This article is transcribed from the Kildare Observer 30 December 1916
Walks in County Kildare
Castle of Lyons.
The Hill of Lyons is an object of beauty attracting us by the strident verdancy of its graceful slopes descending to the plains. On its summit the design of its forestry suggests a battle. Advancing from opposite directions the woods abruptly halt, leaving a green space of no man’s land in between. In the 12th century Henry II possibly surveyed the hill, marked it as his own, and formed it into the first Royal manor. In a State paper we are told, in all Leinster, he kept for himself only the barony of Newcastle-Lyons, “and we cannot see that the King had in all Ireland any inheritance of the Crown, only the lordship of Newcastle.” The first Norman holder was Walleran de Wellesey, who was a travelling Justice of Ireland in 1261. Ten years later he held the New Castle of Lyons from the Crown, and was slain in 1303. He was succeeded in the 13th century by the Aylmer family, who held the property through five centuries; then it passed into the possession of the Lawless family.
Crossing Henry Bridge over the canal, the road leads up Lyons Hill. The first lodge on the left admits to the lands of Clonaghlis, an ancient parish in County Kildare. During the Ordnance Survey of 1837 inquiries were made locally, and the report was: — “Clonaghlis goes now in common by the modern name of Farm Hill. Clonoclis is not at all known as a parish name among the people, who do not even remember there was a church called by such a name.” The place is still known as Farm Hill and the Irish name is never applied. The parish church and cemetery have wholly passed into oblivion.
A Welsh Colony.
In the 12th century Conquest of Ireland the invaders were the4 Welsh, Normans and Flemings. Their chief settlements lay between Naas and Lyons, where a strong Welsh colony was established. The first Welsh holder of the lands of Clonaghlis was Peter of Carmarthen, who gave the church of Clonacles and all its appurtenances to the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr, which was founded in Dublin in the presence of Archbishop Laurence O’Toole in the year 1177. The grant was ratified by the Bishops and Canons of Kildare, when the churches of Clonaghles, Ougterward and Castle Warden were also granted to the Abbey. An exchange of lands between Clonaghls and Oughterard is also recorded. Clonaghlis is mentioned in Inquisitions in the reigns of James and Charles.
A short distance from these lands, adjacent to one of the entrance gates of the Lyons demesne, and ancient cemetery was discovered called The Relick, perhaps a vestige of the old parish graveyard. A moat at the top of the hill probably gave the place its name. The total culmination of parish, church and cemetery is a curious occurrence, and the only explanation I might venture to make is that they were absorbed in the Norman parish of Newcastle Lyons. The hill on the opposite side of the road is known as Boston Hill.
The road on the right, higher up, leads all over the hill, a long delightful country walk, with fine views over the Kildare plains; but as an alternative we come back to the Canal and turn to the left along its banks. It is a long stretch of over two miles to Ponsonby Bridge, which bears date 1794. An old windmill stands in a flooded field, but its sails are missing. One does not expect to find a lovely chapel on the uninhabited banks of a canal. Yet one is to be seen in the hamlet of Ardclough, with a National School, erected in the year 1839, and a few houses. Further on is an old toll-gate near a thatched cottage. Crossing the bridge, we pass into Baronsrath, the country of the Fitzgeralds, Barons of Naas. The place, however, evidently got its name from Henry Baroun, who held lands in Barony. In 1318, William of London, who owed Walter Istelep £169 sterling, was obliged to give all the lands of Baronsrath in discharge of his debt. no trace of rath or castle is found in this old baronial property. A handsome modern house stands vacant.
Whitechurch: Two Holy Wells.
A short walk up a pretty, wooded country road leads to the parish of Whitechurch. Two iron gates bar the way to the ancient cemetery, but they are easily crossed. There is a strong castle tower here, if we could see it naked, but it is heavily encumbered with dense masses of ivy. Its strong outer walls are stained with lichens. A well-preserved circular flight of stone steps leads up to the first storey, where we find a ground floor, but the overgrowth of ivy obscures every outline. Over the bronzed ivy leaves rise thousands of light green floral plumes, the stamens resembling tiny drumsticks. A great breach in the wall near the foundation gives a glimpse of a deep, gloomy dungeon, and makes us shudder when we think that human beings were confined here, perhaps in chained captivity. A large ruined chapel is attached to the tower, and here again we find a surfeit of vegetation. Outside and inside are crowded with the ready sprouts of ancient elder trees. Immense branches of purple berries hang pendant, from which birds extract the juice, which in olden times was brewed by frugal housewives into elderberry wine. There are two splayed windows, supported on the lintels, on each side of the ruined chapel. There is no chancel. The end window is large and some later masonry has been inserted. On the ivy-carpeted floor, among moss green stones, lies a large, square-holed font. Outside the ruins there are two holy wells, one called the Lady’s Well, the other nameless. Time has worn the older gravestones jagged and thin, and the inscriptions have long been erased. There are also one or two squat granite crosses. Some tall dark Irish yews add to the solemnity of the place.
It is stated that these fortified ruins were once a Carmelite monastery, but there is no corroboration. In the year 1329 we find William of London granting the lands of Whitechurch to John Plunkett. Nearly two centuries later, in 1508, it belonged to Sir William Preston, second Viscount of Gormanstown. Then Jenice Preston, third Earl, leased the manor of Whitechurch on February 16, 1560 to Patrick Sarsfield, merchant of Dublin, and brother of Sir William Sarsfield of Lucan, who afterwards acquired the property.
At the head of the road we keep to the left and cross the quaint old bridge over the Great Morrel river, which in the 18th century supplied the Grand Canal with water. In close proximity stands Turning House, a grey, modern three-storeyed mansion, covered with the glorious fiery red foliage of Virginia creeper. In its back wall there is a carved stone window with four curious figures of animals, resembling some of the signs of the Zodiac. These probably date from the 14th century. On another tablet is engraved: “Thomas Par, 1711.” In the year 1414 Thomas Brit granted to Christopher de Preston, Knight, the manor of Turmag.
A Ghostly legend.
We now pass on to Sallins road and keep to the right. A gate here is known as the Gallows Gate, and a stretch of land is called Crookawn. Further on the weatherworn great walls of Straffan estate come in sight, and we get a magnificent exhibition of the fading glories of autumn. The birches, with silver holes, are putting forth all their golden splendour in their final change of raiment this season. A high, wood-encased pump is the sole outstanding object. A few perches to the left reveals a row of small cottages, the only habitable part of Ladycastle.
Travelling by train to Straffan we find our way to the village. The road runs straight into Lower Turnings, but at a white gate we keep to the right through the townland of Ballyhaise, and reach the bridge over the Liffey. The wayside is full of rural charm. The white flower of the Yarrow and the faint blue of the Scabieus still linger. The hedges are bright with the yellow rosy berries of the dog-rose, and the clustered purple beads of the corymbs of the elder trees. The glory of autumn is freshly painted on the tinted foliage. Haws are scarce, but the thorn bushes are black and red with berries awaiting the pickers. Beside the bridge a high wall thickly covered with ivy suggests the ruins of the old medieval castle. Tall feathery pines, lichened in quaker grey, stand about it like ghostly sentinels. Investigation, however, proves it an old disused flour mill.
Glancing upstream, along a line of silvered willows, we get a view of Straffan House. It was built in the year 1832, and resembles a French chateau. Right in front of the house is a large island, called Inismore, around which the impetuous torrent of the Liffey sweeps, till it reaches a weir, over which the waters tumble in muddy froth.
The Bartons are said to have come over to Ireland from Lancashire with the army of Essex in Elizabethan days, but they did not acquire this property till the year 1831. Their predecessors were the Henrys. The Reverend Robert Henry was Presbyterian minister of Carrickfergus, who died in Dublin in the year 1633. His son Hugh was a successful banker who built up a huge fortune, and purchased the Straffan House estate in 1717. He married Anne, daughter of Joseph Leeson, sister of the first Earl of Miltown. A descendant was wedded to a daughter of the princely House of Leinster. The Henry family squandered their great wealth, and were obliged to sell their Straffan property and live abroad. An underground passage from the mansion to the stables may be described as a Henry folly. Passing down the road, the trees overhang the estate walls. The dark bronze of the oaks contrasts with the prevailing orange and rich, ruddy brown; while underfoot the fallen chestnuts pebble the ground with mahogany.
Further on we pass the parish church with tower and spire, built by the Bartons in 1837; then comes the village, with a neat row of cottages and gardens. Treasure trove was found in the end garden last year – 29 large French silver coins, the size of an English crown piece, dated the 16th century. Beyond lies the churchyard, “where the rude forefather of the hamlet sleep.” Christianity separated them in many ways during their lifetime, and in death their ashes are permanently divided. The Catholics are buried on one side, the Protestants on the other. A pathetic touch, strong enough to bring tears to our eyes, is found on one tombstone. “here lies Biggy Tommy, a mother’s son. Rest in Peace. Also two brothers.” It is the family grave of the Carey’s of Kilmainham. In another grave a woman has buried her three husbands. The village sculptor spells July with a G.
In the midst of the cemetery rises a picturesque “ivy-clad” castled tower with a ruined chapel attached. Little is recorded of these buildings. Straffan first appears as Trachstraph when it was granted by Strongbow to Maurice Fitzgerald. After the dissolution of the reign of Henry VIII we find that Richard Weston, last Prior of St. Wolstan’s, held property in Straffan. In the Inquisitions of James I and Charles I there are references to the parochial church of Straffan.
A short distance down the Bohereen lane as it is called we arrive at a field with a mansion in the background. It was inhabited by a family named Whitelaw, and the house still bears the family name. The field has a circular raised rampart with a double circle of ditches. The circumference is considerable, and it must have been the site of a large military encampment. Ramparts and ditches are well preserved. It is stated that it was an ancient boundary of the Pale. The succeeding field has an old Irish rath.
Doubling back here we recross the bridge, and further on the fingerpost points the way to Sallins. This road brings us to Ladycastle. Some vestiges of the old estate existed in the early part of last century, but they have disappeared.
On March 23, 1227, there was a great assembly of lords and high officials to make provision for the mother of Baron David of Naas. The Baron granted to his mother the manor of Ladycastle and Tolachtyper, and all the appurtenances. David Fitzgerald was evidently a loving son for he stipulated that if the lands of Ladycastle did not produce sufficient revenue for his mother’s upkeep that it should be supplemented from other sources. In the 11th century Ladycastle was in the possession of the Wellesley family.
The Count of the Grail
The adjoining townlands are Upper and Lower Turnings. The chief motive of this paper is to put forward a notion of mind as to the significance and origin of the Turnings. I have long been convinced that Sir Perceval lived in Ireland and evidences in support of this belief have been frequently put forward by me in these articles. Arthurian romances show that his father came to Ireland, and that Sir Perceval was educated and trained for the Knighthood by Gorneman , an old Irish knight. In the first volume of “Perceval de Gallois on le conte du Graal,” a manuscript preserved in the Burgundian Library in Brussels, there is an account of a battle between Sir Perceval and the Knight of the Dragon at Turning Castle.
This romance has been brilliantly translated by Dr. Sebastian Evans, under the title of “The High History of the Holy Grail” – a book of exceptional fascination and interest. The romance is full of stories of bewildering magic and enchantment, which are purely imaginative and must be brushed aside before we reach the rock-bottom facts. The lady who owned the castle here was called the Queen of the Golden Circlet, and the romance tells us “she had for name Elysa, and a good life she led and right holy, and she died a virgin. Her body still lieth in the Kingdom of Ireland, where she is highly honoured.”
My studies in the Perceval romances have led me to fix the date of his adventures as taking place in the last decades of the 12th century. These lands were given to Maurice Fitzgerald in 1171, including Trachstraph, or Tech Straffain – the house of Straffan. He died in 1176. His wife’s name was Alice or Alicia, and I assume she must be the Elysa of the romance. She, as in the case of the later widow of Baron David, was given the house of Straffan as her dower, and from her originated the name of Ladycastle, and also Ladychapel and Ladyhill in the same neighbourhood. The statement that she was a virgin is probably an assumption.
Now it is curious to find that the first reference to Turning castles are found in an old Irish manuscript of the 8th century, “The Voyage of Maeldun,” which Tennyson made the subject of one of his poems. Máeldun comes to an island around which runs a fiery rampart. “After that they sight another island, which was not large, and a fiery rampart was around it, and that rampart used to revolve round the island. There was an open door in the side of the rampart, and whenever that doorway came opposite to them they saw the whole island, and all that dwelt therein.” There are several references to Turning castle in the Arthurian romances.
Knight Of The Dragon
Now the field at Straffan, which I have described, appears to offer a solution of the mystery of this flame encircled field. Fire was evidently used for defence purposes. These two great ditches were, perhaps, filled with wood and other inflammable matter, and when the enemy approached were set ablaze. The surging flames moving around in these vast circles may have created an illusion of a revolving island.
To return to the story, Perceval had his quarters in the island of elephants, which may be identified with the island in the Liffey, which is only a short distance from Ladycastle. This may be a corruption of an Irish name. We are reminded that, in Dublin, about two centuries ago, Mellifont Lane was corrupted into Elephant Lane. The Knight got his title from a great shield which he carried with a “dragon’s head in the midst that casteth out fire and flame in great plenty, so foul and hideous and horrible that all the field stank thereof.” The lady of the castle prays Sir Perceval to go out and slay the Knight, “for the longer you tarry, the more lands will be desolate, and the more folk will be slain.” Sir Perceval advances to the attack, but the Knight of the Dragon ejected a jet of fire that burned his shaft up to his hand. Then we are told that “a further flame that issued from the Dragon’s head turned back again, as it had been blown of the wind, so that it might not come nigh Sir Perceval.” Then Perceval plunged his sword into the dragon’s mouth, which turned towards his lord, who was scorched and burned to dust.
There are things symbolic and mysterious in all this, which we will not attempt to interpret. The revolving turrets and the jets of flame and poisonous gasses are not unknown to us to-day in modern warfare. The greatest of the Arthurian romances were composed in France and Germany.
The best of all is the Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Bavarian of knightly family, who tells us in his immortal poem that he could not read or write. Probably the incident related told from the Norman side, is the story of some Irish chieftain who descended from the hills to drive out the new settlers, and recover the inheritance of his race.