For some reason, my abiding memory of my visit to Dysert O’Dea is getting my feet wet in the cemetery. I mean, why would you wear trainers into a graveyard in the middle of a spell of glorious weather in September? 😀 The things I do when struggling to come up with a heading for a blog post. Anyway, enough about my sodden feet. Let’s talk crumbly old ruins.
Dysert O’Dea was founded by St. Tola in the late 7th century or early 8th century. He is believed to be the bishop who appears below Jesus Christ on the nearby 12th century high cross. It isn’t clear when the monastery was abandoned but it is claimed that Oliver Cromwell’s troops torched the round tower and damaged it. Perhaps this is why there is a breach in the north-west wall of the tower.
These days, the round tower and church stand in a cemetery which is still in use. The tower stands just 14.6m high now, though it looks like there may have been battlements added to the top at some point. There are also the remnants of a window which was added later. Its base has the largest diameter of any of the round towers, though it’s unclear how tall the tower ever was.
On the north-west side of the tower is evidence of fire damage to the tower. There is also a breach in the wall, now supported by a column. It’s not known if this is as a result of the fire or the remnants of a doorway added later on. Either way, it’s not what one would expect to see just around the corner from the doorway. If around the corner is “a thing” on round towers…
The tower stands very close to the ruins of St. Tola’s church. The church itself dates mostly from the 12th and 13th century and is quite substantial in size. Its most striking feature is the Romanesque doorway in its south wall. I didn’t know this was here at all so what a nice surprise it was to see this.
The doorway was originally in the west wall but was moved here. It is believed to have been carved in the 12th century and has 19 heads on the top row – 12 human, 7 animal. The rest of the doorway mostly consists of geometric patterns and it’s stunning. I came here for the round tower but the doorway was my favourite feature
In the field behind the church and round tower is an unusual looking high cross. St Tola’s High Cross, known locally as the White Cross, stands in the middle of a very ordinary looking farmer’s field. According to another website I read, there can be a bull in the field. Thankfully, there were no ill-tempered bovines to be seen so I was able to admire the cross at my leisure.
It is believed that this high cross stands close to where it would’ve originally been erected. The base it now stands on looks like it originated elsewhere so we’re now looking at some historical upcycling. Still, it and the plinth underneath give the cross quite a bit of height and keep it safe from livestock. The top figure on the cross is Jesus Christ and it is thought that the bishop underneath is St. Tola, the monastery’s founder. There is a hole where his right hand should be. It is believed that a now missing piece would have been inserted into it. According to separate inscriptions on the base the cross has been repaired and re-erected twice – 1683 and 1871.
Way back in 1908, a Plaster of Paris copy of this cross was made as part of an exhibition of high crosses. I was lucky enough to see this copy back in 2011 and was surprised at the time by its unusual appearance. It was really nice to finally see it in person, even if it was to be found in slightly surprising surroundings.
The church, round tower and high cross are very close to Dysert O’Dea Castle. It’s open during the summer but was closed up on the day of my visit. Weekdays in mid-September during a global pandemic probably keeps the crowds away! What was there was worth visiting, sodden socks and all.
Still, following the signposts for the castle was the better way to visit the site. There are two routes which will bring you to the monastic site. This route is probably more direct but if you like your car, you might not fancy parking it on the narrow country road for long. The last leg of the road to the castle is pretty rural (to say the least) but there is more room to safely park your car. The field with St. Tola’s Cross is close by and then it’s just a matter of climbing a stile into the churchyard.
Date of Visit: 18th September 2020