Castledermot (Co. Kildare / South)
Castledermot (pop.900), a significant medieval town on the River Lerr, a tributary of the River Barrow, was within living memory little more than a straggling village, but from the 1990s underwent rapid growth to become a commuter satellite of DUBLIN.
Castledermot’s name in Irish is Diseart Diarmada – “Saint Dermot’s Hermitage”, after a monastery founded c.812 AD by the culdee anchorite bishop’s father. It soon developed a reputation as a holy place of learning, and despite raids by both Vikings and native chieftains continued its existence until at least the C12th.
Castledermot Monastic Site & churches
St. James’s church (CoI), reached by an attractive tree lined avenue, was erected in 1831 on the original monastic site. The interior contains a number of interesting historical features. (Photo – dublin.anglican.org)
A C10th Round Tower is attached by a high narrow passage to the north side of the church. The height of the tower is 66.5ft; the walls at the base are 3.5ft thick and inclined upwards. The original conical top of the tower was replaced by a parapet with merlons.
Two impressive C9th High Crosses are richly carved with abstract Celtic designs, animals and depictions of the Crucifixion, Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Sacrifice of Isaac and David with his harp – one of the few images from this time of the quintessential Irish instrument.
The Round Tower and High Crosses are credited to Abbot Cairbre / Carpius, who died in 919 AD.As at Timolin and many other site, there would originaly have been four such crosses at the cardinal points defining the monastic sanctuary.
A splendidly reconstructed Hiberno–Romanesque archway with chevron decoration was once the entrance to a C12th church, replaced by the Normans with a larger church dedicated to St James, in turn damaged in the disturbances of the 1530s and destroyed during the 1641 Rebellion.
The atmospheric churchyard contains a number of well preserved early Christian and medieval grave slabs, notably the heavy stone marking the burial place of Cormac MacCuilleanan, last of the Eoghanacht warrior bishop / kings of Cashel and Munster, who had been educated by the monks and was killed at the Battle of Ballaghmoon in 908 AD. Other curiosities include Ireland’s only known Scandinavian “hogback” burial marker, decorated with crosses and lozenges, and a holed “swearing stone”.
In 1037, “Dunchadh, son of Dunlaing, king of Leinster, was captured at Castledermot, and his eyes put out by Donogh, son of Giolla Patrick, of which he died shortly after. Three years later, the monastery was once again plundered”.
In 1048, Moone, Castledermot, Dunmanogue and Clonmore were “plundered by Diarmuit, son of Mael – na – mBo, lord of Hy – Cinseallaigh, and he carried away many persons from these oratories“.
In 1076, “a great slaughter was commenced by O’Lorcain on the people of Giolla Comghoill, and he brought three score and three heads to the hill south of Castledermot“.
Castledermot was the birthplace of Saint Laurence O’Toole (1128 – 1180), the Archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Norman invasion in 1169, whose heart, preserved in an iron casket, was stolen from Christchurch Cathedral in March 2012.
The Normans initially called the place Triskle Dermot / Thistledermot. A castle, erected c. 1180 by Hugh de Lacy for Walter de Riddlesford, to whom Strongbow had granted the former O’Toole lands of Hy-Muireadaigh / Omurethi, was repaired in 1485 and subsequently extended and strengthened, but was largely destroyed in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; a 1699 sketch of the ruin survives, but no physical traces of it remain.
The Pigeons’ Tower on the northern edge of the village is all that remains of a Priory and hospital founded c.1210 by Walter de Riddlesford for the Crutched Friars.
The town was the venue for the earliest recorded Irish Parliament, held in June 1264, and hosted further parliaments in 1276 and 1499. The latter approved a law requiring merchants to ride horses with saddles “in the English fashion“.
Part of Castledermot`s late C13th walls remain standing, notably the Carlow Gate. These defensive measures were useless against the Bubonic Plague which struck the town in 1408.
Castledermot Franciscan Friary
The Franciscan Friary, founded in 1240, was extended in 1302 by Thomas FitzGerald, Lord of Ophaly, with the help of the de la Hoyde family who were its main benefactors.
The Friary was plundered in 1316 by Edward Bruce, who was “overtaken near the town by the Lord Justice, Sir Edmund Butler and completely routed“.
In the friary can be seen the curious C16th cadavar tombstone of the appropriately named Joan Skelton & James Tallon, reflecting the morbid preoccupation with death of that time.
Attached to the ruined church is a square building known as the Abbey Castle, thought to date from the C15th and to have served as accommodation for the monks.
The Friary survived until King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1541. The key is available from the caretaker’s house next door.
King Richard II stayed in Castledermot in 1394 while the Earl Marshal of England, Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, negotiated a short-lived treaty nearby with the rebellious Leinster chieftains led by Art MacMurrough, who soon reneged on the agreement and 11 years later burned the town to the ground.
In 1532, Garret Og, 9th Earl of Kildare, “‘at the fair of Castledermot, crying havoc among the King’s subjects which thither was resorted, he caused them in his own presence, to be spoiled, robbed of their goods, and divers of them to be murdered.’ For this and other charges, he was committed to the tower of London, where he died on the 12th of December 1534.” Two years later, during the rebellion of Silken Thomas, 10th Earl of Kildare, “Castledermot was garrisoned by his Irish allies. It was later taken in the King’s name by Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory when the town suffered considerable damage“.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms
In 1641, George FitzGerald, 16th Earl of Kildare, as Governor of the county and a staunch Royalist, appointed Pierce Fitzgerald of Ballyshannon to command the garrison of Castledermot, and, “for that purpose, furnished him out of the royal stores with arms and ammunition for 100 men. Pierce, however, seized all the property within and without the castle, and, carrying it off as booty, joined the army of the Confederation at Kilkenny, and was there appointed Colonel of a regiment. For this he was proclaimed as a traitor, and a price of £400 put upon his head“.
Edmund Walsh of Moylourstown was holding the castle of Castledermot on the 7th of December 1641 when a party of rebels “badd him yield up the castle to the pope’s holiness.” Among the rebels were Garrett Wall of Prumplestown, James Wesley of Narraghmore and others.
In 1343 the rebels were observed burning “a great town, a church, and some corn, fearing, it seemed, lest they should be besieged“.
On the 1st of April 1650, “the Cromwellian army under Colonels Hewson and Reynolds marched to Castledermot, where the Catholics under the general command of Lord Dillon had burnt a great part of the castle the day before, and fortified themselves in a strong tower which they had not burnt. Hewson caused great stores of straw and other combustible materials to be put to the door and set on fire, which forced them within to cry out for mercy. Many were captured here including one Captain Scurlock and three friars“.
Castledermot, with its castle, town walls and ecclesiastical buildings in almost total ruins, never regained its former glory.
King William III passed through in August 1690 en route to Limerick; “it was here that he received the news of the defeat of his fleet by the French off Beechy Head“.
In a report on the State of Popery in Ireland in 1730, it was stated that Castledermot had “three popish schools and three mass houses“, all built since 1714; the mass houses were attended by four clergymen, of which “two of ye priests reported to live as farmers“.
The first Charter School in Ireland was opened in Castledermot in May 1734 by the Incorporated Society for promoting English Protestant Working Schools in Ireland, whose main aim was “to strengthen his majesty’s Government and the Protestant interest in Ireland by increasing the number of Protestants in the only reasonable Christian way.”
Three years later they reported that the school comprised “ten boys and ten girls, who are clothed, dieted and lodged. The boys are duly employed in cultivating that little portion of ground that belongs to the School; the girls, in spinning and other parts of housewifery. Two hours in the day are spent in reading; and they have made such proficiency, that the English tongue is become familiar to them, who before spoke Irish only; and they have made a progress, according to their age in the knowledge of our holy religion.”
After repeated condemnations for misappropriation of funds as well as the cruelties inflicted on the children, the establishment was closed in 1831. The Charter School House passed into private ownership; sadly, it was demolished in 1983.
The 1798 Rebellion saw Castledermot attacked in May by a large body of “rebels on their march to storm Carlow from the Kildare side. They were resisted by Captain Minch of the 6th Regiment accompanied by a small party of infantry and fled at his first discharge; they were pursued for several miles by Sir Richard Butler’s troop of yeomen cavalry. Many of the rebels captured during this insurrection were hung from the May – Pole which was situated in the Market Square“. The dead are commemorated by a bicentennial monument.
Daredevils hurtled through Castledermot at record speeds in the Gordon Bennett Cup Motor Race of 1903.
The website www.castledermotparish.ie features an interesting local history by Michael J Wall, source of much of the information here.
Castledermot is very close to Kilkea on ByRoute 7.
Graney, on the small river of the same name, has some fine examples of C17th houses. Nearby are the ruins of an Augustinian nunnery founded in 1202 by Walter de Riddlesford and of a building said to have belonged to the Knights Templar. The manor was granted by King Henry VIII to Sir Anthony St. Leger, whose descendants lived for many tears in Castlemellon.
Graney is not far from Rathvilly (Co. Carlow) on ByRoute 5.