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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 1 October, 2014

Hidden Ireland: Where was St Brigid’s firehouse and why did the flame go out?

This week, archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us through a mysterious and massive Bronze Age complex in Tyrone and medieval treasures in Kildare and Kilkenny.

IN THIS EDITION of our Hidden Ireland series, we explore the wealth of history in Kildare Town, we discover the mysterious Bronze Age landscape of Beaghmore in County Tyrone and visit Kilkenny City to experience the fun of Medieval Week.

Kildare Town

Kildare is a town absolutely steeped in history. Nestled between the mighty rivers Liffey and Barrow to the east and west, between the Red Hills and the low cut bogs of Monavullagh, Maddenstown and Kings Common to the north and south, Kildare is a small rustic town known chiefly for its tourism and shopping, horse racing and its proximity to the 2,000-hectare plain, the Curragh of Kildare.

Kildare’s origins stretch into the distant past. Overlooking the Curragh to the south-east stands Dún Áilinne, the seasonal home for a series of ancient Leinster Kings. To the northeast lies the Hill of Allen – home to the legendary warriors of Ancient Ireland, the Fianna.

Through this countryside ran the Slí Dála – one of five roads that led to The Hill of Tara which are said to have magically sprung up on the night of the birth of Conn of the Hundred Battles. However it is with the arrival of a devout woman that this area became famous throughout Ireland and throughout the Christian world. Kildare, derives from the Irish ‘Cill Dara’ meaning Church of the Oak. It was named after the church founded here under an oak tree by St Brigid in around 480 AD.

Over time Kildare developed into a great monastery, a place where visitors and pilgrims were welcome and plentiful, and a place famed across Europe. All of this wealth did not go unnoticed, and the Vikings raided Kildare fifteen times from 835 AD. They were not the only ones to seek plunder at this growing town, as Kildare was attacked and plundered at least 38 times by rival Irish war bands as well as the Vikings.

In 1223 the Norman Bishop of Kildare, Ralph de Bristol constructed a stone cathedral on the site of the original church of Brigid. However by the mid-seventeenth century the Cathedral was almost entirely in ruins, and it was replaced in the nineteenth century by the grand neo-gothic structure we have today. Inside the cathedral you can find an exhibition about the history of Brigid and Kildare, and a number of medieval stone sculptures and tombs like that of Walter Wellesley Bishop of Kildare who died in 1539.

The cathedral has a fantastic vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained glass it’s a really atmospheric place to visit. In the grounds of the cathedral you can find a twelfth century high cross, and one of the tallest round towers in Ireland. It dates to the early twelfth century and stands an impressive 33m tall despite it missing its original conical roof. One of the other more unusual things to see in the Cathedral Grounds are the reconstructed foundations of St Brigid’s Fire-House, where a sacred fire was kept burning until the mid–13th century.

The town was also an attractive base of operations for the Normans during their conquest of Ireland. Their leader Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, built an earth and timber fortification here. William Marshall transformed the earth and timber fortification of Strongbow into a great four towered stone fortress, though unfortunately only one tower survives today. The town also became famous with its associations with the mighty Fitzgerald dynasty, who were the de facto rulers of Ireland for almost a century.

They enabled the three Abbeys of Kildare to flourish. These Abbeys were named after the colour of the habits worn by their monks or nuns. The Grey Abbey was a thirteenth century Franciscan foundation, and the burial place of at least four Earls of Kildare. The White Abbey was named after the habits worn by the nuns of a Carmelite foundation established in 1290 by William de Vesci, and The Black Abbey was named after the black tunic emblazoned with a white cross worn by the soldier monks known as the Knights Hospitallers. The remains of their abbey can be seen at Tully, where you can also find St Brigid’s Well and the Irish National Stud and Gardens, all well worth a visit.

On the Market Square you can discover the Kildare Town Heritage Centre, housed within the old nineteenth century Market House. The centre is full of information and I highly recommend a visit.

This is just a very small overview of the incredible history and stories of Kildare. We’ve produced an audioguide to help you get to grips with the story of the town and its key figures like Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the leader of the 1798 Rebellion, Dan Donnelly the nineteenth century boxing superstar and the story of the birth of Irish and British motor racing when Kildare was a key stage in the Gordon Bennet Cup in 1903. The guide is packed with music and sound effects to help immerse you in the story, it is completely free to download from our website. For more information on Kildare please visit here.

Beaghmore stone circles and alignments

Just to the northwest of Cookstown in County Tyrone, you can discover an incredible Bronze Age ritual landscape. The site consists of seven stone circles, nine stone rows or alignments and a number of cairns and barrows. It was discovered by turf cutters in the 1930s, and excavations in the 1940s and 1960s. The majority of the features on the site are believed to date to the Bronze Age, some time between 1500–800 BC though there is some evidence of earlier activity on the site.

More recently investigations at Copney Hill around 10km to the east of Beaghmore, have revealed nine more stone circles, suggesting the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains were a hive of activity during the Bronze Age.

Although the stones that make up the stone circles and rows aren’t particularly massive, the complexity of the site is incredible. It’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in prehistoric archaeology.

To find the site take the A505 heading north-west from Cookstown for around 15km and take the right turn onto the Teebane Road. When you reach the T junction take the left and then the immediate right onto Keerin Road. From there take the second right onto Beaghmore Road and the carpark for the site will be on your left.

Kilkenny Medieval Week

It’s Medieval Week in Kilkenny, and there is a veritable plethora of great activities to do this weekend in this fantastically historical city! This afternoon (Saturday) at Rothe House between 1–3pm there is free access to the gardens for all, and children and adults can try their hand at archery. There will also be animals from Nore Valley Farm and face painting for the children.

Rothe House was built in the late sixteenth / early seventeenth century by the wealthy and influential merchant John Rothe Fitz Piers. Rothe actually built three houses one behind the other. He commissioned them between 1594 and 1610 to provide increased space and luxury for his growing family. Today you can enjoy a tour of all three houses and the fantastic gardens. It’s well worth a visit! For more information on Rothe House, please see their website.

There is a fascinating talk by Kilkenny Archaeology’s Cóilin Ó Drisceoil tomorrow at 2.30pm in the Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle about William Marshall. Marshall is as close to the Hollywood vision of a perfect medieval knight as it is possible to be. He rose through the ranks of Norman aristocracy and became the most famous tournament champion of Western Europe, serving no less than four English kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III).

He has a huge legacy in Ireland. He married Isobel de Clare, the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife, heiress to the Kingdom of Leinster. He was a prolific builder, responsible for building and refortifying number of Ireland’s castles like Carlow Castle, The Rock of Dunamase, and of course Kilkenny Castle itself. He created the port of New Ross in Wexford and founded a number of abbeys and ecclesiastical institutions like Tintern Abbey. He changed the Irish landscape forever when he introduced settlers to Ireland with new agricultural practices like three-field crop rotation and spring and winter sowing. This talk will help to shed some light on this massively influential but often overlooked figure in Irish history.

Kilkenny 1 Castle

You can also see Book of Pottlerath displayed in the Castle. This beautiful medieval manuscript was commissioned by James Butler, the 4th Earl of Ormonde (1392–1452) and it is hugely significant work. It is usually kept in a vault at Oxford University in England so this is a rare opportunity to see the document in its home city. When you’ve enjoyed a walk around the lovely grounds of the castle be sure to pop across to the Design Centre to join in a tasting session.

St Canice’s Cathedral are offering a combination deal to visit the Cathedral and Round Tower for €5 and a special guided tour at 3pm, where you will hear about some important historical figures associated with the medieval Cathedral and discover the medieval burial stones and effigies of the Anchoress, the Kyteler Family, Margaret Piers Butler and the infamous Bishop Richard Ledrede. There’s lots more medieval fun to be had, like a medieval banquet at Kytler’s Inn. For more information on Kilkenny and the Medieval Week please see the Kilkenny Tourism website.

  • 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

Have you seen these giant tombs?>

Read more in our Hidden Ireland series>

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