Set amidst verdant countryside on the south side of the River Blackwater is the sleepy town of LISMORE, once a major religious centre. St Carthagh founded a thriving monastery here in 636 that became a great centre of learning and retained both religious and political importance for several centuries, despite periodic raids by the Vikings and later the Anglo-Normans. On the site of its medieval cathedral, wrecked by Edmund Fitzgibbon around 1600, stands the Church of Ireland St Carthagh’s Cathedral, constructed some thirty years later. Much of its appearance derives from remodelling in the early 1800s, including the addition of its tower and spire, and it remains a charming building, set in a tree-lined cobblestone courtyard. Just inside the front door is a lovely stained-glass window by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, depicting two virtues: Justice and Humility. A Romanesque arch in the nave might possibly date from the original cathedral and leads to the imposing McGrath tomb which features carvings of the twelve Apostles, the Crucifixion and the martyr St Catherine. Stones set into the back wall, including a particularly stalwart bishop, date from the ninth to eleventh centuries.
Despite the cathedral’s attractions, it is the extravagant and graceful Lismore Castle, its fairytale turrets magnificently set above the River Blackwater, that overshadows the town. The Irish home of the Dukes of Devonshire was designed by Joseph Paxton (also responsible for the Crystal Palace for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851) in the mid-nineteenth century, taking as his starting point the remains of a castle built by Prince John in 1185. Though the bulk of the castle cannot be visited, its extensive gardens present numerous exterior views from different aspects. The gardens consist of woodlands and a host of magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons in season, as well as a yew-tree walk where Edmund Spenser is believed to have written The Faerie Queen. Modern sculptures dot the gardens, and the formerly derelict west wing of the castle has recently been transformed into a gallery that hosts some interesting exhibitions of contemporary art.