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Dublin: 2 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Heritage Ireland: The lonely Kilkenny cave that witnessed a massacre of 1,000 people

Dunmore Cave has a chilling tale to tell visitors.

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us down a cave with a dark history in County Kilkenny, to a secluded prehistoric tomb in County Waterford, and to a castle on the shores of Lough Gill in County Leitrim.

Dunmore Cave, Co Kilkenny

Dunmore Cave is located approximately 11km north of Kilkenny City, near Castlecomer. The cave contains around 300m of known passages and caverns. In terms of geology, Dunmore Cave is a rare example of a cave that was formed directly by glacial meltwaters.

Although not a particularly large cave system, Dunmore has a number of great examples of calcite formations like stalagmites and stalactites. However my interest in the cave comes from its dark history.

Located in the north of Co Kilkenny, in a region of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ossory, Dunmore Cave was situated right in the middle of a stomping ground between the Viking powerbases of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The Vikings of Ireland were not one people with a united ambition and government, but were instead rival powers who regularly came into conflict with each other.

The cave at Dunmore has a chilling story to tell. The Annals record that over 1,000 people were massacred here by the Vikings. It is said that the Vikings from Dublin were en route to attack rival Vikings at Waterford circa 928 AD. They raided the surrounding land and found that a large number of people (mainly women and children) were hiding in the cave at Dunmore.

In an attempt to drive them from the cave, they lit large fires hoping that it would force those taking shelter to flee the smoke so that they could be easily captured and sold in the slave markets. However the fires were too large and burned all the oxygen in the deep cave with many suffocating to death. Antiquarians in the 18th and 19th centuries collected large quantities of human remains from within the cave, presumably those of the poor people who were massacred in that raid.

It appears that some Vikings returned to the site later to conceal their wealth. In 1999, a small hoard of silver and copper-alloy items was discovered in a cleft deep in the cave. The hoard was dated to 970 AD. It consisted of silver ingots and conical buttons woven from fine silver.

These precious objects were found with a luxurious silk garment. The dye that coloured the garment purple was reserved for the highest ranking members of society, and it was derived from the purple murex snail that can only be found on the north coast of Africa, evidence of the incredible trading network of the Vikings. Perhaps the owner of the hoard concealed it there, hoping that the cave’s dark reputation would keep it from prying eyes, but they were never able to return to retrieve it. It is also possible that they left it as an offering to chthonic (subterranean) gods or spirits.

Today Dunmore Cave is a really rewarding place to visit with a fine visitor centre. You can find information about opening hours and entry fees here.

Gaulstown Dolmen, Co Waterford

There are over 170 dolmens (also known as portal tombs) recorded in Ireland. Geographically they are more common in the northern half of the island, with some clusters in the south-east and in the west. Portal tombs may be one of the earliest of Ireland’s megalithic tomb types, and a forerunner of the more complex court tombs.

Typically a portal tomb is a simple chamber formed of upright stones, with a large capstone. A mound of earth would then have covered the tomb.

The Gaulstown Dolmen likely dates to some time around 3,500 BC. It is situated in a wonderfully atmospheric wooded glade at the base of a steep slope known locally as Cnoc na Cailligh (The Hill of the Hag). It really is one of the finest examples of a portal tomb in the region and well worth a trip.

You’ll find the tomb roughly around 7km south-west of Waterford City. Follow the R680 from Waterford city towards Kilmeadan. At Tramore crossroads (signposted for Tramore) turn left onto the R682. Continue along this road, driving through the first set of crossroads until you reach a second set of crossroads. Turn right here and continue down this road (you will drive straight through another crossroads) and the site will be on your left.

It is signposted, but you can easily miss it as a large modern gate blocks the laneway to the site and makes it look like the entrance to a private residence. Be sure not to block the gateway when you park your car to the side of the large gate. Access to the site is through a pedestrian entrance to the side of the gate, follow along the short path to find the site.

Parke’s Castle, Co Leitrim

Parke’s Castle is beautifully positioned on the edge of Lough Gill on the border between counties Leitrim and Sligo. The castle originally dates to the 16th century. It was a stronghold of the O’Rourkes who were the traditional Kings of Bréifne, an ancient Irish kingdom that at its height covered an area the size of Co Leitrim with parts of Sligo, Cavan and Westmeath.

The original castle would have been a tall towerhouse, surrounded by a walled defensive area known as a bawn. The O’Rourkes were famed for their hospitality and were celebrated patrons of poets and bards. However it was their hospitality that led to their ruination and to the loss of their stronghold on the shores of Lough Gill. When storms wrecked the Spanish Armada in 1588, one of the Spanish officers, Captain de Cuellar, was given shelter in the castle by Brian na Murtha O’Rourke.

On his return to Spain, he wrote a book, detailing his experiences and adventures with the O’Rourkes, and expressed his gratitude to the family. Unfortunately for the O’Rourkes, the English court took a keen interest in Señor de Cuellar’s publication and promptly arrested Brian na Murtha O’Rourke. He was brought to London to the court of Queen Elizabeth I and was ordered to apologise, which he steadfastly refused to do. He was found guilty of high treason, and was hanged at Tyburn in 1591.

As further punishment, the O’Rourkes forfeited their lands. The estates became subsumed for redistribution to loyal English settlers, like so many other great Irish estates in the years following the Flight of the Earls and the aggressive policy of plantation. The lands became the property of Captain Robert Parke.

The O’Rourke tower house was demolished and its stone used to construct the current castle building that we have today, which was more fashionable at the time. They continued to live in Parke’s Castle until the early 18th century.

Today Parke’s Castle is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works, and you can enjoy a tour of the site, which also contains exhibitions and information on Irish rural life throughout the centuries. For more information on opening times and entry fees please visit here.

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from AbartaAudioGuides.com.

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaaudioguides.com

Read more of Neil Jackman’s weekend guides to Irish heritage gems>

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