The following excerpt is from the Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Ireland. Click here to view an area map.
A Hangwoman's Terrain
Between the gently flowing River Shannon and the salmon-rich River Suck is an area of lush pastures, gently rolling countryside and island-bedecked lakes. This is prime cattle and sheep-farming country, where 'hardly a sod is turned', back roads are dotted with livestock farms, and towns, as Roscommon, the county seat, regularly play host to bustling agricultural shows and noisy auctions of animals.
The castle is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in Ireland. There has been a fortress on the site from ancient times, but the earliest recorded reference is in the Annals of the Four Masters of 1632-6, which called it Dun Iomghuin ('fortress of Iomghuin'), and named it as the seat of the O'Finaghtys.
The O'Finaghtys, chiefs of the Conway clan, were dispossessed by the Normans in the 13th century. They returned, but it is said that in 1307 Nuala na Miodagh ('Nuala of the Dagger'), wife of the last O'Finaghty, murdered her husband, and married a Burke. In 1333, the Burkes took control of the castle and the Conway chieftainship and remained there until they were dispossessed in the Cromwellian Settlement of 1652.
The building, the oldest part of which dates from the 1400s and has been substantially updated over the years, is now occupied by the Divine Word Missionaries. It is not open to the public.
About 1200 years ago Roscommon was a noted place of learning, with a monastery. It was founded in 746 by the town's namesake and first bishop, St Coman (the town's Irish name means 'Coman's Woods'). No trace of the monastery survives, but some local historians believe it stood on the site now occupied by the Anglican church of St Coman's in Church Street, built nearly 200 years ago.
Happily, other testaments to Roscommon's historic past have survived. On the southern edge of the town, in a fenced-off enclosure by the side of a modern school, are the stately remains of the Dominican Friary of the Assumption. It was founded in 1253 by Felim O'Conor, Ring of Connaught, but destroyed by fire in 1308. It was rebuilt in the late 15th century and much of what remains dates from this period.
O'Conor's remains are said to rest in the late 15th-century tomb at the left of the long, narrow church. Although his effigy is defaced, some features can still be made out, such as the fleur-de-lis sceptre in his right hand and fragments of a crown around his head. A series of eight gallowglasses, or mercenaries, surround the tomb's base.
Roscommon was originally built on the southern slopes of a wide hill, near the top of which stand the remains of Roscommon Castle. It is found past a crowded cow pasture, down a lane at the northern edge of the town. A castle was first built there by the Normans in 1269, but was captured and razed by the Irish in 1272 and rebuilt in 1280. The large Tudor-style mullioned windows were added to the D-shaped corner towers and curtain around 1580.
In Roscommon's spacious square is the old jail, a castellated stone building that housed the county's criminals and was once the domain of Lady Betty, Roscommon's notorious 18th-century hangwoman.
Strokestown/Béal na mBuillí
This modest village has what is reputedly the widest main street in Ireland outside Dublin, and it is a clue to Strokestown's heritage. A second clue is the imposing Georgian-Gothic triple arch at the end of the main street.
Behind this arch sits Strokestown Park House, the last major 18th-century manor house to survive in County Roscommon, around which the planned market town was developed. The house was built in the 1730s for Thomas Mahon, an Anglo-Irish MP, by the noted German-born architect Richard Cassel. It was the nucleus of Mahon's 30,000 acre estate, granted to his grandfather by Charles II for his allegiance to the House of Stuart during the Civil War.
Strokestown's wide main street is the result of a Mahon descendant's visit to Austria. He was so impressed by Vienna's Ringstrasse he decreed that Strokestown should have a similar main avenue.
Strokestown Park House stayed in the Mahon family until 1979. when it was bought by a local firm, restored and opened to the public. Now it offers fascinating glimpses of Ireland's often stormy Anglo-Irish past.
Cassel's design for Park House incorporated a 17th-century tower house that stood on the spot. Only one room of the tower house remains, a still room in the cellar. Its restoration has revealed one of Ireland's most interesting early Georgian designs.
The house's design is basically that of a farmhouse expanded to the size of a stately home; it was copied by many of the landed Anglo-Irish gentry. The central block was the family's residence and wings either side housed the stables and kitchen areas.
The kitchen itself is noteworthy. A gallery runs its entire length, from which the lady of the house could oversee the kitchen staff without entering the kitchen itself, and from which, each Monday morning, she would drop a menu with instructions for the entire week's meals. The gallery is the last of its type in Ireland. Tunnels to conceal the comings and goings of staff and tradesmen link the house to kitchen, stable and bar.
The house's main reception rooms contain their original period furnishings which include an exquisite Chippendale bookcase and Regency wallpaper in the library. Antique toys fill the children's playroom, and the bedrooms seem only recently vacated by their 19th-century occupants.
As well as the wealth of furnishings, the house has a collection of documents detailing the day-to-day lives of the Mahons and of the region over several centuries. Papers relating to the Great Famine of the 1840s which devastated Irish rural life and led to mass emigration are of special interest. The papers include details of the death of Major Denis Mahon, owner of the house during the famine, shot dead by tenants who accused him of chartering 'coffin ships' to send those evicted from his land to America. There are plans to set up a museum in the grounds devoted to those turbulent times.
At the other end of the town is the County Heritage and Genealogy Centre, which contains a display of ancient artifacts from the region and presents an audiovisual show on the history and heritage of County Roscommon. It also provides a research service into local genealogies, where more than 1000 people a year trace their ancestors.
Other Places to See
This page was last updated on 05/18/01.