Ireland is known for its wide-open spaces, with lush green fields and gently flowing rivers balanced by the rocky and rugged coastlines shaped by the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. With a rich palette of green colors making up its landscape, it makes perfect sense that Ireland is so often referred to as the Emerald Isle.
But beyond the natural beauty, this is a place with a wealth of history. And that history is often on full display through its architecture. Throughout the island, you’ll find glimpses into the past with walls and ruins dating back to when the region was ruled by the Celts from Western Europe, a place invaded by Vikings, and a key part of the Anglo-Norman Conquest. From Victorian-era mansions to Gaelic keeps inside castles, the architecture of Ireland transports you through thousands of years. And you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see it all when you cruise to Ireland and Northern Ireland with us.
Here is a small sample of the architecture of Ireland and Northern Ireland that we love.
Charles Fort in Kinsale
A true star of Kinsale, and not just because of its shape, Charles Fort was built between 1677 and 1682 under the rule of King Charles II. The points of this fortress jut into Kinsale Harbour, with two large bastions overlooking the sea. It was designed by Sir William Robinson, the architect behind the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin and the current home of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
It’s one of the largest forts in Ireland and the location of many notable moments in Irish history. In 1690, the castle was under siege for 13 days during the Williamite War. Cannon fire from the attack destroyed the fort, and though it was eventually rebuilt, it once again suffered heavy damage in the early 1920s during the Irish Civil war.
Despite a past, that was, at times, tumultuous, visitors to Charles Fort can walk across the drawbridge at the main gate entrance then explore what remains of the grassy fortress. Be sure to bring a camera to snap a few photos of a place that combines ruins with sweeping coastal views.
Donegal Castle in Donegal (Killybegs), Ireland
Away from the tourist hot spots in Ireland lies the hidden gem of Donegal, a place of charming coastal pubs and historic castles. Here, find Donegal Castle, originally built in the 15th century by Red Hugh O’Donnell. It served as a stronghold for the O’Donnell dynasty, a powerful Gaelic clan. However, the castle was burnt by the O’Donnells during the Flight of the Earls, when the clan set the castle on fire to ensure it wasn’t taken over by English enemies.
Despite their efforts and (literal) burning desire to keep the castle out of English hands, that’s exactly what happened in 1616. This stunning castle overlooking the picturesque River Eske fell into the hands of the English. It was rebuilt by Sir Basil Brooke, who added a three-story Jacobean manor next to the Gaelic Keep built by the O’Donnell clan. He further added his stamp on the castle by commissioning a chimneypiece featuring his own coat of arms.
After falling to ruin, the castle was restored in the 1990s, allowing visitors —including our Azamara guests — to step back in time then up a set of stairs to the banqueting hall where Gaelic lords would dine. The narrow stairs, called trip stairs, were built unevenly to surprise potential attackers. The staircase also turns clockwise to give the right-handed O’Donnells an advantage in case a trip to dinner was interrupted by a sword fight.
From Dublin Castle to St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Ireland’s capital city is full of history, with hints of its colorful past around every corner. Dublin is a place where great castles and grand cathedrals from across the ages stand in a city with cobblestone streets and lush parks.
Find 12th-century Anglo-Norman architecture at Dublin’s oldest church, St. Audoen’s, which was at the time near the center of the medieval city. In 1439, King Henry VI ordered a chantry to be built while the distinctive tower was added in the 17th century.
At the heart of this historical city stands Dublin Castle, one of the most important buildings in Ireland over the centuries. It showcases many architectural styles, dating back to when the site was a former Viking settlement. Built as a defensive castle under the orders of King John of England in 1204, like many Norman castles, it featured a central square without a keep, tall walls, and circular towers at each of its four corners. In April 1684, a fire ripped through the castle, causing massive damage (although some of the original Viking and Norman structures are still intact today). After the fire, Dublin Castle was rebuilt during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, transforming this medieval castle into a Georgian palace. New structures built at this time included the State Apartments, which were grand reception rooms where the Viceroy lived, and visiting British monarchs would stay. Inside, find the Chapel Royal, known for its spectacular Gothic revival interiors after replacing the original church in the 19th century. Dublin Castle was the seat of English, then British rule, from 1204 until 1922. The current Irish government uses the castle for occasional state dinners and events, but it remains one of the most popular places for tourists to visit while in Dublin.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, another famous architectural wonder and the largest church in Ireland, was built around the same time as Dublin Castle. It’s built on the site of a holy well where the Irish patron saint, St. Patrick, baptized converts more than 1,500 years ago. It’s one of the few buildings left from medieval Dublin and is built in an early English gothic style.
You’ll have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of both these iconic Dublin landmarks when you join us on a narrated river cruise.
Nestled inside the magnificent Killarney National Park stands Muckross House. This Victorian mansion is located on a pristine property with meticulously kept gardens, just a few steps away from the shores of Muckross Lake. British architect William Burn designed Muckross House, built for Henry Arthur Herbert in 1843.
This mansion features 65 rooms and is built in the Tudor style, a type of architecture popular in the United Kingdom in the late 19th century. Queen Victoria visited Muckross House in 1861, and the Herbert family who lived there ordered extensive landscaping changes ahead of the royal visit. While we can’t guarantee this mansion will make a new garden just for your visit, we’ll take you to Muckross House and let you walk around this celebrated historic property.
Dunguaire Castle in Galway
If Dunguaire Castle near Galway on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay looks like something straight from a Disney film, that’s because it is! The 16th-century castle was featured in Guns in the Heather, a movie starring Kurt Russell, where the tower house was called Boyne Castle. The picturesque castle, featuring a 75-foot tower, was built by the Hynes clan in 1520 by a family whose regional heritage dates back to 662 AD. Eventually, ownership changed hands to Oliver Martin in the 17th century. Then in the early 20th century, it was purchased by Oliver St. John Gogarty. Around that time, the castle was restored and used as a meeting place for poets and other key members of the Irish Literary Revival, including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and more. Now it’s one of the most photographed castles in Ireland, located along a scenic bay and a must-stop destination while exploring Galway through the ages.
The Grand Opera House in Belfast
Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, continues to undergo a 21st-century transformation. In the city where the River Lagan and the Irish Sea meet, modern architecture complements the Victorian and Edwardian buildings constructed over the years.
Compared to some of the medieval and Norman castles in the area, the Grand Opera House is relatively new. The iconic theater opened to the public on December 23, 1895, with a production of Blue Beard. Designed by famous English architect Frank Matcham, who specialized in theater and music halls, the Victorian building was initially called the New Grand Opera House and Cirque. In its early days, it could be transformed from a theater space to a circus in less than 24 hours.
In 1963, Italian opera legend Luciano Pavarotti made his United Kingdom debut on the stage of the Grand Opera House, just one of the many greats who have graced the stage. Inside, visitors are still entertained by comedy, musicals, operas, and more, underneath glamorous plasterwork and wood carvings that continue to showcase the Victorian pomp and circumstance of the turn of the 20th century. Along with the breathtaking Belfast City Hall and Albert Memorial, this opera house is one of many architectural highlights on a panoramic tour of Belfast.
Guildhall in Londonderry
Londonderry is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Ireland, with a 6th-century monastery being one of the earliest archeological finds here. It’s believed people were living in the area for thousands of years before St. Columba founded this monastery.
One of the most distinguished landmarks here is Guildhall, located close to the 400-year-old city walls. Built in 1887, this neo-gothic building made with auburn bricks has been at the heart of Derry for more than 130 years. If the clock tower looks familiar, that’s because it’s modeled after Big Ben in London — just one of many connections between the English capital and Londonderry. Standout features inside include 23 stained glass windows that showcase the history of the city, a sky-blue pipe organ built in 1914 after the original organ was destroyed, and a time capsule that was buried in 1887 and now has its contents displayed on the first floor.
While exploring Londonderry on your own, take a walk across the Peace Bridge located near the Guildhall. The twisting suspension bridge, opened for pedestrians and cyclists in 2011, is both a beautiful symbol of peace and a practical way to cross the Foyle River that runs through the heart of Derry.
St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Hill of Armagh
The quaint seaside town of Warrenpoint is situated between the Mountains of Mourne and the glacial fjord of Carlingford Lough in Northern Ireland. A panoramic drive through the countryside takes visitors to the city of Armagh. This place was fundamental in shaping the role of spiritual life in Ireland. St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral has a history that dates back to 445 AD when St. Patrick built a stone church on the site of the current church. Since then, the church has been destroyed and rebuilt 17 times. Inside the church, there are exhibits showcasing the history of this location, including five ancient Celtic structures that give a glimpse into what Ireland was like in the 5th century when St. Patrick lived in Armagh. In 1268, the current cathedral was designed, and a crypt was added to store jewels and other valuables. The last major restoration took place in 1834. To this day, it continues to showcase artifacts from this important site, including an 11th-century Celtic Cross. Outside, the property’s gardens are built in the style of early Christian monasteries and include an orchard.
The Shining Architecture of the Emerald Isle is Yours to Discover
From medieval castles to churches built by St. Patrick, Ireland’s architecture has shaped history for thousands of years. Come see these magnificent buildings for yourself when you visit the Emerald Isle with us. Explore our upcoming cruises to Ireland and Northern Ireland.