Posts Tagged With: megalithic

Dowth, Co Meath. An history time capsule. From megalithic tombs to John Boyle O’Reilly.


View of Dowth Chapel and Manor, Dowth Castle, Dowth school and the Dowth church 

The picture above I took in July 2019.  I didn’t realise it at the time but in that one photo I captured eight hundred years of history and the Irish struggle.  An history that includes the rise and fall of the great Anglo-Norman families, Oliver Cromwell, J B O’Reilly and the struggle of the Fenians, penal servitude and escape and the diaspora; and as if that wasn’t enough the destruction of a 5,000 year old megalithic treasure. Left to right is the Netterville Chapel, Netterville Manor, Dowth Castle, Dowth school house (the low stone building with the gabled roof) and the ruins of Dowth Church on the far right.  Here’s another view.


View of Dowth Manor, Dowth Castle and the Dowth church and graveyard

And a couple of hundred metres to the right, too far away to get into the picture, is the Dowth passage tomb.


Dowth Passage tomb mound viewed from the church.

Let me explain a bit more.  Stay with me and I’ll try and keep it brief.

Dowth in Co Meath, lies near the banks of the Boyne River in the famous Bend of the Boyne, where is the world heritage site of Brú na Bóinne and the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth.  As I referred to briefly, there is also a passage tomb at Dowth.  I’ll come back to that, but my story starts with Dowth Castle, the ancestral home of the Netterville family, who were granted the estate in the 13th century.


Dowth Castle.  Home of the Nettervilles

In 1641 during the civil war, then Viscount Netterville was declared an outlaw for supporting the Confederates and deprived of his estates. Ten years later he was pardoned by Oliver Cromwell.  And then in 1655 another Netterville was imprisoned in Dublin Castle as a traitor but escaped death pleading that he was held by the rebels against his will.

Subsequent Nettervilles displayed all the eccentricities you would expect of these ruling families.  The incumbent Lord built a Manor house in 1780 and moved out of the castle.  It was complete with elaborate gardens, ramparts and walks around the House and Castle.  He built a tea house on top of the passage grave mound and attended mass remotely with the assistance of a telescope focussed on the church.  Unfortunately, the Viscount was also unknowingly complicit in the destruction of the tomb.  With money he donated to excavate the ruins before his death,  members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1849, used, can you believe it, dynamite and destroyed the mound leaving a crater you can still see today. I’d like to think he would have been horrified at what was done.


Crater at the top of the Dowth Mound

While we are talking of the Dowth mound, it is not on the tour agenda of Newgrange, but it is worth visiting separately to get a feel for what they may have looked like in the field.  There is no reconstruction here (just destruction it seems!). There were 115 kerbstones of which half are visible.  Fifteen are carved including the spectacular Stone 51, known as the Stone of the Seven Suns. Also surviving are two passage entrances.


Some of the surviving visible kerbstones at Dowth mound. Stone 51 is the fourth stone from the right.


Stone 51.  The Stone of the Seven Suns.  


A drawing of Stone 51 by archaeologist, Martin Brennan.  


Back to my story.  In 1826, the property was bequeathed for the construction of an ‘alms house’ for aged women [alms houses are a Christian charitable tradition whereby accommodation is provided for poor, old or indigent people].  The magnificent Victorian Gothic red brick structure was built as part of this endowment in 1877 along with the chapel.   I particularly love the decoration in the brick and over the windows and doors highlighted with blue bricks.


Part of Dowth Manor Alms House.  Beautiful red brick with details outlined with blue brick and limestone.

I’m not sure how long it lasted as an alms house, but it has had a variety of uses since then in the 20th century.  During the 1960s the house was the headquarters of the Newgrange excavations (hopefully without dynamite this time).  It has been owned by the Hearst Family and was once occupied by a group of Buddhists, and more recently as a venue for weddings and conferences.  It was up for sale in 2015 at €2.25 M.

All that is truly fascinating but for me it is the connection of the property with J B O’Reilly that makes it come alive.

John Boyle O’Reilly was a man of his time.  A charismatic man who in his short life may well have been the best know Irishman across three continents.  He was an Irish hero and made his mark in many fields.

His name was well known to me through his authorship of the novel, Moondyne, an Australian classic, and his involvement in the spectacular Catalpa rescue of Fenian prisoners from Fremantle Jail.  What I didn’t know is anything of his life in Ireland and America, which is littered with monumental achievements.

It was only by accident that I stumbled on the connection.  After inspecting the passage tomb I was drawn to the ruins of a church a little distance across the paddock.  There I discovered a memorial to him at the back of the church. The monument was erected in 1903.


Memorial to John Boyle O’Reilly at the back of the Dowth church.


J B O’Reilly memorial built 1903

It turns out he was born in the tower house, then occupied by his father, a schoolteacher.  Indeed the school was next door in a low stone building adjoining the tower house. 


The school house at Dowth attended by John Boyle O’Reilly until he was 11.  His bust and a plaque are on the wall.  

So I brought myself up to speed on his life story.  His achievements are many and his impact profound and there is not space here to cover it all but here are a few highlights from his extraordinary life.

  • Born in 1844 into the middle of the Irish Famine. Being born into privilege he survived.
  • Leaves school aged 11 to take on an apprenticeship as a printer at the local Drogheda newspaper
  • Goes to London at 13 to work as a stenographer
  • Returns to Ireland at 19 and became a soldier in the British Army
  • Soon after he joins the Fenians at the invitation of the IRB and infiltrates the British Army
  • Arrested at 21 and sentenced to death for treason. Commuted to 20 years hard labour because of his youth.
  • At age 23 he and sixty-one other Fenian prisoners sent to Fremantle, Western Australia.
  • At age 24 escapes from Fremantle on a whaling ship. Fakes his own suicide to avoid capture at Mauritius.
  • At age 25 arrives in US via London, on the run. Moves to Boston; works for The Pilot newspaper.
  • At age 31 becomes owner and editor of The Pilot. It becomes second biggest Boston newspaper after the Boston Globe.
  • Becomes a spokesman for Irish immigrants, a well-known poet, orator, sportsman, and activist for political causes.
  • At age 31 helps organise the rescue of six Fenians from Fremantle, again using a whale ship, The Catalpa.
  • Becomes one of Americas foremost poets.
  • At 34 writes Moondyne, a semi-autobiographical novel set in Australia.
  • At 35, acknowledged leader of the “Irish cause”
  • Dies at 44 from an accidental overdose of his wife’s sleeping pills

Wow!  Admired and revered on three continents at the time, his work has been criticised subsequently, especially Moondyne, as presenting degrading portraits of Aborigines and glowing praise for capitalist exploitation by the British empire, with racist overtones.  Yet the novel was a landmark.  It scoffs at hypocrisy, and deals with redemption for the downtrodden and forgotten in society and among other things offers solutions on the Australian penal system, the Irish land question, and America as a model for the future.

So there it is.  A huge part of the story of Ireland reflected in this collection of buildings in a beautiful valley in County Meath.  And to think I could have just driven straight past it.


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Mooghaun. Hill Forts and ‘Fairy Gold’

This story has everything.  It takes place over 3,000 years and is full of intrigue and mystery, the struggle for survival, buried treasure and fairies and avarice.

It started for me with a visit to the National Museum in Dublin in 2014.  I was in a rush and had little time to study the exhibits, but a particular interest was the collection of bronze age gold artefacts, so I took lots of photos to review later.  And then promptly forgot about them.  I rediscovered those photos the other day and was struck by something that I hadn’t noticed at the time.  Some of the exhibits came from County Clare.  In particular from the, so named, Mooghaun Hoard or the Great Clare Find, near Newmarket-on-Fergus.  This hoard dated at 800-700BC was the largest hoard of gold jewellery ever found in Europe.  It is thought to have originally comprised up to 300 pieces and the story surrounding it is fascinating.


Part of the gold hoard from Mooghaun comprising five collars, seven bracelets two neck rings and a ring.  Replicas of 120 bracelets and two ingots which were also part of the hoard but are now lost. National Museum Dublin.


Three gold collars.  Mooghaun Find.  National Museum Dublin

The gold was discovered by a number of railway workers clearing land for the Limerick to Ennis railway, on a right of way near Dromoland Estate,  in 1854.  They unearthed a stone box containing twisted metal which, at first, they did not recognize and indeed threw some into the nearby lake.  They soon realized it was however dirt encrusted gold.  With mad haste they ran 1.5 miles  to the town of Newmarket, where some of the gold was quickly melted down by silversmiths keen to profit.

The rush to melt it down may have been driven by thoughts this was ‘fairy gold’. Ancient legends speak of bones and charcoal contained in buried vessels that in reality were golden coin and ornaments belonging to the ‘good people’, or fairies, and that they returned to gold during the night.  But if watched with proper precautions and ceremonies, the fairy gold at daybreak would still remain gold.  Their haste may have been a desire to extract the wealth before it returned to bones and ash. 

Nevertheless it is an irreparable loss to Ireland’s heritage.  It is believed that 34 pieces have survived, the rest melted down for bullion value.   Gilt-bronze casts were made of some of the pieces prior to their destruction.  Three months after the find there was an  exhibition of remaining pieces, which were for sale.  Due to the expense, the Royal Irish Academy acquired only 12 pieces, which included five collars and two neck-rings and The British Museum purchased a collar and thirteen bracelets.  The rest were melted down.

How they came to be deposited there is unknown.  They may have been a gift to appease the gods or they may have been hidden to avoid being lost to attacking tribes.  Whatever the reason it seems we will never know.  Then I discovered something really interesting.  The find is less than a kilometer  from the ruins of a massive megalithic structure,  the impressive Mooghaun Hill Fort or ‘Hill of the Three walls’, the largest hill fort in Europe.  Researchers agree that the trove must be connected in some way.

Newmarket-on-Fergus is about 45 minutes drive from my home so I had to have a look and headed out there the very next day.  It was easy enough to find.  The monument is controlled by the OPW.  A car park, well laid paths and lots of helpful signage. The winter weather was kind enough with rain holding off. 

The Fort occupies an entire hill with its three massive concentric ramparts covering an area encompassing 27 acres.  Within the walls would have  would have been a community ruled over by a local king and his community of followers and subjects.  There would have been  housing for a few families, livestock and areas for crops.   It is now covered in a forest of birch, ash and hazel but at the time of construction would have stood dominant, on a 300m high bare limestone hill, as a monumental statement of power and authority.  The king would have controlled an area of 170 square miles with perhaps 9,000 people.  It is estimated that over 2,000 of these would have been engaged in constructing the walls which may have taken up to 20 years to complete.

The walls have degraded significantly, overgrown in places and mostly linear piles of rubble.  In places though signs of the original facing of the walls can be seen


Wall of the Inner Rampart, Mooghaun Hill Fort


Inner Rampart showing original (?) facing.

This community may have occupied the site for 1,500 years and while there is no record of the cause of its demise, by about 500AD the abandoned site was occupied by a new community.  They made their homes there, using stones from the original hillfort’s ramparts.  They built a number of circular drystone cashels of which two survive in remarkable condition, having been repaired and adapted over the years.  One was used for picnics by the inhabitants of Dromoland Castle in the 18th century. 


View of Upper Cashel.  Mooghaun Hill Fort


Lower Cashel.  Moohaun Hill Fort


Detail of wall of Upper Cashel

After viewing with wonder the fort and its rubbly remains,  I rambled on through the surrounding woods.  A truly beautiful and peaceful place.  Depite the winter having stripped the trees of foliage it was quite a treat with tall straight birch, ash and hazel projecting skyward from a thick carpet of leaf litter. 


Many of the trees, boulders  and walls are covered with a lush green assemblage of mosses, ferns and ivy creating intriguing vertical gardens contrasting with the brown forest floor.  In the misty, hazy light it was invitingly beautiful. 



I wandered on, losing track of time, before reaching the end of the woods, defined by yet another wall, built this time by the Dromoland Estate.  The Estate is surrounded by a wall,  in many places with coping comprising vertical limestone slabs.


Wall separating Mooghaun Woods from fields in the Dromoland Estate.


Dromoland Estate boundary wall surrounding Mooghaun Woods


Boundary wall for Mooghaun Woods.  with coping.


Coping on boundary wall here has vertical limestone slabs

I met a local, Tommy,  taking a walk through the wood.  We chatted for a while and I asked him if he knew where the gold hoard was found.  As it turned out he lives adjacent to  it and gave me directions as to where it was.  I found the spot which was where the railway passes close to a small lough (this is the lake which figures in the descriptions of the find).  Standing on the railway bridge it was easy to imagine the scene that day in 1854 and the life-changing excitement that the discovery brought to these navvies.  


Location of the Mooghaun Hoard find.  It is thought the find was roughly at the position where the train is, adjacent to the lake

With my thoughts planted firmly in past millenia and the exigencies of life in ancient times I walked on.  I passed a ruined cottage.  This jolted me back to this century.  The ruin interested me because it was a stone cottage with a corrogutaed iron roof, which in my experience in Ireland was unusual.  It gave the whole building a rusty red appearance.  This had once been a comfortable residence and though overgrown now had lovely views of a large turlough beyond grassy slopes.  A peek through an open window suggested its abandonment but as is the norm here I could only speculate on the back story.


Abandoned cottage Mooghaun North.


Inside the abandoned cottage at Mooghaun North


Oak tree and outbuilding at abadoned cottage

On the way back to my car, though I met Tommy again returning from his walk. I thanked him for helping me find the site  and took the opportunity to ask about the cottage.  He told me it had been occupied by two bachelor brothers,  who died in the mid 90s.  They passed it on to heir niece who was settled elsewhere so declined to move in.  Since then it has lain abandoned and crumbling.  Sadly it is beyond repair now.  Tommy added that it was used as a polling station for elections, a common practice it would seem,  with private houses being used in remote communities where many could not access a booth otherwise. 

So there it is.  That visit to the museum five years ago opened up a story highlighting yet again the fascinating, interwoven connections of Ireland to its people, land, culture and heritage, and the amazing discoveries that I continue to make.  


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