St. Mary’s Church, Askeaton  St. Patrick’s Church, Ballysteen

                                                              

The parish of Askeaton-Ballysteen lies on the southern bank of the Shannon Estuary and astride the mouth of the river Deel. Formerly it was two separate parishes but it has been united for a number of centuries. The current parish is about 10 miles long by three-and –a-half miles wide and consists of some 750 homes.

Askeaton derives from the Old Irish name, Eas Geiphtine, meaning the cataract or waterfall of the Geiptine, a celtic tribe that settled there in pre-Christian times. Some have held that the tribe derived its name in turn from the Irish céad tine, meaning ‘ a hundred fires ‘, from the flickering lights of the heavens reflecting on the cascading water at night. A village from Bronze Age times may have been one of the earliest settlements here.

While the Fort of Geiphtine was reserved to the Kings of Munster at Cashel in the fifth century little is known of the place before 1199 when Askeaton Castle was built by Norman settlers on a little island in the river Deel. The Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, made Askeaton Castle their principal residence from 1348. However, most of the surviving structure, which resembles a manor rather than a castle, dates from the fifteenth century. After the wars of the Catholic Confederates the castle was finally dismantled by the Cromwellian forces of Captain Axtell in 1652. Thereafter, Askeaton declined as a port and as a political, military centre. However, the town sent two members to Parliament from 1608 until 1800. Present-day Askeaton still resembles a medieval town with its winding, narrow streets and 16th century bridge.

Askeaton Friary or Abbey, a Franciscan monastery, was probably founded in 1389 by Gearóid Iarla, poet and Fourth Earl of Desmond. It contained the ancestral tomb of the Fitzgeralds. During the Desmond rebellions of the sixteenth century the commander of the English forces, Nicholas Malby, plundered the abbey in 1579 and put many of the friars to death in revenge for failing to take the castle. The abbey is still an impressive ruin and has many interesting features: the fine limestone cloisters, the stone carving of St. Francis, the burial site of two of the Irish martyrs, Partick O’Healy and Conn O’Rourke, the Stephenson tomb, and the inscription to Martinez de Mendoza of Spain, the ‘Askeaton Pirgrim’, who died in 1784.

The oldest remaining structure in Askeaton is the belfry of the original church founded by the Knights Templar in 1298. The church was dedicated to St. Marys, as is the parish church today. The belfry, unusual in shape, is now incorporated into the church of St. Mary’s Anglican Church. The local poet, Aubrey de Vere, is buried in the grounds.

In more recent centuries the Catholic Church stood in the grounds of the old abbey until it was destroyed in 1847 by a fire that started in the nearby mill. One man perished in the fire at the mill and the destruction of two such important buildings caused severe hardship to the population of the time. The new Catholic Church of St. Mary’s was opened in 1851 at the western end of the town and it was interiorly re-designed for the modern liturgy in 1977.

Ballysteen was once known as Iverus, from the original celtic tribe of Uibh Rossa who lived there. The most prominent landmark in Ballysteen is Beagh Castle, which stands on the banks of the river Shannon. It is reputed to have been built by the Fitzgealds as an outpost fortification in the thirteenth century. Beagh Church, so called though actually in the townland of Ballyaglish, was the parish church until the sixteenth century when it fell into disuse because of the Penal Laws. The present parish church of St. Patrick’s was built in 1861.