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The History of Dunsany Castle

Situated on a lovely estate comprised of marsh, woodland, and farmland in County Meath, Ireland, is the large and rather wonderful Dunsany Castle. This lovely grey castle is simply marvellous. Behind the castle, the grand River Boyne runs freely to create a lasting impression.

The castle is located within the quaint village of Dunshaughlin which is a mere 6 miles from Trim.

The history of Dunsany Castle

The Dunsany Castle interiors are simply exquisite, as is the rest of the castle. The entire castle is built over four floors and it also has four crenellated towers. The castle is surrounded by a strong protective wall and is equipped with three entrances. One entrance has a gatehouse lodge and stewards house, another is along a long drive and has a tower lodge, and the third is on the Dunsany Bridge from the river which has a black stone lodge.

Within this amazing estate, you can also find the Church of St Nicholas, a 3-acre walled garden with exquisite fruit trees, vegetable plots, and beehives. Not far from that, you can also see a gardener’s cottage, icehouse, and a farm with stable years. However, behind this beautiful castle, there is a lot of history to learn about. Let’s take a look.

Dunsany Castle on a sunny day
Construction began in the 12th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The early history

When looking directly at the castle, you will notice two mounds to the left and right of it. These are said to be artificial constructions that could possibly have been part of an earlier Irish fortification.  This would then explain the name of the district, Dunsany is Dún Samhain in Irish, and a dún is a fort. It is believed that either one or both of the small mounds could have later been used as early Ango-Norman points of defence.

Likely, on the motte and bailey style.

The beginning of Dunsany Castle

Dunsany Castle began only with four stone towers with walls joining them to make a yard inside. It is thought that construction began in 1180 on the orders of Hugh de Lacy. The castle we see today is more than three times the size of the very original castle due to many additions being added, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the foundations and lower areas of the four main towers are likely original.

File:Hugh de Lacy.jpg
Portrait of Hugh de Lacy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Changing hands

Two castles, Dunsany and Killeen Castle, were both held by the Cusacks. This was initially done on behalf of the de Lacy’s and passed by marriage in the early 15th century to the Plunkett’s. Originally, both of the castles were on a single estate, however, the first generation of Plunkett’s gave Killeen to the eldest son while Dunsany Castle went to the youngest son, Christopher. After this, the estate was divided, and the castle descended into the hands of the Barons of Dunsany.

The Barons of Dunsany enjoyed almost uninterrupted ownership and control aside from a few minor issues caused by Oliver Cromwell’s operations in Ireland. The aftermath of some other troubles between Ireland and England also caused a few disturbances.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries

The Dunsany estate was then reduced by the operation of the Land Acts in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, Dunsany Castle remained completely surrounded by its original demesne. A lot of the work by the well-regarded writer Lord Dunsany was done at this castle in a room in one of the building’s towers. The author commissioned a two-storey extension to one side of the rear of the castle.

Built in a unique style by the year 1914, the extensions contained a huge billiard room, two large bedrooms, and other facilities.

File:Gate, Dunsany Castle, Co Meath - geograph.org.uk - 1760633.jpg
The gatehouse at Dunsany Castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The current day

In the 20th century, the dower house and its lands were sold. Work has continued on the site since the 1990s with some attendant publicity to restore some of the Dunsany properties in the demesne, the hamlet at Dunsany crossroads, and in Trim Castle. Trim Castle, the family’s other castle, was transferred into State hands further on in the 1990s.

The castle briefly closed in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. However, it is now open again by appointment and ready to be explored. To this day, the castle remains in the hands of the Plunkett family.

You may be interested in reading about other Irish castles such as Dromore Castle.

Dunsany Castle Timeline

  • 1180- The construction of Dunsany Castle begins only with four stone towers with walls joining them to make a yard inside on the orders of Hugh de Lacy
  • Late 19th and early 20th century- The estate is reduced by the operation of the Land Acts
  • 1914- Extensions are made to the castle including a huge billiard room, two large bedrooms, and other facilities
  • 20th century- The dower house and its lands are sold
  • 1990s- Work begins at the castle again
  • 2020- The castle closes due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
  • 2021- The castle reopens to the public

Dunsany Castle facts

  • Dunsany Castle is one of the oldest surviving country houses in Ireland
  • Dunsany Castle has survived for over 800 years and has been reshaped a lot
  • The demesne is surrounded by a drystone wall, much of which was built during the Great Famine as a relief work
  • There is a full-scale walled garden, over 3 acres in size, that is still producing fruit and vegetables for the estate
  • The 19th Lord Dunsany is buried in one of the mounds beside the castle

Featured in TV and film

Books on Dunsany Castle

Who owns Dunsany Castle?

The Plunkett’s of Dunsany have kept the estate and castle going for years upon years. However, the present occupier of the castle is Randal Plunkett, the 21st Baron of Dunsany. Randal is also a director of zombie horror films. He succeeded to the title of Baron of Dunsany on 24 May 2011, upon the death of his father, an artist and sculptor.

Once he passes away, the castle will presumably fall into the hands of his younger brother, Oliver.

Tourism

To visit Dunsany Castle, you need to book an appointment prior to visiting. The grounds are privately owned, and access normally requires prior arrangement. If you just show up, you will likely be denied entry. The castle can, however, be visited on a certain number of days each year. These days are always changing.

On these days, you will be given a guided tour, often by the family members that live there, for a small fee. Usually, it is €15 but the price is subject to change. Nearby, you can also visit Hill of Tara, Trim Castle, Tayto Park, Slane Castle, Bective Abbey, and Maynooth Castle. Enjoy a day out that is packed with history.

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