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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Heritage Ireland: A magnificent doorway into Laois’s sacred past

Archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us to an ancient monastery with breathtaking sculpture, a medieval fortress built by an Irish lord – and a manor house fit for a queen…

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, we discover the magnificent monastic remains at Killeshin in County Laois, we call in to Harry Avery’s Castle in County Tyrone, and we explore Tudor period Ireland at Ormond Castle in County Tipperary.

Killeshin, County Laois

The remains of the monastic site at Killeshin really is one of Ireland’s best hidden gems. It was originally founded in the sixth century by St Dermot, but it was St Comhdan who became the patron of the site.

Killeshin had a turbulent history with many accounts of raids by warring Irish tribes, particularly in the 11th century. It was plundered and demolished in 1041, and it is recorded that Diarmuid, son of Mael na mBó, was responsible. He was lord of the tribe known as the Ui Ceinnsealaigh who were mortal enemies of the Ui Bairrche tribe that held the lands around Killeshin. It is reputed that Diarmuid tore down or ‘broke’ the oratory on the site, killed over one hundred people and took hundreds more as slaves.

More desecration was recorded in 1077, when the monastery was again raided and several yew trees were burned. This was a clear act of defiance and desecration as yew trees were often planted by monks to mark the sacred boundaries of monasteries.

The church that can be seen on the site today was built on the site of the broken oratory. It was built in the twelfth century, in the Romanesque architectural style. Killeshin is one of Ireland’s finest examples of this style of architecture which features rounded arches and highly decorated doorways.

At Killeshin, the doorway is absolutely magnificent. It has four arches featuring carvings of chevrons, zig-zag, animal and foliage design. The capitals of the arches have human faces carved on them with different expressions and some even beards on their faces. Some suggest that use of shallow carvings and different colour stone indicates that this doorway was possibly painted.

There are also two inscriptions carved into the doorway. One inscription is for Cellachan, who may have been the master stone mason or artist on the site. The other inscription refers to Diarmuid Mac Murrough, the King of Leinster from around 1126 to 1171. He is the man who is credited with inviting the Normans into Ireland. It has been suggested that the boundary between the two warring tribes, the Ui Bairrche and Ui Chennselaigh, was incorporated into a new diocese in 1152, and this may have prompted Diarmuid as the King over the entire province to commission this masterpiece of Irish craftsmanship and continental design.

You can find out more about this wonderful site and explore the ruins of other ancient monasteries and sacred sites along the Laois Monastic Way by downloading your free MP3 audio guide from here. Or you can now download direct to your iPhone, Android Smartphone or tablet with a free audio-visual version that comes complete with Google Maps to help you navigate from site to site. Please follow this link for a preview.

Harry Avery’s Castle, County Tyrone

On high ground, just outside the town of Newtownstewart in County Tyrone, you can discover the remains of a once-mighty fortress, known as Harry Avery’s Castle. The castle is important as it is one of the earliest surviving castles built by an Irish lord. It was constructed by Henry Aimhreadh (‘the unsmooth’) O’Neill some time in the middle of the fourteenth century. Henry was a brother to the powerful Earl of Tír Eógain.

He constructed the castle in an extremely unusual way, as it appears to be a hybrid of English castle design, with some features that would only become common in later medieval Irish towerhouses. The castle was constructed as a bulwark in the fiercely contested borderlands between the Ó Néill and the Ó Domhaill, the two great rival dynasties of Ulster. It defended two vital river valley routeways.

The remains consist of the two great towers of the gatehouse keep, and significant earthworks that show where a large polygonal walled enclosure once stood. You can enjoy stunning views over the surrounding landscape from the castle, and it is a very evocative place to visit.

In the nearby town of Newtownstewart, you can visit the later medieval Newtownstewart Castle.

This dates to around 1619 by Sir Robert Newcomen, it was part of the defensive network that protected the Plantation of Ulster, though it was burned by Phelim O’Neill in the Rebellion of 1641, and again by King James in 1689.

As well as the two castles, there are a number of fascinating places nearby, and County Tyrone is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Harry Avery’s Castle is just over a kilometre south-west of Newtownstewart (and about 15km north of Omagh). Travel along the A5 Omagh – Derry road and take the minor road to Rakelly when you’re in Newtownstewart. You have to cross a field to access the site, so please be sure to close all gates behind you.

Ormond Castle, County Tipperary

Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary is named after the Butler family, a highly influential and powerful Norman dynasty who became Earls of Ormond. The progenitor of the family in Ireland was Theobald Walter who came to Ireland in the aftermath of the Norman Invasion in the late twelfth-century.

He was rewarded for his service by being granted vast lands in the southeast of Ireland, particularly centred around Counties Tipperary, Kilkenny and parts of Waterford.

He was also given the title Chief Butler of Ireland, who had the honour of personally serving the King on state occasions, and with this came the right to levy his own tax on all wine imports into Ireland – as the Normans were known to like a tipple this ensured that Theobald Walter and his successors became very wealthy indeed!

The castle at Carrick-on-Suir is thought to have been originally built in the 1300s, but the remains visible today largely date to later than the fourteenth century. In the grounds you can see the ruins of a medieval bawn (a fortified walled enclosure), with two tall fourteenth or fifteenth century towers, while the main manor house building dates to the Tudor Period.

The Tudor Period was a turbulent time in Irish history. An uprising by the Butler’s long time rivals, The Fitzgeralds, had just been defeated, and King Henry VIII had become the first English Monarch to declare himself ‘King of Ireland’. He began a process of plantations and conquest that was continued after his death, during the reigns of Mary and then Elizabeth.

Friendship with Elizabeth I

During this chaotic period, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory and 10th Earl of Ormond succeeded to his lands and titles in 1546 when he was just 15 years old. Thomas had grown up at the English Court, and was seen as a faithful friend to the Crown. He was a personal friend to the young Elizabeth (and some suggest perhaps their friendship was more romantic than platonic) and he shared a tutor with the future King Edward VI.

Following King Henry VIII’s death, Thomas Butler was present at the coronation of the young King Edward and he was proclaimed as a Knight of the Order of Bath, a very high honour. Following Edward’s death at a young age, he remained at court during Mary’s reign and rose to high favour and prominence when Elizabeth became queen. She named him Lord Treasurer of Ireland, a position that brought great wealth and prestige.

It is said that he had the handsome Manor House of Ormond Castle constructed in preparation for a planned visit by Queen Elizabeth I. However she never journeyed to Ireland to see this splendid building. This building is Ireland’s finest surviving example of an Elizabethan manor house, and many of its architectural styles reflect the English influence.

Originally, its handsome stone walls would have been covered with a plaster render and whitewashed in the fashion of the time. The building faces outwards onto what would have been a large park with a grand carriageway.

Gradually the Butler family began to focus their attention and money on their other residences at Kilkenny Castle and Dunmore House. By the end of the seventeenth century, Ormond Castle was leased to tenants. Gradually, Ormond Castle began to fall into disrepair. It was taken into OPW care in the 1940s, and a long programme of restoration was initiated.

Today you can enjoy a guided tour around this building. The Castle is open free of charge to visitors daily from 6 March to 2 September. You can enter a number of the rooms, most impressively the Long Gallery, and you’ll encounter features like musket-loops, showing a formidable defensive, as well as fashionable, design.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the rare plaster stucco friezes that depict the coat of arms of the Butler family as well as griffins, falcons and portrait busts of Elizabeth I. You can also see impressive grand fireplaces in this stately room that once would have been filled with portraits and tapestries, leaving visitors to Ormond Castle in no doubt about the wealth and taste of the Earl of Ormond.

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from AbartaAudioGuides.com.

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaaudioguides.com

Have you seen these giant tombs?>

Read more in our Hidden Ireland series>

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