IN an isolated corner of West Cork lie the ruins of a spectacular fragment of Irish history. The ghostly edifice has stood for over 800 years, being battered by violent Atlantic storms.
Close to the most southern point of Ireland’s mainland, it would have been the last light for many vessels as they headed into the vast waters beyond.
When I visited, it was a hazy evening with humidity thick in the air. Sun broke through openings in the dense ceiling of cloud, which made dappled patches of the ocean bloom with a rich blue.
I was breathing deeply, following the steep tracks that were scuffed into the land, and scaling over rocky outcrops in the hope of finding this secluded castle. Eventually, a long and wide valley opened up before me and the three stone towers sat prominently by the cliff’s edge.
The initial feeling was one of cinematic awe. The ancient skeleton, bursting with eight centuries of forgotten secrets, sat in silence, with nothing but a few feet separating it from sheer cliff face and crashing waves.
The ruin is weathered from lifetimes of harsh conditions, but marvelling at its construction in such a dramatic place is no less inspiring. At first viewing, it seems like three separate castles but it is indeed one structure of three towers connected by a wall that ran across a portion of the peninsula. Dún Loch is the ancient Irish name, which translates to Fortress of the Lake.
Its design is slightly unusual of the times and is more reminiscent of Spanish architecture of the era. The 6ft curtain wall as well as the lake would have made the fortress rather impregnable.
Dunlough was built by the native Irish clan of the O’Mahonys. It is believed it was built in 1207, which would make it the oldest castle in Ireland, however, it’s estimated that the present build was updated around the 15th century.
Donagh na hImirce O’Mahony, who was chieftain of the O’Mahony clan and is said to have built the castle, died during a battle with the Normans around 1222.
The O’Mahonys ruled areas of Cork, including much of the Mizen Peninsula with another faction ruling areas around Bandon. Their main stronghold was at Ardintenant, where Ardintenant Castle still stands (amongst other castles of theirs) locally known as White Castle, very close to the village of Schull.
After the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the O’Mahonys lost much of their land and Dunlough Castle was subsequently acquired by Richard Boyle, a New English speculator, and the first Earl of Cork.
Walls used to run from both sides of the lake. The western end connects to a sheer cliff face, whilst the eastern end connected to a small harbour. This was a defensive strategy that cut off a large portion of the headland from intruders.
The western end also has its characteristic three tower design, which is where the Three Castle Head name is derived from. It is unusual to other castles of its time because of its very daring location, sitting in a valley between two large ridges of rock. For this reason, it’s believed that no lord and his family ever dwelled here full-time, it was most likely a security point, watching over the waters, monitoring the fishing fleets that would traverse the locality.
Given the lack of quality farmland in the area, piracy was very common. Many coastal lords were known for taxing English and Spanish vessels who were caught in their waters. Their pirate activity was condemned at the time by English government officials. Given Dunlough Castle’s prime position and vantage point, it is highly likely that it was carried out there.
A 19th century antiquarian, John Windele, spoke of a monstrous creature who dwelled in the depths of the icy lake, with the body of a serpent and the head of a horse. It was thought that wary travellers who disappeared were at the mercy of this creature.
Legend also has it that the shore of the lake is haunted by a female apparition and death occurs to anyone who lays eyes on her. This has recently been popularised by the tragic misfortune of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier, who died in 1996, and is said to have claimed to see a White Woman by the lake a few hours before her passing.
Where it’s located: Rather than following the road to Mizen Head visitor centre, if you turn off and take a very winding bumpy road to the western side of the peninsula you’ll arrive at a car park. From there you follow the signage through the gates and past the large house.
The castle is on private land, however, it is open to the public. A donation box is at the beginning of the trail and a few euros per person is appreciated. The landowners have previously asked people to respect the land if they are visiting the site. They have asked people to respect the rules - no dogs or drones allowed - and also have asked people to pick up their litter.
Next Week: Templebreedy.