Friday, February 15, 2013

Castledermot Round Tower and High Crosses, Co. Kildare

Located in south County Kildare, Castledermot is a village with two excellent historical sites to visit. The first we will look at is Castledermot Round Tower and Crosses. Originally this site was a hermitage founded by St. Diarmaid in 812 AD. Unlike the more usual hermitages like Skellig Michael, St. Diarmaid's positioning of his hermitage at Castledermot is an unusual one. This area was well populated at the time, being located in the rich fertile landscape of the Barrow Valley. So why build a hermitage away from isolation? Diarmaid was a key figure in the new monastic Céile Dé or Culdee movement, rather than solitary hermits they wanted their pious, ascetic and abstemious life to be witnessed by the general population so that people might begin to reflect on their materialistic ways.

From small beginnings his hermitage grew into a monastic settlement known as Diseart Diarmada. It was twice raided by the Vikings in 841 and 867 AD, and the annals report it being the scene of violence and raids throughout the eleventh century as various Irish rulers vied for power in this region.

This site is a must-see for any fans of history, archaeology and those who love to explore old graveyards. A number of outstanding features make it one of the most rewarding places to visit in the region. The two high crosses are some of the finest examples of their type. Carved from granite and dating to around the 9th Century, the South Cross (pictured above) is unusual in having biblical scenes on its western face (the side visible in this photograph) and geometric designs on the eastern side. If you look to the left of the cross in the top picture you can also see an early medieval millstone embedded into the ground.

The North Cross pictured to the right, features a number of biblical depictions. Adam and Eve are at the centre of the cross, with a wonderful image of David sitting and playing the harp on the left arm. The right arm of the cross illustrates Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. The shaft shows Daniel in the lions den at the top, then two more depictions below, I am afraid I'm not quite sure what they are! The base is covered with beautiful curving spirals.  

As well as being striking markers of Christianity on the landscape, High Crosses were also a method of telling the stories of the bible visually to the largely illiterate population at the time.

The Round Tower at the site (pictured to the left) is quite a small example of an Irish Round Tower, standing at only 20 metres high. The masonry of the tower is constructed of rough uncoursed granite.

One of the more unusual features at Castledermot can be found just in front of the South Cross. This is known as a 'hogback' grave (see picture below), and is the only hogback grave in Ireland. This type of burial marker is generally more commonly found in areas like Northumberland. It is associated with the Vikings, particularly around the time of transition between traditional Viking paganism and Christianity between 800–1000 AD. That this typically Viking grave marker is here at Castledermot is something of an enigma, the Vikings wouldn't have been overly popular here as Castledermot was twice raided by the Vikings in 841 and 867 AD. Perhaps the grave marks the burial place of a wealthy Viking trader, a Hiberno–Norse Lord or noble, or even perhaps an Irish noble who was enamoured with the Viking culture.

The grave itself is interesting in that it has typical Norse carvings on it (very difficult to make out today unfortunately, but if you look carefully you can just see faint outlines of large diamond shapes under the white lichen) some of these designs have their roots in Norse paganism, but it is buried in a Christian burial ground. Whoever was buried here was certainly hedging their bets for the afterlife!

The second site at Castledermot is Castledermot Friary and it too is a fantastic place to visit, and like Castledermot Round Tower and Crosses, and in fact all the places we feature on this blog, it is free to enter. We will feature the Friary in a blog post next week.

We hope you are enjoying this blog and that it is helping you to discover some of the superb heritage sites to visit that are a little off the beaten track. Please feel free to leave comments and suggestions, is there a particular site or place that you think we should feature? Do you have any tips about great heritage trails? We'd love to hear them. Leave a comment below or send us a mail at

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