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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 13 October, 2019
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Hidden Ireland: A deserted medieval town, Ireland's Alcatraz, and a round tower

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman looks at 3 off-the-beaten-track places to visit in Roscommon, Cork and Laois.

IF YOU FEEL like you’ve been stuck indoors too much so far this summer, here’s three more great heritage sites to visit in Ireland in counties Roscommon, Laois and Cork, as part of our ongoing series on off-the-beaten-track places to visit.

Spike Island, Cobh, County Cork

Known as Ireland’s Alcatraz, Spike Island has a long and varied history. The island is quite large at around 103 acres, lying off the lovely harbour town of Cobh in Cork. The first recorded habitation of Spike Island comes from the Early Medieval period. Saint Mochuda (also known as Saint Carthage), is said to have founded a monastic site on Spike in 635 AD. Spike next appears in the records when King Henry II claimed the island for the Anglo-Normans in 1176; however no traces of this earlier activity has been discovered by archaeologists on the island.

It is thought that after his campaign in Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell used Spike Island as a holding area for Irish Catholics who were being transported to work as indentured labourers on British plantations in the West Indies. This would not be the only time Spike Island served as a prison in its history.

As the eighteenth century progressed, war between the increasingly ambitious European powers seemed inevitable. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, relations between Britain and France had completely broken down following the French Revolution. Cork Harbour was of huge economic and strategic importance, so the British fortified Spike Island with batteries of cannons and a fort to deny entrance into the harbour to any hostile French ships. A map of 1821 shows a large star-shaped fort, a hospital on the western side of the island, engineers yards, and a number of ancillary buildings, many of which are visible on the island today.

In 1847 Spike Island again was used as a holding area for convicts before transportation to Australia and Tasmania. The convicts had a harsh life, and were used as forced labour to carry out numerous building programmes on the island, as well as constructing the docks and forts on the neighbouring Haulbowline Island. Conditions on the island were said to have been very poor.

A number of political prisoners were held on Spike Island following the 1848 Rebellion. John Mitchell was probably the best known of these prisoners: Mitchell was an Irish nationalist and journalist was held on Spike Island before his transportation to Tasmania. Mitchell managed to escape the hellish life on Tasmania and settled in America, where he became a prominent pro-slavery voice of the Confederate side during the American Civil War. By 1883 all prisoners had been removed from the island and it reverted to being used as a military base.

During the First World War, Spike Island became an important base of operations against the German submarine fleet. During the War of Independence, hundreds of political prisoners and Republicans were interned at Spike Island. Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Spike remained a British military base until 1938 when it was handed over to the Irish government. The Irish army and navy occupied the island, many living their with their families until 1985. The island served as a prison again, this time for young offenders, who remained on the island until 2004.

The island is an utterly fascinating place to visit and it really does have something for everyone to enjoy. History buffs like me, nature lovers and bird watchers, and people who just love a good walk in a beautiful and unique setting will all have a brilliant day out on this wonderfully atmospheric island.

You can find out more about Spike Island, including ferry times from Cobh from their website at http://www.spikeislandcork.ie

Rindoon Deserted Medieval Town, County Roscommon

Strategically positioned on a peninsula that thrusts out like a finger into Lough Ree, 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 (you can read the full story of his medieval malevolence here).

The castle that de Marisco constructed at Rindoon was one of the most important Norman castles in Connacht, and after de Marisco forfeited his lands when he was declared an outlaw, the castle became a Royal possession. The castle was in the hands of a ‘constable’ who was responsible for its maintenence and defence, and records from the time show that money was regularly spent on the castle to bolster its defences and maintain it.

The castle is surrounded by a deep ditch and bank, and the base of the walls are clearly battered to provide protection against undermining and to deflect stones dropped from the battlements above into the front ranks of an attacking army.

The gateway is well defended with grooves showing where a portcullis would have barred the way, and murder-holes strategically positioned above so the defenders could pour boiling fats and oil down on top of the attackers.

Unfortunately the interior of the castle is in a dangerous state so access is currently restricted, but hopefully it will be opened to the public soon. However you can still visit a number of the remains of other features of the medieval town, such as the town walls, church and windmill.

The defences of the castle held strong when the town was raided and sacked by Feilimid Ó Conchobhair in 1236, as he was unable to seize the castle. After Feilimid became King the following year in 1237, a period of peace and prosperity came to Rindoon, however it was not to last. Feilimid’s son and heir Aed was far more warlike than his father, and successfully sacked Rindoon twice in 1270, and again in 1271 and 1272. The raid in 1272 was said to have been so bad that Rindoon was described as being ‘levelled’.

Rindoon Castle was repaired by Geoffrey de Geneville the Justiciar and rich Norman Lord who had inherited Trim Castle in County Meath through marriage. This work was continued by his successor Richard d’Ufford, who spent a fortune repairing the beleaguered town. Rindoon was finally effectively destroyed when Ruaidrí Ó Conchobhair captured and burnt the town and seized the castle, while the Anglo-Normans in Ireland were distracted during the invasion of Edward Bruce.

There were further small attempts to reconstruct the town, but it was positioned in increasingly hostile territory, and the resurgent Gaelic tribes repeatedly raided the town before it was finally abandoned. Some of the features of the site appear to date to the sixteenth and seventeenth century so it is apparent that activity, albeit on a much more muted scale, continued sporadically at Rindoon.

Rindoon is a fantastic site to visit, and as well as the intriguing history and archaeology, it makes for a lovely walk. It is similar in feeling to the other deserted medieval town I visited in March, at Newtown Jerpoint in Co. Kilkenny. At both of these sites you get this really atmospheric strong feeling that the medieval past is only covered by a thin veil, that the quiet fields covered with sheep were once vibrant markets, streets and houses thronged with people going about their daily lives. A site well worth a visit!

Rindoon is free to enter, and you’ll find it roughly half way between Roscommon Town and Athlone on the N61. It is well signposted from the road and there is a small area to park your car. The main part of the site is about a 15 minute walk through fields and the fields are full of livestock (cattle and sheep) so do remember to bring appropriate footwear and please close all gates behind you.

Timahoe Round Tower, County Laois

The wonderful round tower at Timahoe in County Laois has to be one of the finest in Ireland. The round tower stands on the site of a monastery, said to have been founded by Saint Mochua in the seventh century AD. St. Mochua was a seventh century warrior who converted to Christianity and became a hermit: he had no worldly possessions at all apart from his psalter, a rooster, a mouse and a fly. The rooster kept the hour of matins for him so he never missed prayers, the mouse made sure he never slept more than three hours a night by licking his ears if he fell asleep while praying, and the fly would mark his position in the psalter so he never lost his place. The dwelling where St. Mochua lived – Teách Mochua – gives its name to Timahoe.

The site is most famous for the wonderful round tower that is thought to date from the early part of the twelfth century. It has the most ornate, romanesque-style doorway of any round tower in Ireland, and in the right light conditions you can make out wonderfully intricate carvings of interlacing chevrons and representations of human heads. This doorway is positioned approximately 5m up from the ground level, with the tower itself standing almost 30m tall.

For centuries scholars debated about what exactly these iconic Irish round towers were actually used for, with ideas ranging from them serving as look out points or refuges in case of Viking raids. However it is likely that round towers were primarily bell towers, even their name in Irish ‘Cloig Teach’ translates to ‘bell house’. The towers would have also been highly visible markers in the landscape, serving almost as a lighthouse to weary pilgrims who would know that a Round Tower meant a monastic site, where they can buy accommodation and warm food for the night.

You can also discover the remains of a fifteenth century Franciscan Friary church. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s, the church and friary were converted into a defensive castle, though little of that survives today. The nineteenth century church next to the round tower is now used as a library.

Timahoe is a wonderfully peaceful site to visit and is very easy to access and free to enter. You’ll find it about 10km south from Portlaoise on the R426 heading towards Carlow. If you’re visiting Timahoe why not try the amazing Rock of Dunamase that is located close by to the north. My site has a free audioguide available that will lead you around this magnificent site and tells you the story of its bloody and tempestuous history. You can download the guide for free from www.abartaaudioguides.com.

  • 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 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 abartaheritage.ie

All photographs © Neil Jackman / abartaheritage.ie

Read: Ever wondered where medieval Dubliners went for a pint? >

Read: Time on your hands this weekend? Here’s 3 off-the-beaten track places to visit >

Read: Hidden Ireland: Celtic crosses, follies and historic pubs >

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