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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 13 December, 2019
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4 more off-the-beaten-track places you really should visit

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman suggests four (free) heritage sites to visit in Cork, Galway, Louth and Laois.

IT’S SATURDAY MORNING and if you’re lucky, you have the weekend off and time on your hands.

There is no entry fee to any of these four sites in Louth, Cork, Galway and Laois – so what are you waiting for!

1. Castleroache, Co Louth


Castleroache is positioned high on a rock outcrop that towers over the surrounding landscape. 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.

The castle is nearly triangular in shape with a projecting tower at the north-east angle. It is protected on three sides by the precipitous slope that surrounds it, with the entrance on the eastern side protected by a deep rock-cut ditch. A wooden drawbridge would have led to the interior of the castle through the two massive D-shaped towers. The drawbridge may once have had additional protection from outworks or a barbican gate but no clear above- ground remains of that can be seen today.

The towers are rounded at the front in the defensive style of the time, with a number of arrow loops at varied levels to allow the archers defending the gateway to loose murderous volleys on the attacking enemy. The towers also had four stories at the rear, that would have provided accommodation and living space for the garrison of Castleroache. The large Great Hall of the castle is located on the southern side, (down to your left as you enter through the towers).

This castle still strongly exudes a feeling of power and dominance over the landscape today. It 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.

To find Castleroache from Dublin, head north on the M1 and exit at Junction 17. Take the first exit off the roundabout following signs for the N53/Castleblaney, continue out on this road until you see a right-hand turn signed for Castleroache and Forkhill, take this turn and follow the road, the site will be on your right hand side up a laneway. Park on road, and please be aware that the site is on farmland, please do not block any gateways and please ensure all gates are closed behind you. Simply walk up the slope through the field to access the castle, there is an interpretation panel on your right hand side when you enter through the gateway.

2. Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, Co Cork


The tomb at Labbacallee near Glanworth in Co Cork is Ireland’s largest example of a wedge tomb, with a chamber that measures nearly 14 metres long. Wedge tombs are the most common of Ireland’s megalithic tombs, and are most commonly found in the western half of the country. The name ‘wedge tomb’ simply refers to the simple wedge shape, as the height and width of the monument decreases from the front to the rear. Wedge tombs are the last of Ireland’s megalithic tombs, and usually date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age periods.

Labbacallee was excavated by Harold Leask and Liam Price in 1934. They found that the burial chamber was divided into two parts, a long gallery (see the header photo) and a small box like feature at the eastern end. This eastern feature contained cremated remains, and an unburned but headless skeleton of an adult female. The skull was found in the gallery next to the skeletons of an adult male and child. The remains of these three individuals were radiocarbon dated, the results revealed that they appeared to have been interred separately between 2456–1776 BC.

Folklore has always helped to protect some of Ireland’s ancient sites. At Labbacallee, local legend tells the story that long ago four men went during the night to dig for gold that they believed to be buried inside the tomb at Labbacallee. As soon as they started to dig, a strange cat with fire erupting from its tail appeared, the men were terrified and dazzled by the blinding light coming from the tail of this hellish cat and they panicked, running across the fields fleeing for their lives, and in their confusion fell into the nearby River Funshion. One of the men drowned, but the others lived to pass on the warning not to disturb the ancient dead at Labbacallee!

The tomb is quite easy to find, from Glanworth simply head south on the R512 and take the first left after the church. The site is about 2km down this road. It will be on your left hand side behind a small stone wall. There is room to pull in off the road in front of the monument. There are a number of other great sites to see nearby, including lovely Glanworth itself with its Castle and Friary, and nearby you can also find the wonderful Bridgetown Priory.

3. Clontuskert Priory, Co Galway


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, on the site of an eighth century monastery dedicated to St. Boedán, although no archaeological evidence has been found as yet of the earlier monastery.

Originally Clontuskert would have been a considerably sized Priory, and it 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 fifeenth century. It was enlarged again when a north transept was added to the building in the late fifteenth century. Though the Church still survives well 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 strangely, a mermaid, who has a mirror in her left hand and a star in her right hand. Similar mermaids can be found at Clonfert and St.Nicholas’s Cathedral in Galway.

The Mermaid at Clontuskert, she’s no Darryl Hannah…

The inscription above the doorway reads:

Mathev Dei gra eps Clonfertens et Patre oneacdavayn canonie esti domine fi fecert Ano do MCCCCLXXI

Which can be translated to:

Mathew by the Grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert, and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made in 1471.

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 car park then the site is a short 100m walk down a lane

4. The Rock of Dunamase, Co Laois


I featured this incredibly atmospheric site in my very first article of this series for TheJournal.ie but I thought you may like to know that there is an audioguide now available for Dunamase completely FREE of charge from my website at Abartaaudioguides.com. The audioguide will take you through the site and its complex and often bloody history.

You will hear about the Viking raid on Dunamase in 844 AD when it was an early medieval fort known as Dun Masc, how the site became a feared stronghold of the Norman adventurer Myler FitzHenry in the late twelfth century and how the site then came into the possession of William Marshall, the most illustrious knight in Medieval Europe. You will discover the daunting prospect of the defences at Dunamase, and how it became such a strategic stronghold for the Normans in their campaign to conquer Ireland.

With its atmospheric ruins and stunning views of Laois, The Rock of Dunamase should be on everybody’s must-see list. It is free to enter with a small carpark at the base. The guide was produced with the kind support of Laois County Council.

This is part of a regular series of articles on great sites to visit in Ireland. I’m hoping to visit as many sites across the country as possible, so if you have any suggestions for sites in your locality please let us know by leaving a comment below or send an email to info@abartaaudioguides.com.

You can discover more great sites off the beaten track 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 cost just €1.99 each (or free in the case of Dunamase) and are available from abartaheritage.ie

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie

Read previous off-the-beaten-track guides on TheJournal.ie>

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