Meath Meanderings 2009
This is the combined account of two visits to County Meath in March and April 2009.
The first tour began at the Hill of Slane (N962752). Tradition says that it was on this site that St Patrick, in 433, lit the Pascal Fire, against the orders of the High King. This act symbolised the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. However the oldest structure on the hill is an Anglo-Norman motte, and, apart from the story of St Patrick, there is no definite knowledge of the history of Slane before the early 16th century. It is mentioned many times in the Annals and appears to have had more than its fair share of martyrdoms, plunderings and raids. St Erc is said to have founded a monastery there in the early 6th century. In 1512 a friary was established for the Franciscan Third Order at Slane.
It was founded by Christopher Fleming and his wife Elizabeth Stuckly. At the same time a college was founded for four priests, four clerics and 4 choristers. After the Dissolution the friary and college was granted to Sir James Fleming. The ruins on the hill are in two groups. To the south is a church within a graveyard. At the W end of the church is a tower standing to full height. Above the arch of the tower is an ornate three-light window. At the top storey are two small windows at each face. Above the S windows on the outside is a carved mask. Within the tower is a narrow stairway. The church has a nave with a S aisle. In the graveyard are the gabled ends of an early tomb, possibly that of St Erc. The other building is the College. It has the remains of some fine mullioned windows and a number of decorated stones, including some carved masks. There are many fireplaces throughout the building and a large vaulted room within which is a collection of carved fragments. A spiral stairway at the corner of this room leads to roof level. Both the church and college continued in use until 1540. The motte lies a short distance to the west.
The next monument was a wayside cross in Carrickdexter (N937735), a short distance west of Slane, close to the line of the old Navan Road. This monument is also known as Baronstown Cross and was erected by Jennet Dowdall and her husband Oliver Plunkett c1607. It is similar in appearance to other Dowdall crosses in the area. It is a tall slender pillar encircled by a rectangular projecting collar near the top and capped by a gabled stone. Most of the shaft is covered by a lengthy inscription with heraldic shields and clerical figures just below the collar. The collar had winged angels at the corners but the carving is greatly weathered and it is not possible to say what the angels support between them.
It had been our intention to visit only sites north of River Boyne but we took the opportunity is stray southwards to Ardmulchan (N908702), mainly for the magnificent view afforded by its position high above the south bank of the river. When I visited this site in 1990 the ruins were greatly overgrown and much of the detail was hidden. During this present visit it was good to see that ivy had been removed from much of the church tower.
The ruins are of a rectangular church with a tower at the west end. This stands to full height and has a double bell-cot. The ground floor is almost intact and is vaulted. There are holes for three bell ropes. A mural stairway leads to above the vault. The rest of the ruin is very low. Within the ruin there are several pieces of window tracery, some with glazing-bar holes. Within the graveyard there is a stone with an incised ring-heaeed cross, and a trapezoidal coffin-lid with a floreated cross. From the church there is a fine upstream view of the Boyne and the Boyne Navigation. Dunmoe Castle (N902702) can be clearly seen on the other side of the river. Ardmulchan Motte stands between the church and the river. On the southern side it appears as a large low mound but on the northern side it drops steeply towards the river.
To reach our next site , at Donaghmore (N885698), we had to retrace our route to the main Slane-Navan Road. St Patrick is said to have founded the first monastery at Donaghmore. He placed St Cassanus (Cruimthir Cassan) in charge of it and that saint’s relics were later preserved in the church. It was plundered in 854 and after the Anglo-Norman invasion it became a parish church. The earliest structure on the site is the Round Tower which is about 26m high. It was restored in the middle of the 19th century. It has a well-defined plinth with a triple offset. This has a maximum height od about 60cm. The tower has four small windows, two of which are square-headed. There is one round-headed window and one angle-headed window. It is unusual in that there are no top windows. however given that the top of the tower was reconstructed, they may have been omitted since none are shown in any of the old illustrations. The round-headed doorway faces east. It is surmounted by a Crucifixion and flanked by two heads. The ruined church beside the Round Tower was built in the 15th century and replaced a Romanesque church on the same site. Within the ruin lie several carved fragments.
One of the reasons for this tour was to revisit some sites which I had last seen in the 1980s. One of these sites was Kilberrry Graveyard (N871739). It contains the low ruin of a rectangular church. This has now been stripped of its ivy cover but the interior is almost full of rubble. To the east of the ruin is a box-tomb with a good Crucifixion at its west end. On the one remaining side panel there are two shields with very faint decoration. The lid of the tomb has a coat-of-arms in low relief at the west end and a skull-and-crossbones at the east end. Beneath the bones, in raised letting, is “Memento Mori”. The decoration is very difficult to see due to a dense coating of lichen. Lying beside the tomb is a trapezoidal coffin lid with a faintly-incised cross with fleur-de-lys terminals. It is pierced by a large rectangular hole. To the west of the church is a large stone font. It is square with two chamfered corners and the basin is round. The piscina basin which was seen during the earlier visit was not noticed at this time. At the gateway to the churchyard is a stone with a raised-letter inscription. This is now almost illegible due to overgrowth. However it is known from the earlier visit that it refers to the ‘peers’ which were erected by Christopher Everard of Randlestown in 1715.
A brief stop was made to view the antiquities at Donaghpatrick (N820925). The church was built at the end of the 19th century but the tower is much older. It is as big as a tower-house and careful examination of the stonework reveals that there are several narrow slit windows which have now been blocked. It has a noticeable base batter. A short distance to the NE of the church is a standing stone. It is 40cm wide by 35cm thick and 1.8m high. Its regular appearance suggests that it may have been part of a larger structure. It may not have any great antiquity and is perhaps a lintel stone salvaged from a building. Beside it is a plain octagonal medieval font. Just across the road to the NW is a motte which is heavily planted. It is about 12m high with an oval top 12m by 7m. To the NE of it is a raised circular bailey about 14m diameter.
Driving west from Donaghpatrick we eventually arrived at the market town of Kells. The Market Cross stood for 300 years at the end of Market Street near the centre of the town. For most of the second half of the 20th century it was a major traffic hazard. It has now been re-erected close to the eastern edge of the town, at the junction of R163 and N3 (N745757). Although it has been badly damaged and part of the head is missing, it is richly decorated with Biblical and other scenes. Around the pyramidal base are depicted a battle scene, a deer-hunt and various horseman, as well as birds and animals. On the east face of the shaft the topics include soldiers guarding the tomb of Christ, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The carvings at the head of the cross include Daniel in the lions’ den and the Sacrifice of Isaac. On the west face the topics include Adoration of the Magi, the Wedding at Cana, the Loaves and Fishes, and a Crucifixion. The choice of topics and the style of carving suggest that the same artist was responsible for the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnois, Durrow High Cross and Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice.
Close to the centre of the town is the site of the monastery (N740759) which was probably founded by St Columba in the 6th century. It was refounded in the early 9th century by monks fleeing from Iona after the Viking raids. The new monastery was itself plundered at that time and its church destroyed. Most of the monuments on the site are no earlier than the 10th century. They include five High Crosses (complete or fragmentary), a Round Tower and an early stone church. Most of them stand within the grounds of the Church of Ireland building. The East Cross is unfinished. On the west face of the damaged head is a Crucifixion and a panel with four figures. Elsewhere the cross is blocked ready to receive its carving. The North Cross is represented by a conical base with interlaced ornament. The West Cross has a base and part of a decorated shaft. The subjects include the Baptism of Christ, the Wedding at Cana and the Fall of Man. Nearby is the South Cross or Cross of Patrick and Columba. It is richly decorated and the subjects include Daniel in the Lions' Den and the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Elsewhere in the churchyard there are carved fragments including a broken slab with ain incised sundial. A short distance from the South Cross is a very fine Round Tower. It is about 27m high with a plinth up to 1m high. The round-headed doorway has inclined jambs and there is a faint carved head on the E jamb. Just outside the graveyard, on the N side, is a small rectangular building called St Columb's House. The original doorway was in the W and there is a chamber within the high-pitched roof. It is thought to have been built in 814. The interior was not explored on this occasion. In the 12th century the Augustinians established an abbey at Kells. St Mary’s Abbey was founded at the instance of St Malachy and may originally have been a double abbey for both monks and nuns.
On the way home from Kells we stopped at Kilbeg Upper to view the motte (N776818). This earthen mound is about 12m high with an oval top about 12m by 7m. The base of the mound is about 48m diameter. There are good traces of a surrounding ditch especially on the west and northwest. At the northeast is a circular bailey about 14m diameter. About 100m ENE of the motte is the low ruin of a nave-and-chancel church. There is a possible entrance in the north. A short distance north of the church is a slab with a ring-headed cross in low relief. The ring is about 40cm diameter and the stone is about 60cm high. Beside it is the gravestone of Thurlough O’Solivan who died in 1739 aged 72 years. The graveyard is still in use. One reason for choosing this route homewards was to view the church at Cruicetown and the castle at Robertstown Cross Roads. However time was against us and it was decided to leave these monuments for another day.
For our second visit to County Meath we started at Duleek (O046684). St Cianan, a disciple of St Patrick, was in charge of the first church at Duleek in the 5th century. The monastery was plundered at least 10 times between the 9th and 12th centuries. The bodies of Brian Boru and other slain heroes of the Battle of Clontarf rested here in 1014 before being brought to Armagh for burial.
The oldest structure is the short High Cross which probably dates from the 9th century. It is missing its base and capstone but is otherwise in good condition. On the narrow north face there are the symbols of St Mark and St John. On the west face there is a Crucifixion and other carvings include scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.. The ruined church is part of the Augustinian Priory of St Mary which was founded in the late 12th century. A second Augustinian foundation, St Michael’s Priory, was establish nearby slightly later in the century. The buildings date mainly from the 13th and 14th centuries and the tower is probably 15th century. After the Dissolution the abbey was granted to Edward Becke, and later to Henry Draycote and then John Parker. A Round Tower from the earlier monastery stood close to the north wall of the church tower and left a scar in the stonework when it was removed. Within the church is a box-tomb to the Prestons and Plunketts. The weepers include St Catherine and St Peter and there is also a Crucifixion and the Instruments of the Passion. There is also a very fine double-sided effigy slab and the head and base of another High Cross.
About 150m south of the main ecclesiastical site, at the edge of the town, is a memorial cross erected in 1601 by Jennett Dowdall (O046683). It is similar in design to the crosses at Carrickdexter and Lunderstown. The main difference is that only one face has an inscription with an heraldic shield. The remainder of the cross has panels depicting saints including St Peter, St Patrick and St Catherine. At the collar there are winged angels holding small shields. The cross has a gabled capstone. About 200m NW of this cross is another cross. It stands at the side of R150 and is a cross-shaped stone with an inscription commemorating Thomasina Berford who died in 1635. About 2.2km south of the Dowdall Cross, at the edge of R152, is another wayside cross (O04660). It was erected by Jennet Dowdall in 1600.
It is very similar to the cross at Carrickdexter with a lengthy inscription on the shaft. The collar looks like a truncated regular octahedron. The carving here appears to be very sharp which may indicate that this section is a modern restoration. Alternatively, if the cross had been dismantled at one time, this portion may have been buried and the sharpness of the carving thus preserved. The top of the cross is a short rectangular column topped by a broken pyramid. It is covered with figure carving, including a Crucifixion. These carvings are greatly weathered. The cross stands in Lunderstown. A further 2.2km WSW of Lunderstown, in Gaulstown, stands yet another wayside cross (O026653). This was alo erected by Jennet Dowdall in the early 17th century. At first glance it appears to be of similar design to the other Dowdall crosses but closer inspection shows that it has stumpy arms. The cap looks much like the collar on the other crosses but it lacks the gabled capstone. On the east face is a Crucifixion which covers most of the surface.
The arms of the figure are held high above the head along the shaft of the cross so that the hands rest on the stumpy cross-piece. Beneath the crucified figure is a skull. On the west face is a Virgin and Child and an inscription. There is also the arms of the Bathe and Dowdall families. It is thought that the base of the cross may be of earlier date and the cap may be later. The head of the cross has carved angels, similar to the other wayside-crosses, and there is also a small Maltese cross. Gaulstown Cross is 800m NW of Athcarne Castle. It is about 3.5km SW of Duleek and 2.5km ENE of Balrath Cross Roads. The wayside cross which used to stand at Balrath Cross Roads is no longer there.
Monktown Castle (N955636) was investigated. The northern wall of this four-storey tower-house remains, with fragments of the attached walls. There is a projecting tower at the NE corner. There was probably a corresponding tower at the SW corner which held the stairs. The castle is vaulted above the ground floor. There are large window openings at the first and second floors and a smaller one at the third floor. Rectangular earthworks to the north of the castle may be traces of the outbuildings of a possible bawn. The castle stand close to a minor road about 5km WSW of Balrath Cross Roads. About 3km south of the castle is Skreen Church.
It (N952605) is sited prominently on top of a hill and replaces an older church dedicated to St Columba. It is named after a shrine to the saint which once existed here. The present nave and chancel church was founded about 1341, as Holy Trinity Priory, for the Augustinian Friars. After the Dissolution the friary was granted to Thomas Cusack. The east gable of the church is missing and there is a tower at the west end. There is a large window in the south wall and a small doorway in the north wall leads to a flight of steps. There are doorways in the north and south walls. On the outside, above the south doorway, is a carved panel featuring a cleric in full robes with staff and book. It dates from the foundation of the friary. There is some decoration at the north doorway. The estimated height of the tower is 16m. It has a two-light west window. The tower is locked but there is a stairway in the SE corner where there is a squinch. At the base is a collection of carved fragments and a reconstructed font. Near the church is a short-armed cross with a crude Crucifixion. It is about 1.5m high by 40cm wide and 20cm thick.
Almost directly opposite the entrance to Dunsany Castle stands Dunsany Cross (N918551). It probably dates from the beginning of the 17th century. On one face it has a Crucifixion set within a recessed cross-shaped panel. This is surmounted by a winged ox, the symbol of St Luke. This cross is mounted on a large rectangular base which contains two bullauns, each about 20cm diameter. Dunsany Church could not be investigated. It stands within the grounds of Dunsany Castle and appears to be locked.
At the bridge at Newtown Trim we observed the remains of the Friary and Hospital of St John the Baptist (N818568). However we did not fully explore the ruins. Just upstream, on the other side of the river, is a small 13th century parish church. Within the ruin is the fine late 16th century double-effigy tomb of Sir Luke Dillon and his wife. The couple are known locally as the Jealous Man and Woman. The panels depict coats of arms and one short panel has kneeling weepers.
Scattered on the tomb are many rusty pins and pebbles, which may indicate a local cure or good luck custom. On the outside wall of the church is a tomb niche with a decorated hood featuring a head with long plaited hair. Further west is the ruin of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. Most of the church dates from the early 13th century with domestic buildings being added in the 15th or 16th century. It was one of the largest churches in Ireland but only the choir and part of the nave have survived. In Trim we viewed the castle from the outside, and, from a distance, the Yellow Steeple, a tall tower remnant of the 14th century Augustinian Abbey of St Mary. On the way home we noted the ruins of Bective Cistercian Abbey (N860600) and stopped briefly at Monasterboice Monastic Site, Co Louth, with its High Crosses and Round Tower (O043821).