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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 11 April 2021

Time on your hands this weekend? Here's 3 off-the-beaten-track places to visit

The weather is (finally) getting better so why not go explore one of Ireland’s many historic sites? Here’s three more to visit in Meath, Cork and Sligo.

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

Here’s some ideas for places you can visit around the country (for free!) if you’re interested in Ireland’s history.

Rathmore Church, Co. Meath

Our first site this week may be familiar to you as it was from here that a beautiful medieval font was stolen and then mysteriously returned. We thought we’d go for a look to see the condition of the site. The font itself is currently in safe storage in an OPW depot and will soon be back on display, but the site is certainly worth a visit.

The church at Rathmore was founded in the 15th century by the Plunkett family and was dedicated to St. Lawrence. The Plunketts resided at Rathmore Castle which is in one of the adjacent fields to the church but now very little remains above ground of the castle. The castle and church were held by the Plunketts for generations until the seventeenth century when it passed to the Bligh family. There are records of Rectors present at the church until the later seventeenth century when the church became united with Athboy. The church probably began to fall into ruin after that time.

The church has an L shape plan and there is a small room to the left of the chancel as you are looking east. This was the sacristy. Steps lead up to a room above the darkened sacristy and this was once the living room of the sacristan or resident priest. There is a fireplace in the wall and steps lead up to another floor, which is now gone. This would have been the bedroom. The sacristy on the ground floor contains a tomb and effigy of Thomas Plunkett and his wife Marion Cruise.

The carving of Marion is in poor condition and it is difficult to make her out, but the carving of Sir Thomas is in a better state of preservation (see below) He has been carved in full armour and even has a sleeping dog depicted at his feet. Dogs sometimes appear on medieval tombs to symbolise the fidelity and loyalty of the deceased, or maybe Sir Thomas was just a dog lover! This tomb originally stood in the church but was moved to the sacristy to protect it from the elements. Another beautiful feature of this site is the east window. It is a wonderful example of the skill of the stone mason and probably dates to the fifteenth century. On the external wall of the church, there are three stone carved heads around this window. They are depicting quite jolly looking people: a king, queen and an ecclesiastic, possibly a bishop. A similar carving depicting another ecclesiastic is on the western external wall at the opposite end of the church.

The altar, which stands at the top of the chancel has a range of figures carved onto its surface. This probably dates to the later fifteenth century and has many saints and church figures carved on its surface. At the end of the nave is another doorway which leads you into what would have been the belfry. There are now no floors within this part of the church, but the exterior of the belfry of bell tower is quite well preserved.

Within the graveyard that surrounds the church you can find the remains of a decorated cross. This cross was probably erected for Sir Christopher Plunkett and his wife Catherine in the early sixteenth century. The figures on the shaft of the cross have been identified as St. Patrick grappling with a snake, St. Lawrence and an abbess or female saint, it is thought that this might be a representation of St. Brigid.

The empty pedestal marks the spot from where the font was taken

To get to Rathmore, travel on the N51 towards Athboy. Take the first left hand turn after the village of Rathmore and park on the verge. The church and graveyard are located in fields on the right hand side of the road. The site is on private land so please make sure to close all the gates behind you. The site is free to enter.

Conna Castle, Cork

Conna Castle stands on a height that looms over the valley of the River Bride, a tributary of the Blackwater in Co. Cork. The Castle is a classic Irish Towerhouse, built around 1500 AD. After the rise in hostility between the Gaelic Irish and Anglo–Norman settlers in the fourteenth century, tower-houses became a common sight across Ireland, particularly within The Pale, the Anglo-Norman controlled territory along the eastern coast. The English Crown had offered a subsidy of £10 to wealthy inhabitants of The Pale to build ‘small towers to fortify their lands’.

The tower-house was usually surrounded by a bawn wall. This was often a large stone wall that served as the first line of defence. However there are very little remains of Conna’s bawn wall as with most tower-houses the bawn wall is often removed, with its stone being recycled into other buildings over the centuries after the site is abandoned.

Tower-houses were not solely used by the Anglo-Norman settlers, the Gaelic Irish began to construct their own from the early fifteenth century, calling them caislén or caistél. Conna Castle was built by the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, an Anglo-Norman family who had become increasingly assimilated into the Gaelic Irish culture. They resisted the Reformation during the reign of Elizabeth Ist and open rebellion broke out in 1569. They failed, and the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed. Their lands (including Conna) were seized by the Crown, even though the owner of the castle at the time Thomas Ruadh Fitzgerald had no part in the rebellion.

They were given to the famous English explorer, Walter Raleigh, who was granted 12,000 acres in Munster and made the nearby Lismore Castle into an elegant home. Thomas Ruadh went to London to try to press his rights as the legal heir to all of the Fitzgerald estates, but he was sent home empty handed, given only a nickname – Sugán Earl – The Straw Earl.

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When Hugh O’Neill launched his rebellion in Ulster in 1598, and achieved a great victory over the English at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, The Sugán Earl was emboldened, and launched his own rebellion. Supported by 4,000 troops sent by O’Neill, The Sugán Earl led a campaign to burn out the English settlers across Munster, however in 1601 he was betrayed by his kinsman, The White Knight. The Sugán Earl was taken to the Tower of London, where he became insane and died. Conna was then given to the Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle. In 1645 it was captured by Lord Castlehaven, and in 1650 Conna managed to hold off a ferocious attack by Oliver Cromwell, however it was burned in 1653 in a fire that killed three of the stewards daughters.

Conna Castle passed from owner to owner until it came into the hands of the L’Estrange Family in the mid-nineteenth century, it was willed to the state in 1915. Conna Castle is easy to find as you can see it from miles away! It’s located in the village of Conna between Fermoy and Tallow in Co. Cork. Park on the street and then access the site through the gate following the well made paths up the hill. The site is free to enter.

Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, Co. Sligo

The landscape of the Cúl Irra Peninsula west of Sligo Town is one of the best places in Ireland to encounter wonderful prehistoric megalithic tombs, and the Carrowmore Passage Tomb Cemetery is an integral part of this incredible series of monuments. Here at Carrowmore, clustering in the shadow of Knocknarea, you can find the densest concentration of Neolithic tombs in Ireland. Of the sixty or so monuments that were thought to have originally been on the site, only 31 are still visible today and of these the largest is Listoghil, the large cairn that possibly forms a focal point of the complex. Material carbon dated from Listoghil produced dates of 3640–3380 BC.

A number of smaller passage tombs and boulder burials surround Listoghil, and when you are at the site it is hard not to appreciate the landscape that appears to loom around you. Most of the tombs at Carrowmore were investigated in the 19th Century, and produced artefacts like prehistoric pottery and bone or antler pins as well as the cremated remains of those interred within the tombs. These tombs are some of the earliest passage tombs in Ireland, predating the great tombs of the Boyne Valley like Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. They were constructed during the Neolithic period, by Ireland’s first farmers, who supplemented their attempts at agriculture with hunting and foraging, indeed many of the tombs had seashells left as offerings, indicating the importance that the sea held as a resource for the community.

The remains of the people who built these tombs were usually cremated, and often the remains of a number of individuals were collectively buried together, with evidence that some of the individuals remains were stored elsewhere before being brought to be interred together with others in one large ceremony. The building of these complex tombs that required considerable numbers of people working together, and the subsequent burial in groups seems to hint that maybe there was a real collective identity in Neolithic Ireland. This appears to change to a more individual focused culture in the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods, when individuals were buried alone in stone lined pits known as ‘cist burials’, or in single cremations, occasionally inside a pottery urn.

Carrowmore is very well signposted, head South West of Sligo Town. There is a small exhibition centre run by the Office of Public Works, and guided tours of the monuments are available. Entry costs €3 for an adult, €2 for anyone over 60, and students/children costs €1. See here for details.

  • 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 absolutely free to download in the case of the Rock of Dunamase) and are available from abartaheritage.ie
  • All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie

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