Kilcolman Settlement at Kilcolman

Life at Kilcolman: Arrangement and Uses of Buildings

The Kilcolman Castle compound consisted of many buildings and man-made features, some of which have not yet been located (Kilcolman has been only partially excavated: see excavation diagrams).  The existence of four buildings is attested by archaeological remains.  These are 1) the Great Hall, 2) the ground-floor Parlor, 3) the Tower House and 4) a Service Building (Kitchen?).  Of these four, only the ruins of the Tower House can be seen above ground.  Small portions of the “bawn” (enclosure) wall have also been excavated and are visible today. 

The Great Hall was probably a fifteenth-century building and pre-dated Spenser’s occupation.  It served for meetings and ceremonial functions, including “dispensing manorial justice” (Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists… 117, 121). We have put a suitably grand entrance, modeled on a late-medieval English church door and porch, on the north side, facing the inner bawn wall (this inner bawn wall and its terminus at the NE corner of the Tower House is itself speculative).  The entrance leads into a corridor or “screen passage” that allows access to the Great Hall itself (to the west) and, at the end of the passage, a toilet or “privy” (to the east).  The privy is an addition from the late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth century, and was built at the time that the cellar underneath the Great Hall was filled in (Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists... 117). The walls of the Great Hall are deliberately kept bare according to the standards of the time.  The large table at the hall’s west end and the fireplace with its mantelpiece are designed to impress visitors.

The ground-floor Parlor was built sometime during the sixteenth century, possibly during Spenser’s tenure at Kilcolman.  It is situated between the Great Hall and the Tower House and would have functioned in a more private manner than the Great Hall:  as a living room, a dining room, and, as we have configured it, a workplace of various kinds.  We have placed Spenser’s administrative desk here as well as a spinning wheel.  Despite its privacy, the Parlor could have an important public function, as business could be conducted here, and visitors allowed into it would notice the large portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh hanging on the south wall [Tadhg O'Keefe has argued that the building “may have fulfilled... the role that the privy chamber possessed in royal contexts: a gathering place for an inner circle, the mere permission to enter being in itself a signifier of status and friendship.” (O'Keeffe 13)]. A fireplace on the west wall and large curtain covering the length of the east wall would help decorate and keep the room warm (the curtain is modeled on one recreated at Barryscourt, Co. Cork).  Behind the curtain, at the north end of the east wall, is a gun-loop with a direct view of the entrance to the Great Hall.

Both the ground-floor Parlor and the Great Hall have wood-shingle roofs.  No slate roofing tiles were found during excavations, indicating that the roofs were made of wood or thatch.  The buildings also have fireplaces and ample windows, which attest to changing tastes in building styles during the sixteenth century (traces of leaded glass were found in the excavations).   Privacy and comfort, including natural light and ornate, wall-mounted fireplaces, were increasingly valued in domestic dwellings in the period.

It is uncertain whether or not the ground-floor Parlor would have had two separate stories separated by a floor, or been one large, open two-story room, as we have decided here to reconstruct it (Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists…122).

A hold-over from earlier medieval times is the Tower House, which was built in two phases (Kilcolman Castle).  Tower houses were ubiquitous in late medieval Ireland, with a great concentration in Munster, including Counties Cork and Limerick.  “It has been estimated that over 2,900 castles (including mottes and late fortified manor houses) were constructed in Ireland between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, and of these, it has been recognized that the vast majority were tower houses” (Lyttleton 25, citing Leask 153).  Many have disappeared, many stand in ruin and a only few have been restored in modern times.  

According to James Lyttleton (31), in regard to Irish tower houses, “Late medieval architecture is linked by one common denominator, that is, its variability in form and scale.”  The Irish tower house typically had many rooms with various uses.  It is very difficult, based on surviving documentary and archaeological evidence, to ascertain patterns concerning the function of individual rooms beyond the obvious (i.e., the privy).  Even rooms with obvious functions might have had surprising uses (for example, privies were used for hanging and disinfecting clothes, because of the lime disinfectant that was regularly poured down them).

The ruin of Kilcolman currently reaches four stories high, and most of the ruin has only three stories; we have built it six stories tall, with a two-story cellar at bottom and two-story bedroom at top; the crenellations and roof at top comprise the sixth story.  The true height of the tower is unknown, although “a total of six floors was not uncommon in the south and west of Ireland” (Newman Johnson 421) For an estimate of a shorter height, see Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists 120 and O'Keeffe, who writes that “its floor-area suggests that it was probably four storeys high (it was certainly no more than five)“ (O'Keeffe 10).  One thing is certain:  the Tower House was much larger, different and more formidable-looking than it appears today (image gallery).  Standing on top of such a tower would have afforded extensive views of the surrounding landscape, including (to the north and east) the Ballyhoura mountain range, which appears in Spenser’s poetry.

Tower houses were described by contemporary visitors as either warm and hospitable or dark and cold places (de Breffny 18-19; Lyttleton 30-31).  They were built with defense in mind, which helps to explain their thick walls, crenellations, narrow spiral staircases, small and infrequent windows (these could double as arrow-loops), “murder holes” for dropping objects, etc. (one feature that Kilcolman’s tower house currently lacks is an interior murder hole over the entrance).  Nonetheless, most tower houses were also built to live in, and some tower houses were built with ample windows, especially on upper, harder-to-reach stories.  Furthermore, larger windows and other comforts were frequently added according to fashion and need as time progressed.

Sixteenth-century tower houses had wall-mounted fireplaces and very often had wooden wall paneling, floors and rafters, all of which (along with wall hangings and furniture) increased warmth and comfort.  Scattered straw and/or rugs would cover the floors.  Artificial light came from candles, wall-mounted torches and/or waxed rushes (not recreated here).  Recently renovated Irish tower houses, such as the one at Ballyportry, Co. Clare, are comfortable to live in and catch the natural light in surprising ways (according to personal correspondence with owners Pat Wallace and Siobhan Cuffe; on the reconstruction of Ballyportry, see Wallace).  White-washing the interiors would also help brighten the rooms. 

The exteriors of tower houses were colored grey-to-white (and/or possibly other colors), being covered with a lime-based rendering called “harling” (Lyttleton 30).  The bleak, grey, rough stone exterior on most ruins today is therefore not indicative of their original appearance. A good example of harling today can be found on the recently restored fortified house at Monkstown, in a suburb of Cork city.

We have placed Spenser’s study and bedroom on the 5th story, at the top of the tower.  These rooms therefore lie above (in ascending order) a stone-vaulted basement storage area (1st-2nd stories); a parlor and privy (3rd story); and a chapel and storage/weapons room (4th story).  Above the bedroom and study are the castle roof and parapets with Irish-style crenellations (6th story).

The use of these spaces is entirely conjectural, as are most features above the third story.  It makes sense to put food and heavy goods in the basement, an easily accessible, cool and undecorated room.  Also, considerations of privacy and the safety of Spenser and his family prompted us to place the main bedroom at the top of the tower (the storage/weapons room has a guest-bed in it).  This follows the practice of the reconstructed tower house interior at Barryscourt, Co. Cork, which has a bedroom at the top of the tower house.  On the contrary, a contemporary (early 17th-century) account of Irish (Gaelic) tower houses by Luke Gernon describes a bedroom on a lower level and a great hall at the top (de Breffny 18).  David Newman Johnson (421) suggests that the room on the fourth story that we have made into a chapel “would have made a pleasant bedchamber.”  We hope our reconstruction will prompt further debate.

The Service Building (Kitchen?) is conjectural; it is located where a small portion of a rebuilt wall with clay bonding was found (Klingelhofer, “Edmund Spenser…”  138, 142).  The enclosed walkway connecting it to the Great Hall (seen here) is entirely conjectural.  We can be sure that Kilcolman had a kitchen in an outlying building somewhere, but where exactly is not yet known.  Similarly, kitchen gardens and orchards almost certainly existed somewhere in or around the compound but have not yet been found.  A hypothetical pleasure garden is shown here.

Other buildings such as a smithy, carpentry, store-rooms, stables, sheds, etc., would undoubtedly have existed inside the bawn-area courtyard and/or outside of it, although no traces of them have yet been found.  None is shown in the reconstruction here.  The yard therefore looks much less cluttered and busy than it would normally have been.

[Further descriptions of these buildings and features can be found among the Object Descriptions on this website, as well as in Settlement: Kilcolman Castle and in the slide show.]


Terry Barry, “The archaeology of the tower house in late medieval Ireland.”  The Study of Medieval Archaeology.  Ed. Hans Andersson and Jes Weinberg.  Lund Studies in Medieval Archaeology 13 (1993), 211-17.

Brian de Breffny, Castles of Ireland (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1977).

Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser:  A Life (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012):  219-221 passim.

Eric Klingelhofer, Castles and Colonists:  An archaeology of Elizabethan Ireland (Manchester:  Manchester UP, 2010): 109-31.

—. “Edmund Spenser at Kilcolman Castle:  the archaeological evidence.”  Post-Medieval Archaeology  39.1 (2005), 133-154.

Harold Leask, Irish Castles and Castellated Houses (Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1951).

James Lyttleton, Blarney Castle: an Irish tower house (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2011).

Tom E. McNeill, Castles in Ireland: feudal power in a Gaelic world (London: Routledge, 1997).

David Newman Johnson, “Kilcolman Castle.”  The Spenser Encyclopedia Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto:  U. of Toronto P, 1990), 416-22.

Tadhg O'Keeffe, “Kilcolman Castle, Co. Cork: a New Interpretation of Edmund Spenser's Residence in Plantation Munster.“ International Journal of Historical Archaeology 20.1 (2016), 1-17.

P. David Sweetman, Medieval Castles of Ireland.  Rev. ed. (Suffolk:  Boydell, 2000).

—.  “The Origin and development of the tower house in Ireland.”  Medieval Ireland:  the Barryscourt lectures I-X.  Ed. John Ludlow and Noel Jameson (Kinsale:  Gandon Press, 2004), 261-87.

Pat Wallace, “The Restoration of the Tower House at Ballyportry, Corofin, Co. Clare.”  Irish Art Historical Studies in Honour of Peter Harbison.  Ed. Colum P. Hourihane (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2004), 190-209.

(accessed 9/12/2013)
[Popular-history tour, with photographs, of Barryscourt, County Cork]