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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 20 May, 2019
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Heritage Ireland: Deserted medieval towns, the Hellfire Club and Lady Rohesia's gem

Archaeologist Neil Jackman leaves us for the winter with a bumper trip around Ireland.

IT’S THE FINAL EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series for 2014, so archaeologist Neil Jackman shares some of his personal favourite sites from all around the country in this bumper special edition.

Midlands

Rindoon, County Roscommon

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Rindoon is one of Ireland’s best preserved deserted medieval towns. The castle at Rindoon is thought to date to 1227 and was constructed by Geoffrey de Marisco.

It appears that Geoffrey de Marisco was a villain on a Game of Thrones level of nastiness. He was Justiciar of Ireland between 1215 and 1228, and took full advantage of the young King Henry III by being as corrupt in his dealings in Ireland as possible.

He amassed huge swathes of land and a fortune by seizing goods, lands and taxes in the Kings name and then keeping the rewards for himself. He was eventually dismissed from office in 1228. He was even excommunicated for misappropriating funds from the Church (the money was just resting in ye olde account apparently).

When you visit the site you can encounter the remains of the medieval castle, church, town walls and you can even still make out the plots where houses and field systems give tantalising glimpses of everyday medieval life.

Rindoon is a fantastic site to visit, and as well as the intriguing history and archaeology, it makes for a lovely walk. Rindoon is roughly halfway between Roscommon town and Athlone on the N61 and it is well signposted from the road.

The main part of the site is about a 15 minute walk through fields, which may have livestock, so do remember to bring appropriate footwear and please close all gates behind you. For more information about Rindoon and the story of the villainous Geoffrey de Marisco please click here.

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois

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Perched on a steep rocky crag above the low lying plains of Laois, The Rock of Dunamase is one of the most atmospheric sites to visit in Ireland. The first historical reference to the Rock of Dunamase came from the Annals that record it being plundered by Viking raiders in 843 AD.

The rock was reputedly part of the dowry given by Diarmuid MacMurrough when his daughter Aoife, married the leader of the Norman Invasions Richard de Clare (Strongbow). Strongbow appointed Meiler FitzHenry, a famous Anglo-Norman knight, as custodian of the site and he began to fortify the Rock to ensure the Normans would have a foothold in the notoriously dangerous borderlands between the Norman colony and the Gaelic Irish kingdoms.

The Rock passed to the most famous knight in medieval Europe, William Marshall, when he married Isabel de Clare, daughter of Strongbow. Most of the visible remains on the site today probably date to Marshall’s time. He was an extremely progressive lord who is responsible for some of Ireland’s most famous castles like those at Kilkenny and Carlow.

Dunamase is a wonderful place for a walk and is easily accessible off the M7. You can discover the story of Dunamase by downloading our free audio guide to the site – click here to download.

East

The Hellfire Club, County Dublin

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Steeped in local legends of demonic devilish debauchery, the Hellfire Club is one of the most iconic and atmospheric places to enjoy a walk in Ireland. The building was constructed as a Hunting Lodge for the famous politician William ‘Speaker’ Connolly in 1725, however Connolly died soon after its construction and it was leased to a notorious group of aristocrats who called themselves ‘The Hellfire Club’.

Stories of their bacchanalian revelries and darker tales of demonic rites and devil worship at the Hellfire Club are synonymous with the building and it is undoubtedly an atmospheric and slightly creepy place.

A neolithic passage tomb on the site was destroyed when the building was being constructed, and the remains of this 5,000 year old tomb can be seen just to the rear of the building. The views over the landscape are incredible, and there is a nicely set out walking loop around the hill so it is a popular place for walkers and dog owners.

The site is about 15 minutes’ drive or so south of Tallaght on the R115. It is well signposted with a large carpark, you can simply follow the well made path up all the way to the site.

The River Walk, Trim, County Meath.

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The River Walk at Trim is one of the nicest strolls in Ireland, as you get to see five fantastic medieval sites all positioned alongside the banks of the beautiful River Boyne. Leave your car in the carpark below Trim Castle and cross the wooden bridge over the Boyne.

From this vantage point you can get amazing views of Trim Castle, Ireland’s largest Norman fortress that was constructed by Hugh de Lacy in the late twelfth century.

The unusual building directly across from the castle is Talbot’s Castle, a grand house and formerly the home of Jonathan Swift. The ‘Yellow Steeple’ towers behind it. This was once the bell tower of an Augustinian priory that once thrived here.

Along the path following the bank of the river you can find a number of information panels that inform you about life here in the medieval period. You will also encounter the beautiful remains of the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, a small chapel with the Tomb of the Jealous Man and the medieval remains of the Priory Hospital of Saint John the Baptist. All of these sites are fantastic to explore.

The walk from the castle carpark to the Priory Hospital will take around 30–35mins and there is a great old pub, Marcey Reagan’s directly across from the last stop so you can reward yourself before retracing your steps back along the path.

South East

The Towers, Ballysaggartmore, Lismore, County Waterford

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The ‘Towers’ is one of the best examples of a nineteenth century folly existing today in Ireland. The Towers were commissioned by Arthur Kiely-Ussher in around 1835. He had inherited over 8,000 acres of land in the area, and quickly gained a reputation for being a harsh and cruel landlord.

It is said that his wife had become deeply envious of Strancally Castle, built by Arthur’s brother John Kiely, and hectored Arthur to build a residence to outshine that of his brother. Plans for an extravagant mansion were drawn and work began on the long and winding carriageway, with an ornate gate lodge. They then constructed the elaborate bridge over a small stream, with large towers flanking each side of the bridge.

However their grandiose ambitions quickly outstripped their funds and they ran out of money soon after completing the bridge. Their dreams of building a huge mansion were never to come true, they spent their days living in the now demolished Ballysaggartmore House, and must have felt despair as they travelled along their stunning carriageway, that it would never lead to the mansion they had so desired.

However Kiely-Ussher’s folly has left us with a superbly atmospheric and unique place to go for a walk.

The site is pretty easy to find, just take the R666 from Lismore heading towards Fermoy (signposted left after the bridge past Lismore Castle). lYou’ll find the Towers after about 3–4km, well signposted on the right hand side. A fairly large carpark and a number of interpretative panels are on the site, I recommend when you arrive to follow the path up the slope to the right and loop around to the Towers that way, first entering by the impressive Gate Lodge. For more information about the history of the site please see here.

Athassel Priory, County Tipperary

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Athassel Priory is located close to the village of Golden in Co. Tipperary and is a fantastic example of an Augustianian Priory. Indeed Athassel was once an important urban centre in medieval Ireland.

It is said that there were over two thousand people living in a settlement around the Priory, but today the ruins slumber beside the meandering River Suir, with no visible traces of the vibrant settlement that once surrounded it.

Athassel stands today as a testament to the different fortunes of the Anglo Norman families who came to Ireland in search of opportunities and land. One of the largest medieval priories to be found in Ireland, Athassel is incredibly well preserved and highlights the strong connections between the Norman Lords and the church and the value of strong patronage.

The complex stretches across four acres of land and features one of Ireland’s only medieval gate and bridge complexes, a truly wonderful site to explore.

To get to Athassel, make your way to the village of Golden, Co. Tipperary via the N74. Drive through the village, over the bridge, directly after the bridge turn left (the site is signposted) and continue down this small lane. The site will be located on your left. There is limited parking.

South West

Doneraile Park, County Cork

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Doneraile is a true hidden gem, a lovely estate village with fantastic 19th century architecture and a charming atmosphere. The area has many stories, in horse racing circles it is famous as it was the finish line of the first ever steeplechase, a horserace that ran from the steeple of the church at Buttevant to the steeple of the church at Doneraile in 1752.

Doneraile Court itself was built in around 1725 for Hayes St Ledger, fourth Viscount of Doneraile and it was altered a number of times in the nineteenth century. The St Ledgers were a wealthy and well-connected family, and even have the curious distinction of having one of the first female members of the Freemasons.

In 1710 it is said that Elizabeth St Ledger, the daughter of the first Viscount, hid in a grandfather clock to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Masonic Order, but she was caught and to protect the society’s secrets, she was forced to take the Masonic Vows.

You can find Doneraile around 12km north of Mallow in County Cork, on the R581. The grounds are a fantastic place to spend an afternoon, with lots of ideal spots for a picnic. Be sure to download your free audioguide that tells the story of this lovely site, available to download direct to your smartphone or tablet as a free audio-visual app from here.

Killmallock, County Limerick

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Killmallock is one of Ireland’s best preserved medieval walled towns, and it has a wealth of fascinating historic buildings that are great to explore. The story of Killmallock begins in the early medieval period, some time around 600 AD when St. Mocheallóg founded a monastery on Killmallock Hill.

Over time more religious orders established foundations in Killmallock, and today perhaps the most striking of these are the remains of the Dominican Priory that dates to around 1291.

Here you can explore this treasure-trove of architectural wonders with a number of fantastic examples of the skill of medieval stonemasons with extravagant window designs and numerous sculptures of human heads.

Killmallock was once one of the most important towns in medieval Munster, and it benefitted from its association with the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty. The wealth of the town was reflected in the medieval buildings like the stone mansion, and the elaborate defences like the well-preserved town walls with gates and fortifications like King’s Castle.

West

Moore Hall, County Mayo

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Moore Hall is located in a beautiful spot on the shore of Lough Carra in Co Mayo. The house was constructed between 1792 and 1796 by George Moore. Unlike the unpopular and foolish Kiely-Usshers we encountered at the Towers in Waterford, the Moores were well liked by their tenants who saw them as good and fair landlords.

A descendant of the family, George Henry Moore (who was landlord of the large estate) was renowned for his kindness during the Great Famine.

He was a keen horse racing enthusiast, and during the height of the Famine in 1846 he entered his horse Coranna in the Chester Gold Cup and won the huge sum at the time of £17,000. He used that money to give every one of his tenants a cow. He also imported thousands of tonnes of grain to feed the locality.

Not one person was evicted or starved on George Moore’s estates during the Famine.

George was also a politician and a MP for County Mayo. Today Moore Hall is owned by the forestry company Coillte and is a wonderful and atmospheric spot to enjoy a walk and a picnic.

Moore Hall is located around 11km north of Ballinrobe. Leaving Ballinrobe, take the L1067, this will take you to Ballygarris cross. Turn left at this point and you will be on the road for Carnacon.

Follow the road to the right, and after crossing Annie’s bridge, take the next left turn at Lough Carra lake. This will take you to the car park at Moorehall. There is a marked trail through the woods which is approximately 3km long. For more information please see here.

Clontuskert, County Galway

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The Augustinian Priory of St Mary at Clontuskert is thought to have been founded in the later part of the twelfth century by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht.

Originally Clontuskert would have been a considerably sized Priory that was regularly expanded, with a large undivided church dating to the late twelfth century that later became the chancel when the church was expanded in the early fifteenth century, it was enlarged again when a north transept was added to the building in the late fifteenth century.

Though the Church still survives today, many of the other structures only survive as foundations, although a small part of the cloister has been reconstructed from the remains found on site.

For me the most spectacular feature on the site is the amazing west doorway into the nave. It is beautifully carved and bears the figures of St Michael brandishing a sword and scales for weighing souls on Judgement Day, St John the Baptist, St Catherine and a bishop. It also depicts a pelican, a star, a pair of griffins, a dog, a deer, a rose and a mermaid. It is one of the finest examples of fifteenth century sculpture in Ireland.

Contuskert Priory is very easy to find. Simply head from Ballinasloe towards Portumna on the R355, go past the Ballinasloe Golf Club and keep going straight down the road, after about 5-6km on the R355 you’ll see the site on your left hand side. There is a small carpark and the site is a short 100m walk down a lane.

North-West

Carrowkeel, County Sligo

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Carrowkeel remains one of the most spectacular and breathtaking archaeological landscapes in Ireland, and is simply a must-see for anyone with any interest in our prehistoric past.

The passage tombs are situated at the northern end of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo, and cover a number of the peaks that tower over the surrounding landscape.

The tombs date to the Neolithic period, the time of Ireland’s first farmers around 5,000 years ago, and you can visit three of them (cairns G, H and K) very easily.

You’ll find Carrowkeel around 30km or so from Sligo town. Aim for Castlebaldwin on the N4 road between Sligo and Boyle, and the tombs are well signposted from there. Please be aware that the site may be unsuitable to visit during poor weather conditions.

For more information about its history and how to get there please click here.

Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demense, County Derry

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The wealthy and flamboyant Earl Bishop Fredrick Hervey, chose the beautifully dramatic headland of Downhill in County Derry to build his grand country house. He spent a fortune on the finest architects and designers, and had the grounds beautifully landscaped with follies and iconic features.

He filled the house with artwork by European masters like Rubens, Raphael, Murrillo and Tintoretto, and it became one of the key venues for high society in the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately a devastating fire swept through the mansion in 1851 and destroyed most of the contents. It was rebuilt and lived in until after World War Two, but it never regained the majestic opulence of Hervey’s tenure. Today it is a beautiful place to explore, where you will encounter famous features like the Mussenden Temple, the Lion’s Gate and the mansion itself.

You’ll find Downhill on the scenic A2 Coastal Road, just north-west of Coleraine in County Derry.

North-East

Nendrum, County Down

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Positioned in a scenic setting on Strangford Lough, Nendrum is one of the best-preserved examples of an early Irish monastery. It is thought to have been founded by saint Mo-Choí in the mid 5th century. The site reached its peak in around the 7th–10th centuries, and the remains of a church, round tower, stone houses, sundials, enclosures and tide mills have been discovered.

The site is one of the best to visit to get an idea of how an early-medieval monastery was laid out, and it is an atmospheric and scenic place to while away an hour or two.

You can find Nendrum roughly 25km south-east of Belfast, on a minor road off the A22 (Comber-Downpatrick road).

Castleroache, County Louth

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One of the best of Ireland’s hidden heritage treasures, Castleroache is possibly the finest example of Ireland’s mid-thirteenth century castles. It is thought to have been constructed by Lady Rohesia de Verdun in 1236 to serve as a bastion of defence for the Anglo-Norman colony in Louth against the Gaelic tribes of Ulster.

Lady Rohesia was a formidable woman, and is said to have thrown the castle’s architect through one of the tower windows so he could never reveal the castles secrets.

Castleroache has to be one of the most impressive heritage sites I have visited in Ireland, and it is one of those sites that is so massive, so imposing and so breathtaking that pictures cannot do it justice – it is one you must experience for yourself to gain a true impression of its size and grandeur. For more information about its history and instructions on how to find it please click here.

***

All of these sites are free to enter and are open to the public all year round. Some are situated on private land, so please do ensure that you close all gates behind you and that if livestock are present that you please keep your dogs on a lead. I’d love to know your favourite site, please leave a comment below with your recommendations and I’ll do my best to include the site when the series restarts in the Spring.

So that brings this years Heritage Ireland series to an end. I really wish to thank the Journal.ie for running these articles, and I’d especially like to thank all of you for reading and commenting, for your support and for suggesting new places to visit. If you’d like to discover more about my company please do pay us a visit at abartaheritage.ie where you can download audiobooks and guides to Irish historic sites, and on our Facebook page and Twitter.

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