An enjoyable day trip to Roscommon
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
This article was published in the Offaly Independent on Sat 9th July 2022. Long-form text and an additional gallery of images below. For other published articles click here.
Fifty shades of green were visible at Loughnaneane Park, a scenic area of historic significance perched on the edge of Roscommon town. This fourteen acre recreational park is an important wildlife conservation area and home to a variety of flora and fauna. Best use was made of the surrounding natural environment in its creation, incorporating a turlough and crannóg. A lake feature stands at the heart of the park, home to a large family of ducks who were noisily making their presence known to visitors.
And overlooking it all stand the impressive ruins of Roscommon Castle, one of the most important royal castles in Ireland during the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
A summer of incessant rain may have brought some advantages: encircled by trees, the park landscape today is looking particularly lush and verdant. It’s a fabulous public amenity: the designated Bird Walk, designed by environmentalist Gordon Darcy, enables visitors to observe birds in the adjoining wetland area without being seen.
A grassy area to the west of the park has been set aside as a wildflower meadow and is left to grow naturally, attracting local wildflowers and fauna. Follow the winding path and enjoy the feeling of being cocooned by a canopy of trees while listening to the cheerful sounds of birds chirping overhead. Facilities on-site include a children's playground and car park.
An added attraction is the Sculpture Trail, a striking series of carved wooden heads mounted on plinths, referencing the myths and legends which are closely associated with this area. Look out for Queen Maeve, Felim O’Connor, King of Connacht; Aedh O’Connor, the so-called Rebel of Connacht and Cú Chulainn, one of the heroes of Irish mythology. The Nature Chair is a large carved throne on the edge of the pond: overlooked by the castle it faces an avenue of trees, perfectly situated to enjoy the lovely landscape. Children will love the cute carved figures of hares, hedgehogs and badgers perched beneath the seat.
Loughnaneane, or lake of the birds, refers to the lake which once covered the park and which is referenced in the epic Táin Bó Cúailgne from Irish mythology - Fergus Mac Róich, King of Ulster, is said to have been buried on the shores of the lake.
Overlooking the park stands the impressive ruins of Roscommon Castle, a 13th century structure of Norman origins. Built on the site of a Dominican Friary, it follows a quadrangular plan with a D-shaped rounded tower at each of its four corners and a double-towered entrance gate on the eastern side.
In a tale as old as time, Roscommon Castle comes with a battle-worn history. From an initial siege by the King of Connacht Aedh O’Connor in 1272, it endured decades of repeated attacks by the local Irish forces until the O’Connor’s finally regained possession in 1340. They held tenancy for over two centuries until it was surrendered to the Dublin Government in 1569.
In 1577 it was granted to Sir Nicholas Malby, Governor of Connaught who transformed the castle into an imposing, four-storey house, drawing on the symmetrical designs of the Renaissance-style. A plan at the entrance shows us a reconstruction of what the house might have looked like in the 16th century including an ornamental garden and a grand avenue of trees.
It is clear that defence was a major priority in its design during the ongoing periods of political instability - gun loops and other defensive features are still visible today. An additional layer of defence was provided by a deep ditch which surrounded the structure, with the waters of the lake offering further protection on one side. It moved back and forth from to English to Irish ownership until eventually it was attacked and partially destroyed by Cromwell’s people in 1652. Roscommon Castle was finally burned down in 1690. Only partial remains of Malby’s great house survive but the ruins are impressive nonetheless. Step inside to get a full sense of scale as the enormous walls tower above you. Windows, inner staircases and a garderobe or two are still visible today.
When visiting, make sure to leave some time for a stop off at Roscommon Abbey, a Dominican priory on the outskirts of the town, one of the most important in medieval Ireland. Founded over 750 years ago by Felim O'Conor, King of Connacht, he was buried there in 1265. One of the highlights of the site is his tomb, located in a niche at the eastern end of the church and in a prestigious position next to the High Altar.
A 13th century carved stone figure of the king lies on the top of the tomb, dressed in a long robe and holding a sceptre. The sculptural frieze running beneath the tomb was a later 15th century addition: eight armed warriors stand to attention in their own individual niches wearing helmets and chainmail, and holding swords or axes. The attention to detail is extraordinary: today we can still see the deep lines of their armour and even the solemn expressions on their faces. It’s remarkable how well preserved they are after all this time.
The site map tells us that there were two distinct building phases: the earliest dating to the 13th century with further renovations and additions in the 15th. It continued in use until the second half of the sixteenth century when it was taken over by the Crown.
The attractive ruins standing today give us a good indication of the original layout. The outer walls of the church’s 13th century nave and choir have been well-preserved, and a series of splayed windows within pointed arches are still in impressively good condition. Over the main entrance are the remains of what was once a magnificent 15th century tracery window, its mirror image on the eastern wall opposite.
Across from the O’Connor tomb look out for the stone basin known as a piscina, and the beautifully carved sedilia, a stone seat used by the clergy. Both are original features. Today Roscommon Abbey is managed and maintained by the Office of Public Works.