An Offaly Big Adventure

A Tour of Some Historic Sites in Offaly and Westmeath

Its a long journey from North Down to Athlone so a few stops along the way are recommended. It helps if the rest stops can coincide with some interesting ancient monuments. Tyrrelspass, Co Westmeath is a formal village laid out by the Rochforts, Earls of Belvedere, round a semicircular green. The buildings include St Sinian's Church (Col) dating from 1792, a schoolhouse of 1823 with a double gabled front and a possible court-house topped by a bell and clock. Inside the church is a large early 19th century memorial to the Earl of Belvedere. The town takes its name from the important way through the bog where, in 1597, Piers Lacy and Captain Richard Tyrrel, ambushed and slaughtered an English force commanded by Christopher Barnewall.

The castle (N412375) is a rectangular tower-house four storeys high with crenellations. The eastern section is carried one storey higher to form a long turret. There are bartizans at the NW and SW corners. The tower is lit mainly by small single-light windows. Many of these have ogee heads and some have pecked decoration. There are two-light windows at the second floor in the N, Sand W walls. The pointed doorway is in the E wall. Close to the NE corner, and separated from it by a short wall, is a large round turret with an ogee window. There is a modern one-storey extension at the Wand N ends. The castle is now used as a restaurant and gift shop.

About 7km to the north of Tullamore, Co Offaly is the site of Durrow Abbey (N321307). A monastery was founded here by St Columcille about 553 on lands granted by Aed MacBreanainn, King of Tethba. The mid-7th century illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Durrow is associated with the site. It is now in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The monastery was plundered and burned several times and in the middle of the 12th century it became Augustinian. It was desecrated in 1186 by Hugh de Lacy who was then murdered nearby. The church became a parish church in 1541 and was still in use in 1582. The present church was built in the 18th century and may incorporate parts of the original building. High on the W gable is a small flat stone mask which may have come from the earlier foundation.

The earliest object on the site is the magnificently carved High Cross which may have been designed by the same artist responsible for Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice and the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois. The subjects include the Flight into Egypt, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Fall of Man, Cain & Abel and the Soldiers guarding the Tomb of Christ. There is a fragment of another cross nearby which may have been adapted as the gable finial of a church. Along the W wall of the graveyard are five early cross-inscribed gravestones.

Four kilometres to the east of Clonmacnois is the Clonfinlough Stone (NO42297). This large boulder is covered with many small indentations, most of which are probably natural. Some groups of four have been joined by straight lines to form small crosses and a pair of the larger conjoined depressions looks like a footprint. The rock is covered with lichen and the crosses and other artificial marks are difficult to see and photograph.

The monastery at Clonmacnois, Co Offaly (N009307) was founded about 548 by St Ciaran. It was plundered 6 times between 834 and 1012 and burned 26 times between 841 and 1204. The visitor enters through the Visitor Centre where the two complete High Crosses are now displayed. The Cross of the Scriptures was probably carved by the same artist who carved Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice and Durrow High Cross. It is richly carved but, despite its name, few biblical scenes can be definitely identified. They include the soldiers guarding the Tomb of Christ, the Crucifixion and David the Harpist. On the underside of the ring are human heads within intertwined serpents. This design also appears on the Monasterboice and Durrow crosses. One of the non-biblical scenes apparently depicts St Ciaran and Prince Dermot erecting the corner post of the church of Clonmacnois. Some scholars maintain that this event could not have occurred since the dates for Ciaran and Dermot do not overlap. The cross was erected in the 10th century by King Flann who was a descendent of Dermot. Flann probably thought that it was a good idea to depict in stone the legend that his ancestor knew the famous saint. The South Cross shows some pictorial panels. including the Fall of man but is mainly covered with bosses and panels of interlacing. Copies of these crosses are erected outside on the original sites. Also on display are many fine cross- inscribed gravestones. These examples and many fragments were found during excavation of the site.

At the edge of the graveyard is a Round Tower said to have been built by Fergal O'Rourke who died in 964. It is about 20m high with a round-headed doorway about 1.6m high. Also in the graveyard are the remains of seven churches. The largest of these is the Cathedral which has a very finely decorated north doorway known as the Whispering Arch. This is surmounted by figures of St Dominic, St Patrick and St Francis. Although the head of the St Francis figure is missing the stigmata are clearly visible in the hands and side. At the north edge of the graveyard is TempIe Finghin. This small church has a decorated, though fragmentary, Romanesque west window. It has a small chancel with a very finely decorated chancel-arch. In the S window of the chancel is a 12-leaved piscina basin. Attached to the church is a good bel:&y, looking like a Round Tower, but with the door at ground floor level within the church.

A short distance to the E of the graveyard, within a small enclosure, is the Nuns' Church. This is a very fine nave-and-chancel church with a beautifully decorated west doorway and chancel-arch. It was reputedly founded in the 12th century by Dervorgilla, wife of Tigheman O'Rourke, who was carried off by Dermot McMurrough, and thus became indirectly responsible for the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

A short distance to the West of the graveyard is Clonmacnois Castle (N007305). It was possibly erected in 1220 by the English Justiciar, John de Grey. The shattered remains of a gatehouse and a keep sit on a motte close to the river bank.

It is surrounded by a deep ditch and a large bank except on the side near the river where there may have been a bailey. However the high water levels during this visit hid any earthworks which may have existed between the motte and the river.

Downstream about 7km distant is Shannonbridge, Co Offaly. Just across the river, in Co Roscommon (M965254), is a large 19th century fort. The most visible portion is a large blockhouse which has been newly re-roofed and is being turned into dwelling. It stands near the SE corner of the larger fort which is pierced by the roadway leading from the 18th century bridge. The E wall of the fort has large bastions at the N and S corners. The shorter W wall also has N and S bastions. Within the thick walls is a courtyard reached by a narrow alley running from the E.

A small single-storey building projects from the W wall. This has many gun-loops and a sharply pointed end. It may be the magazine. (I now know that this building is a caponierre which is used to defend the gap)Beyond it is the high wall of another section of the fort which was not explored at this time. This may have functioned as a blast wall for the magazine.

On the Co Offaly side of the river is a small square two-storey building which may have been the bridge-keeper's house. It was probably built by Thomas Omer in the second half of the 18th century. It is built of limestone but is otherwise identical to the sandstone lock-keeper's houses built by Omer for the Lagan Navigation. Similar houses may be seen on the Grand Canal. It is now the tourist office.

Nine kilometres SE of Shannonbridge, on the road to Cloghan, is Clonony Castle (NO52205).The castle dates from the 16th century and was lived in until modern times. It sits on a rocky outcrop at the SE corner of a bawn. The gateway to the bawn is in the W wall and is protected by a machicolation. There are remains of square flanking towers at the NW, SW and SE corners. All the flankers are well provided with defensive loops. The N wall is missing but the land drops away sharply in this area and the wall may never have been built. There are single-storey Gothick extensions to the Wand S of the tower-house. The entrance to the tower is in the W wall and there are traces of a machicolation at roof level. There is a murder-hole leading from a passage along the W wall at the first floor. A spiral stairway rises to the right of the entrance. The ground floor room has a small window in the N wall and a large window in the S wall set within a deep recess. There are possible fireplaces in the E wall at ground floor and first floor levels. There was a vault above the second floor and the walls were plastered. There appears to be a small chamber at the first floor in the S wall near the E end. The windows at the first floor in the E and S walls and the NW corner are set within deep recesses. The stairway is broken above the first floor and does not appear to continue beyond the vault.

At the southern edge of Ferbane, on the east bank of the Brosna stands Gallen Priory (N117238), a large Gothick Georgian house, now a nursing home run by nuns. It takes its name from Gallen of the Britons (i.e. the Welsh). A monastery was founded here in 492 by St Michonoge (or Canoe, or MoChonog). It was burned in 820 but restored by Welsh monks who founded a successful school there. There are remains of a 13th century church built for the Augustinians. Only two gables remain into which are built some early cross-inscribed stones.

These include a very fine ring-headed cross with some figure carving. There is also a free-standing slab with an intricate interlaced cross, some fretwork and a deer. There is a very fine bullaun stone on the site.

Eight kilometres NE of Ferbane is Lemanaghan (N172269).This is the site of a monastery founded by St Manchan (d.665). There are overgrown remains of a church with some decorated stones at the windows. Inside are two cross-inscribed stones and the remains of a piscina. Close to the church is a rectangular stone with worn decoration. The entire surface is divided into small diamond-shaped panels which appear to contain spirals. Nearby is a holy well and rag tree.

The votive offerings include the usual rags, articles of clothing and broken statuary. Beside it is a very fine bullaun stone. There is another bullaun stone built into the traffic island at the road junction nearby.

In the search for Boher Church which contains St Manchan's Shrine (NI82305) we stopped at the nearby Church of Ireland building (N192308). In the graveyard is an interesting tomb with a stone roof and castellated gables. St Manchan's Shrine is in Boher Catholic Church.

It is a tomb-shaped reliquary containing the bones of the saint. It is a gabled wooden box covered with openwork metal panels similar to those found on the Cross of Cong There are also eleven full length human figures perhaps modelled on Romanesque crucifix figures. There were originally about 50 figures.

On the return journey to Athlone two castles were noted but not explored at Doon Crossroads (N119314 and N118317).

A castle was built at Athlone (N039415) in 1210 by John de Grey, probably on the site of an earlier motte. It was repaired several times during the 13th century.

It has a central decagonal keep surrounded by massive walls. There are two large drum towers at the N and S corners of the E wall. They date from the late 13th century. The castle became the headquarters of the English Presidency of Connacht about 1570. During the Eleven Years War (1641-52) it changed hands several times finally surrendering to the Cromwellians in 1650. The town was attacked by 10,000 Williamites in 1690 and the castle was finally taken the following year by Ginkel, the Williamite general, who was then made Earl of Athlone. The lower parts of the keep probably date to the earliest times but the castle underwent extensive alterations during the 17th and 19th centuries, when heavy guns were placed on top of the towers.

St Carthach founded a monastery at Rahan (N260255) about 580. It was re-founded about 760 by Fidhairle Ua Suanaigh and flourished until the 12th century. Two early churches remain on the site. The eastern roofless church was probably rebuilt in the 15th century. It is a simple rectangular building with finely carved W doorway. It is a single order Romanesque arch with chevron decoration. It has a raised hood mould with beasts as stops.

The capitals of the pillars are carved with foliage. The east window has a cusped ogee head with some decoration. It is surmounted by a square hood mould with a small carved mask. The south wall has a small window with a round head and another with an ogee head. This latter has some carving including a beast. The western church was begun in the 12th century but much of the present building dates from the 18th century. In the N wall is a small window with a cusped ogee head and a cruciform surround. It has several decorations including a griffin, a hawk and possibly a wyvern. In the E wall is a round window with chevron decoration and a quatrefoil insert. Beneath it is a large round-headed window which is probably a copy of the W doorway of the small rootless E church. Everything is overgrown with ivy and bramble. The church and churchyard appear to be unused.

Agall Mass Rock (N272238) is a large plain boulder standing beside St Anthony's Well which is now dry. A short distance from it is a boulder with a large bullaun.

They stand within a small enclosure containing several large boulders which are inscribed with the milestones of Irish history (The Fianna, Christianity, Anglo-Norman Invasion, Reformation etc.).

Ballycowan Castle (N294251) is a large rectangular building with a small eastward projection near the SE corner. Most of the SW corner of the main building has fallen. The entrance is in the E wall of the small wing and was protected by a machicolation. The lower part of the main stairway rose within the entrance projection and the upper levels were probably reached by a straight stairway within the S wall. The main building is four storeys high with a vault above the ground floor rooms. There are many mullioned windows throughout the building. There are tall chimney stacks on the Wand N walls and bartizan at the NE corner. The castle was built in 1626 by the Herbert family. Nearby the Grand Canal is carried over the Tullamore River by a fine aqueduct.

A short distance to the W of Tullamore on the banks of the Grand Canal stands the ruined Shrah Castle (N328251) built in 1588. It is four storeys high with a fragmentary doorway in the W wall. There is a later building attached at the Wand N. This is very fragmentary, the most complete feature being the W gable which has a fireplace. The doorway to the tower-house is protected by a machicolation and a murder-hole. There is also a very fine gun-loop on the left. Inside the tower is completely gutted.

The western section consisted of a vertical series of small rooms with large rooms in the eastern section. The small room at the second floor has a flat vault which has some fme wicker-marks. There is no vault in the Eastern section. A spiral stairway rose at the NW. It is very fragmentary except at the upper levels. There is a fireplace in the N wall at the first floor and the chimney stack is still in place. The castle was defended by bartizans at the second floor level at the SW and NE corners. The SW bartizan is almost complete but the other has almost disappeared. Below the SW bartizan is a two-light corner window. There is a narrow slit below the other bartizan. There are two-light windows in the N and E walls at ground floor but otherwise the castle is lit by narrow loops. In the E wall there is a cross-shaped loop and a round loop, and near the base of the wall is a latrine chute exit.

Tullamore Market House (N339250) is a fine two-storey building with a pedimented front. It is 7 bays long with the central three bays breaking forward. It is surmounted by an octagonal cupola with a copper dome and a weather vane. It is one of the few buildings to survive the disastrous explosion and fire which almost destroyed the town in 1785. It is now the Irish Nationwide building.

To the S of Banagher on the E bank of the Shannon is a small fort (N003156). It is a polygonal structure with a small rectangular building in the centre. There are four gun emplacements along the wall facing the river. The fort is surrounded by a substantial ditch and a broad stone faced bank, except on the east side where the entrance is. The high water levels have caused the ditch to flood at this time.

Close to the bridge over the Shannon is another fort. However this is greatly overgrown and its nature cannot be determined. At the other end of the bridge, in Co Galway is Cromwell's Castle (NOO4159).

This is a medieval castle which was remodelled in Napoleonic times. Later a battery was placed on the roof A short distance away is a fine martello tower.

Bealin High Cross, Co Westmeath I (NI04428) stands on top of a small hill within a railed enclosure. It is a ring-headed cross but only one quarter of the ring remains.

On the E face are three interlocked animals with a lion below them. On the N face is a hunting scene with a hound biting a deer and below them is a horseman with a spear. An inscription at the base of the W face asks for a prayer for Tuathgall, who caused the cross to be made. An abbot of Clonmacnois called Tuathgall died in 810.

To the south of Mount Temple (NI52419) is a large motte. It stands near the N end of a large esker and may be sculpted from part of the esker. It is greatly overgrown except on the east side. To the N is a very fine bailey which has been damaged slightly by quarrying. The motte is tall and steep and the surrounding land falls away rapidly. It is the tallest spot for many miles around.

About 1.5km W of Moyvoughly (N186431) is a very fine standing stone. It stands on top of a small hill. It is about 3m high by 1.5m wide and 50cm thick. Nearby is another recumbent stone about 1.5m by 1.5m by 50cm. The stones are close to the edge of a field and any further stones which may be associated with the pair may be hidden by the field boundary.

Mullingar Market House (N437531) seems to have been originally a five-bay two storey building with the usual large arched openings at the ground floor. At some time a two-storey porch extension was built against the central bay. This has a pedimented front and is topped by a square cupola. When this extension was built another small bay was added at either end of the building. The roof has pediments above each of the four remaining arches but it is not clear if this is an original feature.

Delvin Castle, Co Westmeath (N600627) is said to have been built about 1180 by Hugh de Lacy for his brother-in-law, Gilbert de Nugent. However the building was probably not built until the 13th century. It was originally a square building with four round corner towers and a gabled roof. Only the western half remains.

The Market Cross at Kells, Co Meath (N745758) is missing its top and part of the ring. It stood for many years near the centre of the town but was always in danger of sustaining further damage from traffic. It has now been re-erected, under a shelter, at the junction of the Navan and Slane Roads. It is carved with figured panels on all four sides. The scenes include the Soldiers guarding the Tomb of Christ, the Fall of Man, Cain & Abel, Daniel in the Lion's Den and the Sacrifice of Isaac. The style of carving and the choice of subjects suggests that this cross was designed by the same artist as the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois, Durrow High Cross and Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice, or that all four crosses may have had a common ancestor.