03 May 2010

Exploring the ruins of Baldongan and walking the beaches of Skerries

Baldongan Castle and Church ... standing in ruin on a hill overlooking Skerries and Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Skerries and Rush on Sunday morning, leading the services and preaching in the pretty parish churches of Kenure and Holmpatrick. Inside, both churches have attractive windows and interesting monuments.

An Easter theme in a window in the gallery in Holmpatrick Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

However, a family commitment in Naas, Co Kildare, on Sunday afternoon, meant that I left Skerries without my weekend walk on the beach.

Perhaps I might have been disappointed – it seemed to rain all afternoon yesterday. But I was back in Rush and Skerries this afternoon, and the sun seemed to come out just as I arrived in Rush.

I had a look around the harbour in Rush before heading north to Skerries. But Margaret Plant, one of the churchwardens in Holmpatrick, had suggested yesterday that at some stage I should look at Baldongan Castle. And so, when I reached Loughshinny, I turned left and headed west, up to mediaeval ruins at Baldongan.

The ruins at Baldongan stand conspicuously on a summit of rising ground, about two miles outside Skerries, commanding an extensive view of the surrounding country towards Rush to the south and towards Skerries to the east and north. I almost had the feeling of being on an island rather than in the heart of this peninsula. And with the yellow-and-green farmland basking in the sunshine, and thatched cottages dotted around the countryside, this could have been remote rural Ireland rather than picture-postcard Fingal.

Today, the ruins at Baldongan are all that remain of the church of a monastic settlement and once-imposing castle and church. The ruins of the castle and the church may have been used to build the enclosing wall around the graveyard. The most striking feature is the great tower of the church or abbey, 70 feet high and 22 feet square, entered by an arched doorway, leading to a flight of 53 steps to the battlements, on the eastern side of which is a two-arched bell-turret. The buildings – originally forming a spacious quadrangular court, flanked by four square towers – were erected on the site of an ancient dun or moat.

The church in Baldongan, along with the church at Balrothery, was granted to the Priory of Saint Mary at Kilbixy in Co Meath 1190, and the Knights Templar built this ecclesiastical fortress in the following century on the site of an ancient dún (fort). The Knights Templar were a semi-military religious order, founded in 1119, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and who were devoted to recovering Palestine from the Saracens. They played an important part in the Crusades, but as they accumulated enormous wealth they aroused the jealousy of King Philip IV of France. He trumped up charges of heresy against the order, and secured the Papal suppression of the order in 1307.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the castle was in the hands of the de Birmingham family, but it eventually passed by marriage to the St Laurence family, who were Lords of Howth. Later, the castle, along with the Manor of Balrothery, came into the hands of the Barnwells, an old Norman family that has been associated with Fingal for many centuries. In the early 16th century, the castle belonged to the de Bermingham family.

Finally, in 1642, Baldongan Castle was held by the Confederate forces of the Pale who were supporting the Confederation of Kilkenny against the parliamentary forces of Cromwell.

In June 1642 Colonel Trafford and his Parliamentary forces besieged the castle. A contemporary tract, New Intelligence from Ireland, dated 17 June 1642, says Trafford besieged the site with cannon and put the garrison, about 200 in number, to the sword. Two priests who were among the defenders were questioned, tortured on the rack, and then deported to France.

Close to the ruins at Baldongan, in a field known as the “Nuns’ Stood,” it is said nuns from Baldongan stood and looked back on the destruction of the castle. The shelling supposedly came from troops stationed at Cromwell’s Bush, a thorn tree in a hedge in Balcunnin.

Another story says Cromwell slept under the bush on his way to Drogheda. Other stories claim that Cromwell bombarded Baldongan from the sea, two miles away, and that he fired shots at the Round Tower in Lusk, blowing the top off. However, Baldongan had been destroyed in a siege seven years before Cromwell’s arrival, there is no record that Cromwell was ever here, nor is there any record that the nuns were ever at Baldongan.

Although there had been no functioning church in Baldongan before the 18th century, the Rectors of Baldongan continued to be instituted until 1838, when the Revd William Carroll Magrath became the last rector.

The Hamilton monument in Holmpatrick Church, recalling a remarkable man and a remarkable family story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In 1845, an order was made, telling the parishioners of Baldongan to attend Holmpatrick on Sundays because there was no church in Baldongan. Magrath was the last rector of the parish, but by then he was actually living in Huddersfield in the Diocese of Ripon, where he had been Vicar of Paddock since 1843, and in 1868 Baldongan was officially united with Holmpatrick.

The May edition of Skerries News reports how Maighread Ní Mhuchadha, speaking at a meeting of Skerries Historical Society last month, challenged many of the myths surrounding Crowmell and the siege of Baldongan Castle.

But legends aside, since then time and weather have combined to hasten its destruction.

From Baldongan, I made my way back down past Skerries Golf Club and Holmpatrick Parish Church to Strand Street in Skerries for a double espresso in The Olive, before taking a stroll on the beach, up around Red Island, and back down around the harbour. The old hut beside the slipway has been repainted, refurbished and given a new-spick-and-span look. I read in Skerries News that Tina and Colm McCormack are planning to open this hut soon, selling teas, coffee and ice-cream.

The sun sparkling on the water in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The waters were sparkling in the late afternoon sun as I walked back along the harbour and the South Beach before picking up the papers in Gerry’s.

Blue skies and blue waters at Skerries Harbour this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

And then I decided to return to Rush. On the south side of Skerries, on the west side of the road into Rush, Saint Damnan’s Church stands in ruins, almost opposite Kenure Parish Church. It is now thickly covered in ivy, and this may have been the original church in Rush in the Celtic period.

I also wanted to see Saint Maur’s Church – old and new – and the interesting sculpture in the grounds of the Millbank Theatre.

The ruins of the original Saint Maur’s Church lie in Whitestown cemetery, about a mile west of the centre of Rush. These date back to Anglo-Norman times and are named after Saint Maurus, a follower of Saint Benedict. A legend associated with these ruins says that some French navigators – perhaps crusaders – were caught in a storm, and pledged to Saint Maur that if they survived they would build a chapel in his honour on the first point of land they reached. When they landed safely at Rogerstown, they built a chapel in his honour, and this became known as Knightstown and later as Whitestown.

In 1776, the old church was replaced by a building closer to the centre of Rush. This too was also dedicated to Saint Maur and was one of the earliest examples of a Roman Catholic church from penal times in the Fingal area.

The church was rebuilt in 1835, and when a new modern church was built closeby in 1989 the old Victorian, Gothic-style church eventually became Rush Library.

A modern stained-glass window in Saint Maur’s Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A statue of Saint Maur stands in the grounds of the new church, and the beautiful, modern stained glass windows inside includes one telling the story of of Christ with the Disciples calming the waters of the lake, but perhaps evoking the hapless sailors who later expressed their gratitude to Saint Maur at Whitestown.

One of the two faces of Saint Maur? ... a fascinating sculpture outside the Millbank Theatre in Rush(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

There is also a fascinating, two-faced sculpture nearby, outside the Millbank Theatre. Is this too supposed to be Saint Maur?

I must find out.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


Anonymous said...

where are the ruins of baldongan castle? ive lives in skerries my whole life and have never ever seen it, ive been all over skerries but have never once spotted these ruins and i would really like to see them, could you tell me where it is and maybe give me pictures of the place if you have any and maybe show me on the google maps?
i would most appreciate it, thank you

Unknown said...

If you were to drive from Loghshinny on the back roads towards Balrothery, near Ardgillan Demesne, the castle is on that route.