17 October 2020

A round tower and
church near Croom on
the site of a hermitage

The church ruins and round tower at Dysert Oenghusa near Croom, Co Limerick, date back to an eighth century foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting Croom, Co Limerick, and its two parish churches earlier this week, two of us visited the former monastic site at Dysert Oenghusa, near Croom, with its church and round tower.

This was the site of a hermitage founded by Saint Aengus the Culdee in the eighth century, and was closely associated with the Culdee movement in the early Irish Church.

A monastery on the site was first mentioned in 1033, and the site includes a 20 metre high round tower and the ruins of a church dating from to the 15th or 16th century.

Dysert Oenghusa or Dísert Óengusa, which is now a National Monument, is in the townland of Carrigeen, 1.8 km west of Croom, near the headwaters of the River Maigue.

Inside the church at Dysert Oenghusa facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Aengus or Óengus of Tallaght (Óengus mac Óengobann or Óengus the Culdee), an eighth century culdee, is believed to have founded a hermitage here in the year 780.

The Culdees or Ceilí Dé – Servants of God – were strict religious communities. Aengus came to the Croom area ca 780 and set up a hermitage at Carrigeen. He remained for only two years. He joined the monastery at Clonenagh, near Mountrath, Co Laois.

He later entered the monastery at Tallaght founded by Saint Maelruain, and was the author of the Félire Óengusso (‘Martyrology of Óengus’) and possibly the Martyrology of Tallaght. When Saint Maelruain died in 792, Saint Aengus left Tallaght and returned to Clonenagh, succeeding his old teacher Maelaithgen as abbot and he was consecrated a bishop.

As he felt death approaching, he retired again to his hermitage at Dysertbeagh, dying there ca 814 or 824. He died was buried at Clonenagh, and his feast day was commemorated on 11 March.

Inside the church at Dysert Oenghusa facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The hermitage at Dysert Oenghusa was succeeded by a monastery that is mentioned in the annals for 1033, and some early ruins on the site have been dated to the early 11th century.

The round tower, built in the 12th century, is 20.65 metres (67.7 ft) tall with a diameter of 5.28 metres (17.3 ft) and a Romanesque doorway 4.6 metres (15 ft) above ground level.

The church, with antae, dates from the 15th or 16th century. It is a simple rectangle 15.5 metres (51 ft) by 5 metres (16 ft). The church was abandoned in later centuries and fell into ruin.

Later lore claimed the tower had been built in a single night by a witch. The site was visited and sketched by John Windele in 1833.

The door into the round tower at Dysert Oenghusa is 4.6 metres above ground level (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Dysert Oenghusa church and round tower were lovingly restored over a 9-10 year period in conservation work that cost €1.3 million.

Conservation works that were completed last year focused primarily on the round tower. During archaeological excavations beneath the tower to provide foundations for new stairs, extensive evidence was found of human remains, including 49 people who were buried beneath the surface east of the round tower.

A new steel stairs allows access to the first floor of the tower through the doorway and the internal wooden floors have been rebuilt. In addition, the site has been fenced and landscaped, signs have been put in place, and car parking space has been provided.

Inside the round tower at Dysert Oenghusa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The tower and church were officially opened to the public last year [16 July 2019] after many years of conservation work. The tower is now accessible by the new stairs leading to the first floor, with entrance through the Romanesque doorway.

To reach the monument from Croom, follow the Church Road out of Croom towards Ballingarry; after about 2 km take a right to Eircode V35 TV05.

The round tower and church were opened to the public in 2019 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Mary’s Church, Croom,
from a thatched roof to
a Gothic Revival church

Saint Mary’s Church, Croom, was first built in 1814-1821 and redesigned by RH Byrne in 1929-1932 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting the Church of Ireland parish church in Croom, Co Limerick, beside Croom House, two of us crossed the street to visit the Roman Catholic parish church, was first built at the beginning of the 19th century on a site that was once part of the grounds of Croom Castle.

The Church of Saint Mary of the Assumption was probably built by Father Laurence Hartnett in 1814-1821, although some accounts say the church was first built in 1808. The confusion is compounded by the fact that there were two parish priests in Croom named Laurence Hartnett, an uncle and nephew.

Before 1641, the area around Croom was known as Ballingaddy parish, comprising the townlands of Croom and Toureen. Before Croom became a parish centre in 1711, the parish church was at Anhid. Only one wall remains of Anhid church, however, in the centre of Anhid graveyard. The old water font was removed from Anhid church in 1969.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, Croom, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Croker family of Croom Castle donated the site for Saint Mary’s Church. The church was originally rectangular in shape, with a thatched roof and flagged floor. Two wings were later added, giving the church its present T-shape.

According to Samuel Lewis in 1837, the parish of Croom was the head of the Roman Catholic district comprising the parishes of Croom, Anhid, Dunaman, Carrigran and Dysart.

The church was lengthened in the 1850s, and a new slated roof was added. The sacristy was built in 1898. At this time, the Lyons family of Croom House had their own gallery in the church.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church is a good example of the Gothic Revival style and a striking feature in the landscape. It was rebuilt in 1929-1932, with the addition of the baptistry in 1929 and chancel in 1932. The walls were raised 10 ft all round and buttressed outside. A new roof was laid, and the flagstone floor was overlaid with pitch pine boards. This work was designed by the Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1946), and the church was solemnly reopened on Sunday 4 April 1932 by Bishop David Keane of Limerick.

Ralph Henry Byrne was born in Largo House, 166 Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin, a son of the architect William Henry Byrne (1844-1917), a former pupil of JJ McCarthy. Ralph Byrne was articled to his father in 1896 for five years before joining him as a partner in 1902. After his father’s death in 1917, Byrne continued the business under the name of William H Byrne & Son.

Byrne’s principal works are churches, convents, schools and presbyteries, along with a number of banks, and he restored the Church of Our Lady of Refuge in Rathmines after a disastrous fire in 1920.

The altar and sanctuary area in Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The coherence of Byrne’s decorative theme in the church in Croom is seen in his use of pointed arch windows and a bellcote, while the interesting canted end bays display an innovative interpretation of the Gothic Revival style. The interior is especially rich in decoration, with well-made quadripartite rib vaults and decorative marble fittings.

The church has a three-bay nave, with canted gable-fronted end-bays at the nave, single-bay transepts and a lower sacristy with an addition at the south side.

The other features include pointed arch windows, hood-mouldings, limestone sills, stained-glass windows, including a Y-tracery stained-glass window, double-leaf timber panelled doors with flanking limestone fonts, quadripartite rib vaults with rosettes and foliate corbels, timber galleries with a recessed pointed arch blind arcade.

The altar canopy with fluted Corinthian-style columns and a marble reredosby Ludwig Oppenheimer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

There is a pedimented altar canopy with fluted Corinthian-style columns and a marble reredos, and there are marble altar railings to altar. The mosaics behind the High Altar were designed by Ludwig Oppenheimer ca 1915.

The pitched slate roof has a pointed arch open-work bellcote at the gable-front, with a render cross finial, and a render bracketed eaves course.

Following the liturgical reforms introduced by Vatican II, the altar, sanctuary and floors were renovated in 1969. More recently, the stonework on the outside of the church was exposed, and the church was painted. The exposed stonework gives an indication of the original height of the thatch before the new roof was laid.

The Archangel Michael depicted in a window in the former Lyons family gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A plaque inside the side door on the right is dedicated to Henry Lyons of Croom House, who died in 1885 aged 57. Inside the side door on the left is a plaque to Lawrence Hartnett, Parish Priest, who is buried in the church.

Stained-glass windows donated by parishioners include windows depicting Saint Anthony, Saint Bridget, Saint Patrick, Saint Theresa and the Holy Family.

Another plaque on the stairs to the right gallery recalls the Lyons family, and the stained-glass window depicting the Archangel Michael in the gallery is dedicated to the Lyons family. The window in the facing gallery depicts the Archangel Gabriel.

Two parish priests are buried within the church: Father Lawrence Hartnett, Parish Priest of Croom and Ballybanogue, who died on 27 August 1861, aged 73; and his successor, Father John Quinlan, Parish Priest for 31 years, who died on 19 May 1892, aged 72. Other priests of the parish are buried in the surrounding churchyard.

The Croker family of Croom Castle donated the church site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)