Dunsany Castle , County Meath

On the Southern slopes of the Hill of Tara is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Ireland. A Norman stone fortress , it was built 1180 to guard the road between Trim and Dublin , where I crosses the River Skane , against the ‘savage Irish’. Only the four towers remain of the original castle , which was altered much over the centuries , but it is still a solid and imposing battlemented structure , with neo-Gothic windows. Its owners since he 15th century have been the lords of Dunsany , heads of the Plunkett family who also once owned two other local estates , Killeen and Rathmore.

The castle is still a family home , but is open to the public for 90 days of the year. It is full of treasures and knick-knacks gathered over the centuries. Weapons , posthorns , shields , shooting trophies and Meissen porcelain decorate walls and shelves with an endearing informality. Among the oddities is one of the many manuscripts of the 18th century Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) , a writer of short stories , poems and plays. The manuscript is written in a book 3ft high with quills from his own specially reared geese. Other intriguing items include ‘heart jars’ , in which the embalmed hearts of Knights killed in the Crusades were returned home. The hearts are no longer inside the jars.

A library stretches the length of one of the towers , and on the walls of the large staircase are works of art that include paintings by Opie , Cuyp , Van Dyck , and Jack Butler Yeats.

Just inside the gates of the castle is the crumbling 15h century Church of St Nicholas , open to the sky , its nave overgrown with grass. From the top of the tower on its West side it is possible to see Killeen Castle , once part of the estate of the Plunketts of Dunsany and whose church is thought to have been the model for this one.

The church front , carved around 1445 with elaborate images of the Crucifixion and several apostles , is one of the finest in Ireland. It may have been commissioned by Sir Christopher Plunkett and his wife , Anna Fitzgerald , whose effigies lie on the altar tomb.

Facing the North East entrance to the castle is part of a carved stone cross , thought to date from around 1600. The images on it depict the apostles. Its base may have held holy water , with which travellers could bless themselves.

Dunsany Castle is a real hidden gem that is a must see on your Ireland tours.