Wednesday 21 February 2018

Lay of the Land: Castles in the air... here, there and everywhere

Birr Castle is just one of many in Ireland
Birr Castle is just one of many in Ireland

Fiona O'Connell

People are basking on beaches this sizzling summer. Like generations before, children build sandcastles, some with seemingly as much structural skill as more mature masons.

Their parents, meanwhile, are mostly mad for 'McMansions', arguably the castle's modern manifestation and sometimes almost as big. Perhaps it's thanks to the saying that "your home is your castle" - though it can be hard these days to feel any dwelling, no matter how huge, is safe from the banks.

But the best-built never really disappear, as I am reminded by the swallows soaring above the ruined watchtower opposite this town cottage, which is known variously as Sweetman's or Muliln's Castle. The fact it is still standing is amazing, when you consider that it was built back when people believed the world so flat that you could fall off.

The tower is not protected, as is often the case in Ireland, where you frequently see cowsheds attached to ancient monuments. It has had many uses, including one incarnation as an abattoir. The guts of the slaughtered animals were dumped straight into the river, spawning ferociously fanged eels.

Maybe we are cavalier about our castles because they are so common, with up to 2,000 of them dotted across the country. You can often explore them and go upstairs if the old steps are intact. Though there is no chance of that with one ruin I discovered, which I dubbed 'Rapunzel's residence'. It can only be reached by crossing a field of upturned earth, making it treacherously easy to twist ankles. The castle is impassable even if you make it through that tough terrain, thanks to a fittingly fairytale overgrowth of ivy.

The reason there are so many castles in this neck of the woods is down to Rambo, or rather Strongbow, who got busy building as soon as he arrived here with his honchos late in the 12th Century. It is in areas where Norman influence was most felt that castles abound.

Other castles were built by rich noblemen, like the Kildare Fitzgeralds and the Butlers of Ormonde.

Lesser lords and chieftains followed the fashion as much as their means allowed, for a fortified dwelling was handy in a country rife with wars.

And of course, even then a handsome castle was a symbol of the owner's status and importance. Everybody with any pretensions to gentility simply had to have one.

Perhaps that is the root of the children's rhyme: "I'm the king of the castle, get down you dirty rascal!" Try that next time your bank manager mentions mortgage repayments.

But I'm reminded by the ducks that often perch on the roof of the ruin opposite me that you must be 'quacked' to consider any building an impenetrable barrier to the vagaries of life. Because you're building castles in the air if you believe bricks and mortar can keep them out.

Sunday Independent

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