Castle ruins are to Ireland what Wal-Mart is to the United States. That is: Everywhere. There are some 200 tower houses in Connacht alone! They may not have cheap clothes or bulk foods, but they sure have stories!
One of which is Aughnanure Castle in Oughterard, Co. Galway, about 20 minutes outside Galway city. That means I only had to concoct a mild bribe to convince a friend to drive me out there. (The complexity of the bribe is directly proportionate to the distance to be travelled.)
And this one was worth it!
Aughnanure (pronounced “awk-na-nure”) comes from the Gaelic “Achadh na nIubhar” (pronounced who the hell knows) or “the field of the Yews.” That would explain this guy:
The place was the gem of the O’Flaherty family way back in the day, when they were warrior kings of Connacht instead of pharmacists on Shop Street. (Don’t get me wrong, they’re both noble professions.)
The history of the O’Flaherty land is one that sadly mirrors that of many of Ireland’s castles: another clan takes it; the first clan takes it back; the English take it; the Irish take it back; somebody else takes it…
Yada, yada, yada…
For this reason, the original castle may have been built by the De Burgo family in the 1200’s, but it was firmly O’Flaherty by the end of the century.
The O’Flaherty family (or Ó Flaithbertaigh) were a bit like the mob, in that the people of nearby Galway city were terrified of them. The Galwegians supposedly inscribed a prayer upon the wall of the city:
“From the Ferocious O Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us.”
But that fear is understandable. O’Flaherty clan leaders had names like “So-and-so of the wars” and “You-know-who of the battle axes.” (This is the family that Grace O’Malley married into.) Their motto was “Fortune favours the strong!” And they were pissed.
Galway city was established on land stolen from the O’Flahertys, sending them to retreat farther along the River Corrib into Connemara…
And that’s where Aughnanure Castle was rebuilt by an O’Flaherty traitor (he was loyal to the English crown) in the 16th century. On the banks of the Drimneen River, which flows into Lough Corrib just a few kilometers away.
Back in the day, being perched on a river was smart – it meant that boats with supplies and visitors (and wine) could get super close. Just like when your Dad pulls the car up to the door so you don’t have to walk in the rain. (And it rains a lot in Ireland.)
In modern times, however, it became clear that the proximity to the river was equal parts cool and unfortunate. Part of the castle was built on a spit of land actually arching over the river. This, combined with the river running right up to the castle wall in other parts, meant crazy crevices and caves were carved beneath the castle by the running water.
Super cool, yes. But also super detrimental to the banquet hall.
One part of the window carving even sports some grapes. Historians say this is a sign that the O’Flahertys were drunkards. (They may not have used those exact words.) It’s also said that if you pissed off an O’Flaherty at a party, you’d be dumped through a trapdoor into the river below. My kinda party!
The tower house is six stories, which is surprisingly tall for this time period. (And this country – have you seen the size of the buildings in Ireland? Built for leprechauns.)
The castle is also unusual in its double bawn, which means that it had two protective walls instead of one.
And this thing is for security purposes, too.
How many of you have a murder hole over your front door?
Fortune favors the strong, indeed.
After centuries of more back-and-forth ownership, the castle was rented back to O’Flahertys in the 17th century for £76 a year. A castle. For £76 a year.
And in the 20th century the Irish Office of People Who Like Castles bought the place and started charging people €3 to take a look around. If you decide to pay the fee, just make sure no wild O’Flahertys are hanging about the place.