Former Greatness

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Like almost every urban settlement in Ireland, the origins of Trim, County Meath seem to depend on an early saint, in this case Lommán (or Loman) who is believed to have been involved with a monastery here in the late 5th/early 6th century. But the town really owes its importance to the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy, granted the Lordship of Meath by Henry II in 1172. De Lacy was responsible for initiating construction of the immense castle that still dominates the skyline in this part of the country, but not far away are other striking ruins that receive far less attention. These are the remains of Newtown Trim, established in 1206 by Simon de Rochfort who fourteen years earlier had become Bishop of Meath. Until then the diocesan seat had been in Clonard but after the abbey thehre was attacked and destroyed by the Irish in 1200 de Rochfort took advantage of the situation to have the see transferred to Trim.

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Located about half a mile from Trim and on the other side of the river Boyne, Newtown centred on a priory of Canons Regular, its church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul effectively acting as a cathedral. Little enough of this remains, but sufficient to indicate its immensity: this was one of the largest such buildings in mediaeval Ireland, and vaulted in stone which was not always the case. The greater part of the remaining area is the chancel leading towards a now-lost east window: some on either side do survive. At the western end of the choir section lay the nave but this has also disappeared. Of the ancillary buildings, only small portions of the chapter house and refectory (the latter immediately above the river bank) still stand but the distances between these ruins provide an excellent sense of how important was this religious house. The scale of the site is made all the more apparent by the remains of a parish church to the immediate east, its walls dwarfed by those of the adjacent priory. Inside the little church is a well-preserved limestone altar tomb of 1586 commemorating Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife Jane Bathe who lie on the top while around the sides are family coats of arms and a scene showing a family group, presumably the Dillons.

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A little to the south-east lie a second set of ruins, those of the former Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist which, like the Augustinian priory, was founded by Simon de Rochfort. Some of the surviving walls, not least those to the west, have a defensive character, suggesting the need for protection from attack, a not-unusual occurrence in Ireland during the upheavals of the later Middle Ages. The long church, without aisles, concludes at the east end in three lancet windows but there is little other extant decoration. The living quarters here are in somewhat better condition than in the other religious house, as in the post-Reformation era St John’s was granted to Robert Dillon, an attorney general to the crown and then passed to the Ashe family who made some alterations for domestic use. In other words, like Bective Abbey a few miles away, it was converted for secular purposes. Whereas visitors tend to be drawn to Trim Castle and its attendant attractions, Newtown Trim is comparatively little known. As a result, it retains the kind of romantic appeal that many other ruins have lost. This is especially apparent on a winter afternoon when the sun sinks behind these remains, but not before bathing the stone in a roseate glow.

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Awaiting Conversion

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The former Church of Ireland church at Odagh, County Kilkenny. Dating from 1796 and built with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, it remained in use for services until the late 1950s and was unroofed some thirty-five years ago. In 2012 permission was granted for conversion of the church into a two-bedroom domestic dwelling and evidently some work then took place on the site. It is now on the market.

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A Fortress of God

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The massive form of Quin Friary, County Clare is due to the fact that when the Franciscan order came here in 1433 it settled inside the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle. This had been built around 1280 by Thomas de Clare, Lord of Thomond with a square courtyard and cylindrical towers at each corner. However, just six years later the building was attacked by the indigenous Irish who, in the words of a contemporary, left it a ‘hideous blackened cave.’ So it remained until the arrival of the Franciscans who adapted the ruins for their own purpose and remained there for just over a century until the suppression of all such religious houses by Henry VIII.

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Majestic in its Ruins

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How the earth darkens! not a day-beam cheers
Its pensive look, or gilds the evening sky;
While through the gloom, from other worlds appears
No smile to bid the gathering shadows die.
All is so sadly still! The cooling breeze
That from yon mountains their mild freshness bears,
Now breathes not, – floating through the blossomed trees,
To fan the sable garb which nature wears…

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I gaze where Jerpoint’s venerable pile,
Majestic in its ruins, o’er me lowers:
The worm now crawls through each untrodden aisle,
And the bat hides within its time-worn towers.
It was not thus, when in the olden time,
The holy inmates of yon broken wall
Lived free from woes which spring from care or crime,
Those shackles which the grosser world enthrall…

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I mark the venerable Abbot stand
Beneath the shadow of his church’s towers,
Grasping the wicket in his trembling hand,
Reverting to past scenes of happier hours,
And dwelling on the many years gone by
Since first his young lips breath’d his earliest prayer,
To lisp of Him who lives beyond the sky,
And nurse the hope he might behold him there…

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No more the banners o’er their ramparts wave,
Or lead their chieftains onwards to the fight,
Where die the vanquish’d, or exult the brave,
For victory – basking in its worshipp’d light.
Gone are the heroes of the days of yore;
Their enemies, like them, have felt decay;
The Chiefs of Ossory, and Leix O’More,
Are mingled in the dust with common clay…Line

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Extracted from Lines Written at Jerpoint Abbey by Samuel Carter Hall (1823).

The Old New

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Evening light falls on the remains of the ‘New Church’ by Lough Gur, County Limerick. Originally dating from the 15th century when built by the Earls of Desmond, in 1642 it was described as a ruin. However, the church was restored in 1679 when Rachel, Dowager Countess of Bath (whose late husband had inherited a large amount of land in the area) presented a chalice and patten to what she described as her ‘chapel-of-ease’ as well as an endowment of £20 to provide for a chaplain. By the 19th century it once again became a ruin but conservation work was undertaken in 1900 on the instruction of the seventh Count de Salis, whose forebears had inherited the Bath estates here. Today the church is once more a ruin. Tradition has it that the composer and harpist Thomas Connellan who died nearby in 1698 is buried here in an unmarked grave.

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What Remains

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At some date in the late fifth or early sixth century a monastery was founded at Grangefertagh, County Kilkenny by Saint Ciaran of Saighir. This religious house was raided by the Vikings in 861 and it was presumably after that incident that the monks built a round tower to protect them in the event of another attack. It proved unfit for purpose however, since in 1156 it was burnt by Murtagh McNeale, with the monastery’s lector inside. Somehow the tower survived (even if the lector did not) and remains the only remnant of the pre-Norman building, although as can be seen the greater part of its conical roof is lost. In the 13th century a priory of Augustinian Canons Regular was established here, and a portion of its ruined church remains: in the last century part of it was converted for use as a handball alley (not an unusual occurrence). A chapel to one side contains the double tomb of John MacGillapatrick and his wife, carved c.1540 by Rory O’Tunney.

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A Man of Taste and Literature

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Described by Maria Edgeworth as ‘An excellent clergyman, of a liberal spirit and conciliating manners, a man of taste and literature,’ the Rev. Daniel Beaufort was also a talented amateur architect. Here is his design for a new church at Ardbraccan, County Meath dating from the 1770s. At the west end it was proposed the building incorporate a still-extant 15th century tower which rises 100 feet: accordingly Beaufort proposed the church run to the same length. The tower was also to be given single-storey gothick wings on either side. In the event, a simpler version of Beaufort’s drawing was constructed, of four bays rather than six (thereby making the nave shorter) and leaving the tower unattached. This can be seen below, in a photograph taken inside Ardbraccan’s demesne wall. I shall be giving a talk on the life and work of Daniel Beaufort next Thursday, November 17th at 7.30pm in St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Church Hill, Navan (a building for which he was also responsible). For further information, see: http://mahs.freesite.host/index.php/2016-programme

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