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Dozens of castles and fortresses are dotted about the Mayo countryside. Most are found on high ground or near the water’s edge--remnants from a time when High Kings ruled the land and defended themselves and their people from outside attackers. Only a handful are intact and even then, to varying degrees.
The most well-known and spectacular are Ashford and Belleek Castles, the former being a luxury 5-star hotel in Cong and the latter a neo-gothic manor hotel near Ballina, built in the early 1800s, both of which reward a visit, for the grounds, the buildings and their histories.
Belleek Castle provides a glimpse at the life of the aristocracy in Mayo. This 19th century castle was built in the neo-gothic style popular at the time. Set in a 1,000-acres of woodland and forestry, it sits on the banks of the River Moy, and long before it housed a medieval abbey before becoming home to Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Arthur Francis Knox-Gore in the 1830s. Located on the Wild Atlantic Way, the longest tourist trail in the world, this hotel has a museum, offering a little more of a glimpse at history. Along with its golf course and fishing amenities the woods have 300-year old trees.
Ashford Castle, in Cong, was owned by the Guinness Family for a time. Originally a medieval castle, today it is one of the finest luxury hotels in Ireland and has played host to royals, celebrities and other notables, including: King George V; Princess Grace, whose ancestors hail from the nearby Mayo town of Newport; Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon (the latter briefly owned an island in Clew Bay) and Oscar Wilde, whose childhood was spent largely here, as his father owned the adjacent Moytura House. Nearby Lisloughrey Lodge’s award-winning restaurant is named Wilde’s in recognition of the family’s deep connections here.
Grace O’Malley or Granuaile, the so-called ‘Pirate Queen of Mayo’ owned several castles around the coast, including two which are relatively intact: Rockfleet and Kildavnet. Located near Newport, Rockfleet was owned by Risteárd Bourke, known as “Richard in iron,” before Granuaile’s made him her second husband. The four-story castle was restored in the 1950s and is 18 metres high. While not habitable, it is possible to explore the castle, whose many nooks and crannies reward the curious. An interesting feature is the fact that the stairwell winds upwards in a clockwise direction in order that the intruder should be at a disadvantage, having to launch their attack with their left hand. Granuaile certainly lived at Rockfleet and possibly died there around 1603.
Another castle associated with Granuaile is Kildavnet, which stands guard in Achill protecting the waters between Achill Sound and Blacksod Bay in the Mullet Peninsula. Built in the1420s, it stands at 12 metres and is three stories high and intact externally. However, floors are missing, making it impossible to access the higher floors.
Near Westport, in Aughagower, the Norman Dun-Mughdhord or Doon Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking Croagh Patrick to the west. Its history dates back to the 12th century when it was inhabited by Cathal O’Connor, heir to Connacht. The castles was razed in an attack by Cormac McCarthy’s army. Then again during the Elizabethan reign of Sir Richard Bingham, like so many castles and forts, Doon Castle was sacked again. Little remains of it today, but some ruins and the remnants of the moate circle which once protected it. Some of the stonework was reputedly used to build the Westport House under the supervision of the Marquis of Sligo.
Kilcashel stone forts lie near Kilmovee in northeast Mayo. When archaeologists excavated here, ten sites were recorded, including a Bronze Age fulachta fiadh or cooking site, Medieval stone forts, dwelling sites and a large boulder or bullaun Stone’ with a cup shape carved out, as well as man-made Medieval underground chambers or souterrains. The stone forts of Kilcashel were an exciting find, lying a hundred metres above sea level on a sandstone ridge and is now a national monument.
Roaming around the county it is impossible avoid the plethora of ruins of castles and fort. Many are in such states of disrepair as to look only like rubble strewn in fields. Stopping to look around reveals more and often helps us see things differently.