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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
heritage ireland

This dramatic Derry clifftop estate was a magnet for high society

Archaeologist Neil Jackman finds medieval magic in Limerick and a splendid demesne in Derry.

IN THIS EDITION of Heritage Ireland, we take a tour around the medieval marvels of Kilmallock in County Limerick, and enjoy the splendour of Downhill Demesne in County Derry. As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Kilmallock, Co Limerick 

Settlement in Kilmallock began in around 600 AD, when St Mocheallóg founded a monastery on a hill one mile north-west of the current town. This monastery gave the town its name, as Kilmallock derives from the Irish Cill Mocheallóg (the Church of Mocheallóg).

The town is one of Ireland’s best-preserved walled towns, and it contains a wealth of stunning medieval buildings and features.

Perhaps most impressive of this array of medieval architecture is the magnificent Dominican priory that sits on the banks of the River Loobagh. The priory was founded in 1291, though it was extended and altered through the centuries. It contains some of Ireland’s best examples of medieval architecture – such as the ornate five-light east window - and a large number of sculptures of human heads (possibly representing benefactors of the priory) can be discovered throughout the buildings.

It was founded with the support of the powerful Gilbert Fitzgerald. His tomb lies in the sanctuary beside the high altar of the priory, an honoured place reserved for the founders of monasteries.

The Fitzgerald family are entwined with the story of Kilmallock. This Anglo-Norman family dominated southern Munster for nearly three centuries. From their base in Kilmallock, the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond (the title derives from Deas Mumhan meaning South Munster), controlled Limerick, North Kerry, North and East Cork and West Waterford.

The Earls of Desmond gradually became independent of English authority and became almost de facto sovereigns of southern Munster. Like many other Norman families, they intermarried with the native Irish and adopted Irish language and customs. This changed with the rise of the Tudor dynasty in England. The most immediate impact of the Tudor dynasty and the Reformation was that the priory was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1541.

Although the Dominicans retained a presence here for a further two centuries, the position of the monastery was never secure in the turbulent times which followed.

The priory was still home to a community of monks in 1645 during the Confederate Wars, when it was visited by the Papal Legate, Cardinal Runnicini. Tragically, in 1648 it was attacked by the parliamentary forces of Lord Inchiquin and two monks were put to death in front of the altar. However despite these shocking events, monks continued to live and work here until well into the 1700s, often under the threat of religious persecution.

As well as the incredible priory, Kilmallock has a number of other medieval buildings to discover. King’s Castle is one of the most notable. This fine example of an urban towerhouse dates to the 15th century. It is likely that it was originally built as the fortified home of a wealthy merchant or noble.

Some of the other medieval buildings include the remains of a 16th century stone mansion house, the medieval collegiate church of Saints Peter and Paul and of course the well-preserved stone walls that surround the town.

A visit to Kilmallock is highly recommended to anyone interested in the story of Ireland’s medieval past. If you plan to visit, we have a free downloadable audio-visual app (iOS and Android) that helps to lead you around the town, please see here for a preview.

Downhill Estate, Co Derry

The wealthy and flamboyantly eccentric Earl Bishop of Derry, Fredrick Augustus Hervey (1730–1803), 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 18th century. One of the estate’s most iconic features, the famous Mussenden Temple, perches on the edge of the cliff above the sea. It was named after Mrs Frideswide Mussenden, the Earl Bishop’s cousin and close friend, who died shortly before its completion.

The temple was designed by Michael Shanahan, a master mason from Co Cork. The Latin inscription around the dome is from Lucretius, it translates to:

Tis pleasant to watch from the land the great struggling of others when the winds whip up the waves on a mighty sea.

The temple was the Bishop’s library, and though he himself was a Protestant earl bishop, Hervey allowed the room below the library to be used for Catholic mass.

Unfortunately a devastating fire swept through the mansion in 1851 and destroyed most of the contents. It was rebuilt and lived in until the 1940s, 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. It is on the railway line between Derry and Coleraine, described by Michael Palin as “one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world” – it certainly looks like a nice commute to me!


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog, Time Travel Ireland, where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

Our latest free to download guide is to the lovely heritage town of Abbeyleix in Co Laois. You can download it as a free audio-visual app (iOS or Android), please see here for a preview.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Abarta Audioguides on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /

Read more from Neil here>

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