The word castle comes from the Latin “Castellum”, which means Fort. The first real castles were built in Europe in the 9th Century, before the Normans arrived, and there were very few buildings in England that could be called castles and there were none in Ireland. Castles were always situated at important places such as river crossings, seaports or towns. Many of them were built on high ground, which gave them a look out over the surrounding countryside. The first Norman Castles were built of wood and earth of the “Mottee and Bailey” type. These wooden castles were an easy target for the native Irish and were constantly attacked and set on fire.
Knockgraffon in South Tipperary is one of the best preserved wood castle sites in the country. The stone castle was built much taller than the ones made of wood and lasted very much longer. The larger castles were entered by crossing a draw-bridge over the moate, which was filled with water from the nearby river and for extra security an iron spiked door/grill called a “Portucilis” was lowered to protect the entrance. A curtain wall with small open back square towers surrounded the main building which made entrance to it almost impossible. With the discovery of gun powder, the stone protection was no longer safe for the inhabitants of the castle and many a fine building came quickly tumbling to the ground. By the 15th Century, square or rectangular stone “Tower Houses” had been fashionable among the Irish Cheiftains. We refer to these ancient structures as “Castles”, a term not strictly accurate, as they were smaller and less impressive than the earlier Norman fortresses, but still served as defence and living quarters for their inhabitants. In 1644, a French traveller called Boullaye Le Gouz described conditions in the tower houses as follows, “the castles or houses of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely high, without windows, or at least having such small apertures as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and cover their rooms with rushes of which they make their beds in summer and in straw in winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows and many ornament the ceilings with branches. These descriptions would apply to the five Tower Houses in the parish for the most part. These tower houses had a curtain wall surrounding the house, but not as large as that of the larger castles. Inside the wall where kept all the owners livestock and haystacks, a smithy, a barrack house, a buttery (for the storage of ale and wine) and a dovecote (pigeon-house). On entering a Tower House, one passed through an ornate doorway into a small hall or lobby. The stairway entrance and the guardroom were on either side.
The householder and his family lived on the top floor. There are a number of smaller apartments on this floor also, but the family room or great hall is the main room in the building. From the great hall the estate was largely run, the main meals were eaten there and it also served a sleeping quarters. The less important members of the household slept on benches along the walls in the lower apartments. Dinner and supper were the two main meals of the day. Meals were eaten off wooden benches with knives and spoons used, but forks were not used. Dinner was served at 10 O’ Clock in the morning and supper was eaten about 5 in the evening different types of meat were eaten in the Tower House. Beef, mutton and pork were popular and birds and small animals such as hares and rabbits were also eaten. The deer was hunting for fun and for food.
Meat was preserved in barrels of salt and smoked over a fire to keep it from rotting. The heating of the house came from the great hall fireplace and other fire places throughout the building. Since the windows were very small all the rooms were dark in daytime. Light was provided by candles or rush lights as well as by the fires. These Tower houses were not meant to be comfortable homes, as they were designed and built with defence in mind. These descriptions of the Tower Houses show how the O’Kennedy’s, O’Carrp’s McEgans and the rest of the occupiers lived in the middle of the fifteenth and sixteenth century.