Off the M8 – A Secret in The Glen of Aherlow

The Glen of Aherlow, County Tipperary: I had never heard of it. However, as you can see from the view, above, the place deserves to be explored: it’s about 20 minutes from junctions 10 and 11 near Cahir. That’s not too much of a diversion. From the spot where this photo was taken – on our travels this week – you can look out across to the Galtee Mountains, a prospect enjoyed for eternity by this imposing statue of Christ the King, whose hand is raised . . . in blessing the Glen, its people and all those who pass by . . . The statue was originally placed here by volunteers in the Holy year of 1950, and recreated in 1975. It has become the symbol of the Glen.

We were passing on our way to search out a secret which the Glen holds: somewhere in the townland of Ardane, we knew that there is a very ancient site where treasures have been hidden away for centuries. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey map has it marked:

I was intrigued, because a ‘Stone Cross’ indicated in this way often implies a High Cross, and a monastic settlement, so I was anxious to investigate. You will remember previous posts I have written on the many magnificent examples of these medieval treasures which Ireland holds. We had been alerted to this site by our friends Amanda and Peter, who have recently visited, and Amanda has given a comprehensive account of St Berrahert’s Well (also shown on the map) in Holy Wells of Cork. Like Amanda, I am unsure if there is a ‘correct’ spelling of St Berrahert: he is also known as Berrihert, Berehert, Bernihardt, Bericheart, and Bernard! Not a lot is known about him, other than that he came to the Glen after the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 and died on 6 December 839 – one of the saints who, like St Ciarán . . . the first Saint of Ireland . . . had a remarkably long life and who has left his name behind in the heart of Tipperary.

The place is generally known as St Berrahert’s Kyle (from the Irish word cill, ‘church’). It’s hard to find. We enlisted the help of Jimmy Martin, a local resident, who regaled us most entertainingly – and at great length – about hooded monks, crows and strange characters he had personally encountered at the site, and cures which he had witnessed at the well. Following his instructions we crossed fields, passed somnolent cows, and saw before us the remarkable ‘Kyle’.

Stone walls and large trees completely encircle an oval shaped enclosure, and the only way in is by steps going over the wall. You are unlikely to be fully prepared for what you find inside. I had hoped for a High Cross – or the fragments of one: we did find a High Cross (perhaps two), but we also found around 70 other stone crosses! Somehow, the Kyle has become a repository for them, but hardly anything is known of their history. After our visit I looked into the stories and found that the enclosure itself – which feels timeless – is probably only as old as I am…

This photograph was taken in 1907. It shows that, for whatever reason, by that time a collection of stone crosses was assembled here. Suggestions have been made that an ancient church on this site was robbed of good building stone, but ‘sacred’ marked stones were left behind out of respect (or from fear of divine retribution). But records do show that the stone enclosure was built in 1946 by the Office of Public Works. What we see today, therefore, is (like me) 72 years old, although of course the stones themselves must have been carved long ago.

The whole collection of stone cross slabs, cross wheels and decorated pillar stones has been put together into an aesthetically pleasing composition which is exciting and – relatively – in safe keeping. To my mind it’s a far better way of displaying these enigmatic pieces than being tucked away in a museum. On a day when the harsh sunlight and perfect blue sky cast deep shadows and outlined the carvings so clearly the place was absolutely magical: the outside world seemed so very far away. The two largest crosses are set close to each other, built into the wall itself. The first is – to my mind – undoubtedly a High Cross in the medieval tradition; it is likely to have originated here, in St Berrahert’s holy place. As to the others, their stories will probably remain untold. But I wish them all well, and hope that future generations appreciate that what has been put together here has a life of its own and should remain an open secret, to be revealed to anyone who makes the effort to search it out.

A pilgrim path – set out with ‘stations’ – encircles the enclosure (photos below). Would this be part of the 1946 construction? From here, the way to the well is marked across more fields, and requires negotiating a boardwalk. It’s a trip that has to be made, though, as the well itself – continuously bubbling up from the sandy bed – is just as magical as the Kyle.

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.