Landscapes hide their past well – Ireland’s tumultuous and violent medieval history is scarcely evident at all. However when driving north-west from Dundalk, the appearance of Roche Castle on the horizon reveals a tantilising glimpse into this regions violent and turbulent history written in stone. Built on a rocky outcrop, this fortification was clearly built in more dangerous times with defence in mind. Roche Castle, situated 10 kilometres north-west of Dundalk, was erected in what can only be described as the perfect location in what were clearly far from perfect times. Constructed to defend the Norman colony in Louth against the Gaelic Irish to their north-west defence was of utmost importance to the castle’s builders.
With minimal work the Norman masons were able to carve a site for a castle and a village with naturally defensive escarpments on all sides. Begun somtime after 1237, it is also one of the few castles in Ireland erected by a woman – Roesia de Verdun – one of the most powerful women of 13th century Ireland.
While the castle is what survives today, in the middle ages there was an outer bailey and settlement to the north of the unusual triangular fortification. These remains are only visible through lumps and bumps in a field, but the outline is clearly visible in in this aerial photograph. The castle itself is built on the western end of the outcrop. It was separated from the settlement by a rock-cut ditch and protected by this large twin-towered gatehouse.
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The castle towers high above the southern approach…
The remains of what was the great hall occupies southern wall of the castle
The large windows (below) would have filled this great hall with light. Unusual in a medieval castle; they are protected by the height of the castle on its elevated position in the landscape. The de Verdun family had little to fear having such large openings in their walls.
Despite its position, high atop a rocky outcrop, two wells were sunk inside the castle walls. One is contained in the now ruined building on the left. The remains 0f the well are on the right. In terms of defense this was essential. While the castle was almost impregnable if it did not have its own water supply it could not withstand siege.
Inside the walls the remaining buildings are in ruins. What this was is not entirely clear, but its seems to have had its own well, perhaps a stables?
The gatehouse is now an empty shell with one tantilising passage leading into the walls but just to high to climb into.
Unlike most medieval castles there is no evidence that Roche Castle was occupied in the post-medieval period. There are no post-medieval architectural alterations. That said we know the castle was occupied in the early 14th century, when the Scots under Edward Bruce invaded Ireland in 1315. While they ravaged the surrounding region they bypassed Roche, such was its defenses. Nevertheless while it appears that it wasn’t occupied in later centuries, it was still used by the English army in 1561 as an mustering point before they invaded Ulster. Even today its easy to see its military advantages in the surrounding landscape.
Given it hasn’t been heavily altered over the centuries much of the features have a distinctive medieval feel to it.