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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020

Heritage Ireland: The church at the crossroads of Dublin's ancient past

St Audoen’s in Dublin city centre stands by the most ancient road into Dublin. (And learn, too, about where the monks from Skellig Michael fled from their lonely rock in the sea.)

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us to an ancient tomb in Co Sligo, to evidence of Dublin’s medieval history at St Audoen’s, and to a peaceful priory in Co Kerry.

Deerpark Court Tomb, Co Sligo

Sligo has an incredible landscape of prehistoric monuments, and it is one of the best places to encounter evidence of our Neolithic past. Set high in the hills with expansive views over Lough Colgagh and the surrounding landscape you can discover an ancient court tomb at Deerpark (also known as Magheranrush).

Court tombs are thought to be the earliest type of megalithic tomb to have been built in Ireland.

As their name implies, they usually feature a large courtyard area that was usually in front of a covered gallery that contained the human remains, often in two or more chambers.

The galleries or chambers were usually covered with a large cairn of small stones – though often, as with this example at Deerpark, the cairn has long since been removed. Deerpark is also very unusual amongst Irish court tombs, as the court is in the centre of the monument, rather than being positioned at the front.

It is thought that the open court was where ceremonies were conducted. With the passage of over 5,000 years, we can only speculate at the type of rituals that accompanied burials in sites like this one. Generally speaking, cremation was the dominant burial practice of the Irish Neolithic, though unburned remains have been discovered at other court tombs around the country.

Quite often the burials would be accompanied by pottery vessels, and stone tools like polished stone axeheads, flint arrowheads, scrapers or blades. In some cases the artefacts have been found to have been burned, perhaps suggesting that these were prized possessions of the deceased, and that they were also placed on the funeral pyre.

Court tombs are almost solely found in the Northern half of the island, and Sligo has a number of fine examples (such as Creevykeel); however with its beautiful views over the landscape, and with the great cairn of Knocknarea so visible on the horizon, its hard to beat the atmospheric setting at Deerpark.

To find the site, from Sligo take the R278 heading east. The site is signposted from the road at the second right hand turn after Calry, down a small track (with a cattle grid at the gate). Leave your car at the carpark and follow the track through the forest plantation, you’ll find the site after about a 10 to 15min walk. After visiting, why not take a short 5 minute drive to see Parke’s Castle on the shores of Lough Gill. I featured that site in a recent article.

St Audoen’s Church, Dublin City

Constructed at the western side of the medieval city, St Audoen’s dates to the late 12th century, though it may stand on the site of an earlier church as a ninth century graveslab was found on the site.

The church was dedicated to St Ouen (or St Audoen) of Rouen, the patron saint of Normandy. The church was extended and modified many times over its history. The first phase was completed by around 1200 AD.

The church was a simple two-celled design, with a nave and a narrower chancel. The entrance of the building was through the decorative moulded doorway that was carved in a typical Romanesque style. In the early years of the 13th century, the second phase of the church saw the chancel and nave combined to create one large room.

The next phase in the early 14th century saw major modifications at St Audoen’s, with the development of an elaborate four bay arcade creating a new nave that nearly doubled the size of the church, following that a fifth bay was constructed in the arcade and a new chancel. The original Romanesque doorway was moved to a recess in the western end of the church where it can still be seen today.

In the 15th century a four-storey bell tower was constructed at the western side of the church. This tower houses large bronze bells, one cast in 1423, making them the oldest church bells still in use in Ireland. Extensive excavations were carried out in the 1990s and they revealed a wealth of information about the site, much of which forms the basis for an exhibition on the site about the role of St Audoen’s Church in medieval Dublin.

Today St Audoen’s is an OPW heritage site and is a wonderful (and free) place to visit, with a number of fascinating features to see like the Portlester tomb and the 17th century memorials to the Sparke and Duff families. For opening hours see here. St Audoen’s features on our audioguide to Viking and Medieval Dublin, downloadable as a MP3 from here.

Ballinskelligs Priory, Co Kerry

When the monks of Skellig Michael finally abandoned their rocky abode, thought to be some time in the 12th century, the monks settled here at Ballinskelligs where they adopted the Augustinian rule and established a priory dedicated to St Michael.

Like most Augustinian foundations, there would have been a large church, and a series of other buildings all surrounding a central cloister garth. Unfortunately coastal erosion is thought to have destroyed a lot of the original monastic site, and what remains appears to date from the 15th century.

With its beautiful setting, Ballinskelligs is well worth a trip. You can find it west of Waterville, just off the R566 in the stunning scenery of the Ring of Kerry.


  • 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

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 /

Catch up with previous Heritage Ireland guides here>

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