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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
take a walk

Heritage Ireland: Discovering the ancient Slí Mhór among the bluebells

Archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us through an ancient roadway that traversed Ireland, a fine medieval priory and an intriguing hermit cell hidden in a church.

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, we visit the atmospheric and remarkable St Doulagh’s Church in County Dublin, we discover medieval monasticism at Ballybeg in County Cork, and we take a walk in Donadea Forest Park in County Kildare, where the bluebells are in full bloom!

St Doulagh’s Church, County Dublin

Every now and again a heritage site really surprises me. We were out on Friday looking at sites in the north county Dublin/Fingal region, and we really enjoyed visiting the town of Swords with its fine round tower and castle. After a lunch stop at Malahide Castle, we decided to stop at a church called St Doulagh’s that was nearby. We thought it would be a ten minute stop but we were extremely lucky when we bumped into Victor, who works at the site and he gave us a fascinating guided tour of a truly remarkable building.

St Doulagh’s is still used as a Church of Ireland place of worship, and on first entering the church it appears as a very nice, but not particularly unusual place, with fine oak vaulting on the ceiling and the stately but welcoming feel typical of a lot of Church of Ireland buildings. However the first clue of the building’s antiquity was the plain medieval baptismal font that is still in use today. When we were led into the vestry in the old part of the church, the sheer history of the building became very apparent.

A monastery is believed to have been founded here by the little-known, seventh century anchorite hermit Saint Doulagh. However the earliest historical reference to the church dates from the ninth century, in the Martyrology of Oengus. In that text, the church is called Duilech Cain Clochair. The site has many of the features of an early medieval monastery. In the 1980s, excavations led by the archaeologist Leo Swan discovered a number of burials and the enclosure ditches that once surrounded the monastery.

The church building is a fascinating mish-mash of a number of different periods, and it can be extremely difficult to work out which features date to which period. The eastern end of the building is thought to be the earliest. It has a very steeply vaulted stone roof and has a croft or living quarters for the monks. It is a little reminiscent of the vaulted stone roof of St Kevin’s Church at Glendalough, or St Colmcille’s House in Kells.

This part of the building is thought to date to the twelfth century, making St Doulagh’s the oldest stone-roofed church still in use as a place of worship. The tall central tower is thought to have been added in the fifteenth century, and you can access a number of the rooms from the exceptionally narrow spiral staircase.

In the entrance hall there is a small ‘hermit’s cell’ which is reputed to be the burial place of St Doulagh himself. From there you can access the handsome 19th century church that adjoins the older building. In the grounds of the churchyard you can find a lovely octagonal building covering St Doulagh’s Holy Well and it is a charming and atmospheric spot. The interior was covered with frescoes in the early seventeenth century, painted in 1609 by a Mr Fagan, of Feltrim, though Victor the guide informed us that they were destroyed in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars.

Just behind this well you can find another well dedicated to St Catherine. It appears as an underground bath enclosed by a rectangular vaulted building, but this one is unfortunately not accessible at present. Just on the outside of the site near the entrance you can find an early medieval plain granite cross on a modern stepped-base. This was said to have been moved from the inside of the churchyard in the late 18th century.

I strongly recommend a visit to St Doulagh’s; it is a really fascinating building with a great atmosphere. St Doulagh’s church is located at Balgriffin, on the Malahide Road, some 600 metres north of Balgriffin Cemetery. It is on the bus route 42 or 43 from Dublin City Centre. Tours are available from May to September on Sundays from 2.30pm – 5.30pm. Tours can be arranged at other times for school, families, historical societies and heritage groups by contacting The Friends of St Doulagh’s, see their website for more detail.

Ballybeg Priory, County Cork

The Priory was dedicated to St Thomas and founded in 1229 for the Augustinians by Philip de Barry. Like most medieval Augustinian priories, Ballybeg was laid out around a central cloister area though unfortunately that does not survive today. However the church still stands on the site. It has two fine lancet windows, and a tower that was added in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. A second tower that probably served as domestic quarters for the monks was also added around this time.

The refectory where the monks ate their meals, used to stand opposite the church, though only the laver – the basin where the monks washed their hands before eating – still survives today.

Ballybeg has one of the finest preserved medieval dovecotes in Ireland. The dovecote housed pigeons that were fed on waste grain from the priory’s farm. The pigeons not only provided a tasty source of protein for the monks, but their copious droppings were collected as a valuable fertiliser. Inside you can still see the niches where the birds used to roost, and the hole in the marvellously corbelled roof allowed them to go in and out.

Ballybeg is certainly worth a trip, you’ll find it south of the medieval walled town of Buttevant (also well worth a visit) in County Cork, just off the N20 Limerick to Cork Road. The site is free to enter.

Donadea Forest Park, County Kildare

As we live pretty close by to Donadea Forest Park we often enjoy long walks with our dog Peig (yes, that’s her below) around the numerous trails. It is a popular spot for people in the locality, and it’s a great time of year to visit as the lovely bluebells are in full bloom.

The Forest Park now encompasses almost 250 hectares. The demesne was established by the Anglo-Normans as a Manor, and the demesne passed to the Aylmer family in 1558. In 1624 Gerald Aylmer completed the construction of a Tower House, which is now the oldest part of the existing structure, as most of the visible remains we can see now date to the early nineteenth century.

The Aylmers became embroiled in the Catholic Confederacy uprising in the middle of the seventeenth century, and in 1642 the powerful James Butler, Earl of Ormonde (despite being the brother-in-law of Aylmer) successfully laid siege to Donadea Castle and burned it to the ground. The house was rebuilt by 1772, and in the early nineteenth century, Gerald George Aylmer began an extensive programme of renovation, reconstruction and modernisation on the estate. He had the house remodelled in the fashionable Gothic style of the time. He had large walls constructed to enclose the demesne and a grand new carriageway (today called Lime Tree Avenue) was built to lead into the estate. You can discover some of these features (including a great example of an ice house), on the grounds of the estate.

The ancient routeway of Ireland, the Slí Mhór (The Great Way), that traversed Ireland from East to West, passes through Donadea. Alongside this highway of ancient Ireland, a church was founded in the early medieval period. Very little remains above ground today of the church, but a new church named St Peter’s was constructed as part of the large programme of works in the early nineteenth century.

A lake was also created as a landscape feature and to provide work during the Great Famine. Today it’s one of the busier areas of the park, with families feeding the numerous ducks and enjoying the tranquil surroundings. Close by to the lake, you can find a poignant memorial to those who lost their lives in the attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September, 2001. Donadea Forest Park is under the management of Coillte, and is a great place to enjoy a walk. It is situated just south-west of Maynooth and is well signposted from the R407 between Clane and Kilcock. There is an entrance fee of €5 per car.

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

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

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /

Read more in our Heritage Ireland series>

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