Offaly’s Two Pyramids

One of the more intriguing pieces of trivia in the book “Did you know…? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly”  is that there are two pyramids in the county. It’s not a county tourists flock to, so to have something a bit unusual like this piqued my interest. Having visited the Lough Boora Discovery Park many a time, I knew about its pyramid. It’s the one that nobody under the age of 20 can resist trying to climb once they catch sight of it. Anyway, I thought I’d go in search of the second one in the village of Kinnitty. They’re both interesting in their own way, I think.

The Bernard Mausoleum

The Kinnitty Pyramid (also known as the Bernard Mausoleum) is the older of the two. Located in the grounds of St. Finian’s Church of Ireland, it has been here since 1834. It’s hard to miss seeing as it’s 9m tall and sitting on top of a hill. It was commissioned by Lt. Col. Richard Wesley Bernard who lived in the nearby Kinnitty Castle. Not a man short of money, it is known that he did a tour of Egypt in the early 19th century. Whether seeing the great pyramids inspired him to build this mausoleum, nobody can say for sure. It’s described on the website of the Mausolea & Monuments Trust as “Freestanding pyramid standing some 30ft high, built on a square footprint of ashlar limestone construction having skewed coursing.  Pointed-arch opening to entrance front having sheet metal double-leaf doors.”  In total, 6 members of the Bernard family were interred here and the mausoleum was closed up in 1907.

Boora Pyramid by By Eileen MacDonagh assisted by Marc Wouters

The Lough Boora Pyramid doesn’t contain any dead people to the best of my knowledge. It was designed and built in 2002 by the sculptor Eileen MacDonagh. It’s made from unmortared stone which was unearthed as the surrounding bogland was cut away. At 50ft (15m) it’s taller than the Kinnitty pyramid and is considerably easier to climb…

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Smeaton’s Tower

Smeaton’s Tower, situated these days on the much less turbulent Plymouth Hoe

Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.

The ill-fated 1st & 2nd Eddystone lighthouses

The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.

When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task.  He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.

The original stump of Smeaton’s Tower can still be seen at sea, close to the lighthouse which replaced it in 1879

The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.

Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.

What’s inside?

The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.

One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.

At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful little lighthouse didn’t bite the dust too.

Date of visit: 5th October 2013

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The other Kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle overlooking the River Nore

Kilkenny City’s most famous tourist attraction is Kilkenny Castle. It’s large, it has been lovingly restored both inside and out, it overlooks the River Nore on one side and has a wide open street leading up to it on the other. It has a long and interesting history, some nice grounds and gardens which are can be accessed by anyone for free. In short, it’s worth visiting, even if some people on TripAdvisor have complained that you can’t park right outside the door and walk in. Perhaps at some stage I’ll write something about the castle. For now though, I thought I’d write something about the castle nobody travels to Kilkenny to see 🙂

Maudlin Castle

A 10 minute walk will take you back over the river and on to Maudlin Street. Today it’s a narrow, one-way residential area with houses of all shapes and sizes scattered around the place. Half way up the street, mostly ignored and locked up, stands a 25m tall 15th century tower house. The castle formed part of a medieval hospital in the area and it is believed it stands on the site of an older building. The hospital was originally established some time in the 13th/14th century to treat leprosy. At the time, it was believed that leprosy was connected with sexually transmitted diseases. And so, the hospital was named after Mary Magdalene, a woman whose name has been attached to a lot of undesirable things. Despite the spelling of the modern day street/castle as maudlin, it’s pronounced locally as “Mad-Lin”. Not so different to Magdalene when you say it out loud.

St. John’s Cemetery

The rest of the hospital complex has long since vanished but it’s believed there were gardens and orchards in the area. There are still a few remnants from the hospital on the street. There’s what appears to be a partial tower which might have formed part of the city walls at some stage. Off the street is an old cemetery which surely must have been used to bury the dead when the hospital was still open. There once was a church here too but it’s largely gone. The castle itself became a retirement home of sorts for members of wealthy local families. Archaeological digs carried out in the area suggest that beef, lamb, bacon and wild fowl were on the menu.

The castle still retains its garderobe (a.k.a. the toilet!)

Today the castle is locked up and mostly ignored. As an article in the local newspaper pointed out a few years ago, nobody knows what’s in the castle because it’s always locked up. It may or may not have a roof at this stage. There appear to be stone steps inside but as to how far they go…again it’s a mystery. So it just stands there unheralded at the side of a little street, mostly unnoticed by passing motorists and pedestrians .Perhaps the newly launched Medieval Mile  will give this castle a little more attention than it has had to date.

Gallery

Take me to church

Don’t think this was here when the church was originally built

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting ex-church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift attended services in the church. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church preached in it. In the run-up to the première of The Messiah, Handel practised on the church organ. Other people connected with the church, perhaps less known outside of Ireland were playwright Sean O’Casey, revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the judge who condemned Robert Emmett to death.

The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. Eventually it was renovated, at great expense, and converted into a bar and restaurant. The first time I stood in the building was for a birthday party and I remember there being a small nightclub in the vaults!

Headstones against the wall outside

Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a wander around, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the grave yard outside is disused. The grave yard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

The main bar

The toilets are located in the basement of the building and a trip to them is a convenient way to see a bit more of this interesting place. Hopefully my hastily taken mobile phone snaps will give some idea of what the place is like.

 

 

7 Wonders of Fore

Map of Fore
Map of Fore – Click to Enlarge

Fore is a sleepy village in north Co. Westmeath, nestled in the hills near Lough Lene. At first glance, the monastic ruins beside the village don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. That is, until you take a closer look…

A brief history of Fore

Fore gets its name from the old Irish word Fobhair which is pronounced in the same way as Fore. It means “water springs” which makes sense because there’s plenty of that around here. The monastic settlement at Fore is actually made up of two separate monasteries, split by a road. The older part of the monastery, on the left hand side of the road, was founded by St. Féchin in the 7th century. Very little remains from that era apart from a little church that’s named after St. Féchin (more on that later). There may have been two more churches on the site but they have vanished without a trace. It is thought that in the heyday of this early monastery, 300 monks and 2,000 students lived here. Where exactly they crammed them all is another question. Further up the hill from the church is a mausoleum which is a relatively modern addition.

monk playing golfIn 665, St. Féchin and some other high ranking clergy were approached by two kings who had an interesting request for them. They asked them to pray to God for a plague to come and wipe out the lower classes of society, reducing their number. God answered their prayers after a fashion – St. Féchin and his comrades died of yellow plague.

Fore Abbey
Fore Abbey

Across the road from are the remnants of a much more substantial monastery. These buildings were built by the Anglo-Normans and it became a Benedictine monastery with strong links to France. Indeed, this monastery is dedicated both to St. Féchin and to the French St. Taurin. The first Benedictine monks in Fore were French – what they thought of rural Westmeath has been lost in the mists of time. Because this was the era when England and France were at war, Fore frequently was seized by the English because of the French connection. It also suffered many attacks during its existence. It’s known that Fore was burned at least 12 times between the 8th and 12th centuries. Often these attacks were led by the Vikings. It’s believed that there was a staggering 3,000 monks housed in and around the abbey in Fore’s heyday. The abbey’s time finally came to an end in 1539 as part of King Henry VIII’s campaign of monastery closures in the  British Isles. Luckily for the abbot in charge of Fore, he walked away with his head still attached to his shoulders and a pension from the king. All he had to do was agree to the closure of the abbey. Once this happened, it was ransacked and anything of value taken away.

The Fore Cross in the middle of the village
The Fore Cross in the middle of the village

A less obvious feature of the area are what have become known as the Fore Crosses. There are 18 of these little crosses, carved hundreds of years ago and placed along the road to Fore and in nearby fields. There is one in the centre of the village and others on the outskirts of the village.

It may be mostly crumbly old ruins these days but Fore still is known for its its mysterious 7 Wonders. These are

  • The Monastery in a bog
  • The Mill without a race
  • The water that flows uphill
  • The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn
  • The water that won’t boil
  • The anchorite (hermit) in a cell
  • The stone rasied by St. Féichin’s prayers

Are these wonders still as wondrous as they were? You decide 🙂

The Monastery in a Bog

The Monastery in the bog
The Monastery in the bog

This 13th century Benedictine Abbey is now in ruins but there’s still lots to see. It was built around a cloister and courtyard. The partial remains of the cloister can still be seen. Two large towers were built in the Abbey, partly as accommodation, partly as defensive structures. Arrow slits can be seen on the towers and the entrance gate has a murder hole incorporated into it. These days, the ground surrounding the abbey is less marshy/boggy than it was. Perhaps a modern day miracle is that despite all the attacks and being open to the elements for centuries, there’s so much remaining.

The Mill Without A Race

The mill without a race
The mill without a race

Legend has it that a mill was built but it had no race. Luckily St. Fechin was on hand with his trusty crozier. He struck the ground with it and water gushed forward. Spectacular but perhaps a slight embellishment of the truth. The mill was supplied by a number of springs which flow underground from nearby Lough Lene. There are still some remnants of the old mill pond, although it’s mostly silted up these days. The existing mill (or what’s left of it) are built on the site of the original mill from St. Féchin’s time. It remained in use until around 1875 and is marked on the original Ordnance Survey 6″ map.

The water that flows uphill

Unfortunately the subtlety of this one passed me by. Apparently if you look carefully, the stream that flows ever so slightly downhill in the field leading to the ruined abbey turns back on itself and flows uphill. Maybe.

The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn/the water that will not boil

fore-6Now this one is even more bewildering than the uphill water. Especially if you’re on the lookout for a tree with three branches. The original unburnable, three-branched tree stood over a holy well known as Tobernacogny. A plaque on the wall behind it explains it all
There was an ash tree with three branches growing over the well and it was – and still is – the custom for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark. This may have been injurious to the tree which is now dead but the single surviving branch still exhibits a good selection of coinage. It is said that the wood from he tree will not burn  and the water from the well will never boil. The water was taken as a cure for headache and toothache.

Coins on the "tree that won't burn"
The tree that won’t burn

The tree that stands today is known as a rag tree or a raggedy bush. As the name might suggest, it is covered in rags and pieces of clothing. There is still a belief amongst certain people that if a piece of clothing belonging to someone who’s ill or has a problem is hung on the tree, that it will disappear as the cloth rots. There was no sign of any water in the well so perhaps it has given up on curing people’s aches and pains.

The Anchorite (or hermit) in a cell

Anchorite's church
Anchorite’s church

There is a hermit’s cell in the tower of this little chapel. When a hermit entered the cell, he vowed never to go outdoors again for the rest of his life. It is believed that the last hermit in Ireland was Patrick Beglan, who was here in 1616. The tower was built in the 15th century and the rest of the chapel added on in the 18th. Unfortunately this church is usually locked up so few people ever get to see the cell looks like.

The stone rasied by St. Féichin’s prayers

Lintel raised by a few prayers
Lintel raised by a few prayers

St. Féichin’s church is the oldest building on the site. It was built in the 7th century as a much smaller church but was extended in the centuries after that. Its most notable feature is the lintel over the doorway. It is very heavy (it’s estimated it weighs at least 2 tons) and not something that could be lifted easily by anyone. The story goes that when the workmen building the church were having their breakfast, St. Féichin said some prayers, then lifted up the stone and put it in position.

Carrick Balor is the hill overlooking Fore
Carrick Balor is the hill overlooking Fore

Overlooking Fore is a hill with a rocky outcrop on top. It’s known as Carrick Balor. For anyone unfamiliar with Irish placenames, Carrick is an Anglicisation of the word carraig which means rock. Balor was an evil-eyed monster or god from Irish mythology.

fore-24Along the gravelled walkway that leads from the car park to the ruins of the Abbey is a second holy wall known as Doaghfeighin, or St. Féichin’s Well. It’s described elsewhere as being a well surrounded by box-like stones. Alas, it’s not possible to take a closer look these days because not only is it mostly hidden by trees but it’s fenced off  with a barrier. It is possible that this may have been an earlier megalithic tomb or cist .

fore-39The village of Fore developed alongside the monastery. Today it’s a quiet village with a population of less than 400 people. A sign of its previous importance are the two medieval town gates on its outskirts and the remnants of a jail in the village itself.

In the 19th century, an ancient bell was found in nearby Lough Lene. This was a popular haunt of Turgesius the Viking, a man who was partial to raiding Fore. The website Voices from the Dawn has put forward the intriguing theory that this bell may once have been St. Féchin’s ceremonial bell. The bell is now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland. A smaller replica of it is used in the Irish Parliament (The Dáil) by the speaker of the house to try and maintain order.

The “Giant Jelly Sweet” building

IMG_2995As a child, my parents used to occasionally drive through the town of Kilbeggan. It’s a town I got to spend more time in when I became a student and started using a newfangled thing called public transport but I digress. Back in the day I didn’t know or care that the town had a racecourse or the remnants of an old distillery. No, what I used to look out for was a rather odd, corrugated, windowless, black building that stood on the far side of the river beside the old distillery. One that to a young child resembled nothing more than a giant jelly sweet. It was only years later when I bought a copy of the late Mary Mulvihill’s Ingenious Ireland book that I came to learn more about this mysterious building.

It turns out that this type of building was the brainchild of an Irish engineer called James Waller. During World War I, he watched soldiers camouflage their tents by daubing them with concrete. The memory of this stayed with him and when there was a shortage of steel in the 1940s and 1950s, he thought about how this old technique could be adapted to quickly and cheaply help people. He dubbed it the “Ctesiphon technique” (inspired by a 1, 600 year old archway in Iraq) and felt it could be used in developing countries and to help rebuild Europe’s bombed cities.

The way a building was constructed was this.

  • A skeleton of timber arches was erected
  • The arches were covered in a sheet of hessian
  • Two or three layers of mortar were applied to the mortar
  • The wooden arches were removed, leaving the mortar shell. It also left the “buildings” with an unusual corrugated shape.

The storehouse in Kilbeggan is the only structure in Ireland in good condition. It’s not open to the public but depending on the time of year, it can be seen from across the river.

locke's distilery (jelly mould building)

 

Lockes Distillery May 16-009
Vive la différence – trees obscure the view in the summer time.

Poolbeg Lighthouse & the Great South Wall

IMG_2236I first caught sight of the Poolbeg Lighthouse and the Great South Wall from the deck of the Holyhead-Dublin ferry in the early 1990s. By that stage I had been travelling for 7 hours so I was more interested in getting off that boat than paying any particular attention to the long sea wall and the dinky little red lighthouse at its end. Which is a pity really.

The wall and lighthouse are located at the mouth of the River Liffey which flows into Dublin Bay. There had always been a problem with the area silting up with sand, causing problems for ships and boats which needed to travel into Dublin. Initially in 1715-1716, thick wooden piles bound together with wattle were driven into the sea bed. These became known as The Piles. Full marks for originality there. The Piles proved to be rather useless at keeping the sand at bay so it was decided that something more substantial would be needed. In the mid 1740s, work began on a sea wall, built parallel to The Piles. The wall was built from granite blocks which were cleverly interlocked, without the need for any bonding material. The wall was finally finished in 1795.

mapIt was hoped that this new, improved wall would both stop the encroachment of the sand into the bay and deepen the river channel. Neither happened so in 1800 a survey of Dublin Bay was carried out by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. His recommendations had a better outcome than his misadventures on that fateful trip. On his advice, a second sea wall (now known as the North Bull Wall) was built on the other side of the bay. Its construction led to a naturally occurring scouring action which took away the sand and deepened the river channel.

original poolbeg lighthouse
The Original Poolbeg Lighthouse circa 1780

The Poolbeg Lighthouse itself began life as a lightship, before being replaced by a tower in 1768. At first its light was candle powered – it’s believed that it was the first lighthouse in the world to do so. It was converted to oil 18 years later. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and that is the tower which remains there to this day. The Ordnance Survey originally used the low water mark on the lighthouse (Spring tide of 8th April 1837) as the standard height for its mapping. These days, the Malin Head datum is used.

Depending on the weather, the walk out to the lighthouse makes for a pleasant/bracing/vaguely suicidal trip. The route to the wall takes in views of Dublin’s docklands, the iconic chimneys from the former Poolbeg electricity generating station and the Shellybanks nature reserve. Also, if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can enjoy the savoury aroma of the nearby water treatment plant 😀 Also visible on the walk are the two other lighthouses which work in tandem with the Poolbeg Lighthouse. The Poolbeg lighthouse is painted red to indicate to ships that it’s Port side. The North Bull Lighthouse which is on the opposite side is painted Green to indicate Starboard. To the north, Howth peninsula is clearly visible while to the south, Killiney Head and Dun Laoghaire are visible.

Depending on how fast you walk, you can get out to the lighthouse and back in an hour to eighty minutes. It’s not a walk to undertake when it’s getting dark. The wall isn’t lit up and the surrounding area doesn’t look like it’d be the nicest place to be at night. During daylight hours it’s perfectly fine – it’s a popular walk for Dubliners.

Screen CapturesThe wall has featured in two music videos that I know of. It can be seen at the end of Phil Lynott’s Old Town and features heavily in The Script’s Breakeven. The less said about the latter, the better 😀

 


Hook Head

The Hook Peninsula is located in the south-east of Ireland, at the mouth of Waterford Harbour. There are some interesting places dotted along the peninsula, including Tintern Abbey (a sister abbey to the one in Wales), a ruined Templar’s Church, a very haunted house and a beach where they used to make millstones from the rock. The most well known landmark on the peninsula has been there longer than the rest of them though. The lighthouse at Hook Head, at the southern tip of the peninsula.

Before the tower was built, local monks used to light fires to warn passing ships
Ruins of Hook Church. Remnants of the original monastery can be found in the centre wall of the church

The first lighthouse related activity dates right back to the 5th century when a Welsh-born saint by the name of Dubhán began to light a navigation beacon on the headland. He had established a monastery 1.5km away. The monks in the monastery continued to light the beacon for another 700 years. The peninsula is named after St. Dubhán. His name means Hook or Fishing Hook in Irish.

Around 1245, the lighthouse which stands here now was built by a powerful Norman nobleman called William Marshall. The reason for this was probably so his ships could travel from Waterford to nearby New Ross (established by Marshall) without being wrecked. Perhaps because Marshall had built numerous castles, including those at Kilkenny, Carlow and Ferns, it was no surprise that the Tower of Hook also was built in this style.

The ceiling on the ground floor is black from the coal which was stored here.
The rib vaulted ceiling on the ground floor is black from the coal which was stored here for hundreds of years. Also in the photo is a replica lighthouse lamp

There are rib vaulted ceilings inside and three stone floored chambers, one on top of each other. A highly worthwhile exercise when you’re in a building that has a big fire burning on top of it. Each chamber would not look out of place in castles from that era.  For hundreds of years, the light on the top of the tower was fuelled by coal imported from Wales. The monks from the local monastery tended to it until 1641. With the beacon no longer in operation, shipwrecks started again. So in 1667, the lighthouse was brought back into service again.

The original tower was roughly 18m high and 8.5m in diameter but it was added to over the centuries. It now stands 46m tall. As you might expect, it also changed fuel types over the centuries. Coal, oil, gas, paraffin and finally electricity. Interestingly, there are very few trees on the Hook Peninsula. One theory being that the monks chopped them all down to keep the fire going.

The lighthouse finally was automated in 1996 and opened to the public a few years later. The former houses belonging to the lighthouse keepers are now a visitor’s centre


Virtual Visit Tours

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