Off the M8: Ormond Castle – Fit for a Queen!

It will add an hour to your journey (plus whatever time you spend exploring) if you are on the M8 between Cork and Dublin. Well worth it to visit Ireland’s most splendid Tudor manor house. If you are coming from Cork, leave the M8 at Cahir and go straight across to Carrick-on-Suir. From there you can rejoin the motorway by going north to Urlingford. Vice-versa, of course, if your journey is in the other direction.

Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde, 3rd Earl of Ossory, Viscount Thurles is the key player in our story. He grew up with Elizabeth, daughter of Ann Boleyn, whose paternal grandmother was of the Ormond dynasty in Ireland. It’s a bit confusing when researching Ormond history, as the ‘e’ on the end seems to have been added after 1628. Cousins Thomas and Elizabeth had a close friendship: some say that they were lovers. It’s certainly the case that In 1588 the Queen bestowed on Ormond what a poet described as áirdchéim Ridireacht Gáirtéir, ainm nár ghnáth é ar Éirionnach (“the high honour of the Knighthood of the Garter, a title unusual for an Irishman”). And Thomas built his new Tudor styled house on his estates at Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, as a gift for the Queen: a place for her to be royally entertained when she visited Ireland. (For more on the Butlers in Ireland, read this)

The evolution of a castle – 1. In 1328 the Ormond family stronghold was a fortified house and bawn accessed from the river via a watergate – seen in the foreground (and shown in the model, below, although from a later period). Note the walled garden and estate cottages, town walls and gate tower beyond.

The evolution of a castle – 2. By 1450 the castle has been extended with the addition of two large tower houses, the ruins of which are evident today (below).

The evolution of a castle – 3. This sketch shows more or less what you will see today: Thomas Butler’s 16th century Tudor mansion has been built in front of the tower houses, creating a courtyard behind. Fragments of the earlier structures remain on the river elevation (below).

The Tudor house was magnificent (and continues to be impressive in its partially restored state, maintained by the OPW). It was unlike anything else that had been seen in Ireland previously. Notable features include plaster ceilings and cornices, which are being faithfully restored over time. Because of the delicate nature of the fabric, photography is not permitted within the house at present. The view below is of the museum section, which contains some early features and artefacts.

These photographs (from the museum) show the house in its dilapidated condition prior to being taken over by the Office of Public Works in 1947. Full restoration is an ongoing ‘work in progress’. Although that progress might seem slow, it is being carried out to the highest standards, and the castle is a great historical asset for Ireland.

Another early archive photograph, showing the house prior to restoration

In fact the story behind Ormond Castle is a poignant one. Thomas Butler’s admiration for his childhood companion who became his Queen could well have been unrequited passion. Elizabeth planned to visit Thomas at Carrick-on-Suir on several occasions, but each time affairs of state detained her. She died in March 1603, having never visited Ireland, but leaving in her wake the dreadful effect of generations of martial law and embittered feelings which continued into modern times.

In the hallway of Ormond Castle the depictions of Thomas Ormond and Queen Elizabeth hang facing each other – what should we read into the symbolism of this? Perhaps the model in the museum (below) depicts the imagined meeting that Thomas had always hoped for?

York or Cork?

If this seems an enigmatic title, it is reflective of the fact that Finola and I have just visited Yorkshire, where  – for Finola’s birthday – we treated ourselves to a superabundance of medieval architecture and some idyllic wanderings in the Dales (that’s Malham Cove, a spectacular limestone cliff and pavement, above). This set me to thinking about comparisons between the county of Yorkshire and our own County Cork: both are the largest counties in their respective countries, but Yorkshire – at 14,850 km2 – is almost double the area of Cork, 7,500 km2.

The gaunt ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire: this was the first great Cistercian abbey in Britain, established in 1132. It became one of the most powerful and housed a community of 650 brothers at its peak in the 1160s under its most famous abbot, Aelred

In Ireland we can’t compete with the sheer scale of the monastic settlements that we can see in Yorkshire. However, in spite of those impressive ruins which are so well cared for by the state and the National Trust, nothing can compare, for us, with the timeless serenity and isolated beauty of places such as Kilree, which Finola described in a recent post.

The medieval High Cross at Kilree, Co Kilkenny. This example of ecclesiastical art probably dates from the 8th century and stands remote and seldom visited, deep in rural Ireland – a reclusive gem

I feel that this post gives me an excuse to tell a little Cork / York story that I learned many years ago from Gerald Priestland, the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent from 1977 to 1982 – who lived not far away from me in West Penwith, Cornwall. Priestland was researching the history of the Parish of St Buryan in the far west of the peninsula: the Irish saint, Buriana, was said to be the sister of St Piran, Patron Saint of Cornwall – who, you will know from reading my posts – here, (and here), was born on Cape Clear, just over the water from us in West Cork, where he was known by the name of St Ciarán. Finola is republishing another post about Cape Clear today.

The coast of West Penwith, Cornwall: Gerald Priestland lived here – on the hill, and I lived not far away – over the hill

St Buryan was known as “The Wickedest Parish in Cornwall” in earlier times – I can’t vouch for its present day reputation! This was supposedly because the settlement (which Priestland describes as . . . a bleak and haunted landscape . . .) received a special privilege in the year 936 from the Saxon King Athelstan as he was passing through on his way to defeat the Danes on the Isles of Scilly. He founded an independent College of Priests at St Buryan and layed down that the lands (some 770 acres) . . . are to be exempt from all secular assessment; but not from the rendering of prayers which the clergy have promised me (that is, Athelstan): 100 Masses and 100 Psalters daily . . . The Domesday Book confirms that Buryan maintained its freedom from taxation but also confirms the charter that . . . the privilege and ordinance of sanctuary and aforementioned liberty may not perish through old age . . . That is to say that St Buryan was made a place of sanctuary then, and will remain so always. The consequence of this was that any wrong-doer or fugitive, instead of having to go into exile, could live freely within the parish boundaries without suffering any punishment – forever. So the place filled up with felons, brigands, rogues and villains!

Scenic Yorkshire: landscape of the Dales (just to remind you of the subject of today’s post)!

St Buryan became – and remained – a den of iniquity. So much so that in 1328 the Bishop of Exeter, Grandisson, was forced to excommunicate everyone in the settlement. Priestland writes:

Grandisson came as close to the boundaries of Buryan as he dared, and from the top of St Michael’s Mount – six miles across the water – he pronounced the fulminacio sentencio contra Barianes – the Greater Excommunication against the people of Buryan. The bell was tolled and the book and candles were cast down. There are not many parishes in England that can claim that very specific distinction . . .

Deans continued to be appointed to the parish – and were duly paid a stipend – but none of them ever went there. The last of the absentee Deans was Fitzroy Henry Stanhope, an army officer of ill reputation who had lost a leg at Waterloo (he was known thereafter as ‘Peter Shambles’). He was offered the position at Buryan in 1817 by his Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York, in lieu of an army pension: it was worth a thousand pounds a year. There was one problem: Stanhope had to be ordained, but no-one could be found to do it. One day the Duke was told that his friend the Bishop of Cork was on Holiday in London. At once Stanhope was sent round in a carriage with the message:

“Dear Cork – Please ordain Stanhope – Yours York”

By sundown, he was back, with the reply:

“Dear York – Stanhope’s ordained – Yours Cork”

This incident has gone down in history as the shortest piece of official correspondence on record. And doubly justifies the title of my post today!

Malham Cove again: this geological formation would have been a huge waterfall as the glaciers began to melt after the last Ice Age. In the lower picture you can see the true scale of the place – look at those figures on the lower ledge! It is a popular spot for climbers

So – Cork, or York? We are very fortunate to be able to travel so easily to see the beautiful places of the world. But – always – the best part of travelling for me is coming home to West Cork: there’s no doubt where my heart is . . .

County Cork landscapes: Mount Gabriel (upper) and our very own view (lower) from Nead an Iolair, taken on the day I returned from Yorkshire. Below – looking across to the Mizen, from the Sheep’s Head.

Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Kilree is possibly the most perfectly contained and atmospheric site you will visit in Ireland. I defy you not to be enchanted with its leafy depths, its air of antiquity, and evidence of continued use. (I would also vote for Monaincha in Tipperary, a site that deserves its own post one of these days).

When you’re travelling from Cork to Dublin it’s easy to leave the M8 at Cahir and travel cross-country to join the M9. There are numerous sites to visit if you take this option: most recently we have written about Fethard and its Medieval Walls, but we also did a post about Kells Priory a long time ago (The Hallowed Fortress) and it remains one of our favourite sites and one of the most impressive monastic sites in Ireland. And don’t go without your copy of Ireland’s Ancient East by Neil Jackman – it’s our constant companion and a great resource. It’s available on Amazon but why not patronise your favourite bookstore?

Kells Priory, just up the road from Kilree and one of Ireland’s most impressive religious complexes

It’s a great contrast to Kilree. If you haven’t been to Kells Priory yet, try to take them both in, in the same day. What you will see is a typical example of an Early Medieval Irish monastic site (Kilree) and an excellent example of a large 12th to fifteenth century Augustinian Priory built to withstand the turbulent history of Kilkenny in those centuries. The monks in Kilree were living the life of Irish monastics in a pattern set down in the 6th century, while the Augustinians were mainstream European clerics invited over by the Normans.

Inside Kells Priory

The other things about Kilree is that it’s unspoiled (except for one thing – I’ll get to that later) and in Ireland, that means that the farmer who owns the land is using it. There’s a Bull sign on the gate and indeed there he was, with all his frisky bullock friends. We thought our chances of crossing the field were slim, but two friendly ladies on horseback offered to draw the attention of the cattle away from us so off we dashed while they were distracted, not giving much thought to how we might get back again.

Having charged off down the field after the horses (which were on the other side of the hedge) the bullocks, followed at a dignified pace by the bull) ended up beside the high cross so we decided to leave well enough alone and not venture over to that quarter. A distant shot will have to suffice for this post, but you can see excellent images of this cross at the Irish High Crosses website, and we thank them for that since this is the closest we will get for the moment.

But there was so much to see within the monastic enclosure. First, the round tower – it is missing its conical cap but apart from that it’s complete and in good shape. Brian Lalor, in his book The Irish Round Tower, assigns it an 11th century date based partly on the simple doorway. The arch, he points out, has been cut from the soffit of a monolithic lintel which is now cracked.

Crenellations were added to the top in later medieval times (you can see them in the first image) – the tower must have been renovated for some kind of defensive purpose at that time. When the Ordnance Survey folks came around in 1839 it was possible to climb to the top by means of rope ladders. There is no access now, apart from by the rooks and crows who have left evidence of their prodigious nest-building.

Lalor also points out that the round tower is perched on the circular boundary wall of an old churchyard which probably represents the position of the inner rampart of the monastic enclosure. What did such a monastic enclosure look like? I’ve used an illustration from a marvellous book called The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church, by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin (second edition, Four Courts Press, 1997). The site illustrated (Nendrum, County Down) was enclosed by three circular walls, a not-unusual configuration although one and two enclosing walls are also found. There is no real evidence left at Kilree for a second or third wall, but the location of the high cross indicates the likelihood of an outer wall.

The church is of an early form, rectangular, with antae at either end. To understand how this fits in with the architecture of the period, see my post Irish Romanesque – an Introduction. The nave, or main part of the church probably dates to the 10th or 11th century, but a chancel was added later, probably in the 12th century, by means of an inexpert Romanesque arch, which eventually had to be shored up with an even more awkward-looking inner arch.

Upper: East wall with buttresses added in 1945; Lower: The earlier Romanesque arch is clearly visible above the later one

The whole place was repaired by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s and it was they who built the buttresses which have successfully kept the east wall from falling down.

Upper: Looking through the linteled doorway into the nave and the chancel beyond; Lower: Looking towards the nave from the chancel. The chest tomb is on the right

There are several thirteenth to fifteenth century cross slabs within the church but the seventeenth century chest tomb just inside the chancel is the most interesting.

It’s hard to decipher as it’s faded and covered in lichen, but here is the description of it taken from the National Monuments listing:

Latin inscription, in a margin around the edge of the upper slab, was transcribed by Carrigan as, ‘Hic jacet Dns. Richardus Comerford quondam de Danginmore qui obit [date left uncut] et Dna Joanna St. Leger uxor eis pia hospitalis et admodum in omnes misericors matron quae obit 4 die October A. 1622’ and translated as, ’Here lie Mr. Richard Comerford, formerly of Danganmore, who died [left blank] and Johanna St. Leger, his wife, a matron pious, hospitable, and charitable to all, who died Oct 4th, 1622’. The front slab. . . is decorated with the symbols of the Passion flanked with stylised fluted pillars which taper towards the base. The symbols from dexter to sinister include a ladder, entwined ropes, a spear, dice and a seamless garment, 30 pieces of silver and beside them a bag with two straps, a cross ringed with a crown of thorns, a heart pierced with nails and pierced hands and feet above and below this, a scourge on either side of a plant, a cock on a three-legged pot, a sword, a chalice, a hammer, and pincer holding 3 nails and two sheaves of wheat. 

Can you recognise the details from the NM description?

Outside the church, the graveyard is quiet and picturesque, but I couldn’t help noticing the absence of vegetation of any sort. Older photographs I have seen show a covering of grass, and I suspect that somebody has been in here with the Roundup – I told you I would get to the one problem I have with this site, and this is it. It may be historically and archaeologically fascinating and important, but the ground itself is a dead zone – no biodiversity here. And that’s a pity because there was a swarm of bees about to settle in one of the trees. They will have to look outside the site for pollen.

We saw many old gravestones, dating from the early eighteenth century and into the current day. But the one that caught my eye was this one – all the instruments of the passion clearly carved for John Brenan, who died in 1772. Can you recognise and name them all?

I know you’re wondering how we made it back across the field. Well fortunately, the cattle stayed over by the hight cross and we sneaked back across without attracting their attention. I can’t decide whether their presence added to the experience or not, but it certainly made it more exciting, even though we didn’t get to see the high cross up close. Kilrea is a very special place, I think. I am hoping that next time we go back the grass will have been allowed to grow again.

Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!

Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)

The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.

Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook 

But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.

Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula

The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!

If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.

Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint

It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.

Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown

Our ‘Off the M8‘ series is intended to make your journeys across Ireland far more interesting! We travel between Cork and Dublin fairly regularly and, each time, we determine to search out something new. It may be an aspect of medieval history, architecture, stained glass or – as in today’s example – archaeology.

How far you want to stray from the ease and directness of the motorway in your explorations is entirely up to you. This diversion will add about forty minutes to your journey: you will leave the M8 at Junction 3, head across to Carlow on the R430, and then, after Carlow, meet the M9 at Junction 4 and continue up to Dublin. You’ll have to take a little diversion east out of Carlow on to the Hacketstown Road (R726) to find today’s destination: the largest prehistoric portal tomb in Europe, and perhaps in the world!

Robert stands at the east face of the megalithic structure: the orientation suggests a relationship to the rising sun, possibly at significant calendrical events

It’s known variously as the Brownshill Portal Tomb, or the Kernanstown Dolmen (Kernanstown is the name of the Townland, and the word ‘Dolmen’ was formerly used to describe megalithic structures which consist of a large stone slab resting on smaller boulders). The Irish National Monuments Service, in its listing of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, has set out to regularise the names given to various structures. It does not recognise the once widely-used terms ‘Dolmen’ or ‘Cromlech’, but defines a variety of ‘Megalithic Tomb’ structures, of which the Portal Tomb is one:

. . . A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC . . .

Finola is giving scale to the portal tomb in the header picture, where the two ‘portal stones’ and central ‘gate stone’ support the east side of the capstone: these features are common to these structures across Ireland, Britain and Europe. Above – the back (west face) of the capstone: Finola is standing at the southern tip

Historically, ‘Dolmen’ was the most common term for these archaeological structures. William Copeland Borlase (1848 – 1899) wrote a lengthy treatise in three volumes on The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people published in 1897. In it, he describes the Brownshill / Kernanstown structure thus:

In the Barony of Carlow, in the Townland of Kernanstown, and Parish of Urghin, two miles E. of Carlow, to the N. of Browne’s Hill, or Browneshill House, also called Mount Browne, are three dolmens. The largest of the three is marked Cromlech in Ord. Surv. Map No. 7.

There are three dolmens on this hill. One is of enormous proportions, the two others are smaller. The former has been described by Ryan, Ledwich, and G. Du Noyer. Of one of the latter there is a drawing and plan in Miss Stokes’s collection of drawings of dolmens. The remaining one is situated a distance of 50 yards to the N. of the latter.

The great dolmen stands in the centre of a large flat field in permanent pasture, and has no trace of a bank or cairn near it. It consists of a splendid block of granite, the longer axis of which is N. and S., raised at an angle of 35 degrees to the horizon, upon four blocks, three of which, pillar-like, support the E. side, at a height of 6 feet above the floor, while one sustains its lower and W. side, at a height of only about 2 feet above ground.

The following are my measurements of the block thus elevated into position: Superficial measurement from N.E. to S.W., 23½ feet; ditto from N.W. to S.E., 22 feet; girth 65 feet; thickness at W. side, 6 feet; at S. side, 5 feet; at E. side, 6 feet; and at N. side, 4 feet.

. . . it is, I believe, the largest block raised from the ground by the dolmen-builders which is known, not only in the British isles, but on the continent of Europe

Two picture postcards of the ‘Brown’s Hill Dolmen’ probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century

Today, there is only one portal tomb visible at Brownshill, although the National Monuments listing confirms that there were three in the area at one time. I was intrigued to find this engraving:

There is no ‘Brownstown’ in County Carlow, so it is likely that this engraving (above) is another version of ‘Brownshill’. It’s hard to see in this the portal tomb we have been describing, so it is possible it is an image of one of the other ‘lost’ dolmens. There is no further information attached to this illustration.

The two illustrations above show how the portal tomb is today enclosed and made accessible by means of a fenced pathway leading from the road to the east of the structure. This setting is not ideal: the impressive nature of the huge capstone is visually diminished by the fencing – although the provision of good disabled access to the monument is highly commendable. The massive granite stone has been estimated to weigh up to 160 tons, and we can only wonder at the methods used to lift it some 5,000 years ago. Here is an imaginative view (dating from the nineteenth century) of a megalithic tomb being built:

Celtomania is an expression which has been used by some antiquarians to describe the use of megalithic structures by ‘Druids’ and ancient races for ritual purposes. This fanciful scene by Edward King (above) shows ancient warriors, sickle-wielding and harp-playing druids, oak trees and standing stones – and a ‘dolmen’. It is taken from a 1969 book on megalithic structures in Brittany which I purchased in my travels there in the 1970s: Carnac ou les mésaventures de la narration by Denis Roche.

The ‘chamber’ of the Brownshill monument is visible when viewed from the south (top photo, above). This structure has never been excavated so we cannot say for sure that it was used to deposit human remains or cremations; in tombs elsewhere, excavations have revealed such a use in some, but not all. It has been suggested that all such structures were fully or partly covered in earth or stone, as implied in the example from Brittany below:

The structure at Brownshill, County Carlow must surely be one of the wonders of the megalithic world. It’s hard not to think that the sheer immensity of the raised capstone would require it to be seen so that the labour involved in its construction is appreciated. These stone edifices were the earliest architecture in the world of our settled ancestors, and the first examples of engineering prowess: one of the reasons for their existence must have been the demonstration of power and knowledge.

Above – a dolmen in Brittany (where they are still known by that name!) demonstrating a reversal of the principles of construction at Brownshill. In the Irish example, the huge capstone is supported by comparatively slender uprights; in France the capstone, although also substantial and heavy, sits on very large portal stones. The result is visually impressive in a different way.

Here in Ireland there are many more examples of portal tombs waiting to be visited and reported on: they are on our list.