The Treasures of Castledermot

Last week we explored the medieval wonders at Moone, in County Kildare. We couldn’t leave the area without going on to Castledermot to visit the monastic site of Díseart Diarmada, (the hermitage of Dermot) – a few minutes’ drive down the road. Stone carving artists were active here, too, as we can see from the many artefacts mainly centred today around St James’ Church, built on the site of the former monastery. These include a decorated Romanesque doorway: Finola is writing about Romanesque architecture today.

Díseart Diarmada as it might have appeared in the 800s. This reconstructed view is taken from the excellent Dúchas interpretation panels on the site, and shows the earliest church, the 20m high round tower (which still stands today) and the two ornate high crosses, which also remain intact

The settlement itself was highly important. There were Viking raids during the 9th century, probably indicating that there was wealth to be plundered there. A royal grant was given for a fair in 1199, and the very first Irish parliament was convened in the town on 18th June 1264. In 1393 Castledermot was granted permission to mint its own coins.

The two high crosses at Castledermot: south cross (left) and north cross (right – round tower beyond). The header picture shows the geometric work on the east face of the south cross

There are certainly figurative carvings on the two crosses to almost rival those found at Moone. I was particularly interested to see other versions of the stories of the loaves and fishes and Daniel in the lions’ den. But the real glory of Castledermot lies in the panels of knotwork. If these were coloured (as suggested at Moone) they must have been spectacular.

Note the loaves and fishes, bottom left

It’s interesting to speculate who might have been responsible for this ancient carving. Could it have been the monks themselves, who considered that part of their dedicated life was to build and decorate the great monastic buildings? Or were they constructed by travelling masons, much as the later cathedrals were? And who directed and designed the work? These are such important monuments – a legacy which we must be sure to look after: they have been here for more than a thousand years and – in spite of being in the open and subject to constant weathering – are still clear to see. At Moone the great cross there has been placed under a modern protective canopy, which is not intrusive. Perhaps such actions should be considered for all these Irish medieval works of art.

The site at Castledermot reveals many other remains which appear to be weathering quite badly. These include the Hogback Stone, which has been linked to Viking activity in the area: it was discovered just below the ground in its present location in 1967. It is said to represent a House for the Dead, and other examples have been found in Scotland and England: this is the only one found so far in Ireland.

The Hogback Stone (top – Dúchas – and bottom left) and an unusual type of cross-slab close by (right). This is known as the Swearing Stone, and it is said that it may have been used during wedding ceremonies or for swearing oaths or allegiances in early times

Although residents in Castledermot are keen that their historic artefacts are well looked after and are seen by an interested public, the site remains rather obscure and perhaps deserves to be better known. There is a wealth of heritage in Ireland – do we take it too much for granted? The Office of Public Works (formally Dúchas) do their best to maintain and advertise the monuments under their care but it’s an uphill job with a budget which is far too small.

We have by no means exhausted the treasures of this remarkable Irish town. There are other intriguing carved stones and crosses on the monastic site, and, at the southern end of the town are impressive remains of a Franciscan Friary, founded around 1247. This site has a guardian and a key holder, but we didn’t have time to visit. Inside it is a rare cadaver grave stone dating to about 1520. In 1275, the town was given a royal murage grant. This allowed the collection of tolls from people entering Castledermot to pay for the construction and maintenance of town walls. The wall, with three gates, was completed around 1300.

When in Youghal…

boyle header

We spent St Patrick’s Day in Youghal – within County Cork but a long way from our own part of that territory. The place is falling down with history, and warrants an extended visit. Finola has written about the walled town and some of its architecture: I will be concentrating on the Collegiate Church of St Mary, a building that goes back a long way and is said to be on the site of the monastic foundation of Saint Declan, a fifth century contemporary – or even a predecessor of – St Patrick.

Saints by Harry Clarke: St Patrick, Ballinasloe (left) and St Declan, Honan Chapel (right)

The Vikings came to Youghal, and one stone slab in the church depicts a vessel from those days. There are so many other memorial stones, carvings and inscriptions that we spent hours in the building just trying to take them all in. I can only show you a taster and recommend you to go and see for yourselves.

longboat

Carving of a Viking longboat – can you see it?

The structure of the present church deserves close study. It claims to be the oldest church in Ireland that has had continuous worship taking place – since the 13th century. Look firstly at the roof over the Great Nave: the timbers have been carbon dated to around 1170, although an intriguing hand-printed notice about this feature states …The roof of this church was put up there in 1220 by French labour, there are two german cathedrals roofed with Irish Oak and their walls bear the same masons marks as this church. They were all built by the same hands. Ireland was covered with oak woods in 1220, but saw mills were not invented until 1328. They had to pick each oak tree the same size, and with an axe skin and square it up. So each piece is a small oak tree – or Saplyn…

oak roof

In 1464 St Mary’s was made a Collegiate Church, with the foundation of Our Lady’s College of Yoghill by the Earl of Desmond. It was served by a ‘ Warden’ of eight ‘fellowes’ and eight ‘singing clerks’. In the precincts of the church is the Warden’s House, known as Myrtle Grove. This also has a long and complex history: this article about Henry and Edith Blake – two of its colourful inhabitants (who are buried in its garden) is worth a read. Another former inhabitant of the house – and one of Youghal’s celebrities – is (or was) Sir Walter Raleigh.

myrtle grove 2016

Sir Walter Raleigh, once the owner of many thousand acres in Cork, including the whole settlement of Youghal – and his home, Myrtle Grove, in 1833 (top right) and seen today (above)

Myrtle Grove is said to be one of the oldest houses in Ireland: it remains in private ownership. St Mary’s Church itself is unusual in that it is in the guardianship of the state while also continuing as a place of worship.

st mary's church

Another Youghal celebrity was Richard Boyle – the Great Earl of Cork (1566 – 1643). While Raleigh had acquired his estates during the English ‘plantations’ following the Desmond rebellion, Boyle, also an English incomer, was an entrepreneur and an opportunist. He invested in many ventures – mining, fishing, iron smelting and linen weaving – as well as studying law and pursuing his political career. He was appointed Clerk of the Council of Munster in 1600, became a privy councillor for the whole of Ireland in 1612, and, having found favour with Queen Elizabeth, was knighted and made Earl of Cork and Viscount Dungarvan in 1620. Eventually he was created Lord Treasurer of Ireland. He owned Bandon and designed and built Clonakilty, while also relieving Raleigh of all his estates – 42,000 acres – for the rather small sum of £1500. Boyle died in 1643 and is interred in a tomb he built for himself and his family in St Mary’s Church, Youghal. He is said to have been the richest man in the known world at the time of his death. Go and see his tomb – it is spectacular! Boyle had two wives and fifteen children by one of them: all – and Boyle’s mother – are included in the monument.

The Collegiate Church is one of the places where – in the middle ages – ‘acoustic jars’ were used to enhance acoustics. These ceramic vessels were placed in niches above the choir area: the niches are still there but, unfortunately, the vases are not.

acoustic jars

There’s a lot more to the fascinating story of this church. I’ll leave you with a visual round-up of some of the details that we found, all of which add to the interest and the richness of the place. You could call it a ‘medieval miscellany’ – I call it my Youghal Menagerie.

miscellany 17