Lock 35 on the Royal Canal (Photo – Royal Canal Amenity Group). This stretch, constructed in 1817, was last in commercial use in 1955.
Ballynacargy (Co. Westmeath / North)
Ballynacargy / Ballinacarrigy (Baile na Carraige – “town of the rock”) (pop. 1400), is an attractive rural community, effectively “put on the map” in the late c18th / early C19th by the Malone family, ambitious local landlords who, vainly hoping to establish a centre for linen manufacture, were responsible for the construction of a harbour on the Royal Canal, thus converting the village into a market hub for regional produce.
First recorded in 1537, the village is regarded as the successor of an important medieval town called Kilbixy, also the name of the parish.
Kilbixy, situated near the western shore of Lough Iron, is held to derive its name from a C6th handmaid of Saint Brigid called Biseech / Biseach / Bigseach. In 1192 the second Hugh de Lacy erected Kilbixy Castle, later the residence of Geoffrey de Constantine, and the settlement grew in importance to become the effective colonial capital of the region; granted a charter by King Henry VI, it was entitled to send two deputies to the Irish Parliament. Subject to sporadical Gaelic attacks, it was finally destroyed by the McGeoghahan clan c.1450. Although Sir Henry Piers‘ chirographical account of County Westmeath reported that “the baggage castle” still existed in 1782, “besides the ruins of many ancient houses and castles“, no fortifications remain visible today apart from a (presumably older) motte & bailey remnant near the church. Nevertheless, Kilbixy is nowadays regarded as one of the finest deserted medieval boroughs in Ireland.
St Bigseach church (CoI), a fine early Gothic Revival edifice believed to have been designed by either Francis Johnson or James Wyatt, was erected c.1800 with funds provided by Richard Malone (1738 – 1816), who had been created Baron Sunderlin of Lake Sundelin in the County of Westmeath in 1785 , and of Baronston in the same county in 1797, but died without any direct male heir.
Although set in pristine grounds, the building is in poor condition. The bell tower is no longer in use due to fragile wooden structural elements. The church roof collapsed in the mid-1960s, and as the elaborate ceiling could not be restored due to lack of funding, a section of the former nave has been converted into an open entrance courtyard, leaving only a third of the original interior in use by the tiny modern congregation.
The current edifice is believed to stand on the site of several earlier constructions. A 1793 report referred to underground tunnels indicating a monastic settlement, probably dating from the C8th, and the location may well have been used for pre-Christian worship.
The Leper House of St Brigid, founded c.1195 by the second Hugh de Lacy, was a three-storey building, recalled by the remains of four-foot-thick walls with two large window openings.
The Kilbixy Mausoleum, bearing the Malone family crest and motto as adapted by Lord Sunderlin, contains four corpses, the first being that of the Baron’s brother Edward Malone (1741 – 1812), of nearby Shinglass, a scholar and critic best known as the publisher of the works of Oliver Goldsmith (1780) and an 11-volume New Edition of Shakespeare (1790) (republished in 1821 by James Boswell Jr in 21 volumes) and as author of such books as the History of the English Stage and the Works of Sir Joshua Reynold. (Photo by bennybulb)
Visits to the church and grounds should be arranged with prior permission from the local Church of Ireland representative.
Baronston / Baronstown, owned by the Malone family from 1673, was the site of a large mansion constructed c.1740 by the Hon. Anthony Malone (1704 – 1776), a successful barrister and later judge, uncle of the baron and his literary brother. Descendants remained in residence until c.1930, when the Land Commission demolished the complex, leaving only the water tower and icehouse.
Lough Iron (Loch Iarainn), a narrow 4 km / 2.5mile long lake on the River Inny, downstream from Lough Derravaragh, is renowned as a wildlife sanctuary, particularly for birds, and is also popular for coarse fishing, as it holds large pike. Access is difficult by land, as the lake is fringed with dense weed beds. (This is also true of its smaller neighbour to the north, Lough Garr, best known for its tench).
Tristernagh Abbey, (from Tristearnagh – “briary place”), aka the Priory of Kilbixy, was founded sometime between 1192 and 1210 by Geoffrey de Constantine for the Augustinian Canons Regular and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (Photo by JohnArmagh)
Edmund Nugent, Bishop of Kilmore, became the last Prior at Tristernagh in 1530; upon the formal Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, he and five canons were promised Crown pensions and received the livings of Tristernagh, Kilbixy, Ratheaspagh, Sonnagh, Kilmacnevan and Imper. In 1536 King Henry VIII’s commissioners had ejected the monks, who are said to have thrown artefacts into Lough Iron to avoid confiscation.
According to Lewis (1837), “in the reign of Elizabeth, O’Dogherty of Connaught encamped in the Abbey demesne with about 600 followers, and being attacked by the queen’s forces and refused admission into the abbey, was slain with all his party“.
Captain William Piers, originally of Piers Hall, Yorkshire, was a distinguished soldier and great favourite of Queen Elisabeth, who as founder / Governor of Carrickfergus carried the head of the slain Shane O’Neill “pickled in a pipkin” to Dublin as proof of his death, and in 1583 retired on a royal pension to the old abbey, where he died in 1603.
Henry Piers was made Baronet of Tristernagh in 1661, and the title is still extant. However, the Abbey buildings have been derelict since 1783, and the last member of the family to live on the estate was Sir John Piers, who famously seduced Lady Georgina Cloncurry for a bet in 1804; her outraged husband, Valentine Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry, brought an action for criminal conversion (adultery), heard in November 1807, costing Piers some 20,000 pounds in damages, and his flight to the Isle of Man failed to prevent the eventual loss of his lands.
Tristernagh Abbey currently belongs to the Franciscan Order.
Templecross chapel, a medieval edifice adapted for Protestant use in the C17th, stands in ruins northeast of Ballynacargy village; the altar is in good condition. Sir Henry Piers recorded that in 1682 it was “a small and well-built chapel now in good repair where hangeth a small bell” and referred to a “Corpnou”, now on display in the NMI, where it is listed as a “Corp Naomh” Bellshrine, evidently the pedestal of a C8th / C9th cross believed to have been thrown into Lough Iron by the monks of Trasternagh in 1536 and later found in the chapel yard at Templecross. Many people still visit the grave of a local RC parish priest, Rev John Cantwell (d.1884), widely believed to have supernatural curative powers.
County houses of note in Ballynacargy include Rathcastle House and Willowfield House.
Laragh Hill is a scenic spot providing a panoramic view of Counties Westmeath and Longford. Saint Patrick is said two have visited here, and two rock mark “St. Patrick’s Chair”. Local people traditionally walked to Laragh Hill on St. Patrick’s Day.
Meares Court / Mearescourt estate, on land formerly belonging to the Dalton family, dispossessed for their support of the 1641 Rebellion, was acquired and renamed in 1667 by a Cromwellian army officer called Lewis Meares, who incorporated parts of a late medieval Tower House into his new home.
The present rather fortress-like Palladian mansion and walled gardens, dating from c.1760, were put in place by John Meares, who bequeathed the property to his nephew, William Devenish, on the condition that he take the name Meares. The Devenish-Meares line came to an end in 1935 with the death of John Frederick Devenish-Meares. The house and land then passed through the hands of the Winters, Lister-Kaye and Pendred families until bought for over €2.6 million in 2004 by businessmen David Agar and George Tracey. (Photo – alex-in-ireland)
Approached by a splendid lime avenue, the ten-bedroom mansion makes for a charming Guesthouse, with attractive Tea Gardens, it is also available for holiday rental. The 71ha estate features extensive parkland, a deer farm, an ornamental lake stocked with trout, mature forest and a rally track. Mearescourt has often hosted concerts and parties such as Halloween celebrations, weddings etc.