Christ’s Curse and Mine



‘The Church of St. Nicholas. This massive and interesting building is situated in the demesne of Dunsany, a short distance north-east of the castle. It is probably on the site of the church which existed so early as 1302-1306, and seems to have been rebuilt about the middle of the 15th century by Nicholas Plunkett, first Baron of Dunsany and Killeen. In his will, dated on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula, 1461, although desiring to be “Y beret in ye chaunsell of Killeene before our Lady,” he heaped valuables on “St Nichols Church of Dunsany” – arras and scarlet hangings, crosiers and chalices of silver and gold, the latter being then in course of preparation by a goldsmith of Trim; missals, graduals, hymnals and psalters; a chaplet of pearls for the statue of the Blessed Virgin; copes of gold and red satin; chasubles; 100 shillings off the mill of Alomny (Athlumney); and money off Thomastown; and to find priests to pray for his soul and the souls of his wives Anne Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Preston; “and which of my children that breaketh my will, I leave him Christ’s curse and mine”.’





‘The building is 129 ft. long; the chancel, 21 ft. 3 in. wide and about 51 ft. long; the nave, 21 ft. 5 in. wide and about 55 ft. 6 in. long, the gable being “off the square”; the gable between is 5 ft. 7 in. thick, and the arch about 10 ft. wide. The chancel has a very rich east window inserted by the late Dowager Lady Dunsany to decorate the building, the older window having been destroyed long before, except the ancient sill, still apparent on the outside, and an elegant carving of an ivy spray. There are three windows to the south, and one to the north; the tracery and shafts have nearly disappeared, having been of fine yellow sandstone, like most of the details. The south wall has also a handsome sedile of three cinquefoil arches, the heads crocketed, and a heavy hood moulding, ending in a leaf to the left and a face to the right…North of the chancel is a residence three stories high, the lowest used as a vault by the Lords of Dunsany; fourteen steps lead to the second floor, which has a “squint” looking into the chancel; ten more steps lead to the upper storey. A passage and steps lead over the east gable to its roof. The tower-like S.E. buttress is of unusual dimensions. The nave has two doors (evidently rebuilt in recent times), one at each side. An ambry; a large perpendicular window and a recess occur in each wall. The north recess is two stories high; the upper reached by a staircase in the north pier of the chancel arch, which is round and rudely built, with clumsy projecting jambs, perhaps intended to support a rood beam or loft. The west gable has a large window; its tracery is gone, and its shafts are modern. It is flanked on the north by a lofty battlemented tower with curiously-corbelled roof and large double windows. It has entrances from the nave and from the north and west battlements. Another lofty tower at the south-west angle has a barrel stair of some sixty six steps.’





‘The altar-tomb has been horribly broken since Archdall’s day, and it was with difficulty the fragments of the sides could be found and pieced together…The effigies represent – to the right, a knight in full armour and conical helmet, a long sword on his left thigh, and his hands raised and clasped in prayer, his feet on a dog; to the left rests his wife in peaked head-dress, with traces of rich carving on it, a full-sleeved, long-pleated gown to the feet, which rest on a cushion carved with two birds and a cat’s head. The east slab had three niches, the left now broken away, the central one has a long-robed figure, and the right one a Bishop in pontificals. The west slab is now in the sedile; it has three floriated niches, with the flagellation of our Lord in the centre, and angels with censers on each side. The sides had similar niches, with shields between; the north side is in fragments in the nave, and has the arms of Plunkett (a bend and castle); Flemyng (checquy), 3 (probably Castlemartin), three castles; 4 Plunkett and FitzGerald. The south slab lies against the east gable and has shields of- 1, Plunkett; 2, FitzGerald (a saltire); 3, the heart pierced by two swords; 4, the instruments of the Passion.’



From an account of St Nicholas’ church, Dunsany, County Meath written by Thomas J Westropp and published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (September 1894). Since that time, the altar tomb he describes above has been reconstructed and moved to a small space on the north side of the nave.

Heads Up



St Mary’s church in Mansfieldstown, County Louth was a medieval church badly damaged in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and then, owing to an insufficient number of parishioners, left to fall into ruin. An Episcopal Visitation of 1690 noted ‘Church not in repair since the warrs, and the reason given why it is not built is because the parish is very poore, and there are no Protestants in it except Mr. Tisdall (who lives in Dublin), and the parish clerk, who lives in the parish…No bells, no Common Prayer Book, nor Church Bible. A stone font lying on ye ground, no chest for poore, no Register Book’. However the church was shortly afterwards rebuilt (the estimated costs for this were £140) as a second visitation two years later commented ‘Three parts of the walls and roof in good repair ; windows to be glazed. The whole chancel and part of the body of church built at equal charge of the Minister and parishioners. Remaining part of the body unbuilt since ’41, on account of the poverty of the parishioners. The charge for building that part will be £30. The church slated and painted ; no bells ; Service 10 o’clock on Sunday morning…A decent pulpit, good Communion Table, a decent carpet, and also a Font of stone.’ When the building underwent this overhaul, the original late-medieval traceried east window was salvaged and reinstalled, note the corbel heads, and a third at the top of the label moulding. Smaller traceried windows were inserted on the north and south walls in the 19th century and there are similar corbel heads (thought also to be from the 17th century) found on these.


An Early Instance of Recyling



And so, another former church falling into ruin: this one in Aghinagh, County Cork where the congregation can never have been very substantial. The building dates from 1791 when £500 was provided by the Board of First Fruits but the east wall of the chancel (added in the mid-19th century) incorporates a late-medieval window, now completely smothered in ivy and other creepers, which suggests that, as so often, there was an earlier church on the site. One curious feature on the exterior of the three-stage tower at the west end may also have been recycled from a previous building: the head of a bishop carved in sandstone and resting on top of a Solomonic column.


Another Unhappy Fate



Following Monday’s piece on Mount Talbot, County Roscommon, here is the church where the Talbot family used to worship, and in the grounds of which they were buried. The building dates from 1766 and like the nearby house must originally have been classical in form, as indicated by the great three-stage tower at the west end which has a large niche on the lowest level. It would appear that at some date in the 19th century, perhaps when work was being undertaken at the main house, the church was similarly Gothicised, since the east end was given a tripartite window with pointed arches and the three windows along the south wall were similarly altered. Having closed for services in the 1960s, the building fell into ruin but a number of years ago restoration work began on the site, including the installation of a new roof. This job now seems to have stalled and soon church and house may look much like each other.


A Hidden Gem



Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.





In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.





While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.


Viceregal Links



Johnstown, County Kildare derives its name from a now-ruined church dedicated to St John and believed to have been built in late-Medieval period by the Knights Hospitallers (now otherwise known as the Knights of Malta). The centre of the building is now dominated by a large High Cross commemorating Richard Bourke, sixth Earl of Mayo who was assassinated in 1872 while serving as Viceroy of India; his home was at nearby Palmerstown. An earlier owner of this property was the Flatesbury family, and set into the north wall of the church is a grave slab featuring their coat of arms and those of the Wogans, below an eight-armed cross. This carries the date 1289 although the slab is thought to date from the 15th century.


Destined to be Lost


As has been mentioned on this site more than once, Ireland is a country replete with ruins; indeed, scarcely a week or month seems to pass without additions to their number. It is perhaps the sheer quantity of decay and dereliction that has made us, if not indifferent then certainly unsurprised to the fact that so many buildings across the country are in various stages of decline. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be startled by an example of neglect, such as that found in Liscarton, County Meath, where a range of structures are seemingly of interest today only to the livestock grazing on the adjacent land.






It appears there was a church at Liscarton at least by the beginning of the 14th century, since in 1305 there is a reference to the building in the ecclesiastical taxation register of Pope Nicholas IV. Seemingly dedicated to St Nicholas, the church may then have been reconstructed in the following century but little is heard of it until 1622 when James Ussher, created Bishop of Meath the previous year, described it as being in reasonable repair. A further report some 60 years later confirms that it was still standing and evidently in the 18th century alterations were undertaken, since large, round-headed windows were then inserted on both the north and south sides. When it fell out of use and into disrepair is unclear, but this was evidently the case by the time Sir William Wilde came to write The Beauties of the Boyne, and its tributary, the Blackwater (1849) in which he notes ‘the church is remarkable for the extreme beauty of its eastern and western windows,  each of which consists of one great light, divided by a shaft branching off on a level with the spring of the arch into two members, which join the arch-head about the centre of the curve. An exquisite variety of tracery, in the decorated style of gothic architecture, fills the head of both windows, and the mouldings are deep and well executed.  Upon the exterior face may be observed well carved human heads projecting from the dripstone.’ The carved heads, of a king, a queen and a bishop, can still be seen decorating the hood of the western window, but its equivalent at the east end is threatened by ivy and other vegetation, and the entire site risks falling ever-further into ruin.




A short distance to the east of the church stand what remains of a pair of adjacent towers; just 40-odd feet apart, at one time they were linked by a great hall. Believed to date from the 15th century, the property is recorded in 1633 as having been held by Sir William Talbot (owner of what is now the Carton estate in County Kildare) and, in the following decade by his elder son Robert: Sir William’s youngest son Richard Talbot, was one of the most ardent supporters of James II, who created him Lord Deputy of Ireland and Duke of Tyrconnell. In the second half of the 17th century, the lands and castle of Liscarton passed into the possession of the Cadogan family: it is supposed to have been the birthplace of General William Cadogan, first Earl Cadogan, second only to the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Cadogans appear to have remained at Liscarton until at least the middle of the 18th century (Richard Pococke refers to it being in their hands in 1752) but at some date thereafter it was occupied by the Gerrard family, whose main estate was not far away at Gibbstown, of which more in the coming weeks. In 1841 the Gerrards gave a lease for the lands of Liscarton, including a ‘dwelling house, corn mill, kilns, water courses and stores’ to three brothers, James, Michael and Thomas Cullen. Incidentally, another of the siblings was Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh and the first Irish cardinal, a key figure in the country during the mid-19th century. It is known that he spent time at Liscarton Castle, since its address appears on a number of his letters. By this time the larger of the two towers, rising three storeys, had fallen into picturesque ruin but the smaller, two-storey building and adjacent hall remained sound and, as can be seen in an old postcard, were attractively thatched. A large collection of yard buildings and stables were built, probably in the 18th century, behind the larger tower and some of these remain in various states of repair. However, like so many other old buildings, the castle site was abandoned in the last century and left to decay. It seems extraordinary that there should be so little interest in or concern for a site connected with successive aspects of Irish history, whether the Duke of Tyrconnell or Cardinal Cullen. But seemingly not. This looks like another part of the country’s collective heritage – and memory – destined to be lost forever.

Kept in Repair


Although the second-largest town in County Kilkenny, Callan has a charmingly sleepy atmosphere, much of its centre blessedly free of contemporary intervention, or dereliction. Many of the shops still retain their original frontages, such as O’Brien’s, a delightful old-fashioned menswear business where visitors can borrow a key giving access to St Mary’s church on the other side of Green Street. The church, like the town in which it stands, is thought to have been founded by the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, at the start of the 13th century (although other accounts attribute the construction of St Mary’s to Hugh de Mapilton, Bishop of Ossory in c.1250). The great square tower to the west is all that survives of that original building today.






Other than its tower, the older St Mary’s was demolished in the 15th century and the present church built in its place, consisting of a nave with aisles 15 feet wide each with four-arch arcades, and a long – almost 60 feet – rectangular chancel. Like all such buildings, it suffered badly during the religious and civil upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing back and forth between Roman Catholic and Established Church authorities until finally the latter gained the upper hand. Thereafter it served the local Church of Ireland community which here, as elsewhere, was not large enough to require such a substantial building, only the chancel being used for services. As a result, as early as 1731 the Bishop of Ossory noted that ‘Callan Church, next to St Canice’s, the largest in the diocese; west end needs repairing.’ By the end of the century, it was reported that the nave was ‘now a ruin, but the chancel is kept in repair and used as the parish church.’






Perhaps because the Callan Union was a relatively wealthy parish, no funds for the restoration or refurbishment of St Mary’s was provided by the Board of First Fruits (it may be that no financial assistance, either as grant or loan, was sought). However, in 1837 the board’s successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided £393 for the restoration of the chancel, in particular the re-roofing of this portion of the building. Little then happened until almost the middle of the last century when the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the main body of the building. Once services were discontinued in the chancel in 1974, it too passed into the care of the same body which subsequently carried out various structural repairs, necessary because the nave had long been used as a burial site which resulted in subsidence. Many handsome tombs survive inside the church but regrettably this is not accessible, so only the exterior may be examined, its finest features being the limestone doorcases at the western end of the north and south aisles; both carry carvings of angels and other decorative designs (that on the north side features the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress).

Well Weathered


A church at Cannistown, County Meath is thought to have been founded by St Finian of Clonard in the sixth century. However, the present structure, dedicated to St Bridget, was erected some 600 years later, probably by the Nangle family, granted land in this part of the country by the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy. Much of it was rebuilt in the 15th/16th centuries but thereafter it quickly fell into a poor condition: in 1612 George Montgomery, then-Bishop of Meath, wrote of Cannistown church ‘the chancel was repaired, but the church in ruins.’ So it has remained ever since.



The building’s most notable feature is its substantial chancel arch, which has decorative carvings at its base (above the pilasters on either side). Both well-worn and somewhat damaged, that on the north depicts three dogs attacking another animal, while the one to the south show three men and is thought to represent the Taking of Christ. There are also carved corbel stones above the, which would originally have supported the roof.

Getting High



Another week, another cross, this one found in Killamery, County Kilkenny. A monastery was founded here in the 7th century by St Gobhan, and the High Cross is thought to date from the late 8th/early 9th century. Although there are scenes with figures (now well-worn) around the cross itself, the shaft is decorated with abstract patterns, those of the western front featuring a floral motif; seemingly a much-weathered inscription on the base reads OR DO MAELSECHNAILL, ‘A Prayer for Máel Sechnaill’ who was High King of Ireland 846-862. The capstone, which takes the form of a gabled roof, used to be touched by visitors as a cure for headaches.
The High Cross stands in the grounds of a graveyard close to the ruins of a former Church of Ireland place of worship dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating from 1815, it was constructed with assistance from the Board of First Fruits but services ceased to be held here less than 90 years later, and it has since fallen into its present state.