Audleys castle, Co. Down

There are thousands of these small stone towers in the Irish countryside; they are one of the commonest of archaeological sites, which tells us one thing: these were not buildings put up for the higher aristocracy, but for lesser lords and gentry. They were built in the late Middle Ages (roughly 1350-1550). From written documents we may note the name of the family who owned it in a certain year but rarely anything else.

You reach Audley’s castle up a gentle slope from the other side than in the photograph. It consists of a tower set within a yard (technically known as a bawn) which is enclosed by a thin wall, with a simple gate. The door of the tower is guarded by a high arch stretching between two turrets. Men on the roof level could drop things from behind this arch on to anyone standing outside the door below; the boiling oil of myth. This is nonsense: the price of olive oil was far too high to waste, and dropping liquids through air is the best way to cool them, so that the boiling water or whatever would simply be pleasantly warm when it landed. What was dropped were rocks, cheaper and better.

Once inside you see that the tower has one main room on each floor, with one or two subsidiary rooms off each of the big ones. The ground floor has small windows and no fireplace or latrine: this was not a floor for anyone to live in, but was for storage of food and drink. The first floor has better windows, a large fireplace and access to a latrine; this was a room for the owner to live in and entertain his friends. It also has a chute for throwing dirty water away, so the large fireplace was also probably used for cooking on. The second floor was probably the lord’s private room for sleeping and his family life: servants and others could be accommodated in the attic.

We have no idea of the buildings in the small courtyard around Audley’s. Only a minority of towers had courtyard walls at all, and their buildings were clearly less importance than the tower. They were built at a time when the population had shrunk drastically after the Black Death, and the profitable, market side of the Irish economy was much more dependent on cattle than on grain. Elaborate farm buildings were unnecessary in England, as they were in Scotland or the north of England, where cattle or sheep were also important in the economy; so too were tower house in the countryside.

These towers are different from castles of the great lords, which had large halls for public events and a number of different rooms for the members of their large households. The towers in different parts of the country vary, with distinct regional patterns. Audley’s with its two turrets linked by an arch is one of a type found in Co. Down only. Further south, in the Pale, the towers often have two or more turrets but they do not guard the door like those at Audley’s. In Munster, they have an elaborate display of roof-level defences which, on examination, are barely workable, while the number of rooms is greater than those of Co. Down. The main point was not defence, but to give the free holding gentry of comparatively modest resources comfortable and impressive places to live in, literally towering above their lands and peasants.

Reference: Jope, E. M (ed.) 1966 An Archaeological survey of County Down, Belfast, HMSO, 225-227.