If you’re exploring the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork be sure to add Three Castle Head to your itinerary. It was definitely a highlight of my recent trip around West Cork and is probably one of the best hidden gems to be found along the Wild Atlantic Way. You really don’t want to miss this unique spot on your travels.
Despite its proximity to Mizen Head, one of the most popular tourist attractions in this part of Ireland, not a lot of visitors seem to make it to Three Castle Head. I met only a handful of others during my time there. Of course that’s part of what makes this place so special, so I guess that’s a good thing! It also helps that Three Castle Head, which includes the ruins of Dunlough Castle, is only accessible by foot. So you don’t get bus loads of tourists turning up for a quick photo opportunity either.
On a dull and rather miserable day it was still like something from a fairy tale. The photos don’t do it justice either. Three Castle Head really is a place that needs to be seen to be believed!
It may be called Three Castle Head but there is just the one castle. The name “Three Castle” refers to the three towers or keeps that make up Dunlough Castle. Connecting the towers is a curtain wall, stretching more than 100 feet from the cliffs to the shores of the lake. The wall and towers are mainly in ruins now but remain very impressive all the same.
Dunlough is said to be one of the oldest Norman castles in southern ireland. The ruins which remain there now date from around the 15th century, though the first fortification on this site dated back as far as 1207. The deterioration of the castle can also be partly attributed to its dry stone construction.
The Three Castle Head Trail
The route to Dunlough Castle is straightforward enough and there is some signage pointing you in the right direction as well. Heading towards the farmhouse at the start of the walk, you’ll see a trail across the field about half way. This takes you to a gate and once you’re through that just keep heading uphill and you can’t really go wrong. I know, I hate when people say that as I usually still get lost. I’m sure you’ll be grand though! The views to the Atlantic and the coastline from this part of the trail are pretty stunning too. However, they’re nothing like what’s to come.
It should be noted that this is private land and also a working sheep farm. So dogs are not allowed on the trail, even with a lease. There is a donation box near start of the trail so bring some coins. The donation of €3 per person is requested to help keep the parking and walk open to the public. It feels more than fair for the opportunity to access such a special place and €1 of each donation goes to charity too.
How long does it take to reach Dunlough Castle?
From the car parking area to the first breathtaking glimpse of Dunlough castle took me about 25 minutes so it’s a pretty short hike. It’s easy going all the way with just a very short bit of a climb uphill towards the end. At the top of the hill those first views of the lake and castle are ones that you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. I sat there for a few minutes taking it all in before continuing on to the castle, just a few minutes walk away.
In the end I spent about an hour exploring but could easily have spent the day here! I left because the weather took a turn for the worse and the rain started to bucket down. In fairness, it wasn’t a bad thing as I had a four hour journey to get back home and really should have been on the road earlier. I’d definitely love to return to Three Castle Head with a picnic and a spend the day reading, eating and exploring some more!
Obviously any exploring of the ruins is at your own risk but I realised you could climb up to the top of the middle tower because I saw two other people peeking out at the top as I approached. Of course I had to check it out too then. I had to remove my backpack to be able to get up the narrow staircase and it was a little nerve-racking at the top so I didn’t spend too long up there!
The Legends of Three Castle Head
There are some pretty dark tales associated with Dunlough and Three Castle Head. It is said that the O’Donuhue’s, who where the last family to live there, all died by suicide or murder. Now as a result a drop of blood falls from one of the towers every day. Others claim that a mysterious White Lady haunts the lake anyone who sees her will die soon after. So if you’re very superstitious, you might want to think twice before you pay a visit here!
What to bring
During the summer if it’s dry, runners should be good enough to do the walk. However I visited after rain and there were some very boggy areas. The worst areas fortunately had stepping stones in place but nonetheless I managed to get pretty wet feet along the way. Kind of annoying when my hiking boots were back in the boot of the car but obviously still totally worth it to visit this amazing place!
Bring some water and snacks as there is nothing in the vicinity. The owners used to have a cafe open during the summer months but it seems that it is closed now. Instead they are focusing on hosting private functions and weddings. What a place to get married right! If you’re considering it, get in touch. I will definitely offer you a good rate as I would LOVE to photograph a wedding here!!!
You don’t have to be getting married to stay and enjoy this incredible place though. If you fancy more than a day trip to Three Castle Head, there are a number of accommodation options. Choose from the cosy cottage, the tack room or the loft and enjoy a truely unique holiday experience.