Rising some twenty-one feet, the tallest high cross in Ireland can be found, along with a couple of others, at Monasterboice, County Louth. The place name derives from Mainistir Bhuithe meaning ‘Monastery of Buithe’: the latter was an early Christian saint said to have founded a religious settlement here in the late 5th century. Three high crosses survive here, this one which dates from the 9th century, standing closest to the round tower. Panels on one side feature, among others scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the Lion’s Denand David with the head of Goliath. The opposite side is devoted to scenes from the Life of Christ, such as his baptism, the Kiss of Judas, his arrest and crucifixion.
The east window of the old church in Dromiskin, County Louth. This was the site of a monastery founded in the late 5th/early 6th century by Lughaidh, son of the first Christian King of Munster and a disciple of St Patrick. In the mid-7th century it came under the authority of St Ronan who died of the plague in 664: in 801 his relics were placed in a richly decorated shrine. But inevitably the monastery’s wealth made it vulnerable to attack, and during the 10th and 11th centuries Dromiskin was plundered by both Irish and Viking forces. Eventually the monastery was abandoned and fell into ruin, although the church continued to be used for services (this window is 15th century) until replaced by another in the early 19th century (now also no longer in use). Looking west through the window, one can see the stump of a 9th century Round Tower (the cap on it was added in 1879).
One of the groundfloor windows in a building known as the Mint in Carlingford, County Louth. A three-storey tower house dating from the 15th/16th centuries, the property is believed to have derived its name from a charter granted to the town in 1467 to mint its own coinage. The house may have been used for this purpose, or may simply stand on what was the site of a mint. It was perhaps built as a defensive residence for a local family, although the absence of chimneypieces argue against this proposal. In any case, what now distinguishes the Mint are its limestone ogee windows, five on two floors, which beneath substantial hoods feature a variety of carved figures including a horse and a man, as well as abstract interlace decoration which indicates a revival of interest in more ancient Celtic art.
‘The Abbey of Mellifont, in the County of Louth, situate about five miles from Drogheda, in the Barony of Ferrard, was originally one of the most important and magnificent monastic edifices ever erected in Ireland. It was founded, or endowed, by Donough M’Corvoill, or O’Carroll, prince of Oirgiallach, the present Oriel, A.D. 1142, at the solicitation of St. Malachy, the pious and learned archbishop of Armagh, and was the first Cistercian Abbey erected in Ireland.
The monks by whom it was first inhabited were sent over from the parent Monastery of Clairvaux in Normandy, by St. Bernard, and four of them were Irishmen, who had been educated there for the purpose. On the occasion of the consecration of the Church of Mellifont in 1157, a remarkable Synod was held here, which was attended by the primate Gelasius, Christian bishop of Lismore and apostolic legate, seventeen other bishops, and innumerable clergymen of inferior ranks. There were present also Murchertach, or Murtogh O’Loghlin, King of Ireland, O’Eochadha, prince of Ulidia, Tiernan O’Ruaire, prince of Breiffny, and O’Kerbhaill, or O’Carroll, prince of Ergall, or Oriel. On this occasion the King (Murtogh O’Loghlin) gave as an offering for his soul to God, and the Monks of Mellifont, 140 oxen or cows, 60 ounces of gold, and a townland, called Finnavair-na-ningen, near Drogheda. O’Kerbhaill gave also 60 ounces of gold, and as many more were presented by the wife of Tiernan O’Ruaric, who was a daughter of the prince of Meath, that is a former prince Murchad. She likewise gave a golden chalice for the high altar, and sacred vestments. &c., for each of the nine other altars that were in the church. This was the unfortunate Dearbhfhorguill, or Dervorgal, whose abduction by the profligate Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster, was the first link in the chain of events which led to the introduction into Ireland of the British arms, under the celebrated Strongbow. Her pious donations to the abbey of Mellifont appear to have been in some measure intended as an expiation of her crime; and hither she retired towards the end of her life, which she closed in religious exercises about the year 1193…’
‘On the establishment of the English power in the district called the Pale, in which Mellifont is situated, it was taken under the especial protection of the settlers. In 1177 a confirmation of their house and possessions was granted by King Henry II. as appears by the Charter of his son John, who renewed and confirmed the same; and in 1203 a new charter was granted to the abbey by King John, confirming to it several additional possessions which it had acquired after the arrival of the English. Many other grants and confirmations were made by succeeding Princes.
For a considerable period the abbey of Mellifont, as well as the other Cistercian monasteries in Ireland, continued to be connected with the parent establishment at Clairvaux, to which monastery, considerable sums of money were continually remitted. To correct this abuse, an act was passed in the reign of Edward III. enjoining all ecclesiastics not to depart the kingdom on any account whatsoever, nor to raise or transmit any sums of money privately or openly from hence, contrary to the form of the statute. In consequence of this enactment, Reginald, the abbot of Mellifont, was by a jury in 1351, found guilty of raising from the abbots of Boyle, Knockmoy, Bective and Cashel, the sum of 664 florins, one half of which he had remitted to the abbot and convent of Clairvaux; and again, in the year 1370, the abbot, John Terrour, was similarly indicted for remitting to the same abbey the sum of forty marcs. This abbot was, in the year 1378, indicted for killing one of his monks, named John White, in the year 1367; but the jury acquitted him. In 1380, it was enacted by parliament that no mere Irishman should be permitted to make his profession in this abbey…’
‘In 1540, Richard Conter, the last abbot, surrendered his abbacy, and had an annual pension of £40. granted to him for life. He had 16 fishing corraghs or skin-boats at Oldbridge, on the Boyne, which produced him annually £13. 13s. 4d., which, with various other possessions, amounting in the whole to £315. 19s. were granted to Sir Edward Moore, (ancestor to the present noble family of that name,) who made it his principal seat, converting the abbey into a magnificent residence, and, at the same time, a place of defence. In the memorable rebellion of 1641, a considerable body of the Irish sat down before it, and the garrison, which consisted of only 15 horse, and 22 foot, made a vigorous defence; but, on the failure of their ammunition, the foot surrendered, and the horse, charging vigorously through the enemy, arrived safe at Drogheda.
Such are the chief incidents in the history of this important monastic foundation, of which but trifling remains are now to be found, but these are sufficient evidence of its ancient beauty and splendour. They consist of the ruins of a beautiful little chapel, dedicated to St. Bernard, which in its perfect state was an exquisite specimen of the Gothic, or pointed architecture of the thirteenth century.
This chapel had a noble eastern window, and three smaller ones on each side, nearly all of which are now destroyed, together with the entrance doorway…This doorway was ornamented with a profusion of gilding, and painting in variegated colours, and was justly considered as one of the most beautiful specimens of the kind to be found in Ireland. It is said to have been sold to make a chimney piece!
Not inferior in architectural elegance to this chapel, are the ruins of an octagonal building, supposed a baptistery, on the top of which was a large cistern, from which water was conveyed by means of pipes, to the different offices of the abbey. The style of this building, which is Roman, indicates an earlier age, and it is probably coeval with the foundation of the monastery.
To these is to be added, the lofty abbey gateway; it is now appropriated to the humble purpose of a mill-dam.’
Extracts from The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 22, November 24, 1832. The little chapel described here as being dedicated to Saint Bernard was actually the abbey’s Chapter House and likewise the ‘Baptistry’ was the monks’ Lavabo.
Over two years ago, this site carried an extensive report on the perilous condition of Carstown Manor, County Louth (see A Lamentable Waste, January 26th 2015). Carstown is of enormous significance because in its present form the building dates from the early 17th century and is accordingly a Jacobean manor: there are almost no such properties extant in Ireland. A pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. The latter stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, both members of prominent local dynasties. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind here. It has long been proposed that the core of Carstown is a late 15th/early 16th century tower house occupying what are today the two eastern bays of the house. However, in 2011 archaeology graduate Michael Corcoran published a paper suggesting that Carstown had begun as a late-mediaeval gabled house. If so, he wrote, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’
Carstown was maintained and occupied until relatively recently but over the past two decades the house has fallen into serious disrepair, despite being listed for protection and the subject of four separate national monument records. Members of County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society have long been campaigning to ensure the building’s future: it has been the subject of repeated attacks by vandals and the greater part of the lead had been stripped from the roof, leaving the interiors vulnerable to the elements. Finally the society’s efforts ensured emergency repairs were carried out in 2016 by Louth County Council. Further critical work to the building by the council, as well as a structural survey part-funded by the Irish Georgian Society, was due to have begun next Monday. However last Sunday the house was set on fire and has effectively been left a shell.
Is this news disappointing? Yes. Is it surprising? No. Carstown Manor, like a great many historic properties across the country, has been allowed to slide into ruin because those in positions of authority have failed to act with sufficient force and speed. Unless enforced, legislation designed to protect our heritage is worthless: owners can simply neglect their legal responsibilities without fear of being brought to justice. So it has proven in this case, and a great many others: Carstown is just the latest in a long and melancholy list of lost buildings. What happened here was unnecessary and avoidable. The national patrimony continues to diminish and we are all left the poorer. County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society intends to hold a meeting as intended next week when they can see how best to preserve what is left at Carstown, not least those two plaques. Their voluntary work is to be applauded. What a shame it is not better emulated by those in a position to do more for our heritage, both in County Louth and throughout the rest of the state.
The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.
One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.
The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.
Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.