Hidden away in the small village of Castledermot in Kildare you will find a surprising mass of historical sites with a heritage that goes back over 1200 years. Castledermot or Diseart Diarmada to give it its original Gaelic name, means ‘Dermot’s Hermitage’. Some of the information about the great history and archaeology of this great site comes from the guys at Abarta Heritage. Please take a moment and check out the link at the end of this post where you can hear the story for yourself with their free audio guides. It started its life as an early Christian monastic settlement which was said to have been founded by a St. Diarmait back around 800 A.D. As with many of these early Christian saints, names and dates can easily get mixed up over time, but Diarmait was believed to have been a grandson Áed Róin King of the ancient kingdom of Ulaid, (Modern day Ulster). Whilst most of what we know about Castledermot’s past comes from Annála na gCeithre Máistrí or Annals of the Four Masters as they are best known now. These annals were written in medieval times by a number of monks. It is said to be a chronicle of Irelands history from the time of the biblical flood up until 1616 A.D.
Diarmait was said to have been a member of the Ceile De or Culdee movement. Similar to St. Maelruain over in Tallaght which I have written about previously HERE & more recently HERE. The Culdees were by all means a cult by todays standards. Think of them as early christian extremists whom were opposed to materialism and they sought a return to piety in their every day life. The mere fact that Diarmait’s monastery is mentioned so frequently in the annals, would suggest that it survived for over 300 years. This is most likely due to the patronage of the O’Toole clan whom would have ensured their financial stability. Just look at some of the other historical structures nearby. These could not have been achieved by mere men of straw. Despite their claims to oppose materialism, money was most certainly not hard to come by in Castledermot back then.
The settlement was attacked not once but twice by our roaming friends from the North, the dreaded Vikings. And Castledermot was most certainly an easy target for these marauding adventurers, as it sits nicely on the banks of the River Lerr, a tributary of the larger River Barrow and the second longest river in Ireland. So the Annals tell us that the settlement suffered attacks in 841 and again in 867 A.D. Then in 1037 A.D. Donnchad mac Dómnaill Clóen, King of Leinster was said to have been blinded and killed at Castledermot. He was a member of the Uí Dúnchada, one of three septs of the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty which rotated the kingship of Leinster between 750 – 1050. Máel Mórda mac Murchada of the Uí Fáeláin sept replaced him as king, the annals do not mention whether he was responsible for the deed.
Moving on to 1040 A.D. another rival clan plundered Castledermot and took prisoners. Then in 1043 a tribal chief and his wife were killed whilst under the hospitality and protection of the monastery. In a land filled with ongoing power struggles, the monastery was unable to avoid the impact of such events. Our annals final mention of Castledermot tells of its destruction by fire, prior to the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. So we don’t really know much after this, was there any reconstruction or did the settlement move away?
All that remains of the early settlement is a stunning Romanesque doorway from a former church which no longer survives and acts as a gateway to a more modern church known St. James. Within the grounds of St. James you will also find the remains of a 10th century Round tower, two High Crosses along with a possible third one and a number of ancient stones and grave slabs. But we shall save all those gems for a later day. As you approach the Archway, I am reminded for some reason of the Iron Throne, from the Book and TV series, Game of Thrones. The fact that it is still standing just goes to prove how bloody well it was constructed. Set atop two badly weather worn capitols, there are two levels of chevrons. And the door of the modern church seems to have mimicked the design which is rather appealing as you look through one into the other.