13 October 2009

A Sunday afternoon in Castledermot

The Hiberno-Romanesque archway and the round tower at Saint James’s Church in Castledermot, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

The ordination season in the Church of Ireland is continuing a little later than most of us expected. The Revd Vicky Lynch being ordained deacon in Saint Columba’s Church, in Ennis, Co Clare, on Saturday evening (17 October 2009); the Revd Terry Alcock was ordained in Castledermot, Co Kildare, last Sunday afternoon (11 October 2009).

Inside Saint James’s Church in Castledermot, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Terry’s ordination was probably the first ordination of a priest in Saint James’s Church, Castledermot, since the Reformation … indeed, it may have been the first ordination there since the late Middle Ages.

A visitor’s first impressions of Castledermot are not very complimentary to the village, its churches and its people. But behind the rudely devastating impact of the north end of the village, the patient visitor finds Castledermot is a fascinating early ecclesiastical site, with its momastic buildings, ruins and remains that is engaging for any church historian.

Castledermot in south Co Kildare is about 75 km from Dublin and just 10 km north from Carlow. At present, the N9 from Dublin to Waterford passes through the village, but a new bypass should be ready sometime next year (2010). The River Lerr, a tributary of the Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river, flows through the village, which had a population of 887 at the last census in 2006 and which is growing because of proximity to Dublin.

Castledermot takes its name from Diseart Diarmad, or “Dermot's Hermitage.” Saint James’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church where Terry was ordained on Sunday afternoon, is just off the main road, and stands on a monastic site that dates back to the ninth century, when the monastery was founded or re-founded around 800 AD by the father of Saint Diarmuid, from whom Castledermot takes its name. Some accounts say the monastic settlement even dates back to about 500 AD. The monastery was raided by the Vikings in the ninth century, but continued as a monastery until at least the 12th century.

The ruins and sites in the churchyard at Saint James's Church include a Hiberno-Romanesque arch, a round tower, two high crosses, the foundations of a mediaeval church and early Christian and medieval grave slabs.

The Romanesque doorway, comes from a church that has since vanished. The tenth century Round Tower, to the north of the church, is 65 ft high with a granite base. The round tower is attached to the church by an ancient high, narrow passage eight feet in length. It is said the Round Tower was built by Cairbre or Carpeus, head of the piety of Leinster who died in 919 AD. Roundish granite boulders cemented together with quarry stones and mortar were used in building the tower. The original conical roof is gone, and instead the top storey has four windows facing the cardinal points of the compass.

The South High Cross on the Monastic Site in Castledermot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The two magnificent High Crosses, dating probably from the ninth century are among the best preserved granite crosses in the Barrow Valley. They are richly carved with depictions of the Crucifixion, Adam and Eve, the Prophet Daniel in the Lions’ Den and the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The North Cross depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images from this time of an Irish harp.

The North Cross at Castledermot depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images from this time of an Irish harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

It is said Saint Laurence O’Toole was born in Castledermot in 1128. Almost a century and half later, the earliest Parliament in Ireland met in Castledermot in 1264.

At the southern end of the village is the 13th century Franciscan friary, which was plundered by Robert the Bruce in 1317. The ruins are set back from the main road by only two or three feet, which makes it all the more remarkable that they have survived for so long.

At the Reformation, the friary was suppressed in 1541. Only the walls of the church remain, attached to a square building known as the Abbey Castle, which possibly dates from the 15th century and which is said to be the place the monks lived.

The oldest intact window in Western Europe forms part of the friary ruins. But, while, the window is large, only stonework remains, and if ever there was glass it is long gone.

Kilkea Castle, 5 km from Castledermot, was once the seat of the Dukes of Leinster, and is now an hotel and health farm. The castle was built in 1180 by Hugh de Lacy for Walter de Riddlesford and afterwards passed to the Earls of Kildare. The castle was rebuilt in 1426 and was restored in 1849.

In the past, I have passed through Castledermot on my way to Kilkenny or on to Cappoquin and Lismore. On Sunday I learned a little, and got an appetite to learn more when I pass this way again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

Amended on 15 October 2009.

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