On the Fringes of Europe


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.

With One Stroke


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.

Ashes to Ashes


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.

In a Disused Graveyard



The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.




The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?




It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.


In a Disused Graveyard by Robert Frost
Photographs of the churchyard at St Patrick’s, Hill of Tara, County Meath.

In Loving Memory


Inside Christ Church, Ballymartle, County Cork dates from 1866 when it replaced an earlier building, the ruins of which can be seen close by. Several funerary monuments were moved from the latter, including this touching memorial to William Meade erected by his parents, Sir John Meade and his wife the Hon Elizabeth Butler, a daughter of the second Viscount Ikerrin: their grandson, also called John, would be created first Earl of Clanwilliam in 1776. But William had long since departed this world since, as the inscription notes, having been born in 1689 he died in 1702, less than a fortnight before what would have been his thirteenth birthday.

Transferred to Stone


One of a pair of High Crosses found on the site of a former monastic settlement at Ahenny, County Tipperary. Believed to date from the 8th century, and therefore among the earliest extant examples of these monuments, the North Cross (above) is of sandstone and stands 3.65 metres high. The main body is decorated in elaborate geometric designs imitating those found both on contemporaneous metalwork and in illuminated texts like the Book of Kells. Only the base is figurative although now so worn it is difficult to make out details of the procession of figures portrayed. The nearby South Cross is likewise of sandstone and rises 3.35 metres. Like its neighbor it has a curious removable cap, perhaps intended to represent a bishop’s mitre.

When Captain Rock Called

All that remains of the former Church of Ireland church in the village of Athlacca, County Limerick. Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) notes of this building, ‘The church, built by aid of a loan of £560 from the late Board of First Fruits, in 1813, was burnt by the Rockites in 1822; and the present church, a small but neat edifice, with a tower and lofty spire, was erected in the following year by a cess levied on the parish.’ The ‘Rockites’ were supporters of a widespread agrarian revolt across south-west Ireland during 1821-24, the name derived from a mythical ‘Captain Rock’ who was supposedly their leader. Athlacca church remained in use until 1942 after which the greater part of the building was demolished, leaving just the tower and spire as a reminder of what once stood here.