Castledermot offers the opportunity for an interesting, inexpensive and thoroughly enjoyable day out. Despite the town’s name, there is no longer any castle, as this was burnt down in Cromwellian times. However, those seeking attractive and interesting ruins will be in for a treat. Start your visit in the Market Square, where there is an illustrated information map, showing you where to find the various sites. Free printed versions are available in the local shops and cafe.
The origins of the town stem from an early Christian monastery built at what is now St James’ Church (Church of Ireland; located off the Main Street) in about AD600. This monastery flourished, particularly in the 9th and 10th centuries when the round tower and high crosses were erected. In the graveyard is the only Irish example of a Viking hogback burial stone, which dates to the mid-10th century. The beautiful Romanesque arch standing before the modern church dates to about the 12th century. While wandering around the picturesque graveyard, see if you can find the swearing stone – a cross-slab with a hole through the top. Tradition says that people shook hands through the hole to seal agreements.
When you leave the churchyard, turn left and then left again to wander along the riverbank towards the old Fair Green and if it’s a fine day why not stop for a picnic? You can pick up what you need in the local shop (Rath’s supermarket, on corner of Main St & Keenan’s Lane, open 7 days) or service station (Horan’s located opposite Franciscan Friary on Abbey St, open 7 days), both of which have deli counters if you don’t fancy making your own sandwiches! Of course if you would prefer an indoors lunch or just a coffee, you can go to the highly acclaimed Mad Hatter Cafe, around the corner on Keenan’s Lane (www.madhattercafe.ie; open Monday – Friday: 9am – 6pm, Saturday: 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12-5pm).
At the north end of the Main Street, opposite The Dales pub, is a square bell tower (in a private garden), which is all that remains of the Priory and Hospital of St John the Baptist, founded in 1210. You can walk from here back to the Market Square and if you turn right, but keep O’Gorman’s Butcher & Farm Shop (another deli counter!) on your right, you will approach the remains of the medieval gatehouse of Carlowgate. See if you can spot the foundations of the medieval town wall along the edge of the stream behind it.
Returning in the direction of the Market Square, turn right at the school to bring you back to the Main Street and then you can turn right towards the remains of the Franciscan Friary (if locked, the key is available from the house next door). It was founded in c.1247. The north transcept was added at the beginning of the 14th century. Inside is a rare cadaver grave stone dating to about 1520.
To round off your day – and rest your feet, why not stop in any of the pubs in the town for a drink, and if you are lucky you might get caught up in a music session. If you happen to be around in September, you can attend the annual ‘Vintage Day’ held just outside the town on about the last Sunday of September (for details of this and other events see www.castledermotvintage.webs.com). This event celebrates the agricultural heritage of the area. Attractions include threshing with steam engines and vintage tractor events.
No matter what the weather you can find out more about the history of Castledermot and its environs in the foyer of Teach Diarmada Community Centre on the Main Street, where there is a permanent illustrated heritage display (Open Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5pm). While there, you can ask about the Irish High Cross Exhibition, also housed in the centre (currently open on request).