Wednesday, 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)

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