The town of Castledermot in Co. Kildare gets its name from a hermitage founded by St. Dermot. The date when it was founded isn’t entirely clear but it seems to have been some time after 810AD. The monastery was raided twice during that century and burned in 1106. The tower is now the only intact remnant of the monastery.
The tower which stands beside St. James’s Church of Ireland is rather unusual looking. Unlike most round towers, it is built from field stones and looks a bit like it has been coated with crinkled bubble wrap. Instead of being topped with the usual conical-shaped roof, it has castle-like battlements. It isn’t known when the battlements were added to the tower or when it lost its original roof. Another unique feature of this tower is that it doesn’t have a raised doorway. It is just 53 centimetres from the ground. The doorway can’t be seen from outside because it is at the end of a short passageway running between the church and the tower. The photo above is the nearest anybody can get to the tower’s doorway, unless they can gain access to the church. It is believed the doorway is original to the tower and not something that was added later.
The tower was used as a belfry in more recent times. According to Brian Lalor’s book, the bell is still up there, as are the internal floors and ladders. The tower is locked up though so it isn’t accessible. The tower seems to have been altered in other ways too, starting with a little window at floor level. It may also be missing a floor at this stage. It is not known for sure where the original monastery church stood at this point.
Apart from the tower, this churchyard also has two high crosses plus the base of a third one. It is also home to the only known Scandinavian style “hogsback” grave slab in Ireland. There is also a reconstructed Romanesque archway close to the church and tower. It is all that is left of a now-vanished medieval church.
In the early 1990s I was a student in Maynooth University, eventually graduating with oodles of soon-to-be-forgotten information in my head and a horror of getting out of bed before 10am. Happy times 😉 Then, as now, the campus was split between two campuses. The shiny shiny North Campus which has changed almost beyond recognition. Then there’s the South Campus which is shared with the Catholic Seminary established back in 1795. It has scarcely changed since my student days and there’s something I love about that. It’s a nice place to walk around, though I’m not sure many people do. My guess is that even fewer people know that there’s a rather good science museum a few minutes walk from the entrance gates.
The museum has been in existence since 1934. Indeed, it was there when I was a student but somehow I never got around to popping in for a look. Then, as now, it had restricted visiting hours. It only opens on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons during the summer months and by appointment at other times. When it was first set up, the museum housed just ecclesiastical items. There is still a section in there dedicated to that but I’m afraid priests’ vestments, holy pictures, chalices, rosary beads etc. don’t really float my boat. Perhaps bridging the gap between religion and er…the grisly, Daniel O’Connell’s death mask is on display. Far more interesting to me is the science section which was later added.
At first, many of the early scientific artefacts added to the collection were connected with Maynooth’s most famous scientist. The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan, a man who should probably be better known than he is. In 1975, Chemistry Professor Fr. Michael Casey became curator of the museum and he remained in that position until 1998. Under his watch, the collection was expanded greatly. Staff went through the cupboards in the various science departments in the college and unearthed items they felt would be worth putting on display. As it turned out, these cupboards turned out to be a something of an Aladdin’s cave. The museum now has Ireland’s largest collection of scientific instruments on public display. The display cabinets in the place are full of everything from microscopes to telescopes to an early GPS unit. The sheer quantity of items on display is astonishing, seeing as it’s in an obscure little museum.
The Reverend Professor Nicholas Callan (1799-1864) invented the Induction Coil. For a number of reasons, including him being attached to a seminary rather than a scientific institution, his work was overlooked. He wasn’t given credit for its invention during his lifetime (its invention was attributed to Heinrich Ruhmkorff) but that has since changed. He also invented what became known as the “Maynooth Battery” which improved greatly on previous batteries that already existed. It was commercially successful and has been described as the Duracell of its time. Some of his batteries are on display, as is his induction coil and many other pieces of scientific equipment he created or worked with.
Perhaps now is the time for me to mention my favourite anecdote about the Reverend Callan. He liked to experiment with his batteries and once connected 577 of them together. There weren’t any ways at the time to measure how strong the batteries were so he used to experiment in different ways. One of them was to administer electric shocks to his students. One shock was so severe, it knocked out the future Archbishop of Dublin. After that, he switched (or was ordered to switch) over to turkeys instead.
The museum is well worth a visit if you have an interest in the history of electricity and in old scientific instruments. From what I can gather, very few people know it even exists. Perhaps it is a victim of its restricted opening hours and its location. It’s well worth the effort though. Entry is free but you can pay a voluntary donation.
How to find the museum
Walk in through the college gates which are close to Maynooth Castle. Then immediately turn left and follow the path for 250m or so. You will start to see signs for the museum.