In September I spent two weeks travelling around Ireland. I’ve visited plenty times before, but I’ve never explored. I went with the intention of trying to see anything and everything I could. I barely scratched the surface.
Exploration is a tremendous source of inspiration for writing, and for the fantasy writer, inspiration for world-building. It’s easier to describe wind-swept landscapes when they lie before you, when you can feel the tendrils of the wind tearing at your hood and creeping through your clothes. In Ireland I found a place rich with history, a land masking so much more beneath its surface.
Here are a few things I found particularly inspiring. I hope they help you and your writing too.
Castles and Keeps
My Irish family hail from a county called Waterford, a place founded in the early 900s by Vikings. It’s the oldest city in Ireland, boasts the oldest tower (which you can see me in and around above), and possibly the oldest privy (unconfirmed). Oliver Cromwell tried to take this little city back in ye day and failed. There’s a cannonball from that very siege still lodged in the exterior wall.
In one picture you can see a pretty sizeable hearth, a key feature in most medieval castles and keeps. What better way to beat away the Irish chill?
One thing that struck me about this particular tower was how difficult it was to navigate the stairway. Just one, confined and winding sets of steps leading up and down. The steps varied in size. It wasn’t bad craftsmanship. In fact, to the contrary. It’s an example of a masterfully subtle defence. When things reach that stage of the siege, any advantage, even down to oddly sized steps, is worth its weight in gold.
One of the best medieval castles I got a chance to visit was Cahir Castle, Co. Tipperary. It’s so well-preserved it’s featured in dozens of films, such as Excalibur, as well as TV show The Tudors. It still has a working portcullis gate, which you can see above. A pretty simple design when you think of it, but so effective when it came to battle.
All around the gate are towers looking out over the bailey, and in the walls of those towers are slivers of windows for archers to rain deathly darts upon any attackers, as you can see me demonstrating above.
The castle’s moat is a cunning feature. The castle is built beside the River Suir. Trenches have been dug right around the castle and join the river to permanently fill it with water.
This castle had a pretty remarkable banquet hall, complete with the giant antlers of an elk. Other than the privy, it would have been the most used room in the castle. The place where the lord and his family ate their meals, socialised, hosted guests, and held court.
All over Ireland, you can find ruined towers standing in fields of grazing sheep or cows. Here are a couple of said towers. The first, top left, was built during the Napoleonic wars to watch the south coast of Ireland, so a relatively new keep compared to the 12th century round tower below it.
The Napoleonic watchtower has three stories, including the roof, and possessed thick walls, high parapets and narrow windows for loosing arrows. Some things never change, even 600 years on.
The round tower is a pretty incredible building. 900 years old and still standing as stout and solid as ever. As the description above says, it was built by monks as a refuge from raiding Vikings. It’s best defensive feature is the door being 4m off the ground. Once the last monk was in, the ladder was pulled up. Good luck trying to get through that.
Landscapes and Caves
You’ll find some of the most stunning scenery in the world in Ireland. Untouched wilderness, shaped by the brutality of the elements. Can you imagine your troupe of characters making their way down this overgrown road? What about your protagonist aboard a ship in those stormy seas?
Here’s a cracking example of the stages of rivers, carving their way through glacial valleys and trickling downhill to fill lakes or feed seas.
Lough Derg, the lake pictured bottom right, is a very curious place. It’s one of Ireland’s biggest lakes and scattered throughout you’ll find little islands. One of them is called ‘Holy Island’ and is home to a monastery of monks.
With the classic Irish rain battering us, we sought cover underground and visited a quite remarkable place: Mitchelstown Caves. Discovered accidentally in the 1800s by a farmer, this series of caves were formed by a pre-Ice Age river that carved through the limestone rock. The stalagmites and stalactites have formed over millions of years. A perfect setting for scenes in fantasy stories.
One of the most breathtaking places I got to see was the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare. The cliffs stretch 5km, the path along it meandering, rising and falling as the waves below smash into the rock to shape it. Beyond those cliffs is the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
In a place so rich with history, the archaeology on offer is pretty sweet. All of the images above date back to the Vikings. Well-forged to say the least. I’m a particular fan of the design of the axe head, bottom left.
Archery featured heavily in the Middle Ages. Pictured bottom right are a number of arrowheads dating back to the 12th century. I even got a chance to have a hold of a replica crossbow. Never done that before. Heavy bastards, is what I’ve learned.
If like me, you love a bit of world-building, you may find these posts helpful too!
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