Lea castle stands in remote spot on the head waters of the Barrow river, two miles east of Portarlington Co. Laois. These ruins once withstood numerous medieval sieges and witnessed some of the greatest events in Irish medieval history but today they are a skeletal reminder of this of long gone society. Destroyed over four hundred years ago Lea has not changed much since its final fight when Cromwell’s new model army destroyed the castle in 1651. As great stone keep collapsed at Lea, with it came down the final curtain on the medieval world drawing to a close the era of such fortresses. Today these lonely ruins are all that remains of that world.
Lea Castle was built sometime before 1270. The fortress was in the hands of the Fitzgerald family through much of the 13th and 14th centuries. In these years the castle witnessed the key events in two major civil wars. In 1264 and 1294 the Fitzgeralds kidnapped powerful enemies provoking a civil war on both occasions. It was at Lea these hostages were held most notably in 1294-5 when The Red Earl of Ulster Richard de Burgh was held in the castle. Lea was heavily damaged on numerous occasions famously in february 1316 when it was burned by Edward Bruce. After each attack the castle was rebuilt and this has made it hard to date. In 1651 the castle was put beyond use when the Cromwellian forces under General Hewson destroyed the keep and gatehouse. Later English settlers remodelled the entire region by building the nearby town of Portarlington and the site of Lea was totally abandoned.
The castle itself was a towered keep; a four storied building flanked on each corner by a circular tower, only one of which remains today. General Hewson totally demolished the upper floors save the northeastern tower and the northern and eastern walls. Inside the northern wall the mural stair case survives giving access to a great (if dangerous) vantage point.
The overall complex takes the shape of a large walled settlement divided into an outer and inner enclosure. Access to the main keep in the inner enclosure was controlled by a series of gates. After the original keep and enclosure were built a massive twin towered gatehouse was added. It was utterly ruined by Hewson but from the remains it appears it was protected by a portcullis and internal drawbridge. At some stage in the later medieval era access to the castle was dramatically altered when the Gatehouse was sealed up and a new entrance added to the east of the gatehouse.