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Defensive Features

Brackloon Castle was a ruin by the middle of the twentieth century, without roof or floors. However, the survival of its stone shell almost fully intact to the height of its chimney tops facilitated its faithful restoration to how it was in the early 1600s. As a result its defensive features also survived intact. Because the castle is our home and not a museum, we live with these features daily, sometimes forgetful of their original purpose and the brutality of the times for which they were built.

Brackloon’s defences include features common to many Irish tower houses, the most basic element being the substantial thickness of the external stone walls, their sloped base batter at ground floor level and the inaccessibility of the lower rooms from the exterior.

As in numerous other tower houses, the front door was protected first by an iron grate or 'yett', its heavy chain pulled shut by the door porter on guard. The door was further protected from above, both internally and externally, by a machicolation and murder hole, from which objects could be dropped on attackers. The corners were similarly protected from above by features known as bartizans. Higher up, the rooftop battlements, or more specifically the ‘merlons’, being part of work apparently undertaken about 1600, reflect the design of that period rather than the stepped style more commonly found across Ireland.

Unusually, Brackloon’s narrow and somewhat crudely-fashioned stone spiral stair turns counter-clockwise. The majority of towerhouse stairs spiral clockwise, the theory being that this gives advantage to the defenders, most of whom would be right handed when swinging their swords. However, the theory that Brackloon's stair was done to favour a left-handed defender swinging his sword from above is debatable on a number of grounds, but in particular given the very narrow confines of many of these stairs in reality. A sword thrust or chopping motion rather than a swing may have been a more likely response to any attacker who got past the initial irregularly-sized steps and the more common clockwise turn of stairs may possibly have been more building convention than defensive necessity.

The concentration of almost all gun holes within the tower at one storey, when taken with other architectural features, would point to that floor having had a semi-communal use rather than a more private domestic use. Despite the later date of 1600 or thereabout for these particular gun holes, their relatively unsophisticated nature, however, would have hampered their efficient use and field of fire.

Nowadays, some of these gun holes are home to noisy nests of starlings and it is easy to imagine that they must have been an attractive shelter for them from predators and from the winds even when they were first built by the Maddens.

The castle may originally have had gun hole features even prior to the building works of the 1600s. Firearms were in use locally in this region of the Irish midlands by at least the early 1500s.

In an unusual turn of events, it was from an eye-witness account of one of Donal's own predecessors that we know that the Maddens were using guns here in the mid 1500s. Donal serves as a herald of arms to the Chief Herald of Ireland. It was Philip Butler, the herald of arms who accompanied the English Lord Deputy in 1557 when his troops attacked Brackloon and two other Madden-occupied castles nearby, who recorded in his journal that the English were fired upon by handguns from at least two of those castles.

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