The 2016 County Kildare Archaeological Society annual tour

The Society’s annual educational tour this year took place to the Burren in County Clare stopping en-route in Athenry and finishing in Coole Park.  The base for the Society’s fifty members who participated in the four day tour was the Hyland’s Burren Hotel in Ballyvaughan. This hotel is one of the country’s most historic hotels dating back to the 18th century and here the members were lavished with hospitality and good food.

The first stop was in Athenry famous in more recent times for its wonderful hurling exploits, however, Athenry is more than hurling and for many of us we learned of the town almost unbelievable historical past dating back to the 12 century.  After some refreshments the members were met at the Dominican Priory by Jim McKeon who gave a most in-depth talk on this most well preserved medieval town of Anglo-Norman origin in the country.  The features include much of the high medieval town walls, restored castle towers over the medieval streetscape.  Within the walls is the Dominican Priory which Jim has studied in depth and the results of this study have been published by our fellow Society – the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.   This Dominican Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was begun around 1241 under the auspices of Meiler de Bermingham for the townspeople of Athenry and today is a National Monument.  The Priory is without doubt a magnificent gem with all its ornate stone carvings.

Following a wonderful luncheon in the Old Barracks Restaurant, once occupied by RIC and in later years by the reserve defence forces the party moved to the excellently restored Athenry Castle.  The Castle was constructed in three phases and completed around 1240 enclosed by a D shaped wall with round towers at the corners.  The Castle is under the care of the Office of Public Works which has carried out some magnificent restoration works to make the structure so accessible.  Its unique feature included the highly decorative carved windows and doorway generally more likely associated with the early churches and abbeys. During our visit to the Castle Alan Burgess from the Athenry Heritage Centre came along to formally welcome the Society to Athenry and gave a brief outline of Athenry’s historical past.  This included the town’s 15th century stone carved Market Cross, one of the oldest market crosses in Ireland still located in its’ original position. The carvings, while seriously eroded, features a crucifixion scene together with a Madonna and child.  In more recent times, Alan, spoke of how the town has been immortalised in the song ‘The Fields of Athenry’ written by Pete St. John in the 1970s.  Alan was accompanied by Aideen Rynne and together they outlined the significance and history of the famous Athenry Mace and Seal which they brought along for us to see.

The President, Hugh Crawford, on behalf of the Society thanked both Alan and Aideen for their presentation and also Jim McKeon together with all those in Athenry who had assisted in making this short stopover so enlightening and enjoyable.  In relation to Aideen, the President spoke of her late husband, Professor Etienne Rynne, a former Council member of the County Kildare Archaeological Society and how he had contributed immensely to the Society’s Journal and indeed to archaeology in general.

Following check in at the hotel John Feehan gave a comprehensive and most informative introductory presentation on the Burren to the members.  This dealt with the geological formation of the Burren in the warm shallow seas of the Carboniferous ocean 340 million years ago and how it evolved over the millions of years. Comparisons were made with the Curragh with the difference being that the limestone of the Curragh is blanketed from the glazier debris washed down from the Wicklow mountains.  This presentation set the scene for the next two days, however, it is a challenge for a historian to describe the Burren adequately or accurately and in this regard John will provide a brief outline in the next edition of the Society’s Journal.

Mary Hawkes-Green, who provided the Society with much assistance during the early planning stages of the Burren tour was a guest of the Society at the Dinner.  Mary, who is President of the Burren College of Art located at Newtown Castle, welcomed the Society to the Ballyvaughan observing that under John Feehan’s guidance the visit to the Burren would be memorable and rewarding for all. Anyone interested in the study of the Brehon laws should make contact with the Burren College of Art.

Armed with all the information gained from John’s introductory presentation the previous evening and familiarity with the various terms and features of the Burren under John guidance we began our two day exploration of the magnificent landscape.  We were spoiled by the number of important sites on the itinerary and these included:

  • An Rath or Ballyallaban ring fort; common in Ireland with the rampart built from the fosse or moat and likely to have had a palisade or fence of pointed timber stakes.
  • Cathair Mhór; which is close to Aillwee and is one of the ringforts occupied until late medieval times.
  • Gleninsheen; Here John led the group on a short walk ending at what is referred to locally as the ‘toothache well’. This walk provided the opportunity to see at first hand the limestone pavements with the grikes, clints and erratics in addition to the stone walls constructed in modern farming together with a majestic display of the plants and flowers of the Burren.  It is worth noting that in the 1934s, a young local, Patrick Nolan, found (by accident) the famous Gleninsheen Collar which is now displayed in the National Museum, Kildare Street.


CollarGleninsheen Collar

  • Poulnabrone Portal Tomb; which has been dated within the Neolithic period (4000-2400 BC) and is located in the very heart of the Burren. This monument is easily recognised as it one most photographed sites in the country.  The site was excavated in the 1980s and fragmentary of between 16 and 22 adults and 6 juveniles including a newborn baby were found in addition to undecorated pottery.
  • Caherconnell Visitor Centre.
  • The Michael Cusack Centre; in Carran and named after Michael Cusack as the man who lit the torch that led to the founding of the GAA in 1884.
  • Templecronan Loop; near Carran close to the University College Galway Research Centre. In this location stone slabs were quarried for grave memorials and for the building of churches.  There  were fine examples of fossils present on the flat limestone slabs and also an example of a Fulacht Fiadh.  However, the highlight was the finding of a Newt by our Past President, Con Manning, which generated considerable interest and delight.
  • Corcomroe Abbey; a 13 century Cistercian monastery containing a rich array of decorative stone carvings and a high standard of masonry. The abbey suffered from the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1530s but somehow the Cistercians struggle on for a further 100 years until they came under the control of Holycross.
  • Cahermacnaugh; a stone fort or cashel once the home of the famous law school ran by the O’Davoran family in the 17 century and where expertise in the Brehon Laws was developed. The fort is believed to have been constructed in the early medieval period (500-1170 AD).  In the 15 century the entrance passageway was rebuilt and a tower was erected above it.  It was here that An Dubhaltach Ó Mac Fhirbhisigh (1585-1671) who compiled the Book of the Genealogies of Ireland got part of his training.
  • Noughaval Church and Market Stone; a monastic site was founded by St Mogua and the ivy clad church ruin is believed to date to the 10 century. As the church is severely covered with ivy much of the detail is camouflaged, however, the entrance door has a magnificently decorated arch.  Nearby is the Noughaval medieval octagonal market stone built with mortared limestone.  The lines drawn on the stone are believed to be used as measures.
  • Killinaboy Church; located on one of the entrances to the Burren has an interesting past. This medieval church dating from the 11 century with modification in the early 18 century has a number of interesting features.  These include the double cross incorporated in the gable wall, which has been suggested, as having a connection with the true cross.   Other notable features include the Sheela-na-gig over the entrance door while inside the door there is a Romanesque carving and outside a ruined round tower.
  • Leamaneh Castle; situated on a plateau overlooking the junction for Ballyvaughan on the Corofin to Kilfenora road. It features a combination of a castle and tower house which dates back to the late 15 century and was once an O’Brien stronghold. The castle was once enclosed by a high wall within which there were gardens, a deer park, fish tanks and the various facilities to support the castle.  It has a strong Cromwellian connection and many stories about one of its famous ladies – the widow ‘Maire Rua’ who married one of Cromwell’s officers in order to safeguard the property for her son.
  • Kilfenora; The cathedral in Kilfenora dates to around the late 12 century and is dedicated to St. Fachtna or St. Fachanan. The nave which was reconstructed around 1850 is still in use for Divine Worship by the Church of Ireland.  While the remainder of the cathedral is in ruin, however, many fine architectural features remain together with beautiful carvings both on doorways and on windows.  In 2005 a glass roof was put over the transept by the National Monument Service to protect the remains of the three high crosses moved there, one of which includes the Doorty Cross with its splendid carvings. The ‘west cross’ is located in the nearby field. Once there were seven crosses, six remain but only three are complete.  There is also a holy well nearby dedicated to St. Fachtna which remains a site of spiritual devotion.  The well is covered over with a stone roof with a stone carrying the Latin  inscription: “Deo et B. Fechtnano hocce opusculum fundavit Donaldus MacDonogh, licentiâ et permissione Episcopi Finaborensis Anno Dni 1687.”

This brought the visit to the Burren more or less to an end. For more information on this wonderful landscape it is highly recommended that you acquire a copy of the publication of ‘The Book of the Burren’ with the foreword by Dr. Pat Wallace and a number of articles by John Feehan. Throughout the stay the members were sustained by the excellent food and hospitality at our base in the Hyland’s Burren Hotel, Ballyvaughan together with superb lunches on day two in Cassidys Pub in Carron and on day three in the Wild Honey Inn, Lisdoonvarna.  Day three was completed with a visit to Dunguaire Castle built in 1520 which takes its name from the nearby ancient fort of Guaire, King of Connaught.  This was followed by an enchanting evening and a superb banquet.

Before departure on the final day from Ballyvaughan and the Burren, the President thanked David and his mother Madeleine for their hospitality during the stay by the Society and for all their assistance during the planning stage.  The activities began with a visit to Kilmacduagh Monastic site near Gort.  This monastic complex was founded by St Colman MacDuagh and known as the ‘seven churches’ in view of the number of churches within the complex.  The Society’s Past President, Con Manning was on hand to provide guidance and to point out all the exquisite ornate carvings and monuments to be found within the various buildings.  While it is difficult to distinguish between the architectural or archaeological merit between all the structures within the complex, those in the Cathedral itself, are amazing.  The Round Tower, believed to date to the 10 century, dominates the landscape and can be seen for many miles away and it is regarded as Irelands tallest and near perfect round tower. It measures approximately 34 metres high with a circumference of 18 metres. Its unique feature is its visible lean to the south-west, however, perhaps not as significant as the leaning Tower of Pisa.  The height of the doorway of approximately 7 metres above ground level was the subject of much speculation, how it was accessed, and what use was made of the Tower in those days.   In 1879, at the behest of Sir William Gregory (husband of Lady Gregory), who agreed to finance the works, the Board of Works, carried out major repairs to the tower and further works were carried out again in 1971.

The celebratory meal took place in the charming Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort.   The hotel is locally owned by the O’Grady family and together with their staff they prepared and served a most beautiful gourmet meal with the utmost hospitality.  The President in his address thanked the family and their staff for the wonderful meal and wished them every success in the future.  He went on to pay tribute to all those who had worked so hard to make the tour so enjoyable and successful, the officer holders, council members and members of the Society, especially all who had taken part in the tour. A special word of thanks was reserved for Siobhán McNulty and John Feehan who shared the leadership with him on the occasion of this tour and also Kane’s Travel for a beautiful coach and an excellent driver.

Before returning to Kildare there was a brief visit to Coole Park, once the home of Lady Gregory.  At Coole Park the members were welcomed to the Visitor Centre where they availed of the audio visual presentation.  This gave an overall view of the Irish Literary Revival movement at the beginning of the 20 century, when Coole was the home of Lady Gregory, the co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. Writers and artists such as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and many others were inspired by Lady Gregory and many of these individuals carved their initials on the autograph tree which still stands in the walled garden. One of W.B. Yeats most famous works, “The Wild Swans of Coole” was inspired by his visits to Coole Park.  This was followed by a group photograph taken on the steps leading up to the former home of Lady Gregory and many then took the opportunity to visit the walled garden and view the autograph tree.

Hugh, John and Siobhán would like to thank all who joined them on this trip for their cooperation throughout, their contributions, photographs and participation in the visits to the various locations.

Hugh Crawford


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