24 June 2020

Dysert Castle and a holy
well near Askeaton with
links to Saint John’s Day

Dysert Castle, Barrigone, standing alone in fields between Askeaton and Robertstown, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Dysert Castle near Barrigone is west of Askeaton, near Aughunish and Robertstown half-way on the road to Foynes. I have passed it many times but only viewed it from a distance until earlier this week.

Today the castle stands in ruins, lonely and abandoned in the middle of a field behind a farmhouse. But in the past it was associated with the O’Brien, Gould, Wakeman and Wingfield families, and nearby is a holy well that was once a focus of local pilgrimage on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, which is celebrated today (24 June).

Older people in area used to say that the name Borrigone is derived from the name of Saint John the Baptist, Barraig Eoin or ‘the rough lands of Saint John.’

Dysert Castle was known in Irish as Díseart Muirdeabhair, and later as Diseart Murdebrair, Disuirt Murdewar (1201) and Dissert Marrgeoin (1336).

The Limerick historian and antiquarian Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) noted that in 1584 Morris mac Tirrelagh Mac Moryertagh O’Brien, who held the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, also held Crag mac teigh, near Dissert, in Conyllagh.

When James Gould died in 1600, he held Craige and Disertbargeon as a tenant of the Bishop of Limerick. Later, Dysert Castle was held by J Wakeman held the castle and the surrounding lands.

Craige and Dissert Castle had passed to the Wingfield family by 1638, when Sir Edward Wingfield died. The Civil Survey in 1654-1656 recorded that Sir Edward Wingfield was in possession of the lands of ‘Craige and Dissarte,’ which included a castle and 72 Irish acres.

The Wingfield family has been in Ireland since the mid-1500s and is descended from an Elizabethan soldier, Richard Wingfield, who became Marshal of Ireland. The Very Revd Richard Wingfield was Dean of Kilmacduagh in in 1621-1624.

Another Richard Wingfield, who lived at Dysert Castle in Robertstown parish, probably came to this part of Ireland through his marriage to Honora O’Brien, daughter of Teige McMurrough O’Brien and granddaughter of Murrough O’Brien, 1st Earl of Thomond.

Honora and Richard Wingfield were the parents of Sir Edward Wingfield of Dystert Castle, who died on 22 April 1638. Sir Edward Wingfield’s wife, Anne Cromwell, was a daughter of Edward Cromwell, 3rd Baron Cromwell, a direct descendant of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), Henry VIII’s Chief Minister until 1540, when he was beheaded on the king’s orders in 1540, and one of the most powerful proponents of the English Reformation.

Sir Edward Wingfield’s son, Lewis Wingfield, was the grandfather of Richard Wingfield (1697-1751), 1st Viscount Powerscourt.

The ruins of Dysert Castle stand on low-lying pasture overlooking the wet floodplains of the Robertstown River to the east. Dysert Caste dates from the late 15th century, when it was probably built by the O’Brien family. This is a four-storey tower house about 50 ft high, measuring 19 ft by 13 ft inside and with walls that are 4.5 ft thick.

It has a barrel stair of 68 steps on the north-west side, beside the door which is protected by a ‘murder-hole.’ The lower and third storey are vaulted, with a closet in the wall on the second floor. There are slight traces of a side wing and bawn, all much injured.

Today the castle appears well-preserved but is covered in ivy.

I failed earlier this week to find the nearby holy well dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Older people in area used to say that the name Borrigone is derived from the name of the saint, barraig Eoin or the rough lands of Saint John.

In the past, people visited the well ‘to make the rounds’ on the Saturday before May Day and on the eve of Saint John’s Day, and a ‘pattern’ was held at the well on 15 August each year, when people came there to perform a ‘rounds’ or pilgrimage. People stayed there all night and throughout the following day. Bonfires were lit and open-air dances were held near the well.

It was all so quiet earlier this week, I failed to find the well, and I wondered what might have been had the Wingfield family decided to make Dysert Castle their principal residence rather than Powerscourt near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

Dysert Castle probably passed from the O’Brien family to the Wingfield family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

19 years in priestly
ministry and my scenic
route to ordination

Patrick Comerford

I was ordained priest 19 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 20 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 20-21).

Bishops, in the charge to priests at their ordination, call us to ‘preach the Word and to minister his (God’s) holy sacraments.’ But the bishop also reminds us to be ‘faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed,’ to ‘promote unity, peace, and love,’ to share ‘in a common witness in the world’ and ‘in Christ’s work of reconciliation,’ to ‘search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.’

As I reflect on these anniversaries this morning, I recall too how my path to ordination began 49 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

It was the summer of 1971, and although I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton and the College of Estate Management at Reading University, I was also trying to become a freelance journalist, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, and staying at Wilderhope Manor, I had returned to Lichfield.

I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield, and I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled into that chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of an old church or chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late afternoon, so there was no light streaming through the East Window. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.

This is not a normal experience for a young 19-year-old … certainly not for one who is focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.

But it was – and still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my ‘self-defining moment in life.’ It still remains as a lived, living moment.

My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into Lichfield Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.

It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-2008), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop at Lambeth. He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.

All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.

With Archbishop Walton Empey at my ordination as priest in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 June 2001, and (from left) the Revd Tim Close and the Revd Avril Bennett (Photograph: Valerie Jones, 2001)

However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then then Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.

My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I return to Lichfield regularly, usually two, three or more times a year, and slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. That chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But the traditions of that chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; and the liturgical traditions of Lichfield Cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.

That bright summer evening left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. This morning, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought unexpected restrictions on this meaningful day, and I have yet to visit Lichfield this year.

Letters of ordination as priest by Archbishop Walton Empey

The Collect of the Day (the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour,
by the preaching of repentance:
Lead us to repent according to his preaching,
and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Archbishop Walton Empey’s inscription on the Bible he gave to me on my ordination to the priesthood in 2001