Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tullynakill Church, Co. Down

Having concluded our visit to Sketrick Castle (Chapple Major: Loved it. Chapples Minor: Unimpressed), we next headed for Tullynakill church. This was to be our fourth archaeological site of the day and the children were getting bored and tired. I did my best to be enthusiastic, but I wasn’t holding out too much hope. While we were at Sketrick the clouds had closed over, the wind had risen, and the temperature dropped. It only looked like it was going to get more miserable. It’s less than three miles from Sketrick to Tullynakill, but somewhere along the way, the clouds parted, the wind ceased to blow, the air grew warm, and the sun shone. We parked the car and made our way onto the site and the atmosphere just felt magical.

Although the majority of the standing structure is 15th to 16th century, all the decorated stonework is of 17th century date. In the late 15th century it replaced Nendrum (4 miles away by road, or 1.5 miles as the crow flies/rows) as the Parish church. Unusually, for Ireland at least, burial then transferred to Tullynakill, leaving the older site free of later graves. The original doorway and window, now blocked, can be seen in the west gable. The later door in the south wall is carved with the date 1637. As the doorway and the windows are all executed in a similar style and in the same material (Castle Espie Limestone) it is likely that all date to the same year. The windows are chamfered and grooved to receive glass. The late medieval church was last used in 1825 when a newer church was built. This 19th century structure was itself demolished in the late 20th century.

I did my best with the Chapples Minor … really I did … I pointed out the doorway and the putlog holes in the gables and tried to get them interested in some of the gravestones, but it was all to no avail. The sun was out, the grass was high, and the site was just perfect for playing hide-and-seek. A little warmth and a flicker of blue in the sky can do wonders for the spirit – no matter what your age. The Chapples Minor romped contentedly as I took my photographs and I even joined them for a little while. As the brief gap in the weather started to close again, we bundled ourselves back into the car and went in search of the bacon and ice-cream promised at the beginning of the day. Sometime later, as we waited for three large bacon sandwiches to arrive, we discussed what the best sites of the day had been for us. I was of the opinion that each offered something different and special. The castle and church at Ringhaddy had an ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘difficult to access’ cachet to them while Sketrick was a very personal ‘got there at last’ feel to it. Not to be outdone, I thought that Tullynakill filled in part of my education about Nendrum as well as being filled with interesting details in its own right. While I stand by this assessment, my children were more forthright and cutting in their views. Both agreed that Tullynakill was – by far – the best we’d seen as you could have an excellent game of hide-and-seek, while there was still sufficient space to play chasing games too. Well, folks, if you’ve followed this series of posts and enjoyed this adventure on our doorstep you now should have enough information to make an informed decision of where to visit …

Metal enclosure around Richie family plot, dated 1831

Plan of church showing phases of building (Source SM7 file)

Scale drawing of south door and window (Source SM7 file)


If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as DOW 017:003. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].

Tullynakill Church, Co. Down 3D

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sketrick Castle, Co. Down

Once we finished thanking the landowner at Ringhaddy it was time to be on our way again. This time we had set our sights on Sketrick Castle. I’ll be honest and admit that after nearly twenty years living in Belfast I should have managed to get to see this site before now. When standing at Nendrum monastic site, I’ve certainly wanted to – it’s barely over 1km away … as the crow flies … however, as the crow drives, it’s nearly a half-our over back roads. Inevitably, we put it off saying ‘Next time! … Definitely next time!’ Well … it took a while, but this is the time!

Sketrick is today the shattered remnant of a large tower house and bawn wall. The earliest mention of the site is in the Annals of the Four Masters, who note that the castle of ‘Sgathdeirge’ was captured by Henry O’Neill in 1470. This has led to the reasonable assumption that the building dates to approximately the middle of the 15th century. However, more recent research suggests that the large Tower House is actually of 16th century date, but built on earlier foundations. Sometime before 1534 there is a reference to the Earl of Kildare bringing ‘one great potgonne of Irne … to ye Castell of Scatryke in the Northe of Ireland’. The castle was captured by the constable of Carlingford Castle, John Prowse in 1536. After this point, as the Archaeological Survey of County Down puts it: “although appearing not infrequently on maps, further mention of Sketrick does not occur in the records”. By all accounts, the castle remained in relatively good condition until a fateful storm in 1896 took most of it away. Today, only the ground floor survives with any degree of completeness, thought the castle does survive to its full height of four stories in the north-east corner. Although my children made a good attempt at scaling the walls, only the ground floor is really accessible. Here, like at Mahee Castle, the central chamber was a boat bay or similar storeroom. As at Mahee, this is the only opening facing the road and access to the main chamber was either via this passage or through the doorway in the east wall (though the access at Mahee is slightly different). The doorway in the east wall is defended by a ‘murder hole’ above. The largest ground floor chamber was originally vaulted and has two ovens at the south end. On the north side of the castle, across from the boat bay, are two further rooms. The larger of the two is irregular in shape, with a single narrow slit window. The draw-bar holes in the jambs indicate that the door to this room could be secured from the inside. Within this chamber there’s a rather curious ‘room’ without windows. It is entered via a small square doorway, some distance above the ground and appears to only have been closed from the outside. The Archaeological Survey of County Down suggests that it was used as a prison, while the NIEA guidebook offers the interpretation of either a lock-up or treasury. The rectangular void in the thickness of the west wall is the base of a latrine shaft. Although the upper floors are badly ruined and inaccessible (despite the best efforts of two small children), the joist holes for wooden floors can clearly be seen. Where it survives, to the north and east, the protective bawn wall is relatively close (c 2m) to the castle walls. In the north-east corner of the bawn there is a low passageway that was discovered during site works in the 1950s. This passage runs almost 16m to the east, ending in a corbelled chamber over a fresh water spring. In typical fashion, the Chapples Minor were all for exploring this unlit path into the underworld and I was rather grateful that it was inaccessible. While I admired the architecture and the views, the Chapples Minor were frustrated with the lack of climbable surfaces, their inability to explore the ‘cave’, and the fact that there wasn’t much opportunity for a really good game of hide-and-seek or chasing. Leaving these egregious deficiencies aside, it is a truly lovely site in a gorgeous landscape and well worth the time to visit.

Sketrick after the 1896 storm 

Plan of castle (Source SM7 file) 

If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as DOW 017:008. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].

Sketrick Castle, Co. Down 3D

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ringhaddy Church, Co. Down

In the last instalment of this series, I wrote about getting to see Ringhaddy Castle and simultaneously giving a little of its history and the job we had in getting to see it. We then turned our attention to the next field. There, on the summit of a small drumlin, lies Ringhaddy Church. While the Castle is in gentle shade, sheltering at the bottom of the hill, the Church stands in isolation without shelter-giving trees. The church is a simple, rectangular structure without any surviving dressed stone. The doorways in the north and south walls have holes in the jambs for the insertion of draw-bars, to secure the property. There are, apparently, two recessed cupboards (an aumbry and a piscina) near the east end of the church. However, as can be seen from the accompanying photographs, the ground inside the rusting wire fence is heavily overgrown with nettles and thistles. While I was tempted to brave the condition for myself, I didn’t fancy leaving the children unattended in the presence of an excitable and boisterous herd of cattle. Who knows what my kids could have done to them? The available documentation indicates that the church building is surrounded by a low earthen bank, possibly a late ‘tree ring’. I found it almost impossible to trace this on the ground, but I think I can make it out on the Google Maps Satellite view [here].

I must admit that I have a peculiar fascination with putlog holes. These holes in the walls of medieval buildings were intended to receive the scaffolding timbers used during construction. When the building was finished the wooden beams would have been slid out for reuse elsewhere, or sawn off, flush with the wall if that wasn’t possible. For most of the building’s life they wouldn’t have been visible as they would have been plastered over or covered in harling. It’s only in the building’s later life – when it’s abandoned and ruined and the roof’s gone and the plaster has fallen away – that the putlog holes again appear. It’s quite silly, but I feel that they capture the (relatively) brief moment of construction in a way that the rest of the surviving structure just cannot. To me, they seem tied to the building phase in a deeper way than the stones themselves. There’s plenty of buildings out there with putlog holes, many of them better than here, but I do love the ones visible on the external face of the west wall of this little church.

The church was dedicated to St Andrew and while the church appeared on taxation rolls as far back as 1300, the surviving structure is hard to date. It could be as early as the end of the 13th century or, contemporary with the Tower House phase of the Castle, as late as the 15th century. What is beyond argument is that, on a sunny day, when the cattle decide to keep their distance, the views out over Strangford Lough are spectacular and worth the effort to get here.

Plan of Church (Source SM7 file)


If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as DOW 017:016. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].

While I have tried to present the story in a light & engaging manner, I cannot stress enough my genuine gratitude to the landowner for granting us access to the Castle and Church.

Ringhaddy Church, Co. Down 3D