In St Mary’s graveyard, Dungarvan, County Waterford a gable wall some 30 foot high and 32 foot long is all that remains of the 13th century church. During the Confederate Wars, in 1642 this building was attacked by Catholic rebels and used as a stable and prison for local Protestants; it suffered further damage in the following decade when occupied by members of the English army. Nevertheless, the church was repaired and continued in use for services until the third decade of the 19th century when replaced by the present St Mary’s designed by James Pain. A curious feature of this wall are the oculi, two over three. These would seem to have been inserted for defensive purposes but, even allowing for the building’s turbulent history in the 17th century, are an unusual feature within a church context.
From the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume XXVIII, Part IV (1898) by Francis Joseph Bigger: ‘The ancient church of Kilmakilloge stands on a rocky eminence a little north of Bunaw. Burials have been very numerous in the interior of the church ruins, and many bones and portions of coffins are strewn about. The gravestones clearly denote the overwhelming proportion of O’Sullivan to any other name; and one curious monument to the east of the church bears an inscription worth recording. This monument is a high, square altar-tomb raised on steps and supported on four carved pillars, the intervening spaces being filled with stone panels. On the east end is the following inscription “I H S This Monument contains the Last Remains of the Late McFININ DUFFE He DEPD THIS LIFE THE 1 DAY of SEPT 1809 aged 58 years Pater Patrie.” This McFinin Duffe was an O’Sullivan, and the last of his line.’
Today Athenry, County Galway is best known for featuring in a lachrymose ballad usually sung by performers somewhat worse for alcohol. However, the town was of significance from the Middle Ages onwards, as evidenced by large sections of the mediaeval walls that still survive, and a number of important buildings in the centre, not least a castle dating from c.1235. Originally guarding the crossing point over the river Clarin, it consists of a keep and the remains of a separating banqueting hall all enclosed within their own defences. The town subsequently developed around this castle, constructed by the Anglo-Norman knight Meyler de Bermingham whose descendants would become Barons Athenry and Earls of Louth. De Bermingham was also responsible for the other significant mediaeval remains in Athenry, the nearby Dominican Priory.
One of the Dominican order’s most important houses in Ireland, Athenry Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was founded by Meyler de Bermingham in 1241 when he purchased the land on which it stands for 160 marks and then provided the same amount for the construction of the church, as well as providing some of his men to help with the work: he would be buried inside its walls following his death in 1252. Many of his descendants were likewise interred here. Other local families, both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic assisted in the development of the site: Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory, Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house, and others the cloister, infirmary, guesthouse and so forth: almost nothing of these domestic buildings survives. Alterations were made over successive generations. In the late 13th/early 14th century for example, rebuilding work took place on the west gable of the church, to which an aisle and transept were added on the north side. In the fourteenth century William de Burgh (forebear of the Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, with whom the priory would later be associated) left money to enlarge the church, adding some 20 feet to the choir, and building a new entrance at its west end (now largely lost after a handball alley was built on the exterior of the building in the last century). Meanwhile in 1408 Joanna de Ruffur left funds to construct a new east window. A fire destroyed much of the priory in 1423, after which indulgences were granted by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV to shoe who contributed to the buildings’ repair. During this period, a crossing tower was erected in the church, with a number of windows being replaced or blocked, and the aisle arcade being reduced.
In the 16th century, Athenry Priory initially escaped the dissolution that befell other such religious establishments. In a letter dated July 1541 Anthony St Leger, Lord Deputy of Irleand advised Henry VIII that as the priory ‘is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit.’ However, the head of the priory Adam de Coppynger and his fellow friars agreed to abandon their religious habits and dress in secular clothing. In 1568 Elizabeth I directed that the Earl of Clanricarde could preserve the friary for a burial place but nine years later the priory and 30 acres of land in Athenry (plus more elsewhere) was granted to the town of Athenry: around the same time both town and priory were sacked by members of the Earl of Clanricarde’s family. Towards the end of the century the Dominicans reoccupied the priory but it suffered when the whole town was burnt in 1597. Still the Dominicans lingered on in the area, until the early 1650s when English soldiers wrecked the priory. Later the domestic buildings were largely demolished, and an army barracks built in their place. This remained in use until 1850. A late 18th century image shows the church without roof but the central tower still standing: it collapsed in 1845. Relatively little change has since occurred.
Despite quantities of damage inflicted on it over the centuries, the interior of the priory church retains much of interest. Of particular note are two large monuments in the choir. That tucked into the south-east corner was a mausoleum for the de Burgh family, who it will be remembered were permitted by Elizabeth I to use the building as a burial site. The monument in its present form dates from 1835 when repaired by Ulick de Burgh, first Marquess of Clanricarde. The upper portion (which looks as though designed to have something further on top of it) carries a peer’s coronet and the family coat of arms with its motto: Un Roy, Un Foy, Une Loy. A considerable portion of the choir is then taken up with a monumental tomb to Lady Matilda Bermingham, youngest daughter of the last Lord Athenry (also first, and last, Earl of Louth), who died in 1788 at the age of 20. Of cut limestone, the tomb was decorated with an abundance of Coade figures and stone panels, one of which bears the date 1791, and an urn which features the deceased’s profile. As an instance of contemporary misinformation, one frequently reads online that this tomb was badly damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in search of treasure: since Lady Matilda Bermingham died over 130 years after these troops were in Ireland this seems somewhat improbable, and yet still the story circulates in the internet. The truth is more prosaic. In October 2002 vandals broke into the church, breached the tomb’s walls and pulled out the coffin: who needs to import despoilers when they can be found at home? It was reported at the time that repairs were being carried out on the monument, but these do not appear to have been very extensive and much of the Coade stone ornamentation has been forever lost.
First the remains of St Columba’s church at Skryne, County Meath. The place name derives from Scrín Choluim Chille (Colmcille’s Shrine): in the ninth century the relics of St Columba, otherwise Columcille, were brought here from England for safe keeping and a monastery established. The ruins likely date from a 15th century church built on the site of the earlier foundation, and consist of sections of the former nave and a massive tower at the west end.
The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
Inside the remains of St Mullin’s monastery, County Carlow can be found this 18th century tombstone erected to the memory of Bryan Kavanagh. A member of the family that for so long was pre-eminent in this part of the country, his memorial in part reads ‘Here lies the body of Bryan Kavanagh of Drummin of the family of Ballyleaugh. A man remarkably known to the nobility and gentry of Ireland by the name Bryan Nestroake from his noble actions and valour in King James’s troops in the Battle of the Boyne and Aughrim.’ As it mentions, the name ‘Nestroake’ or ‘na stroake’ came about because during the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 while engaged in combat against a Williamite soldier, Kavanagh received a slash or stroke to the face. He survived the occasion and only died aged 74, in February 1735. The monument was subsequently erected by his son James.
Old tombstones embedded into the external walls of St Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. A stone plaque over the building’s main entrance carries the date 1637, when the original church on this site was built. However in 1832 the old structure was deemed unsafe and so a new one erected on the site, with work finishing a decade later: originally a parish church, it was rededicated as a cathedral in 1923. These older stones were presumably rescued during the 19th century rebuild and then set into the wall.