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A Lakeside Citadel – Ross Castle

Ross Castle, often referred to as O’Donoghue Castle, is situated directly on the edge of Lough Leane. This beautiful 15th-century tower house is not only beautiful but also home to a grand history and local legend. It is also well-known due to the fact that it is the ancestral home of the Chiefs of the Clan O’Donoghue who were later associated with the Brownes of Killarney.

The history of Ross Castle

Ross Castle is situated in Killarney, in County Kerry in Ireland. While its history isn’t overly detailed, what we do know is interesting and full of legends. It survived many treacherous times, ruin, and rebuilding to become the grand building it is in current times.

Keep reading to find out just how this castle became the beloved spectacle that we see today. Let’s get into it.

Ross Castle just before dusk
Ross Castle is often referred to as O’Donoghue Castle. Source: Flickr.

The early history

Ross Castle, the beautiful tower house, was built in the very late 15th century by the local ruling clan known as the O’Donoghue Mor. After it had been built, it became their chief seat. By the time they made it their chief seat, the castle consisted of a large rectangular tower house surrounded by a big rectangular bawn with round towers on each corner.

In the 1580s, during the Second Desmond Rebellion, it was acquired by the MacCarthy Mor. Later, in the year 1588, it was then mortgaged to Sir Valentine Browne who, at the time, was an English pay official.

The Irish Confederate Wars

During the Irish Confederate Wars in the year 1652, the castle was held by Donough MacCarthy, Lord Muskerry, against a strong Cromwellian force that consisted of around 3500 men. All the men were led by Edmund Ludlow. Finally, Ross Castle surrendered after it was bombarded by boats on the lough. This then fulfilled the ancient prophecy that stated that the castle would remain impregnable until it was attacked from the water.

Portrait of Donough MacCarthy
Portrait of Donough MacCarthy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the wars

Once the wars had ceased, Browne proved that they had no part in the rebellion. They then retained the lands and the castle. By the year 1688, they went forth and erected a rather large mansion house near the castle. However, to do this, they had to demolish the entire west section of the bawn wall, though their adherence to James II of England had caused them to be exiled.

A military barracks

Afterwards, Ross Castle became a military barracks. For this to happen, however, the lovely Browne mansion house and all of the north section of the bawn had to be destroyed. They were completely demolished, and new extensions were built onto the south side of the tower. Bastions were also built during this time.

Until the year 1825, two companies of infantry were stationed at Ross Castle, however, once they left, the castle fell to ruin.

Ross Castle with mountains in the background
At one point, Ross Castle was used as a military barracks. Source: Flickr.

The current day

In 1970, the very ruined castle was taken into state care. Recently, it underwent a partial rebuild to restore it to its previous look. The grounds of the castle are easy to access, however, guides are needed for tours. It is often referred to as a very beautiful castle in an equally beautiful castle.

You may enjoy reading about other Irish Castles such as Lismore Castle.

The Legend of O’Donoghue

This castle is home to a very unique and prosperous legend. This famous legend is often told by locals who have seen it before. Legend says that O’Donoghue, Lord of the Lakes of Killarney, Ross Castle, and the surrounding lands, can be seen each May morning upon a glorious, loyal, and noble white horse, gliding over the glistening lakes. It is said that he lies at the bottom of the lake and watched everything that goes on.

Often, people will say the vision of them is accompanied by unearthly music and attended by somewhat of an army of otherworldly beings who leave May flowers in their wake. Many locals and visitors claim to have seen this, and it would be such a wonderful sight to see. While many don’t know the reason, the legend began when O’Donoghue was sucked out of one of the windows along with his horse, library, and table.

Ross Castle from across the water
The castle plays home to myths and legends. Source: Flickr.

Ross Castle Timeline

  • Late 15th century- Ross Castle is built
  • The 1580s- During the Second Desmond Rebellion, the castle is acquired by the MacCarthy Mor
  • 1588- The castle is mortgaged to Sir Valentine Brown who, at the time, was an English pay official
  • 1652- The castle is held by Donough MacCarthy, Lord Muskerry, against a strong Cromwellian force that consisted of around 3500 men
  • 1688- Browne went forth and erected a large mansion house and demolished the entire west section of the bawn wall
  • 1825- Two companies of infantry are stationed at Ross Castle, they then leave it to ruin
  • 1970- The very ruined castle is taken into state care

Ross Castle facts

  •  Ross Castle was one of the last castles in Ireland to succumb to Cromwell forces
  • The foundations of the castle were once surrounded by a fortified bawn with towers defending its curtain walls
  • It is the ancestral home of the Chiefs of the Clan O’Donoghue
  • Ross Castle became a military barracks at one point in time

Books on Ross Castle

  • Ross Castle, Killarney by Elmer Keene (1900)

Who owns Ross Castle?

During the present day, Ross Castle is owned and operated by the Office of Public Works who own and operate many other castles as well. They do a great job by keeping the castle functioning in tip-top condition all year round so that you can visit.


Ross Castle is fairly easy to find, after all, who could miss such an endearing castle? It is open to the public throughout the summer months. It can be found by car via a clearly signposted right turn off the N71 travelling south from Killarney town. You can also get there by walking or cycling from the Killarney House and Knockreer sections of the National Park. Jaunting cars also make the journey and are available at the jaunting car stand in the town.

There are also boat trips available. Admission to the castle is free, however, bookings are required.

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