Hen’s Castle, also known as Castlekirk, is a stunning tower house that stands on a small half acre island on Lough Corrib. This ancient castle has a history that spans over eight centuries and is linked to some of the most legendary figures in Irish history, such as Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connacht. 

Hen’s Castle is believed to be one of the oldest mortared castles in Ireland, dating back to the early 12th century. It was built by the sons of Ruaidrí na Saide Buide, a king of Connacht, with the help of William FitzAldelm, an Anglo-Norman lord who was appointed by King Henry II of England to oversee the affairs in Ireland. The castle was strategically located on a half-acre island on Lough Corrib, a large lake that connects Galway to Mayo. The castle was originally a tower house with four floors and a vaulted ceiling. It had a spiral staircase, a fireplace, and several windows. The walls were about 10 feet thick and made of limestone and sandstone.

The castle changed hands several times throughout its history, reflecting the turbulent political and military situation in Ireland. In 1225, Odo O’Flaherty, a local chieftain who controlled the castle, was forced to surrender it to Aedh Ua Conchobair, the king of Connacht, by Sir Edmond Butler, the Lord Justice of Ireland. In 1233, the castle was destroyed by an attack from Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, but it was rebuilt by Fedlimid, son of Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair, another king of Connacht. The castle remained in the hands of the O’Conor family until the late 14th century, when it was taken over by the O’Flaherty clan, who ruled over much of west Connacht.

One of the most famous episodes in the castle’s history involves Gráinne Ní Mháille, also known as Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connacht. Gráinne was born around 1530 into a powerful seafaring family that controlled the coast of Mayo. She inherited her father’s fleet of ships and became a formidable leader and warrior. She married Dónal an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, nicknamed “the Cock” for his aggressive nature, when she was 16 years old. As a result, she was playfully called “the Hen” by her husband’s clan. She also gained control of Hen’s Castle as part of her dowry.

However, her husband was killed by their rivals, the Joyces, in 1565. Gráinne vowed revenge and led a fierce attack on Hen’s Castle, recapturing it from the Joyces. She also killed the Joyce leader with her own hands. According to legend, she then renamed the castle as Hen’s Castle to honor her husband and herself.

Gráinne continued to rule over her lands and seas with courage and skill. She fought against English domination and became an ally of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. She also met with Elizabeth herself in 1593 to negotiate for her son’s release from prison and for her own recognition as an independent ruler. She died around 1603 at Rockfleet Castle in Mayo.

Hen’s Castle is not only rich in history but also in legend and mystery. According to local lore, the O’Flaherty family hired a witch to help them build the castle. The witch used her magic to make a cock and a hen carry stones from the shore to the island. The cock would fly with one stone at a time, while the hen would swim with two stones under her wings. The witch also cast a spell on the castle to make it impregnable. However, one day, a careless servant broke a window pane and let in a gust of wind that blew away the witch’s cloak. The witch then lost her power and flew away on her broomstick.

Another legend says that there is a secret tunnel that connects Hen’s Castle to Aughnanure Castle, another O’Flaherty stronghold on the mainland. The tunnel was supposedly used by Gráinne Ní Mháille to escape from English soldiers who besieged the castle. However, no one has ever found the tunnel or any evidence of its existence.

Hen’s Castle survived many wars and raids, but it also suffered from neglect and vandalism. In the 19th century, many of its stones were stolen by locals to build their own houses. In the 20th century, the castle was declared a National Monument and protected by the state. However, it remains in a ruinous condition and is not open to the public. The only way to see it is by boat from the nearby village of Oughterard or from Lisloughrey Pier in Cong.

Hen’s Castle is a remarkable monument that reflects the history and culture of Galway and Connacht. It is a testament to the resilience and bravery of the people who lived and fought there. It is also a source of inspiration and imagination for anyone who loves stories and legends. Hen’s Castle is a treasure that deserves to be preserved and appreciated for generations to come.


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Hen's Castle




December 31, 2022

Hen Castle belonged to the O’Flahertys and the O’Malleys my 11 times Great Grand – Parents , Just a wee bit of History for my Grand Children.😁😁😁😁

Danny O'Flaherty