Sligo Archaeology Society trip part 1: Ballymote and Ballinafad Castles


Well, I had quite the exciting weekend this past weekend. On Saturday I went on a day trip with the Archaeology Society to Co. Sligo to see the Ballymote and Ballinafad castles as well as the Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Complex. Because I will have a lot to cover, I will split the trip into two posts, this post will cover the visit to the two castles.

We left NUIG at 9am on Saturday for a two hour bus trip to our first stop the Ballymote castle. The castle was built by the Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgo in 1300. It is considered to be the last great Norman castle to be built in Connaught, the western region of Ireland. From around 1317 until 1584 the castle was involved in many major battles. After 1601 the castle was controlled by the English, after the defeat of the owner Red Hugh O’Donnell at the Battle of Kinsale.

As we approach the castle our view is dominated by the remains of the inner wall of what was once the massive three story gatehouse which controlled the entrance to the castle. It was thought that the castle once had a moat, but archaeological excavations in the 1980s did not find any evidence of a moat. Even though little remains of the gatehouse, when I passed through the gateway into the inner courtyard inside the castle, I could imagine the effect on the local Irish that this castle would present to them. Entering the courtyard, the walls surrounding the courtyard are all at least partially intact. The Office of Public Works which oversees the site, in the past decades has done some conservation work in order to make sure that the walls won’t fall down on any visitors.

Off to my right was another mostly intact two story section of the outer walls. A small opening in the bottom of the wall gave access to a stairway to my left and a stairway to my right. The right side was blocked by a metal gate, but I was allowed to go up the stairs to my left. The stairs were uneven and slippery, and thankfully there was a single handrail to assist my ascent. I overheard one of the guides saying that the OPW in their restoration did not straighten the stairs because that was how they were, to serve as a security measure. If anyone who wasn’t familiar with the odd stairs were to get into the castle the stairs would serve as an impediment to their progress and allow the defenders to hopefully rally against their attackers. From the top of the wall I was able to get a commanding view of both the courtyard, as well as the surrounding landscape outside the castle. The towers of the castle are no longer standing but a one story section remains, so I could see where the towers once were. In one of the towers it at some point in the castles history had been turned into a tower house, where people lived. It was a later feature because there were fireplaces which were modified out of existing features within the walls of the tower. Fireplaces were a mark of later castles around the 1500s.

Looking around in the sections of the structure that I was able to explore I could see slots in the brick were I think there might have been wood posts holding up an upper floor.

This castle was an awesome experience to explore and get a feel for a building that I’ve read about, but have never before been able to experience. After visiting this castle, even in the state it is in, I could just imagine in my mind what it would have looked like and what a dominating feature it must have been for the local Irish.

After about an hour and a half, we got back on the bus to take us to our next stop which was Ballinafad castle, which was conveniently near to where we would be having lunch.

The Ballinafad Castle was built to guard an ancient roadway called the Red Earls Road, which linked Ballymote( where the other castle is) to Boyle. The castle housed a garrison of only ten, the men lived in the town of Ballinafad which grew up because of the castle. The Castle is four stories high, and has four towers, one at each corner to dominate the surrounding area and to watch over the road which runs past the castle. This castle has also had preservation work conducted by the OPW in the past decades. It was pointed out to me by one of the other members of the Society, that some of the work although well intentioned in trying to preserve the site, does not fit with the look of the castle. Ballinafad Castle was still an excellent site to visit and to get a chance to learn more about these buildings which are all around Europe.


In the next part I will cover lunch, and the visit to the Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Complex in Co. Sligo.

Until next time.


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