I adopted the role of an out of town visitor during the past week as I brought a Galway friend around some of the many interesting parts of south Kildare. The starting point was Athy’s Heritage Centre where the first-time visitor was impressed by the range and quality of the various exhibitions. He particularly liked the short films dealing with Andrew Delaney and World War 1, the Gordon Bennett Race of 1902 and the Shackleton ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914.
A barge trip on the nearby river was promised for another day as we turned our attention to nearby Castledermot. On the way we passed to look, from a distance, at Kilkea Castle, soon to re-open as a five-star hotel. Once the home of the Wizard Earl of Kildare it also housed at different periods members of the Jesuit Society and the infamous ’98 informer Thomas Reynolds. Just beyond the castle we passed Mullaghreelan where the Irish saint Laurence O’Toole, a former archbishop of Dublin, was born.
Castledermot has a host of interesting places, the best known of which is St. James Church with its round tower and high crosses. These are visible reminders of the 9th century monastery, while the Romanesque archway is believed to be the remains of a 12th century church dedicated to St. Dermot. The swearing stone and the hogback burial stone add imaginative interest to the scene, even if there may well be doubts as to the historic accuracy of both descriptions.
The substantial remains of the nearby Franciscan Friary founded in the 13th century is all that was left following the Geraldine rebellion of the early 1500s. It had survived attacks by the Scottish invaders led by Edward Bruce almost 200 years earlier. Supressed by Henry VIII, as was Athy’s Dominican Friary in the 1540s, the Franciscan monastery became a vacant shell which contains today in the north transept the only example of a cadaver stone in County Kildare.
A stop over for refreshments at the Moone High Cross Inn brought me to the venue where the late Michael Delaney’s book on Kilkea was launched some years ago. This is a real treasure of a country inn, its wall resplendent with photographs and artefacts telling the story of the surrounding area. A short journey up the road us to the Moone High Cross. It is located on the site of one of the early Columban foundations. The Moone High Cross, one of the finest National monuments in Ireland, is believed to date from about 700 and its elaborate design prompts the belief that the monastery of Moone was well established when the cross was first erected and that the monastery may well have origins near the time of St. Colmcille who died in 597.
A short detour to Bolton Abbey, the Cistercian Abbey established in 1977, brought with it a pleasant surprise. We arrived just as five Cistercian monks began to chant their midday prayers. Many centuries have passed since the same prayerful sounds were heard in nearby Moone and Castledermot and as I watched the elderly Cistercian monks at prayer I became more conscious of the strong ecclesiastical links which mark all areas of south Kildare.
We passed on to Ballitore, the one-time Quaker village, with a built heritage which speaks of prosperous times when Quaker business men were its most prominent residents. Mary Leadbeater’s house, now the village library and museum, was the first port of call. It is manned by the newly appointed librarian Pauline Fagan who tells me that she is one of the Birney clan of Kilcullen. The Quaker museum gives an interesting insight into the lives of the village people of Ballitore of the 19th century. Their story was captured so well in the writings of Mary Leadbeater whose most famous publication, ‘The Annals of Ballitore’, recently reprinted by Kildare County Library, is for sale in the Ballitore library.
A visit to the nearby Quaker cemetery to see the recently repaired grave monument for Mary Leadbeater was not possible as the uncontrolled growth of cow parsley at the entrance to the cemetery threatened a sensitive hay fever sufferer. The Shaker store and the Quaker meeting house are worth a visit if you visit Ballitore where Abraham Shackleton started a Quaker boarding school in 1726. That same school building captured in an early photograph is no more but its most famous pupils, Napper Tandy, Edmund Burke and Paul Cullen are still remembered. The last named, later to be the first Irish Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born in Prospect House just a short distance from the village on the way to the town of Athy.
Time did not allow us to visit Killeen Cormac, just three miles north east of Ballitore. This was a pagan burial place continued in use in Christian times from where ogham stones were removed and placed in our National museum. Kileen Cormac is believed to be the burial place of King Cormac of Munster.
My Galway visitor was very impressed with what he saw in a short trip around South Kildare and I must myself admit that I have a better appreciation of the interesting history and heritage of my own area. Hopefully more visitors will be encouraged to visit the area when the planned Greenway comes into being and the Shackleton Museum plans for the Town Hall are finally realised.