The ruins of the old Round Tower and Church at Donaghmore were quite an unexpected find. Located just outside the town of Navan on the road to the infamous hill of Slane. I had pulled into what looked like a car park only to be met by a surprising site. To the end of the car park just behind an old wall stood a damn fine specimen of a Round Tower rising up from the grounds of a local graveyard. Well needless to say, the soggy sandwich I had packed for my lunch was left on the passenger seat as I grabbed my camera in eager anticipation of what else I might find. And I was not let down either.
Donaghmore has a long history, which is said to date back the time of St. Patrick, whom is credited with founding an early monastery here in the fifth century. However the existing ruins, do not date back that far. Its original Gaelic name was ‘Domhnach Mór’ or ‘The Great Church’ and some say that this may have been Patrick’s first settlement in Ireland. St. Cassán, a disciple of Patrick became its first Abbott. Cassán is still said to be venerated here. This early Christian monastery would have consisted of a collection of wooden structures surrounded by a circular enclosure, with perhaps a stone church which survived until the tenth century.
Much of what we know about Domhnach Mór comes from the Book of Kells. In 845AD the Abbot Robhartach Mac Flainn died, followed by an attack from our Northern friends the Vikings in 854AD. Another account tells how the monks at Kells bought the lands at Domhnach Mór for 20 ozs of gold. This was said to have been witnessed by Maelmuire O’Dunan the bishop, Donnchad Mac Flainn the High King of Ireland and a chap identified only as Ó Fiachiach whom was the custodian of Donaghmore at the time. By the 13th century Domhnach Mór had become a parish church, but only two centuries later it was described as being in a ruinous state.
The main feature of Domhnach Mór is of course the Round Tower which as it happens, is also the oldest remaining feature of this site. I The Church was replaced in the 13th century by a new and larger structure, built by Anglo Norman settlers. Its similarities to the Towers at Glendalough and Kildare are quite astonishing. With the many similarities they share, it might be possible that they were constructed by the same builder? Domhnach Mór is 110ft in height which actually knocks the tower in Kildare out of second place in the height stakes. Whilst still standing the tower actually predates the remaining ruins of the church as it was built in the 10th century.
Although it is fairly well preserved, it is in fact missing the upper portion of the conical cap. The Tower once would have had wooden floors which were connected by ladders, much like many others of the time. The four upper windows which would have faced each of the cardinal points are also missing, which we can thank a previous owner Mr. Thomas Rothwell, whom carried out restoration work back in 1841. The entrance is about three meters above ground level with a double raised rounded moulding. . It has a head on either side above the jambs and on the keystone there is a depiction of the crucifiction with some rather odd twisted legs on the key stone
Moving on to the remains of the church, if indeed you could call it that. All that remains is the west gable wall of a church which looks to be from the fifteenth century. To the top of the wall there is what is left of a double belfry. It is most likely the third Church built on this site, with a previous one said to have been built in the 13th century by the Norman settlers to possibly replace the original stone chapel which dated back to Patrick’s monastic settlement.
Walking around the graveyard, unearths some more discoveries. There was once a large High cross made from sandstone which stood in the surrounding graveyard. The damaged head of the cross is now housed in the National Museum of Ireland. Its shaft was said to have been divided into panels with interlace confined to a knot at the crux and on the ring. Many of the burials seem to date from the 18th century, along with a number of interesting sandstone cross & grave slabs some of which feature interesting fleur-de-lys terminals. The graveyard also contains the family vault of the Fitz Herbert’s, a wealthy landlord family from Navan whom were associated with the nearby Black castle.
There is also a croppy grave. Croppies was the name given to those who took part in the 1798 Rebellion against the oppression of British rule. As the story goes the unknown corpse of a croppy was brought by locals to Domhnach Mór for burial in the dead of night as it was frowned upon at the time for rebels to be buried on church grounds. Inset into a stone bench in the perimeter wall of the graveyard there is what looks to be an old millstone. Around the graveyard there is an inner wall and pathway, at various points in the wall there appears to be numerous stonework fragments which have been inset into the wall. Some are quite plain whilst others are highly decorated and stick out like a sore thumb. These are most likely fragments from one of the earlier churches which once stood on this site. Whilst there is no access to the round tower and very little of the church left, Domhnach Mór still retains a great deal of interest and is well worth spending a hour or two exploring.