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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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3 more off-the-beaten-track places you really should visit

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman suggests three (free) heritage sites to visit in Waterford, Cork and Kildare.

I FINALLY MANAGED to get down to see some sites around Munster again over the Easter break, visiting some incredible places in Waterford and North and East Cork. Still so much more to see though and I am planning on paying another visit to Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Clare in the very near future. Apologies for shamefully not including any sites in Ulster yet, I do intend to visit some soon so please bear with me!

Here’s some more great heritage sites to visit, and all free of charge:

1. The Towers, Ballysaggartmore (near Lismore), Waterford

The ‘Towers’ is one of the best examples of a nineteenth century folly existing today in Ireland. The Towers were commissioned by Arthur Kiely-Ussher in around 1835. He had inherited over 8,000 acres of land in the area, and quickly gained a reputation for being a harsh and cruel landlord. It is said that his wife had become deeply envious of Strancally Castle, built by Arthur’s brother John Kiely, and hectored Arthur to build a residence to outshine that of his brother. Plans for an extravagant mansion were drawn and work began on the long and winding carriageway, with an ornate gate lodge. They then constructed an elaborate bridge over a small stream, with large towers flanking each side of the bridge.

However their grandiose ambitions quickly outstripped their funds and they ran out of money soon after completing the bridge. Their dreams of building a huge mansion were never to come true –  they spent their days living in the now demolished Ballysaggartmore House, and must have felt despair as they travelled along their stunning carriageway, that it would never lead to the mansion they had so desired. However it is hard to feel too much sympathy for the Kiely-Usshers. Arthur was reputed to have been a cruel and avaricious landlord during the Great Famine, evicting large numbers of tenants who could not pay their rents. He demolished their homes and replaced them with livestock who could bring in a better revenue.

Despite its unjust and sad history, today the site is a wonderful place to walk. It has a real fantasy feeling, walking along the quiet wooded paths and when you finally encounter the Towers, they are like something from the HBO programme Game of Thrones!

The site is pretty easy to find: take the R666 from Lismore heading towards Fermoy (signposted left after the bridge past Lismore Castle). You’ll find the Towers after about 3–4km well signposted on the right hand side. A fairly large carpark and a number of interpretative panels are on the site, I recommend when you arrive to follow the path up the slope to the right and loop around to the Towers that way, first entering by the Gate Lodge.

There are a number of other sites nearby, and Lismore town itself is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon with plenty of great cafes to stop and refuel as well as a number of heritage sites.

2. Bridgetown Priory, Cork

Bridgetown Priory is a beautifully preserved medieval priory positioned on the western bank of the River Blackwater in Cork. The Priory was founded in the early thirteenth century by Alexander FitzHugh, the Norman Lord of Castletownroache. He gave the site to the Augustinian order. The Augustinians had started to flourish in Ireland after the Anglo-Norman invasions that began in 1169, and as well as the establishment of Bridgetown Priory the area suddenly sprouted more priories, friaries, abbeys and nunneries nearby in Buttevant, Fermoy, Ballybeg, Glanworth and Castlelyons. Bridgetown Priory itself was a wealthy and prosperous site for the first century after it was established. In the Papal Taxation of 1306 the value of Bridgetown was reckoned at the hefty sum of £40.

A number of the structures that make up Bridgetown Priory have survived in excellent condition, making it a fantastic site to explore. The early thirteenth century church is in good condition and contains an internal wall that separates the nave (where the general congregation sat during mass) from the choir (reserved for the monks and clergy). There are signs of later medieval developments and modifications at the church, with a large two-storey residential tower added.

As you pass through the church you encounter a number of medieval buildings and features such as a sixteenth century chapel, a well-preserved thirteenth century graveslab, the calefactory (or warming house; apart from the kitchen, the calefactory was the only other building in the Priory allowed to have a fire), the priors’ domestic quarters, a room thought to be the kitchens, a large refectory where the priors met for large communal meals and a vaulted passageway that leads to the cloister. The remains are extensive and you can easily find hours slip by at this wonderfully peaceful spot. I highly recommend a visit; it has a similar feel and atmosphere to the extensive Kells Priory in Kilkenny.

Bridgetown Priory is located about 12km west of Fermoy off the N72. About 2km south of Castletownroache take a minor road to the west at Kilcummer. Then take the road to the south and after half a kilometre, the site is well signposted.

3. Castledermot Round Tower and High Crosses, Kildare

Originally this site was a hermitage founded by St. Diarmaid in 812 AD. Unlike the more usual isolated hermitages like Skellig Michael in Kerry, St. Diarmaid’s positioning of his hermitage at Castledermot is an unusual one. This area was well populated at the time, being located in the rich fertile landscape of the Barrow Valley. So why build a hermitage that wasn’t isolated like most were? Diarmaid was a key figure in the new monastic Céile Dé or Culdee movement; rather than solitary hermits, they wanted their pious, ascetic and abstemious life to be witnessed by the general population so that people might begin to reflect on their materialistic ways.

From small beginnings his hermitage grew into a monastic settlement known as Diseart Diarmada. It was twice raided by the Vikings in 841 and 867 AD, and the annals report it being the scene of violence and raids throughout the eleventh century as various Irish rulers vied for power in this region.

This site is a must-see for any fans of history, archaeology and those who love to explore old graveyards. A number of outstanding features make it one of the most rewarding places to visit in the region. The two high crosses are some of the finest examples of their type. Carved from granite and dating to around the 9th Century, the South Cross is unusual in having biblical scenes on its western face and geometric designs on the eastern side. The North Cross features a number of biblical depictions. As well as being striking markers of Christianity on the landscape, High Crosses were also a method of telling the stories of the bible visually to the largely illiterate population at the time. The Round Tower at the site is quite a small example, standing at only 20 metres high. The masonry of the tower is constructed of rough uncoursed granite.

One of the more unusual features at Castledermot can be found just in front of the South Cross. This is known as a ‘hogback’ grave (see photo above), and is the only hogback grave in Ireland. This type of burial marker is generally more commonly found in areas like Northumberland. It is associated with the Vikings, particularly around the time of transition between traditional Viking paganism and Christianity between 800–1000 AD. That this typically Viking grave marker is here at Castledermot is something of an enigma; the Vikings wouldn’t have been overly popular here as Castledermot was twice raided by the Vikings in 841 and 867 AD. Perhaps the grave marks the burial place of a wealthy Viking trader, a Hiberno–Norse Lord or noble, or even perhaps an Irish noble who was enamoured with the Viking culture. The grave itself is interesting in that it has typical Norse carvings on it (very difficult to make out today unfortunately, but if you look carefully you can just see faint outlines of large diamond shapes under the white lichen).  Some of these designs have their roots in Norse paganism, but it is buried in a Christian burial ground. Whoever was buried here was certainly hedging their bets for the afterlife!

The site is very easy to find, just head into Castledermot in south County Kildare and it is signposted. The site is in the grounds of St. James’s Church of Ireland.

  • You can discover more great sites off the beaten track on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland. And if you’d like to see daily updates of information and images about great historical sites to visit in Ireland you can find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AudioGuides or on Twitter at @AbartaGuides
  • Neil Jackman has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, which are packed with original music and sound effects and are a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. they cost just €1.99 each and are available from abartaheritage.ie

All photographs © Neil Jackman/abartaheritage.ie

Read: 5 off-the-beaten-track places in Ireland you really should visit >

Read: Here’s what posh Irish toilets looked like 700 years ago >

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