The Hidden World of the Irish Medieval Park

I am  delighted to present a guest post by  Fiona Beglane who is the author of a wonderful book on  deerparks in Medieval Ireland.  Hunting and the keeping of deer was such and important part of medieval life in Ireland but to date it has received little attention in academic or popular books.  This is a topic  I know little about so I was delighted when Fiona agreed to write a guest post  to share her knowledge and her research on the topic.


Anglo-Norman Parks in Medieval Ireland


The Hidden World of the Irish medieval park

Over the last couple of decades there has been increasing interest in both medieval archaeology and in landscape studies. Until recently very little work has been done on medieval parks in Ireland although these were an important part of the manorial landscape particularly for large, important manors that had castles at their centres. This blogpost will look at what the parks were used for, where they are and what we know about them.

The castle and park at Dunamase, Co. Laois

View of the castle and park at the Rock of Dunamase Co Laois

My research has shown that some of the recorded medieval parks can still be identified in the modern landscape. Medieval parks where I have carried out detailed surveys include those at Loughrea, Maynooth, Nenagh, Dunamase, Glencree and Carrick, Co. Wexford, while parks at places like Oakpark, Co. Carlow and Kilkenny are now under more recent demesne landscapes.

Medieval parks were enclosed areas of land surrounded by a wall, hedge, ditch or palings (a wooden fence) or by a combination of these, and in fact the word park means ‘enclosure’. In Ireland the recorded high medieval examples range between four acres and 913 acres, with the majority having a land area of between twenty and two hundred acres. In an ideal world, the lord owning of one of the largest parks would have kept a herd of fallow fallow deer which would have provided venison for the table, but this was out of reach for the vast majority of park owners who had more humble enclosures. Parks were important for growing large trees to provide timber for construction, and by enclosing these the trees were protected from being take for firewood, charcoal burning or general carpentry. Smaller pieces of wood such as coppiced poles and firewood could also be deliberately produced within parks and were important resources within the manors, both for the lord’s use and for his tenants. The vast majority of parks in Ireland also seem to have been used for pasturing cattle and other animals, which were protected from theft while they were enclosed. These could belong to the lord or to his tenants and could even include animals impounded by the court, for example on non-payment of fines.

The ditch forming the southern park boundary at Carrick   Co. Wexford

The ditch forming the southern park boundary at Carrick Co. Wexford


I have found documentary evidence of at least forty-six parks in Ireland up to c.1400, all of which are from areas of the country held by the Anglo-Normans. They are mostly in the east of the country, with a few examples in Anglo-Norman areas of the west and south. They appear in a variety of documents including Inquisitions post-mortem, court records, patent rolls, church and manorial records. The most detailed of these can include descriptions of land areas, the layout of a manor, livestock within the park and the value of grazing lands, and as such they can provide a valuable resource for understanding medieval land use and mind-set.

Many of the parks are difficult to physically find in the modern landscape. In some cases the site of a recorded medieval park has been lost under urban sprawl, although sometimes the pattern of the road system has fossilised the park boundaries. Other parks fell out of use fairly shortly after being created and so there is little evidence of their location. Place names can sometimes be helpful, however it is important to be cautious. The very common place name ‘Deerpark’, is post-medieval and would not have been used for a medieval park, while townlands or areas of land called ‘Park’ can be of high medieval or of later origin. Using maps and detailed fieldwork it has been possible for me to identify the location and boundaries of some of the Irish medieval parks. These include u-shaped, sub-rectangular and oval shapes and they can be bounded by lakes, rivers or roads on one or more sides.


The River Slaney formed the northern park boundary at   Carrick, Co. Wexford

The River Slaney formed the northern park boundary at Carrick, Co. Wexford

Before the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland the country was divided into a large number of túatha or petty kingdoms. There is evidence that many of the parks were constructed on land that was woodland in this earlier period, which would make practical sense. In some cases, there were also prehistoric or early medieval monuments within them, and there was place name evidence to show that the Anglo-Norman lords deliberately enclosed symbolically-important land. By doing this, the new owners aimed to control access to memories and monuments of the past and to demonstrate their control over the local population.

Glencree, Co. Wicklow

Glencree, Co. Wicklow

Parks were key features within the medieval landscape and have long been ignored. It is now possible to find these in the modern landscape and they can help us to understand how and why people in the past used the land in the way that they did. Parks had both practical and symbolic purposes ranging from enclosing deer and cattle though timber production to being used as a symbol of status and authority. If you would like to know more, then check out my recent book  Anglo-Norman parks in Medieval Ireland.

Beglane, Fiona. 2015. Anglo-Norman parks in medieval Ireland: 1169-c.1350. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Beglane, Fiona. 2015. ‘The social significance of game in the diet of later medieval Ireland’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. 115C: 1-30.
Beglane, Fiona. 2014. ‘Theatre of power: the Anglo-Norman park at Earlspark, Co Galway, Ireland’ Medieval Archaeology. 58: 307-17
Murphy, Margaret & Kieran O’Conor. 2006. ‘Castles and Deer Parks in Anglo-Norman Ireland’, Eolas: Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, 1: 51-70

Dr Fiona Beglane is a lecturer of archaeology at IT Sligo. Her research interests focus on zooarchaeology, hunting, medieval archaeology, medieval landscape and settlement and the use of scientific techniques in archaeology. She has a particular interest in integrating scientific and social/cultural interpretations of archaeology and in examining the interaction of humans and animals. She can be contacted at

A quick note on a medieval baptisimal font at Ballybacon, Co. Tipperary

About two weeks ago I finally got to visit the beautiful medieval baptismal font at Ballybacon Co. Tipperary. I first came across an article on the font (M. Cahill and E. Twohig, Baptismal Font from Ballybacon Old Church, Co. Tipperary , Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society , 81, 1976, 92-3, fig.1) when I was doing research for my MA thesis on the Rian Bó Phádraig in 2000. I have always wanted to see the font    in person and after several failed attempts  I finally managed to achieve my goal.

The front panel of the medieval font, showing floral decoration.

The font  is smaller than I imagined but very impressive. It is rectangular in shaped and carved from a single piece of fine grained granite it measures 32cm in height x 58cm wide x 56cm deep. The interior is also rectangular with a central drain hole. All the outside faces of the font are decorated in low relief with circular and floral pattern which is very pretty. The underside of the font has a large circular depression 0.32 m in diameter which could suugest  that it rested on a single columnar base.  Pike (1979, 9) suggests that the font is ‘pre-conquest’ while Cahill and Twohig (1976) date it to the mid-to late- 13th century. Today the font sits on a small wooden table in the modern parish church at Ballybacon.

Side panel of the medieval font, showing a floral motif

Originally  the font was located at the nearby medieval parish church of Ballybacon in the townland of Raheen. The church is today covered in ivy it has a simple undivided plan and is aligned E-W, and probably of 13th-century date, built of roughly coursed limestone and sandstone rubble, with a base-batter (Farrelly 2011).

Google earth map showing the modern and medieval parish churches of Ballybacon, Co. Tipperary.

Ballybacon or Baile Uí Phéacháin in Irish means  “O’Peakin’s Homestead”. It is interesting to note that there is a site  dedicated to a saint to St Peacáin/Beagán at Toureen Peakaun (Kilpeacan)  located in the parish of Kilardry, Co Tipperary. It may be possible to speculate that Ballybacon church was originally dedicated to this saint and there was an earlier church here prior to the 13th century.  Tentative evidence to support this idea  is the  presence of a possible early medieval cross slab at the site and the fact that the church is located beside the  townland boundary of Glebe and Raheen. Many early medieval churches were located in boundary positions and the kink in the road beside the site is very curved and may suggest the presence of a circular enclosure.

the ruins of the medieval church at Ballybacon.

According to a local man Francis Carrigan the font was removed at some point to a nearby farm where it was used as a tough for pigs.  It was later rescued and returned to the medieval church before it was moved  in 1975 a few hundred yards away to the modern parish church where it resides today.


Cahill, M. &. Twohig, E. 1976. ‘Baptismal Font from Ballybacon Old Church, Co. Tipperary’ , Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society , 81, 92-3, fig.1.

Farrelly, J. 2011. ‘Church at Ballybacon ‘. 28/02/2012.

Garton, T. 2008. ‘Ballybacon, Tipperary’, accessed 18/09/2012.

Pike, J. 1979. Medieval Fonts of Ireland, privately published, Greystones, 9.

Power,P. 1937. Waterford and Lismore – A Compendious History of the United Dioceses, Cork, 71.

Pilgrimage at Kildare in the Seventh Century

In September I will be presenting a paper to the Castledermot Historical Society concerning the historical and archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in Co. Kildare during the medieval period. I started working on the paper earlier in the week and I was reminded of the description of pilgrims arriving at monastery of St Brigit at Kildare. This account was recorded in the seventh century Life of St Brigit.

 And who can count the different crowds and numberless peoples flocking from all the provinces- some for the       abundant feasting, others for the healing of their afflictions, others to watch the pageant of the crowds, others with great gifts and offerings – to join in the solemn celebration of the feast of the saint Brigit who, free from care, cast off the burden of the flesh and followed the lamb of God into the heavenly mansions, having fallen asleep on the first day of the month of February (Connolly & Picard, 1987, 27).

As Peter Harbison notes in his book Pilgrimage in Ireland the surviving literary evidence for early medieval pilgrimage in Ireland is

‘sparse and sporadic….. So meagre is our information in most cases that we know little more than the names of places known to have been the goal of a pilgrim’ (1991, 51).

With this in mind the above text, although brief, provides a unique glimpse of pilgrimage at an important shrine in early medieval Ireland.

The pilgrimage described above was taking place on the feast day of St Brigit the first of February. Medieval sources from Britain and the Continent suggest that while pilgrims were free to perform pilgrimage at any time during the year (and many did), the main bursts of pilgrim activity, was focused on the eve and day of the saint’s feast. The feast day became the primary focus of devotion due to the belief that the saint’s powers and presence at the shrine was at its most potent on his or her feast day (Davies 1988, 5-6; Hopper 2006, 108; Sumption 1975, 23-24). On a practical note as all public holidays in the medieval world were church feast days, it was probably easier for ordinary people to organise travel and pilgrimages on such days.

The Life also provides a valuable insight into the motives of pilgrims. The text suggests that some came to Kildare for healing, others to offer thanks in the form of gifts and some merely to enjoy the festivities and celebration of the feast day. The text also gives a sense that the pilgrimage experience at Kildare was a mixture of pious devotion and secular celebration. The combing to devotion and celebration is recorded at many European shrines during the early and later medieval period. The co-existence of devotion and celebrate or the sacred and profane can also be seen in the mass pilgrimages early modern period to holy wells on the Patron day or Saints Feast day.

In the coming weeks I hope to expand on this  brief discussion of pilgrimage at Kildare and other Irish sites during the  early  medieval period.


Connolly, S. & Picard, J. M. 1987. ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, JRSAI, Vol. 117,  11-27.

Davies, J. 1988. Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today. Why? Where? How? London:  SCM Press Ltd.

Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The monuments and the people. London: Syracuse University Press.

Hopper, S. 2006. Mothers, Mystics and Merrymakers. Medieval Women Pilgrims. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing.

Sumption, J. 1975. Pilgrimage an Image of Medieval Religion. London: H.M.S.O.