Dysert O’Dea Castle, Ireland
The Dysert O’Dea Castle, including the surrounding area that is dotted with over 25 places of historical and archaeological interest, is the perfect starting point for the 6km Dysert Archaeology Trail—the trail can be walked and/or partially driven and highlights impressive monuments such as Dysert O’Dea Castle, St. Tola’s Church, the 11th century Round Tower, and St. Tola’s High Cross.
We began our hike by exploring the castle—Dysert O’Dea, perched on a rocky outcrop north of the high cross, was built in 1480. The castle was badly damaged by Cromwell in 1651, but it has been repaired and now serves as an archaeology center—you can now climb the spiraling stone stairs to the roof of the castle, passing by several restored rooms full of artifacts along the way.
From the castle, we began walking west and then south on the gravel driveway towards the marked trailhead that leads across the field to the high cross, round tower, and abbey—an opening in the stone wall at the end of the road provides access to the historical monuments. After climbing over the wall, the path crosses fields of green grass where cows graze—set amid this pastoral scene is the White Cross of Tola.
The High Cross, also called St. Tola’s Cross, is a unique example of a 12th century monastic high cross—the illuminated cross depicts a representation of the crucifixion and the figure of a powerful looking bishop, thought to be St. Tola, carved in relief.
After admiring the elaborate carvings on the high cross, including the intricate style of Irish interlacing work, continue hiking in a westerly direction toward St. Tola’s Church—the abbey is visible from the high cross.
St. Tola’s Church, or Dysert Abbey, stands on the site of an earlier Christian monastery built in the 8th century, reputedly by St. Tola himself—the present building dates mainly from the 12th century. Several features make the abbey unique, but its most famous feature is the Romanesque doorway surrounded by an order of twelve human heads and seven animal heads. Nearby stands a round tower, badly damaged by Cromwell’s forces.
The Round Tower, built as a defense for church valuables and as a refuge for the monks from Viking raiders, stands on the northwest corner of the church—a good turnaround spot.