Why did they stop building tower house castles in Ireland?

One of the most visible reminders of Ireland’s medieval history are the tower house castles that are scattered throughout the country. For centuries they were the homes and fortresses for the native Irish elites as well as the English and Scottish settlers. However, by the early seventeenth-century it seems that they were now being abandoned and left the fall into ruin. What happened?

Mahee Castle - Mahee Castle, Ringneill Road, Mahee Island, County Down, Northern Ireland, Photo by Ardfern / Wikicommons

This is the topic of the article “The death of the tower house? An examination of the decline of the Irish castle tradition”, by Vicky McAlister, which appears in the new book Space and settlement in medieval Ireland. She focuses her research on the situation in County Down, which is located in Northern Ireland, and begins by noting that, “the decline of the tower house seems to have occurred over a relatively short timescale, petering out in the mid-seventeenth century, but the lower numbers constructed in the 1620s and 1630s compared to the previous decades implies that their abandonment was not prompted by a sudden event, such as the importation of new military technology or strategy.”


While some historians believe that these castles, which rise several storeys and offer a strong military deterrent, had become obsolete because of the use gunpowder artillery. However, while gunpowder weapons were being used in Ireland by the late 15th-century, this did not put a dent in the construction of new tower houses, nor is there evidence that these castles were being overrun by sieges. McAlister notes that these fortifications would have remained a challenging obstacle even during the 17th century.

Instead, McAlister finds that economic reasons, especially those related to maritime trade, were important factors for the use of tower houses. She explains that “almost all of the Co. Down tower houses are situated by water. However, they are not alone in this as even a cursory glance at a distribution map of tower houses across Ireland shows the sheer numbers that are located on the coast and on major waterways.”


Jordan's Castle, at the junction of Quay Street and Kildare Street, Ardglass, County Down, Northern Ireland Photo by Ardfern / WikicommonsThese tower houses would have served as places to store trade goods, such as oats, barley, beef, live cattle and horses, as well as protecting the money that was coming back to the owners. This situation would change in the early seventeenth-century, with port towns such as Belfast and Carrickfergus becoming the focus of trade.

McAlister writes:

The need for smaller-scale ports and creeks interspersed at strategic locations along the coast was consequently removed. There is a correlation between the Co. Down tower houses and anchorages and maritime ‘roads’. A shift away from these maritime routes reduced the need for tower houses. In addition to this situation, the opportunity for local lords to capitalize on their resources by exporting the produce from their lands from their own ports and creeks was eradicated by the overwhelming growth of Belfast and Newry. With the prospect for competition finally removed, the emphasis shifted to estate production, thus reducing the need for investment outside of expanding agricultural land, with the tower house a direct casualty of this.

By the early 17th century one could see that tower houses were being used less and that other types of manor estates were being built. While some continued to be inhabited for decades and centuries afterwards, many were allowed to fall into ruin. It has only been in the 20th century that efforts started to conserve and rehabilitate these medieval landmarks. Now, many are available to use as homes or hotels – click here to read about how Helen Cassidy is selling castles in Ireland.

The article “The death of the tower house? An examination of the decline of the Irish castle tradition” appears in Space and settlement in medieval Ireland. which is edited by McAlister and Terry Barry and just published by Four Courts Press. This book contains eleven papers that were originally given at the Space and Settlement conferences held annually in Trinity College Dublin. They include:

  • The Normans and the Irish Sea world in the era of the Battle of Clontarf, by Patrick Wadden
  • Studying early medieval Irish urbanization: problems and possibilities, by Rebecca Wall Forrestal
  • Deer parks: lost medieval monuments of the Irish countryside, by Fiona Beglane
  • The economic hinterland of Drogheda in the later Middle Ages, by James A. Galloway

Click here to visit the publisher’s website for more details.

Vicky McAlister is an Assistant Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University. You can read more about her research on tower houses on her page.