The Scariest Place I've Ever Visited: Kinnity Castle

March 17, 2012 — My biggest fear in proposing to my wife wasn’t the answer I’d get. It was how security would react. You see, I was planning to propose to her overseas. At a castle in Ireland, to be specific, which meant a flight, and that meant airport security. It can really ruin what is probably the biggest surprise a guy will ever be in charge of in his life if he’s forced to empty all the bits of metal from his pockets or bags in front of the person for whom one of those bits, the one that represents the most money he’s ever commodified into a single square inch, is secretly intended.

The castle was Kinnity Castle, an at least 80-year-old edifice on an estate with a recorded history that goes back about 800 years. I was hoping to stick my personal pamphlet of a history book into the densely inked pages of its own massive one. Or edit my paragraphs into its Wikipedia entry. Whichever analogy doesn’t make me look old.

Our Ireland trip was in early 2008, and it was a nine-day road trip that wended over the entire country. I’ve written about some of the sites we saw here. We wanted to spend at least one night in a castle, and of all the sights we were going to explore, the castle seemed most appropriate for asking her awkward questions about the future. Of course, neither she nor our travel agent understood why I was so insistent on the castle stay being near the beginning of our trip. Like Frodo and the One Ring, I knew that the longer I had that engagement ring on me, the heavier it would feel in my pocket. And I was there to enjoy Ireland, not fight Nazgul.

I emailed the Kinnity Castle proprietors in advance to find out if they had a balcony or an accessible rooftop where I could explode the question. Turns out, they didn’t. Something about balconies in castles always leading to tragic suicides that then turn into centuries-long hauntings that finally yield extremely expensive ghostbusting bills.

Doing my own research, I discovered that the castle had been built to incorporate the ruins of a pre-existing monastery that dated back to the 13th century or so. I’m not sure if the metaphor of crumbling sacredness worked appropriately to begin the most important relationship of my life, but it was a least pleasantly interesting enough to give us something to look at if she turned me down.

After getting through airport security without incident and spending our first two nights in Dublin—her carefree and excited, me nervously checking every ten minutes to make sure the ring was okay and trying to hold off on drinking too much Guinness so that I wouldn’t blab the surprise—we were off to storm the castle.

Kinnitty Castle is located in County Offaly right in the center of Ireland. The secluded Gothic Revival manse sits on hundreds of acres of field and woodland that meld into the 60,000-acre Kinnitty Forest around it. The history of the estate, like all of Ireland, dates back to dusty times.

In this case, that dusty time is the beginning of the 13th century. It was during that time, the Norman period of Ireland, that the first castle was built on the site, along with an Augustinian abbey. That castle was destroyed and rebuilt just a few years later.

Next came the Gaelics, and a powerful clan by the fourth-grade-teacher name of O’Carroll took over and built a castle on the premises sometime in the 1600s. I’m not sure what happened to the other one. This new one, however, was expanded and lasted intact until about 1922 when it was burned during Ireland’s civil war. I’m not sure if it was completely demolished or just badly damaged, but either way it was rebuilt again in 1928 as it stands today.

As we drove the road leading to the castle, we found ourselves meandering through an enchanting forest full of giant trees covered in brilliant green mosses that glowed in a stream of sunlight of the sort that doesn’t seem to fall in many other places. It was the closest I've ever been to a fantasy land, I think. Eventually, the woods finally opened up onto a large field full of horses, the enormous edifice of the castle itself, and an almost-empty parking lot.

We visited Ireland in somewhat of a shoulder season, to save money, sure, but also for the opportunity to spend time in awe-inspiring places that are usually swamped with people, each one fully equipped with the tools and abilities to ruin a special moment. We were exactly half the guests that were staying in this massive castle. After marveling at our majestic room, amazing view, and the medieval décor of the rest of the castle, the emptiness of which made us feel like we were trespassing as we explored it, I asked my then-girlfriend as nonchalantly as I could if she cared to walk the grounds. For her it would be a casual stroll. For me a calculating dry run.

I found the connected remains of the abbey, but it wasn’t the maze of impressive ancientness that I had envisioned. It was just a well-preserved wall that had been worked into the structure of the back courtyard of the castle. It looked more like an architectural flourish than anything worth sharing private moments with.

Mildly panicked, I considered the forest we saw on our way in. It certainly would have been a fantastic place to propose, but it wasn’t in view of the castle, which was the whole point of proposing at a castle. It was my future wife herself who unknowingly solved my problem, pointing eagerly to a 10-foot-tall stone Celtic high cross off to one side of it. Doing some quick research afterward, it turned out the cross predated pretty much everything on the property, going back to the 10th century. It had apparently become part of the abbey at some point. It was also set up to be illuminated at night. Perfect.

We dined that evening at the castle. We had the place completely to ourselves, with our own personal French waiter who stood at attention across the room awaiting the merest hand gesture from one of us. It was a beautiful meal that normally I wouldn’t have wanted to end until at least a second bottle of wine, but I had a size five-and-a-half circlet of diamond studded platinum burning the first letter of my last name into my pants pocket.

By the time we finished dining, dark had completely fallen. It was a clear night with a slight chill that was no match for the bottle of wine that accompanied dinner. Because of the darkness, there weren’t that many places to walk, so we ended up at the lighted high cross pretty quick. From that point my mind gets a little fuzzy, honestly. I remember trying to steer the conversation to the right point, but I don’t remember exactly what I said or how I asked the question. I remember leaning dizzily against the cross, though, so maybe it was a good thing I didn’t propose on a balcony. Whatever happened, she had the ring on the next morning, so I was pretty sure she said yes. To somebody, at least. Since then, it’s been officially confirmed.

As a result, St. Patrick’s Day always feels a bit like an anniversary to me instead of being the excuse to drink Shamrock Shakes and watch a Leprechaun movie marathon that it used to be for me. Just kidding. I’m still pretty faithful about that.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

This is a "before" pic. You can tell by the contrast in
our expressions, I think.