Discovering Ireland’s Middle Kingdom

Valerie Pakenham celebrates the ancient kingdom of Meath’s historic tourism potential

Slane Castle by Thomas Roberts

Slane Castle by Thomas Roberts

 

Ireland once had five provinces – the smallest was the kingdom of Meath, or Midhe, meaning the Middle Kingdom. The story goes, as told by Gerald of Wales, that sometime in the dark ages, four brothers divided Ireland between them and then allotted their youngest brother, Slanius (or Slaine), a small portion of each their share so he would not feel hard done by.

These Slanius is said to have gratefully received but no doubt being clever and ambitious, he soon expanded his little kingdom and in due course became the first High King. The original sharing out is said to have taken place on the Hill of Uisneach, the mystic centre of Ireland and there is a huge boulder there called the Stone of the Divisions said to mark the exact spot.

Tullynally by James Shiel
Tullynally by James Shiel
Lough Crew garden gate
Lough Crew garden gate

55 years ago, I was lucky enough to be brought to live not far away. My husband, Thomas, had recently inherited a family castle in Co Westmeath and badly needed a wife to keep him company. The castle was huge and damp and semi-ruinous and probably not to most people’s taste (“It’s not a pretty house, darling,” said my mother with her usual frankness).

But its surroundings were stunning – its romantic parkland was ringed with beautiful hills and just beyond them lay an eight-mile-long limestone lake. This was Lough Derravaragh, the setting, I learnt, for a famous Irish legend – the Children of Lir, who were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother but kept their human voices and lived here for 300 years.

And all around I soon discovered were yet more lakes, hills topped with mysterious raths or ringforts. Four miles away at Fore was a beautiful 14th-century abbey and 10 miles away were the Lough Crew hills crowned with a string of passage graves, said to be the largest Neolithic cemetery in Europe.

Over the years I have explored these places many times, and enjoyed wonderful swimming in assorted Westmeath lakes. In the meantime, we have restored our enormous castle ( it now houses eight families as well as us) and rescued the gardens from their previous jungle of laurels and rhododendron. Replanted by Thomas with exotic trees and flowers, they now, I am glad to say, attract hordes of visitors here in summer.

But our beautiful surrounding landscape still remains largely unknown. Tourists still speed through the Irish midlands, to the West of Ireland, in earch of the mountains and sea. So after many years of trying to promote Westmeath, I have had a brainwave: I must reconnect it to its earlier self, as part of the Middle Kingdom, which for more than a thousand years stretched from the Shannon to the Irish Sea. For most of these, it was ruled by the O’Neill kings, who had their main stronghold beside Lough Ennell guarding the royal road from Tara to Clonmacnoise and extracted tribute from as far away as Viking Dublin.

After the Norman invasion in the 1170s, Henry II claimed the kingdom as his personal possession and declared it the Royal Province of Meath. He appointed as his deputy or justiciar, Hugh de Lacy, a man of demonic energy and drive. De Lacy built defensive castles all over the place and made Drogheda on the Boyne estuary his port of entry. He made his central powerbase 30 miles upriver at Trim, where his magnificent castle still stands today.

But much of western Meath was never fully subdued, and Norman outposts such as the abbey at Fore were under constant attack. (You can still see the stone in the cloister there where the monks were said to sharpen their swords). In 1545, Henry VIII split the royal province into two, abandoning Western Meath to the “unruly Irish”.

His daughter Elizabeth continued the process, splitting Western Meath into two counties, Longford and Westmeath. Meath’s eastern seaboard, north and south of Drogheda, had already been divided off as Co Louth. So my guidebook would cover these four counties, plus one or two exceptions, such as the royal burial ground at Clonmacnoise.

Ardee St Leger’s Castle
Ardee St Leger’s Castle
Nugent tombstone
Nugent tombstone

Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for writing though I soon found there were many gaps to fill, not least in my grasp of early Irish history. Luckily Hector McDonnell had kindly agreed to illustrate the book. Hector is not only a distinguished artist but an archaeologist who has written several books on Ireland’s history himself. He has been able to fill me in on some of the newest discoveries about the three great Neolithic mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – now known as Bru na Boinne – and has helped me disentangle the Bronze age from the Iron age .

He has also reassured me that St Patrick really did exist (much to my relief as St Patrick appears in so many stories), and explained why Irish monks built round towers instead of square. And above all, he has filled the book with the most delightful drawings as I had hoped.

Another invaluable friend has been Robert O’Byrne, who writes a fascinating twice-weekly blog under the heading, The Irish Aesthete, about Irish buildings and heritage issues of all kinds.

Robert has helped me discover exciting places I had not visited before, and lent me some of his excellent photographs for the book. Thomas has loyally provided more for places nearer to home. For further colour, I have added some charming prints and watercolours from the 18th and early 19th century produced when the passion for discovering Ireland’s ancient history had just begun – it has often fascinating to compare these with what is still left today.

The eastern parts of the old Middle Kingdom were always the richest, and must densely populated and have many of the best surviving monuments. There are superb high crosses (Monasterboice and Kells), round towers (Duleek and Donaghmore), ruined abbeys (Mellifont and Bective) and splendid castles, some still owned by the families who built them.

Further west, most castles and grand houses have been abandoned to become ivy-clad ruins or have vanished altogether – leaving only a quirky gate lodge or triumphal entrance arch to mark where they once stood. Too many ruins can be depressing but around us , there have been some cheering developments. Belvedere on Lough Ennell with its wonderful 18th-century follies is now preserved by Westmeath Co Council, and has a useful cafe tucked behind the Jealous wall.

Outside Oldcastle, beside St Oliver Plunkett’s church, Emily Naper has recreated the original gardens at Lough Crew with a beautiful 17th-century gateway and wonderful views of the famous Lough Crew cairns.

St Munna’s window and Sheila na gig
St Munna’s window and Sheila na gig

But Killua castle just beside Clonmellon, is the most recent and exciting story. It was built by the Chapman family, but in the 1890s, Sir Thomas Chapman ran away with his daughters’governess, and set up house in Oxford under another name. (His wife would never grant him a divorce.) One of their sons became the famous Lawrence of Arabia, who used to visit Clonmellon incognito, and is said to have dreamed of returning there to live.

The castle was eventually sold to a local farmer and when I first came here in the 1960s, it had no roof and large trees were growing up inside. Then 20 years ago, an Austrian banker and his wife bought the ruin, dried it out and rebuilt it stone by stone. Castle, gardens, lake and gatelodges have now all been perfectly restored – and there is a handsome deerpark in front of the house. A garden cafe is said to be on the cards.

So there are exciting places to discover all across the Middle Kingdom. I have begun at Drogheda and ended by the Shannon and Lough Ree, and I have grouped them around the principal towns, providing each with a useful map. The places I have chosen largely reflect my own tastes and interests. And if you tire of cairns, castles, tombs, high crosses or ruined abbeys, may I suggest you try what has been my greatest pleasure: swimming with swans and grebes for company, in a sparkling Westmeath lake.

Exploring Ireland’s Middle Kingdom by Valerie Pakenham (Somerville Press, €10)

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