Guest Post: "Researching a Tower House" by J.G. O'Donoghue.

Part 1: Researching a Tower House


The final complete illustration of the tower house.

Research is the first port of call for every archaeological illustration, in other types of illustration it can play a part but in archaeological illustration starts and ends with research. You go to research for ideas, once you have the idea, you still go to research to fill it out, and once complete, you go once more to make sure it as right as you can make it and sometimes to write about it after, in other words, research is always there. I try to do my own research rather rely on summarising texts, as I believe the only way to make an original interpretation is to have a firm knowledge base in which to work from. In other words, I probably go the long way round, but I think (or hope) the knowledge I gain is more permanent because of it. 


There are two kinds of research when doing post-prehistoric imagery, that is history & archaeology, the latter is better for filling out what should be physically there in an image; the look of the architecture, how it was roofed, were the walls painted etc. The former, is more useful for figuring what kind of rituals and/or daily activities that may have taken place there, whom could have been there, what they could have been doing etc. For this illustration, I had read 3 books on castles alone before I tackled it as I knew it was a huge and serious subject, previous to that I also read several books on medieval Ireland in order to fill out the world around it. 

Some of the books I have read or am reading on the later middle ages for illustrations, many more articles and books in pdf format were read too.

To give specifics of where research helped in the making of the image (besides the obvious major architectural forms); the stepped battlements are from the later middle ages and the ones in the illustration are specifically Irish, each window and how it was used with some for bow, others for crossbows, and others still for guns. Staying with windows, mullioned and transomed windows were actually quite late as was the addition of chimney chute fireplaces in tower houses, earlier ones were heated by a central fire. It was also found that the usual for a castle was two chimneys as well as two latrines (one public, one private) as well as having an interior that starts with a straight mural stairs to the 1st floor, from there to the top floor they usually have spiral stairs and then another set of stairs leads to the wall walk area. It wasn’t just the castle itself that research helped to form, also the world around it, like how often tower houses were not too far from a parish church and probably some nucleated settlement, as well as the kind of field systems that would surround it, arable as well as pasture farming. As you can imagine this is only really touching the surface, it would take a long time to go into everything!

Before I finish up on this section, I should say one negative thing about research. While it’s obvious as to the benefits of research, it is actually one of the biggest pitfalls too in this field, as too often you get so tied up in the research, you spend too long studying and researching. As everything is important and all needs to be known, you have to set limits, otherwise no art gets done. This can also lead to one spending less time making art, which can be a weakness, because if you don’t spend enough time figuring out not just how, let's say, thatch should look like to be accurate but also serve visual purposes, not just being visually pleasing but also leading the eye and creating rhythmic shapes and lines (I know it sounds very arty but these things matter when making an interesting image!). In other words, if your research overweighs your artwork, then you have failed as an artist but without research the artwork is essentially make believe, even if it's pretty make believe. So like all things in life, it's a balancing act!

Part II: Referencing a Tower house


It’s not just literary research ones needs to do though, also you need to do visual research, which can entail visiting places, taking photos, looking at old illustrations etc. this part of the artwork is usually referred to as 'referencing' in art circles. Thankfully because of Sceitse (a sketch group I run) I have visited many, many tower houses over the years (and sketched them) so I have no shortage of direct tower house references. At the same time I often visit these kinds of places on my own if they are near a place that I’m travelling to or when the fancy comes to me. But while there are many fine examples, the one which I preferred the most was Kilcrea castle, a field away from the more famous friary with the same name.

I didn’t chose Kilcrea just because of its how intact it is but also how it has many of the typical features of tower houses. I have visited Kilcrea three times, once just to see it, second time because I knew I was going to try and remake it, and third time with Sceitse just for fun (and to collect bits I had missed in the first two runs). One of the best aspects of the work I do is I get to spend a day in a place like this, really really getting to know it, inside and out. One gets great enjoyment from hanging out in ruins, trying to re-imagine them and then going home doing just that. The tower house itself in the image is nearly entirely based off Kilcrea, both internally (coming soon!) and externally. The idea of the image was to make a tower house that represented tower houses as a whole (or at least a representational amount), which Kilcrea fit the bill well, it was modest in size and grandeur, middle of the road but it didn’t have everything, like a second chimney, and its wall walk battlements were completely gone, so I made some minor alterations to make sure it more representative of tower houses.


Besides Kilcrea, I made a few other additions, majorly in the wall walk area (the top), as I just mentioned, most of that was gone from Kilcrea and it is usually there that tower houses had most of their bling. From Blarney Castle, I got the Irish form of Machicolation(an extended battlement from the wall walk with slot holes which allowed defenders to drop stuff on attackers) and also from Blarney the Bawn battlements shown in the illustration. Most of the Bawn walls design though is from Barryscourt castle, including the slight Batter at the bases of the towers (an extension at the base of towers and walls to defend against battering rams, may also have been to give structures better support) and the Irish form of Battlement on the tower house is also from Barryscourt. Finally, Ballynacarriga castle’s Sheela-na-gig is on the wall and Dunlough castle’s bawn tower also influenced one of the towers.


While site visits are paramount, another great reference is actual reference from the time. These have their pitfalls too, as the artists at the time could have been just winging it at times or biased or had an agenda of their own but they are the best evidence for the physical look for aspects that don't survive archaeologically

The images on the left of the image I believe are from Barlett’s Map, these were early English Maps from the early 17th century, they mostly helped design the cob walled houses in the image. I even used this map for reference of the bridge, such things rarely survive archaeologically. The bottom right is a 17th century map of Carrigfergus, note the Creats, a type of late medieval Irish circular/oval house of just thatch and wattle, you can’t see it well in the image but there is one in the bawn of my illustrated tower house the last house in the yard before the horizontally situated bawn house. Not just Irish illustration evidence was used though, the right top two were examples of gardens from other European countries Medieval manuscripts.

So that sums up two of the processes which go to creating an illustration, as you can see a lot of leg work is required both in researching and referencing a site like this. One has to research constantly to stay in tune or even get a good grounding of the different periods, I’m sure I’ll never really stop, as there is always one more castle to see, one more book to read, one more image to make.

JG O’Donoghue is a professional illustrator from Ireland who specialises in archaeological and heritage illustration. He has worked previously for clients such as the NRA, county councils and the Waterford Museum, among others. We are very grateful for his contribution. 

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim.

Location – On the North coast of Antrim a few kilometres West of Portballintrae and Bushmills.
OS: C 904 413 (maps 4 and 5)
GPS: C 90400 41345 (Accuracy – 0m)
Longitude: 6° 34' 47" W
Latitude: 55° 12' 39.2" N

Description and History – Dunluce Castle is one of most distinctive castles in the country perched on a cliff edge in Antrim not far from the Giant’s Causeway. It was a site that had been high on our list to visit for many years and finally we had the opportunity to go to the site and it didn’t disappoint. The castle is dramatic, as is its history!

The present remains date back to c1500 when a castle was built by the MacQuillans to be their seat of power in Antrim. However, by 1550 the site was in the hands of the MacDonnells who then rapidly increased their power while feuding with other prominent families. Their power grew so great that they became a threat to the English crown during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, was sent to besiege the castle, which he successfully did in 1584. However, the castle was given back to the MacDonnells two years later after they assured the crown of their loyalty. However, when the Nine Years War broke out in 1594 Randall MacDonnell aligned with the Ulster Gaelic chieftains joined Hugh O’Neil at the Battle of Kinsale. Yet, in spite of the defeat at Kinsale, Randall MacDonnell was pardoned following his surrender to Crown forces. Ironically, Randall MacDonnell became a key person in the plantations under James VI and established a new town at Dunluce for the new settlers. The castle passed to Randal’s son, also called Randal, and he and his wife, Catherine, lived a luxurious life at the site until the Irish Rebellion in 1642 when Randall MacDonnell was arrested. Catherine MacDonnell fled to Chester with their possessions where they were eventually sold off by Oliver Cromwell’s agents in 1651 following the fall of the English Crown. It was during this time that Dunluce castle the surrounding town fell into ruin. Cromwell granted the castle to soldiers who had fought for him during his Irish campaign. However, in 1660 the English Crown was restored under King Charles II and Randal regained Dunluce. But the castle was now a ruin so the MacDonnell family settled at Glenarm Castle where they still remain. The castle remained a ruin until it came into state ownership in 1928.

As to the physical remains of the castle, although there has been a castle on the site since the 13th century (and likely some other form of fortress before that) the remains largely reflect the 17th century occupation of the site when it was greatly altered by Randal MacDonnell. The outer ward of the castle is almost entirely 17th century in date. From here there is the castle’s brew house and stables, both probably a little earlier than the outer ward, The brew house was not accessible on the day we were there as works were being carried out in that area. The last part before reaching the castle proper is the lodgings, used to house guests. Largely collapsed these luxurious lodging would have had a fireplace in each room and a balcony which overlooked the castle’s formal gardens and bowling green.  The castle itself sits on a small promontory which was originally accessed by drawbridge and later by a wooden bridge. Beyond here is the gatehouse, built by the MacQuillans in the 1560s in Scottish style. The curtain wall extends from here which is also a MacQuillan construction and dates to the 1590s. Housed in the curtain wall, facing the mainland, were cannons rescued from La Girona which was part of the Spanish Armada. A curious feature is the loggia which shows the influence of Southern European architecture. All that remains of the loggia is a row of columns which no longer stand to full height. The Manor house is built in Jacobean style and dates to 1620. Excavations at the site have shown that the Manor house occupies the site of an earlier building dating to the MacQuillan phase of building. To prevent further collapse of the fa├žade a reconstruction of a 17th century bay window has been inserted. Flanking the Manor house are two towers, the South-East and the North-East towers. These towers belong to the pre-Manor house building and are part of the curtain wall construction. Gun-loops and wicker centring are visible in both.  One of the more interesting parts of the castle sits under the Manor house and went completely un-noticed by me! A souterrain which pre-dates all the castle structures and probably dates to pre-1000 sits under the structure.  The kitchens and buttery both date to the latter part of the 16th century as was the inner ward. Part of the inner ward collapsed into the sea in the 19th century. 

Outside of the castle are the remains, no longer visible, of Dunluce town which was established in 1608 by Randal MacDonnell as part of the Plantations. Some excavated portions show cobbled streets and it appears to have been rather large in size. The town had a short life, however, and was burned to the ground in the 1641 rebellion and abandoned in the 1680s. The town is subject to ongoing investigations by archaeologists who are slowly uncovering more of the town and what it would have been like. The remains of a church associated with the town sits a small distance away.

Dunluce castle is one of the most spectacular ruins in the country and a thoroughly enjoyable visit. However, time will take its toll on this structure which sits on a cliff edge. Parts have been crumbling into the sea for centuries and it is inevitable that it will continue its slow demise into the ocean.

Difficulty – Very easy to visit with parking and facilities. Despite being on the edge of a cliff it is suitable for families as all possible dangerous edges are well gated off. 

For more castles, click here.
For more sites in Co. Antrim, click here.


Perched precariously on a cliff edge.

This is the first courtyard you will enter when leaving the visitors centre. The brew house and the stables are located here.

The stables on the left hand side of the photograph.

The brew house.


Looking through into the second courtyard. 

The lodgings.

Multiple fireplaces in the lodgings.

The castle as viewed from the second courtyard.



As you can see, parts of the castle are right on the cliff edge.

Looking at the gatehouse to the South-East tower.

The gatehouse.


The front of the manor house...with my son running into the shot.

Breaks in the wall occasionally expose the cliffs and sea below. They are all, however, securely gated off and I just stuck my hand through the railings with the camera.

Graffiti from 1649.


Inside the inner ward.


The inner ward...with my son getting in the shot.


There are some stunning views from parts of the castle.

It's hard sometimes to see where the cliffs end and the castle begins.




 The views are fantastic.



You can walk down to the base of the cliffs.






There is a small cave at the base that you can get into although it's advised that you shouldn't...I didn't.


Heading back up to the top.

You can see here the result of erosion where wall are hanging over the edge and falling into the see. The castle will eventually do the same.

I don't know what this is. It looks like a small well. If anybody knows, let me know.

I would highly recommend going into the visitors' centre as it is full of interesting little things like this.