A large and impressive fragment of this 13th century castle still sits prominently in Carlow town centre, close to the River Barrow. What remains is half of the original castle keep -- the fortified, turreted tower where its medieval occupants lived and slept -- but it is enough to give a sense of how majestic this building must once have been.
Architecture and Style
The original castle keep would have been a squarish shape, three floors high, with round towers at each of the corners. This four-towered design is more associated with mid-medieval period French castles, and would have been a modern, distinguished style for an Irish or British castle. It is one of the only examples of an Irish four-towered castle from this period, another being Nenagh Castle (of which only one tower remains), while Kilkenny Castle had six towers, with four now remaining. What remains of Carlow Castle is the west wall and its two towers. The entrance to Carlow Castle was originally in the north wall, via the first floor. Each of the three levels of the castle had timber floors. The different floors were accessed via stone stairways in the towers.
The original castle on this site was built around 1231 by an Anglo-Norman named William de Marshall, Earl of Leinster. Carlow castle was transferred to the British crown in 1306 and changed hands many times over the following centuries. Despite being captured by Cromwell's forces in 1650 during his invasion of Ireland, the castle remained in good repair until the early 19th century.
The building was still structurally intact, then, until until 1814 when it was leased to local physician, Dr. Phillip Parry Middleton, who wanted to convert the building into an insane asylum. Middleton's plan was to give the structure more space by widening the vaulted interior. The attempt to transform the building were unsuccessful -- the explosions used to demolish part of the structure rendered much of the remainder unsafe, and it had to be further destroyed. Sadly, this botched transformation turned one of Ireland's finest Norman castles into a ruin.
Carlow Castle East Wall. Image by Andreas F. Borchert