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.

Battling It Out


…Fierce is the wind tonight, it ploughs up the white hair of the sea – I have no fear that the Viking hosts will come over the water to me…

Translated by F N Robinson from an old Gaelic poem ‘The Viking Terror’

The Vikings are coming!

The Vikings are coming!

There was a great battle fought in Ireland on Good Friday.

Really? Good Friday just gone?

Yes – huge forces, hundreds of people, Viking longboats, swords, spears, axes…

I don’t think that’s very likely in this day and age.

It is in Ireland: the Battle of Clontarf was re-enacted this Easter – 2014 – exactly 1,000 years after it took place.

Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014

Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 (Hugh Frazer 1826)

So what’s the connection with West Cork?

Well, the victor of the battle was Brian Boru, and he was at one time the King of Munster – crowned on the magnificent Rock of Cashel. That is, before he became the High King of all Ireland – seated at Tara, County Meath, and before he decided to take up arms against the Vikings.

The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel

So, this was a battle between the Irish and the Vikings?

Actually, no. This was the Irish and the Vikings fighting – er – the Irish and the Vikings.

Sounds a bit complicated.

Irish history has always been complicated. The first Viking raids on Ireland took place in the eighth century. Initially they were aimed at the rich ecclesiastical centres but eventually the raiding parties became colonising parties, and by the tenth century there were many settlements of Norse people in Ireland who mingled, married and traded with the locals. As always there were factions within factions and the Irish clans – who frequently picked fights with each other – formed allegiances with some of the colonisers while falling out with others.



So, who won the Battle of Clontarf?

Well, in 2014 everybody did: there were no casualties. But in 1014 Brian Boru’s forces (which included some Viking allies) lost 4,000 of his 7,000 followers while on the other side the opposing mainly Viking forces (but including a contingent of Leinster men who had fallen out with Brian Boru) lost 6,000, leaving them only 500 standing on the field. You could say that it was a rout – and legend has it that Brian Boru drove the Vikings out of Ireland.

So we’ll put that down as a win for Brian then?

In a way, but sadly he didn’t live to see it. At 74 he was too old to fight and he spent the day praying in his tent. Brodir of Mann, one of the fleeing Vikings, found him there and murdered him.

That’s a bit much…

Yes, not exactly the end you’d like to see for such a hero. But I suppose it made him a martyr for the Irish cause and has certainly assured him a top place in history and legend.


You haven’t mentioned any legends.

To be honest the whole Brian Boru story was once considered to be a complete legend. No archaeological remains have ever been found of the battle; its site is disputed; and no-one knows exactly where Brian Boru has been buried – although there are various stories about all this which are still told in good faith after 1,000 years.

Didn’t he play the harp?

Well ‘the Harp that once through Tara’s Hall the soul of music shed’ was supposedly played by King Brian. It’s kept in Trinity College Dublin – where you can also see the Book of Kells. Unfortunately it’s been dated to the 15th century and therefore could never have belonged to Brian.

The harp has been used as a national symbol by the Free State but is perhaps most familiar in its incarnation on Guiness bottle labels. It has a chequered history itself: it was restored (very badly) and played for a time on special occasions but is now considered too fragile to allow the wire strings to be fully tensioned. In March 1969 it was stolen!

boru harp

Oh no! Did it come back?

Yes: after some very cloak-and-dagger antics involving large sums of ransom money being left in a dustbin in a Dublin back street it was eventually found wrapped in a sack in a sandpit.

Did they catch the dastardly thief?

They did, and he was given a two year suspended sentence as his defence counsel argued that he should be allowed to flee the country or he would be lynched…

A sensible approach to matters of law!

Indeed. And we can be happy that the whole Brian Boru / Battle of Clontarf story has given rise to huge media coverage, hopefully boosting tourism in Ireland.

That’s grand.