Killyleagh Castle, based in a small town in County Down, Northern Ireland, is the oldest inhabited castle in the country. It follows the gorgeous architectural style of a Loire Valley château and was redesigned by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. It has been owned by the exact same family, the Hamilton’s, since the early 17th century.
The history of Killyleagh Castle
Killyleagh Castle completely dominates the small village of Killyleagh and is one of the most architecturally striking buildings in the world. There truly is no other quite like it. It was built to resemble somewhat of a French Château which is why it has a regal edge over the other castles nearby.
With round corner turrets, a steeply sloping grey slate roof, and a beautiful gate lodge, Killyleagh Castle is truly a sight to behold.
The early history
In the 12th century, the Killyleagh estate was settled in by the Norman knight, John de Courcy, who built many fortifications on the site in 1180. He built these fortifications as a series of fortifications around Strangford Lough for protection from the Vikings.
The 17th century
In 1602, the Gaelic chieftain known as Con O’Neill of Clandeboye owned large tracts of North Down, one of them being Killyleagh. However, O’Neill was imprisoned after he sent many of his men to attack English soldiers after a quarrel. A deal was then made between O’Neill’s wife and the Scots aristocrat Hugh Montgomery.
The deal was for O’Neill’s wife to give Montgomery half of O’Neill’s lands if he was able to get a royal pardon for O’Neill. Montgomery was quickly able to obtain the pardon, though King James I divided the land in three, with the area from Killyleagh to Bangor going to James Hamilton, later 1st Viscount Claneboye, another Scot.
A map from Killyleagh from 1625 showed that the castle had a single tower on the south side of a residence. Then, in the same year, Hamilton moved from Bangor to Killyleagh Castle. This is where he built the courtyard walls. Ever since, the castle has played home to the Hamilton family.
Destruction and rebuilding
The son of Viscount Claneboye, James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Clanbrassil, went forth and built the second tower. In 1649, he supported the Stuart monarch, Charles I of England, and the castle was then besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. His forces sailed gunboats into Strangford Lough and blew up the gatehouse.
Once this had happened, the Earl quickly fled and, in cowardice, left his wife and children behind. He was afterward fined by parliament, for the return of the castle and his land. The 1st Earl’s son, Henry Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil rebuilt the entirety of the castle in 1666. He then went forth and erected the north tower and built/restored the fortified wall in the front of the castle.
What remains today can be mostly attributed to the 2nd Earl.
Lady Alice Moore
In 1667, the 2nd Earl went forth and married Lady Alice Moore, the daughter of the Earl of Drogheda. Unfortunately, their only child together died extremely young. Lady Alice soon discovered that her father-in-law, the 1st Earl of Clanbrassil, had stated in his will that should Henry die without issue, the estate would be divided between the five Hamilton cousins, the eldest sons of his five uncles.
This infuriated Lady Alice as she somehow believed the castle and surrounding estate should be hers. She then destroyed the will in anger and had her husband create his own will in 1674. In his will, she made sure that the estate was left to her. Henry died of poisoning in 1675 and Lady Alice followed soon after in 1677, leaving the estate to her brother. This didn’t go unnoticed.
Dividing the castle
The cousins were well aware of the 1st Earl’s will and so they went forth and pursued their rights as inheritors of the castle and estate. 20 years later, the matter was finally concluded when an original copy of the will was discovered. By then, all of the cousins had already died. The last to die was James Hamilton of Neilsbrook, County Antrim, son of Archibald Hamilton. He was the next brother of James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboye.
James Hamilton of Neilsbrook had been very confident in a settlement due to it being in his favour and had bequeathed the estate to be divided in two, with one half going to his daughter, Anne, née Hamilton, and the other half to his younger brothers known as Gawn and William Hamilton. In 1697, the probate court divided the castle with Gawn and William taking the main house and the two towers.
Their niece, Anne, received the bawn (wall) and gatehouse. Gawn and William went forth and opened a new entrance on the north side in order to enter the castle.
Passing down the generations
In 1716, William died without children which meant that the castle passed to successive generations of Gawn Hamilton’s descendants. Gawn’s great-grandson, known as Archibald Hamilton Rowan, an Irish nationalist of the United Irishmen, lived in the castle and used it as a main residence between 1806 and 1834 after his exile in America.
Hamilton Rowan’s grandson, Archibald Rowan-Hamilton and his wife went forth and employed architect Sir Charles Lanyon from 1850 to renovate the castle. He is responsible for the romantic silhouette and gorgeous turrets. James Hamilton of Neilsbrook’s daughter, Anne, married Hans Stevenson. In turn, her estate passed to her son James Stevenson, and then to his daughter Dorcas, later Dorcas Blackwood, 1st Baroness Dufferin and Claneboye.
It then passed on to Dorcas’s great-grandson Frederick Temple Blackwood, 5th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye. In 1860, the 5th Baron gave the bawn and gatehouse back to the Hamilton’s and commissioned a replacement gatehouse to better match the main castle. The Baron also added Hamilton to his surname just before marrying his cousin, Hariot Georgina Rowan-Hamilton, daughter of Archibald Rowan-Hamilton, in 1862.
In the 1920s, the castle came under attack by the Irish Republican Army. At this time, Gawn Rowan Hamilton said: “I have a cutting from the Belfast Telegraph which tells the story of my great-great-uncle being woken at 2 am and exchanging gunfire from the battlements, which was terribly exciting.”
The current day
Nowadays, the castle is still in the hands of the Hamilton family. It hosts occasional concerts from performers such as Van Morrison, Glen Hansard, and Bap Kennedy. The beautiful Killyleagh Castle towers have self-catering holiday accommodation within them.
You cannot explore the castle or grounds. However, you can view it from the outside when you stand on the street.
You may enjoy reading about other Irish castles such as Blackrock Castle.
Killyleagh Castle Timeline
- 12th century- Killyleagh estate is settled in by the Norman knight, John de Courcy
- 1180-John de Courcy builds many fortifications on the site
- 1602- The Gaelic chieftain known as Con O’Neill of Clandeboye owns large tracts of North Down, one of them being Killyleagh
- 1625-A map from Killyleagh shows that the castle has a single tower on the south side of a residence
- 1625- Hamilton moves from Bangor to Killyleagh Castle where he builds the courtyard walls
- 1649- James Hamilton supports the Stuart monarch, Charles I of England, and the castle is besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s forces
- 1666- Henry Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil rebuilds the entirety of the castle, erects the north tower, and builds/restores the fortified wall in the front of the castle.
- 1667- The 2nd Earl marries Lady Alice Moore, the daughter of the Earl of Drogheda
- 1674- The 2nd Earl dies of poisoning
- 1697- The probate court divides the castle with Gawn and William taking the main house and the two towers
- 1716- William dies without children which means that the castle passed to successive generations of Gawn Hamilton’s descendants
- 1806 to 1834- Gawn’s great-grandson, known as Archibald Hamilton Rowan, an Irish nationalist of the United Irishmen, lives in the castle and uses it as a main residence after his exile in America.
- 1850- Sir Charles Lanyon renovates the castle
- 1860- The 5th Baron gives the bawn and gatehouse back to the Hamilton’s and commissions a replacement gatehouse to better match the main castle.
- 1862- The Baron also adds Hamilton to his surname just before marrying his cousin, Hariot Georgina Rowan-Hamilton, daughter of Archibald Rowan-Hamilton
- The 1920s- The castle comes under attack by the Irish Republican Army
Killyleagh Castle facts
- The architectural style of the castle follows the style of a Loire Valley chateau
- The castle has been owned by the Hamilton family since the 17th century
- There is a War Memorial on the right-hand side of the gate going into the castle
- Killyleagh Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland
- The Killyleagh Castle towers have private accommodation within them
Featured in TV and film
- Dani’s Castle (2013)
Who owns Killyleagh Castle?
Killyleagh Castle has been the family home of the Hamilton family since the 17th century, even to this day. Nowadays, it is the home of Gawn Rowan Hamilton and his beloved family.
Due to being privately owned, you cannot enter the grounds of the castle itself. However, when there are events at the castle, you are sometimes able to wander close. If seeing the inside of the castle is important to you, you can book the self-catered accommodation within the Killyleagh Castle towers.
Other than that, your only view of Killyleagh Castle will be from the road. Nearby, you can also visit Strangford Lough, Exploris Aquarium, WWT Castle Espie, and Winterfell Castle and Demesne.