Last week we took the children to their very first ‘real’ castle. After reading in our Lonely Planet guide that the castle has an excellent new (opened Nov 2013) education centre with interactive displays for the kids to touch and view, we chose to visit King John’s Castle in Limerick. Limerick is on the Western side of Ireland, on the River Shannon. The drive to Limerick takes two hours on the M7 motorway from Dublin, or there is an airport nearby as well. Limerick is a large city that tourist will stop at as they travel along Ireland’s West coast on the Wild Atlantic Way, but for us this time, it was just a day trip from Wexford.
The Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169 and established themselves right across the country. They intermarried with locals and adopted local customs. Limerick was recognised as an important settlement due to its position on the River Shannon, which provides safe harbour from the Atlantic Coast. The Normans made Limerick a Royal city, and in 1212 work began on the castle for King John in England. The first structure built on the site was the two towered gatehouse which remains to this day. Over the decades that followed, walls, other towers and The Great Hall were added, sadly King John actually never saw the castle. He died before its completion, never having travelled to Limerick.
For over 800 years people lived on the site of the castle, right up until the end of the 20th century when it was reclaimed as a National Monument. A huge €5.7 million injection of money meant that archaeological excavation could take place to unravel the history of the site, revealing settlements predating the Normans. Also, extensive restoration took place and the excellent education centre was built. As you can imagine, a castle that’s been around for 800 years would have a lot of stories to tell, and for just €22 for a family of 4, we really felt like we were able to soak them all up.
The entire time that we were there, (and even the next day) we just kept saying to each other, ‘Wow, this is really good!’ Simon and I have visited a few castles before, but perhaps because we had the children with us this time, we were absolutely amazed at how well this one has been set up for visitors. Don’t be put off by the modern glass structure by the entrance, once you enter the castle it’s easy to feel like you are walking in the past. The journey back in time begins in a bright, colourful education and display area, complete with interactive screens, stories to hear and drawers to open. Take our advice… listen to the characters on the screens, you will meet them again later.
In the display area you will learn about early Gaelic history, the Viking and Norman settlement in the area, Changes and Conflict that occurred during the Reformation, and the famous sieges on the castle in 1642, 1651 and again in 1690 as the Irish rebels and the English fought over control of the castle. Next, you will go down under the castle to view recent archaeological excavations that helped piece together history, including the tunnels that were dug under the walls during the 1642 siege. From there you move out into the courtyard where visitors start to get a real sense of what life might have been like inside the walls. There are siege shelters, a chapel and campaign tents to wander through as well as a blacksmiths workshop.
Our children loved entering the towers of the Mason, the Mint and the Armoury where all of the facts and stories that they heard in the display area came to life. One of the best things about this castle is that it is very ‘hands-on’ for the kids rather than static displays behind glass. Visitors can even walk high up on the castle walls taking in the fantastic views for the River Shannon and the city of Limerick. By the time we entered the gift shop and café, all four of us (including our youngest who is seven) felt as though we had truly learnt a lot about not only the history of King John’s Castle, but of Ireland as well.
King John’s Castle in Limerick, Ireland is the first real castle that we have visited with the children and I think it has set a really high bench mark. The interactive displays are excellent, the education component far exceeded our expectations and the entry price was brilliant value for money. We are keen to see lots of other castles now, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this one to other tourist visiting Ireland, especially those with children.