Located on a fairly level landscape at the N side of a natural knoll (dims of base c. 100m NE-SW; c. 50m NW-SE; max. H c. 10m at SW). A church at Dunsany is listed in the ecclesiastical taxation (1302-06) of Pope Nicholas IV (Cal. doc. Ire., 5, 255). Ussher (1622) describes the church and chancel as being reasonably well repaired (Erlington 1847-64, 1, lxxiii). According to Dopping (1682-5) the church of St Nicholas was ruined since 1641 but the graveyard was enclosed (Ellison 1972, 7). The church was probably built by the second Sir Christopher Plunkett, the first baron of Dunsany, before his death in 1461, and it was probably extant by c. 1450 (Leask 1960, 14). He was the second son of Sir Christopher Plunkett and Joan Cussack, whose marriage in 1403 created a dynasty that would rule at Dunsany, Killeen, Rathmore and Loughcrew, and produce a saint in St Oliver Plunkett (1625-81). Sir Christopher’s will itemises arras, crosiers, chalices, missals, psalters and hymnals together with copes of gold and satin for the church and the statue of the Blessed Virgin. There was to be a chantry chapel of priests to pray his soul and those of his wives, Anne FitzGerald and Elizabeth Preston.
This is a fortified parish church which has been fully described (Westropp 1894, 222-29), on the site of an older parish church, of which there is no trace. It consists of a nave (int. dims 16.6m E-W; 6.5m N-S) and chancel (int. dims 15.3m E-W; 6.6m N-S), which survives complete as a conserved National Monument, although within the Dunsany estate (Harbison 1970, 184). It is within a D-shaped graveyard (dims 68m E-W; 41m N-S) with the straight side at S where it is defined by an inner fosse (Wth 5.3m; int. D 0.5m; ext. D 0.5-1m) and outer bank (Wth c. 5m; ext. H 0.2m). The perimeter is defined by an outer scarp at W (Wth 2m; H 1.4m), which decreases around to N (Wth 5.5m; H 0.7m) and fades away on the E side. The headstones date generally from c. 1720 to c. 1950 with a few later inscriptions.
The nave is entered through reconstructed doorways at N (Wth 1.8m) and S (Wth 1.25m). The nave has single large pointed windows in the S (destroyed) and N walls, placed E of the doorways. That on the N wall probably had three multi-cusped lights with two smaller cusped lights above. It may have been a similar design to the W window, of which only two mullions partially survive. There is a recess (L 3.77m; D 0.53m) towards the E end of the S wall, which provides two, two-light, cusped windows, one above the other for the rood loft. The stairs to the loft is in the N pier of the round chancel arch (Wth 2.97m) and it leads to a space in a projection (ext. dims 6.25m E-W; 2.25m N-S; int. dims 4m E-W; 2.45m N-S) at the E end of the N nave wall. The large rectangular window on the N wall of this chapel on the ground floor is robbed, but at the loft level there is a simple ogee-headed light. The chancel arch may be rebuilt as the footing of the N pier suggest a narrower original arch (Wth 2.2m), more centrally placed on the main axis of the church.
The chancel has one decorated window at the W end of the N wall, and three two-light cusped windows with very little tracery remaining on the S wall. There is a triple sedelia with multi-cusped openings under a square hood between the E and central windows of the S wall. The E window is a reconstruction of a three-light cusped window that is based on the E window at Killeen (ME038-013----). Large beam-holes placed high in the N and S walls would have divided the chancel in two, providing a chantry at the W end. A dais (Wth 2.7m; H 0.2m) at the E end supports the base of an altar (dims 2.95m x 0.9m), which is against the E wall. A pointed doorway (Wth 0.82m; H 1.85m) in the N wall leads to the vaulted sacristy on the ground floor of the NE tower (ext. dims 7.4m E-W; 5.85m N-S) that is kept permanently locked. A blocked round-headed doorway (Wth 1m) in the E wall leads to the sacristy from the outside and there is a rectangular chamfered light in the N wall. The doorway from the chancel also leads to a mural stairs in the W wall to the first floor over the vault, which has lights in the N and E walls, and a hagioscope in the S wall that allows a view of the high altar below in the chancel. A mural stairs in the W wall leads to the second floor with lights on the N and E walls.
The NE is the largest of four towers at each angle of the church, but the SE tower (ext. dims 2.07m E-W; 2.05m N-S), although it has a small chamber with square window in the S wall, is inaccessible, and its only function is to provide a newel stairs rising from the wall-walk on the S wall to the E wall. A passage over the chancel arch wall also connects the N and S wall-walks, which do not survive anywhere. From the nave a lintelled doorway at the S end of the W wall leads to a newel stairs in the SW tower (ext. dims 3.3m E-W; 3.25m N-S) that permits access to the wall-walk on the S wall of the nave. The stairs continues upwards and at the top a lintelled doorway leads to a destroyed passage over the W gable to the belfry stage of the NW tower. This tower (ext. dims 3.4m N-S; 3.3m E-W) is entered at the ground floor by a lintelled doorway at the N end of the W nave wall. There are small lights in the W and N walls, but access to the first and second floors and the belfry stage above, if it was present, was by internal ladders. The belfry stage has a corbelled roof, two tall ogee-headed openings on the N and W sides, and single openings on the S and E sides.
The fragmentary double effigy tomb of a lady and her knight is now reconstructed in the N chapel off the nave. The table (dims 2.16m x 1.24m; T 0.11m; H over base 0.82m) has a chamfered edge and is carved in relief. The end-panels show ecclesiastics (E) and the scourging of Christ (W), while the long sides have crests including Plunkett, FitzGerald, Fleming, and FitzEustace, amongst others. Although there is no inscription, the tomb may have been prepared for Sir Christopher, who died in 1461, and his first wife, Anne Fitzgerald, or possibly for his son, Richard, who died c. 1470-72. (FitzGerald 1915; Hunt 1974, 1, 205-06).
The decorated font (FitzGerald 1915) is now kept in the Castle (ME037-018----) for safe-keeping. The basin is octagonal (ext. dim. 0.68m; H 033m), has a circular basin (int. diam. 0.5m;D 0.2m) and rests on a separate piece (H 0.17m) with slightly chamfered under-panels. The upper panels have images of two apostles in separate ogee-headed niches on each side, together with panels devoted to the Crucifixion and the symbols of the Passion. The octagonal shaft is attached to an octagonal, pyramidal base with four mouldings, but the decoration on the under-panels and shaft are all geometric, apart from four heraldic shields held by angels. These include the arms of Plunkett and FitzGerald, a plain latin cross, and a heart pierced by two swords, which is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin. (Roe 1968, 49-55)
Outside the N doorway is the surviving fragment of the shaft of a cross (dims 0.23m x 0.14m; H 0. 47m) with chamfered edges. Each side has a figure in false relief representing St Peter (W), St Andrew (N), St James of Compostella (E), and St. John (S). A date of c. 1480 has been suggested (King 1984, 98-9).
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of revised upload: 10 March, 2015Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.