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.

The Murdering Glen

On the walk

The long valleys that run eastwards from Bantry are filled with antiquities – Discovery Map 85 is dotted with red circles of places we want to tramp around. We have been particularly intrigued by the ‘Murdering Glen’, labelled on the map: can you see it?.

Murdering Glen Map

Today we got a chance for a thorough exploration of the Murdering Glen, on the invitation of our friend Bridget, who lives there and is a keen explorer herself. After a wonderful lunch supplied mainly from her garden we set out up the road towards the Glen, with Bridget assuring us that the place appeared peaceful enough these days and not to worry.

Murdering Glen

The Glen is indeed dramatic, with steep sides and an enormous overhanging rock – just the kind of place for a brigand to lurk. In this case the brigand (and his mother) were locals, by the name of O’Kelly, who would lay in wait for travellers and murder them for their gold, before throwing them into the Butcher’s Pool.

Murder Rock

In  the 1930s schoolchildren in every National School in Ireland were asked to write down the stories they heard at home and these were recorded, in their own writing, by the National Folklore Commission. Here is the outline of the project, as presented on Duchas, the website that now stores that collection:

For the duration of the project, more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’.

To my delight, I was able to find the original story in the collection – and here it is, in the handwriting of schoolboy Michael Keohane from Dromore National School. I think you will agree he has done a magnificent job of telling the local legend.

murdering-glen

murdering-glen-page-2Before we left the murderous spot Bridget led us up to the mass rock, on a ledge on the side of the valley. It was a block of sparkling quartz, with holes to collect water, into which you can dip your warts in hopes of a cure.

Bridget shows us the mass rock

We  walked then towards the Trawlebane Bridge, where Robert and I had joined the walk two years ago to honour and remember Chief O’Neil. Robert’s post, The Chief, will take you back to that day and show you the spot where, before we started the walk, participants decided to put on an impromptu display of Crossroads Dancing, just as local people would have done on a fine summer evening in the old days.

Trawlebane Crossroads

There was more, much more to see, just in the immediate neighbourhood. We spent time in a Cillín first, in the middle of a field, with a magnificent blackthorn tree to mark the lonely spot where unbaptised children were traditionally buried. Read more about this practice in my post Unknown Souls.

Cillín

Blackthorn TreeA little five-stone circle was next – a classic of its kind, with four stones set on edge and a recumbent stone marking the axial alignment. (See more examples of them in my post Family-Friendly Archaeology). Besides three sites in nearby Kerry, these small stone circles are only found in Cork. They mirror exactly the larger multiple-stone circles, just with fewer stones – an efficient variation requiring fewer resources to erect but accomplishing the same outcomes.

Five stone circle

Unfortunately, this five-stone circle has been filled with field debris, creating the appearance of a mound

We also passed numerous ringforts and several standing stones. Looming over us as we walked was Dromore hill, on top of which was erected, in the Marian Year of 1954, an enormous cross, now rather improbably lit up at night. The cross is clearly visible from the stone circle and the standing stones, presenting opportunities to ponder on the juxtaposition of what is considered sacred in its own day, and what communities will expend precious resources to erect at different times over millennia.

Cross above circle

CrossOn  our trip to Sligo recently Robert and I were sensitised to the phenomenon of monuments seemingly echoing or imitating the topography behind them – see his post Discovering Carrowmore for more about this. I was struck by one of the standing stones – the top did seem to echo the hill behind it. Coincidence?

Standing Stone shape

October in West Cork can feature some of the best weather and walking conditions of the year. Today did not disappoint, with blue skies and crisp air.

Tree

Thank you, Bridget, and our other exploring companions Amanda and Peter, for a marvellous day of Murder, Mythology and Megaliths.

At the rabbit ears