A Secluded Spot I



Motor traffic used to crawl through Castledermot, County Kildare but the advent of motorways in Ireland means that today the town is now relatively visited, meaning fewer people get to see – even through the windows of a car – the fine ruins it holds. Its name derived from Diseart Diarmada (Dermot’s Hermitage), Castledermot was established as a monastic settlement founded around 800. Seemingly much raided by Vikings, all that remains of the monastery is a reconstructed 12th century Romanesque doorway. Behind this stands the present St James’s church, given its present form in the 19th century. To the north of the building rises a round tower, somewhat truncated and likely given battlements at a later date. Unusually the entrance to the tower is on the ground floor and this is accessed via a short vaulted corridor linking it to the church. 



The graveyard here contains two High Crosses, one on either side of the church, both dating from the ninth century. That to the north rises over 10 feet and while weathering of the granite over the course of more than 1,000 years makes some of the panels challenging to interpret, but the centre of the head on the east side is thought to show Adam and Eve (representing the Fall of Man) and on the west side Christ’s crucifixion (Man’s Redemption). The west face of the High Cross to the south of the church is better preserved than its equivalent on the other side of the graveyard, not least the central panel which once again features the Crucifixion, with a series of familiar tales below on the shaft, including Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Temptation of St Anthony and, once more, Adam and Eve. In this instance, the east side of the cross is not figurative but given over to abstract patterns, geometric shapes and scrolls, like those found in illuminated manuscripts of the same period. 


Lighting up the Night



The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place. 





A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere. 





Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more. 



Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape 

Left Standing



And the remains of a third medieval church in County Kilkenny, this one about four miles to the south of Newtown Jerpoint in Knocktopher. St David’s was founded by Griffin FitzWilliam (mentioned earlier this week for having established the settlement of Newtown Jerpoint) and occupied by Augustinian Canons Regular. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, at least some of the building survived as a place of worship for members of the Established Church but in the late 1820s they moved to another site and most of this older church either fell or was pulled down. What survives is a section of the north wall incorporating a 15th century window and an altar tomb beneath, and the former entrance tower to the west: this has a square trunk but the upper section is octagonal and castellated, so might have been added in the 18th century to give the church a more whimsical character. Inside the tower is a double funeral effigy of a man and a woman, also believed to date from the 15th century. The rest of the site is given over to graves


More New to Old



Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones. 


From New to Old


Jerpoint, County Kilkenny is home to the remains of one of the country’s best-known medieval Cistercian abbeys (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2016/12/12/majestic-in-its-ruins). But less than a mile to the west lies another fascinating site, today called Jerpoint Park. Here, at the time when the monastery flourished, was a small busy urban centre, called Newtown Jerpoint, which has since all but disappeared, its remains only cleared of vegetation in recent years. The settlement here is thought to have been founded towards the end of the 12th century, either by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (also responsible for building the core of what is today Kilkenny Castle) or by another Norman knight, Griffin FitzWilliam, a brother of Raymond le Gros. 





Newtown Jerpoint seems to have reached its peak in the mid-15th century when it contained some 27 residential dwellings, a courthouse, woollen mill, tannery and brewery. One suspects that the town’s fortunes were closely connected with those of the nearby abbey (that woollen mill probably used raw material provided by the Cistercians, who were renowned for their sheep farms). So with the advent of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century, Newtown Jerpoint likely went into decline and never recovered. It would appear that even by the 17th century it had ceased to function (the larger urban centre of Thomastown, less than two miles to the north-east, would have absorbed much of its business). And so it largely disappeared and today scant traces survive except for the remains of a parish church, dedicated to St Nicholas. 





By the late 18th century, the lands on which Newtown Jerpoint had stood were owned by the Lowry-Corrys, who became Earls of Belmore. At some date, seemingly around 1775, a range of outbuildings were erected here, incorporating stables and service quarters. Then in 1817 the second earl built the Grand Yard at his main residence, Castle Coole, County Fermanagh; this was designed by architect Richard Morrison. It may have been around the same time that the second earl also commissioned Morrison to produce designs for the lodge at Jerpoint, as drawings exist of a three-bay, two-storey building of this character. However, it appears the lodge was never constructed and instead the existing property adapted as a residence; this stands on high ground above the ruins of St Nicholas’ church. When the present owners bought the place, the medieval site was completely overgrown, but since 2012 they have undertaken huge amounts of work to clear the old buildings of ivy and make it accessible to interested visitors. Just outside the church, a large early 14th century tomb slab with low relief carving of a bishop is supposed to mark the burial place of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra who died in the year 343. According to local legend, the saint is buried here in Jerpoint, his bones having been brought to Ireland by crusaders. This story is likely to be disputed by the burghers of Bari in southern Italy, where the the aforementioned Nicholas’ relics have been preserved in the Basilica di San Nicola since 1087. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from making a pilgrimage to County Kilkenny and experiencing first-hand the delights of Jerpoint Park.


For more information, see: https://jerpointpark.com

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.