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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Hidden Ireland: Were these giant tombs a big show of oneupmanship?

This week, Neil Jackman looks at three off-the-beaten-track places to visit this weekend in Tipperary, Kerry and the Dublin mountains.

IN THIS EDITION of our Hidden Ireland series, we explore one of Ireland’s finest ecclesiastical sites in Co Tipperary, a grand tower house in a beautiful setting in County Kerry and one for the more intrepid explorer – a megalithic tomb high in the Dublin Mountains.

Seahan Megalithic Tomb, Co Dublin

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Last Saturday, we visited Seahan, another of the megalithic tombs of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains. At Seahan, sometimes spelled as Seehan, you can find the remains of two large stone cairns. They probably date to the Neolithic period, around 5,000 years old, a time when people first began to clear the ancient forests to create fields for farming. They are thought to be the remains of passage tombs, a type of burial monument that appears as a round mound of stones or earth, ringed by large stones set on their edges to form a kerb. Parallel lines of upright stones formed a passageway leading to a chamber which usually contained the remains the dead.

One of the cairns on Seahan has a very clear kerb of stones surrounding it, but it has been disturbed, possibly in antiquity. It is situated adjacent to a larger cairn that has an ordnance survey point on its summit. It’s possible that some of the stones of the exposed tomb were used in the construction of this large cairn.

Archaeologist Christiaan Corlett suggests that this may raise some interesting questions about the relationship of the two tombs – perhaps the people constructing the larger cairn deliberately ‘slighted’ the older tomb to construct a new larger cairn, possibly as a way of symbolising their ascendancy over the people who are interred within the smaller tomb and their descendants who built it.

Seahan appears to be part of an extended series or cemetery of passage tombs that cover a number of peaks in the area. From Seahan you can clearly see the cairns on top of Seefingan and Seefin. Building these tombs so high in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains must have been an incredibly difficult undertaking in the Neolithic period even though there is an abundant supply of stone on top of the hills. The peaks of these hills are all around 650m – 750m above sea level, so why would they have constructed these elaborate and large stone tombs up here?

We can never say with certainty, but perhaps like a lot of cultures around the world they believed that to be buried in these high places was to be closer to their gods. Personally though, I think that it was a statement of ownership over the landscape. From this high vantage point the whole of South County Dublin and Wicklow is visible, with its lush green fields, rivers, lakes and forests.

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Perhaps they believed that any newcomers to this fertile territory would see the very visible tombs in the distance and know that the people living here have done so for millennia. Or maybe they believed that by placing their ancestors far above the low lying lands of the living, the shades of their forebears could watch over them from their tombs. For those interested in prehistoric archaeology, or those who love a bit of hillwalking, or those who just want to see some of the finest views in Ireland, Seahan is a real must-see.

  • I strongly recommend you use OSI Discovery Series Mapping Numbers 50 and 56 to help you find the tomb easily. To get there exit the M50 at Junction 12 Firhouse. Travel on the R113 towards Oldbawn.
  • Take the left turn for the R114 signed for Bohernabreena. Continue straight on this road, staying right at the slight fork at Bohernabreena. Drive past the golf club on your left and take the road to the left of a famine cross you will see on the left hand side of the road. Continue on this road for about 5 minutes.
  • On a clear day you will see Seahan on top of the mountain to your left and Seefin and Seefingan ahead. Seahan is separated from Seefinghan and Seefin by the Army Rifle Range, if you see signs for that you have gone too far. There is a parking area below Seahan in front of large boulders. Park here and walk along the path.
  • Take the first left on this path – this will lead you up to the summit of Seahan. We had great weather for our visit, but I wouldn’t recommend the trip in poor conditions. It was about a 25 – 30min fairly easy stroll up the mountain to the site, but good boots are recommended. Above all though, please do be aware of the Army Rifle Range and respect their warning signs!

Ross Castle, County Kerry

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Ross Castle is a later medieval tower house, believed to have been constructed some time in the late 15th century for the O’Donoghue Ross Chieftains. The tower house was very strategically positioned, perched on a small island in Lough Leane and separated from the mainland by a channel. It would have been very difficult prospect for any attacking force to take.

The main towerhouse [also known as a keep] is surrounded by a fortified bawn with a curtain wall defended by circular towers. The tower was made even more defensive by features like murder holes (where defenders would have thrown down stones or poured down boiling fat, bad language and even the contents of the toilet to discomfort the attackers).

In 1568, during the reign of the English Queen Elizabeth Ist, the O’Donaghue Ross chieftains joined with the Earl of Desmond in a huge revolt across Munster. The revolt lasted until 1583, when the Earl of Desmond was killed and the rebellion was put down with great severity across the region. The O’Donaghue Rosses found themselves on the losing side, it cost the life of their leader and they were also forced to hand over all of their lands, including Ross Castle, to the Crown.

Ross Castle was given to Donal McCarthy Mór, but the impoverished Donal mortgaged the castle and lands to Sir Valentine Browne, Surveyor General of Ireland. He had earned a fortune from the land seizures in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion.

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Ross Castle also saw action during the Cromwellian Invasions in the mid-seventeenth century. A substantial parliamentary army of around 4000 infantry and 2000 cavalry under the command of General Ludlow, laid siege to the castle in 1652. At this time the castle was held by Lord Muskerry, he eventually surrendered to the Parliamentary forces when they brought artillery by boat to surround the castle.

The castle came back into the hands of the Browne family by the end of the seventeenth century, and they were made Viscounts of Kenmare. By the eighteenth century, comfort outweighed the need for medieval defensive features and much of the bawn wall was removed to allow the addition of the large building on the south side of the castle.

The castle has undergone extensive structural repairs and renovations since coming into state ownership in 1970. Today it is one of the most visited heritage sites in County Kerry, as it is so beautifully situated on the shores of Lough Leane. You can enjoy a guided tour of the castle, see here for opening times and entry fees.

Holycross Abbey, County Tipperary

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Holycross Abbey in County Tipperary is one of the true ecclesiastical jewels in all of Ireland. It was founded by the Cistercians after a donation by Domhnall Mór O Brien, King of Thomond in 1182, and the charter he granted to the Cistercians survives to this day. The O’Brien dynasty were strong supporters of church reform during the 1100s, and their loyalty to Rome was rewarded when Pope Paschal II presented them with a fragment of the True Cross to Muirchertach O’Brien in 1110 AD.

This was a powerful relic, believed to be a splinter of the very cross that Jesus was crucified on and its presence in the Abbey would have guaranteed thousands of people would have made pilgrimage to see it. This would have made Holycross an extremely wealthy institution, and at one point in history, Holycross Abbey housed at least two if not three relics of the true cross.

The nave of the church is the oldest surviving part of the abbey and reflects the simple architectural style of the Cistercian order. Under the patronage of the Butlers of Ormonde, the abbey underwent a major restoration in the 1400s and its most outstanding architectural features date from this period.

The ribbed stone vaulting over the transept and chancel is a marvel of stonework and bears numerous marks of the masons who carved it. The elaborate sedilia, seating places for the abbot and his deacons, have been referred to as the most outstanding piece of medieval church furniture in Ireland. On the west wall of the north transept one can distinguish the hunting scene mural, a unique and unusual painting within a church. The waking monks’ bier, the east window, the rose window,the night stairs, the chapter house door, and the cloister are other architectural highlights of this spectacular site.

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The last Cistercian monk in Holycross died in the 1730s and the abbey, already in a state of disrepair, fell into ruin. In the late 1960s a major initiative to bring Holycross back to life as a place of worship began. Led by local priest Willie Hayes, and with the support of Archbishop Thomas Morris and the Office of Public Works, careful restoration and conservation work began in 1970 and took over five years to complete.

On the traditional parish feast day of Michaelmas, 25 September 1975, the Abbey was consecrated and mass was celebrated at Holycross once more.

The story of Holycross features in our newest audioguide The Derrynaflan Trail – available as a free MP3 download or smartphone app (iOS and Android) from our 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

Hidden Ireland: From the Boyne flows the story of Ireland>

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