Butler of Ireland, a position of honour that meant that if the English king came to Ireland, it would be the Chief Butler’s role to ensure there was plenty of food and drink. It came with the perk of being granted 15% of all wine imported into Ireland, ensuring that the family became fabulously wealthy. Through their wealth and political favour, the Butlers would go on to become one of the most powerful families in Ireland, earning the title of Earls of Ormond (derived from Oir Mhumhan, which meant East Munster).

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In 1375, the Barony of Cahir was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, and the castle was greatly expanded over the coming centuries. The structure, layout and appearance of the castle greatly altered over the years as the defensive features were given precedence over comfort and fashion due to times of political stress and upheaval. Further works were completed on the castle in the 15th and 16th centuries. The last remodelling of the castle was carried out in the 19th century, which is why it is one of the finest preserved castles in Ireland today.

If you look carefully at the stone wall surrounding the castle as you first enter, you can notice an iron cannonball that is a legacy of the first serious siege of the castle that occurred in 1599.

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At the time, the castle and its garrison were commanded by James Butler. In opposition to his own brother the Earl of Ormond, James took the side of the Irish lords who rose with Hugh O’Neill in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I’s policy of plantation. The English forces were led by Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. However he proved to be an unwise choice of commander.

In a move that baffled the court back in England, Essex marched his 17,000 strong army south into Munster instead of directing them at the heart of the uprising in Ulster. He arrived in Clonmel where he joined forces with the Earl of Ormond. Despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Crown forces, James Gallda Butler steadfastly refused to surrender Cahir Castle to his brother and the Crown forces, and so Essex decided to act. He marched to Cahir with part of his army, including approximately three thousand foot soldiers and two hundred cavalry, and dragging two cannons all the way from Clonmel.

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The siege of Cahir Castle lasted just three days. On the third day the once-mighty stone walls of the castle were breached by cannon fire and the castle was stormed. James Gallda Butler barely managed to escape with his life by jumping into the cold River Suir and swimming away from the castle. Essex was thrilled with his victory.

However the taking of Cahir Castle proved to be of little strategic value for the overall campaign. Unwilling to come to battle with Hugh O’Neill (who was rumoured to be a personal friend), Essex floundered about the country ineffectually before deciding to take matters into his own hands. Against the strict orders of the English court, he followed his own initiative and decided to negotiate with Hugh O’Neill.

This did not go down well. Elizabeth had banned Essex from returning from Ireland until the rebellion was quashed, and was enraged that instead of returning with O’Neill’s head on a spike, Essex had decided to return with an unwelcome truce. He was charged with dereliction of duty and told to retire from public life, Essex, believing that the Queen was being manipulated by his jealous rivals, began to plot against the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was found guilty of treason and beheaded in 1601.

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As the nature of warfare changed with the arrival of the cannon, the old stone fortresses had become vulnerable (as so clearly demonstrated in 1599). As their strategic and military worth had become lessened, they began to take on more of a domestic role as high-status grand houses. Despite this, the castle was still seen as an obstacle to Oliver Cromwell during his campaign in 1650. His letter to the garrison still survives:

Sir -Having brought the army and my cannon near this place, according to my usual manner in summoning places, I thought fit to offer you terms honourable to soldiers: that you may march away, with your baggage, arms and colours, free from injuries or violence.But if I be, notwithstanding, necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremity usual in such cases.To avoid blood, this is offered to you, by Your ServantOliver Cromwell

By this time Cromwell’s ruthless reputation was known across Ireland, and the garrison of Cahir decided to take him up on his offer and marched away without loss of life.

Much of the castle that you can see today is a result of extensive renovations in the 19th century. The castle is still an imposing and atmospheric place to see, and served as a setting for Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 classic Barry Lyndon. Visitors today can enjoy a great tour through the castle and still see many of the features that made it such a formidable fortress in the medieval period. The castle is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works/ For information about entry fees and opening hours please see here.

The Swiss Cottage

If you have the time I highly recommend taking the 2km riverside walk (or if you’re lazy like me a 5-minute drive) to the Swiss Cottage. This beautiful ‘cottage orné’ was built in 1810 by Richard Butler, 1st Earl of Glengall, to a design by the famous Regency architect John Nash. Richard Butler himself had a quite remarkable story of rags to riches.

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When James Butler died in 1786, his wealth, titles and estates passed to his brother Piers who died just two years later in Paris. It passed again to an impoverished and distant cousin who in turn died in the East Indies in 1788 without ever having learned of his sudden new-found wealth and position. The title passed to his son Richard, who was only 12 years old at the time and living in abject poverty with his mother and sister in Cahir.

While still unaware of their new-found status, the children were transported to France by avaricious relatives who hoped to contest the inheritance. They were rescued by Mrs Jeffereys of Blarney Castle who returned Richard, his sister and their mother to their magnificent inheritance. The Swiss Cottage was primarily used as a place to get away from it all. It features two rooms downstairs and two bedrooms (though it is believed the Butlers never spent a night). It is lavishly decorated with themes of nature, and it is a truly enchanting place to visit.

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The Swiss Cottage fell into disrepair, but a careful conservation and restoration plan was undertaken by Cahir Community Council, the Office of Public Works, the Georgian Society, Fás and Sally Aall, a generous American benefactor. For information about opening hours please visit here. Cahir is a charming town that is absolutely packed with other historical features like a medieval Augustinian priory, and the charming Church of St. Paul’s. I highly recommend a visit.


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog where I have more suggestions for great places to visit. You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following my company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All pictures by Neil Jackman 

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