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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

The Deserts of Ireland

There are over two hundred ‘Dysarts’ in Ireland, the latest one I came across was in Co Louth.

The word means ’hermitage’ and has its origins in ‘desert’, the deserts of Egypt.  Like the word ’Kil-‘ in names of many towns and villages in Ireland, it was brought here by the early Christians.   

This ‘hermitage’ is associated with St Dachonna (d. 506), said to have been put in charge by St Patrick during one of his stays in Louth. Its full name is Daire-dysert-Dachonna, ‘Oak of the hermitage of Dachonna’. However the ‘new’ (1766) parish church of Dysert (further up the road) is dedicated to St Borchill, ‘a local girl’ of whom I could find out little.

The tradition of ‘Kil-s‘ and ‘dyserts’ began with a movement in early Christianity set by Anthony of Egypt and Paul of Thebes. Their images can still be seen on 9th century high crosses such as Panel 1 of the cross in nearby Monasterboice.  In practice it meant cutting oneself off for a period in a remote place (like a desert) to discover one’s  weaknesses and develop what is important.

This approach was brought to Europe by pioneers such as Martin of Tours around the year 360 and soon it was the ambition of adventurous Irish scholars to study at Martin’s school in Tours.

The early monk-scholars lived in groups of (mostly wooden) beehive shaped cells (Kil is from the Latin Cella) in a quiet area. However they would regularly withdraw alone to a more remote ‘desert’ location to deepen their sense of purpose.     

Like its neighbour, Louth, Dysert was regularly attacked by the Vikings of Annagassan  though in 846 King Tigernach of Lagore met them at Dysert and ‘twelve score of them  were slain by him’.

Obviously by this time Dysert had grown from a lonely hermitage to a flourishing community. A tall belfry survives in the medieval church but the building was already in ruins by 1682.

Regard for those who once occupied Dysert is obvious in the graves that have gathered around it. Was it originally the ‘quiet weekend’ away from what large monastery and where did Borchill fit in? These are only some of the questions that visiting a dysert can pose.


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