A lecture read at an outing to Tlachtgha

Margaret Conway (nee Callan) qualified as a Primary School teacher during the War of Independence and taught first in Dublin, before being appointed to Coolronan National School, near Ballivor, Co. Meath in 1923.  She taught there until her retirement in 1956.  Margaret was a great lover of the Irish language and all things Irish.  She was an expert on Irish history but particularly the history of the Meath area.
Margaret Conway was a founding member and Secretary of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society. She was editor of Riocht na Midhe  from 1955 till 1967.  She was a prolific author and contributed literally hundreds of articles on local history to The Meath Chronicle over many years.  She died in 1974 at her home in Moattown, Kildalkey.
Margaret also gave many lectures and talks on Meath history.  One such lecture, reproduced here, was given by her at an outing to Tlachtgha, under the auspices of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, on 11th Aug 1957.
This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of her son, Ultan Conway, and the Conway family.

Seventy- three years ago, in the month of August 1884, the Society of Antiquarians were invited to meet here on this hill where we are assembled today.  A paper was prepared for the occasion by a young man from the district, a clerical student from Maynooth – the twenty- one-year-old Eugene O’Growney.  I had that paper before me as I prepared this lecture and I could not but marvel at the amount of research this boy had done to produce a record, very condensed indeed, of the many events connected with this site from the dawn of history to that awful scene of slaughter in Cromwell’s camp in 1649, after which date the silence of death and the peace of despair fell upon Tlachtgha.

It is always difficult to know where to begin in dealing with a place whose associations are partly historic and partly prehistoric.  I have decided for the sake of clarity that we start at the first century of the Christian era, in the time of Tuathal Teachtmhar, who founded the Kingdom of Meath with its four Royal Residences; Teamhair, Uisneach, Tlachtgha and Tailte.  If you keep this in mind, and locate from where we stand the other three hills, we can, before the end of this lecture, work back to what is to the historian partly legend and partly conjecture in the long ages before.  Teamhair (Tara) lies about 12 miles east by south of us, Uisneach over 30 miles south-west and Tailte some 8 miles to the north east.

From legendary times there were five provinces in Ireland (from whence the Irish word for province, Cúige, a fifth).  These were at an early period Uladh (Ulster), Laighean (Leinster), Connacht and Mumha (Munster) which consisted of two provinces – North and South Munster.  These divisions were not static and in any case were little more than a memory in the third century B.C. when reliable history begins.  By then the most powerful centres were Uladh in the north east and Laighean in the south-east.  The famous Conchubhar Mac Neasa at about the beginning of the Christian era ruled the Ulster province from Eamhan Macha (near Armagh) with the aid of an army of warriors known as the Craobh Ruadh (Red Branch). Leinster was ruled by the powerful Eachaidh Feidhleach, who put his daughter Medhbh (Maeve) on the throne of Connacht.  Under her rule, the rivalry with Ulster resulted in the seven year’s war known in Irish heroic literature as the Táin Bó Cuailgne (The cattle raid of Cooley).  The result was the decline of Ulster as the greatest power in the country.  It appears from the sagas that contingents from all parts of Ireland were on Maeve’s side, and that as a result of the war there developed a new and more organised kingdom with its centre in the central plain.  This power was to dominate all Ireland, though there were centuries of opposition from the older people of Uladh and Laighean.

The Hill of Ward

This central dynasty seems to have become firmly established about a century after the wars of the Táin, and its first great monarch was Tuthal Teachtmhar (The Lawful).  It is said that he decided to create a new kingdom to be the mensal land of the Ard-Rí (High King) by cutting off a part of each  of the four provinces that bounded one another in the Central Plain.  The Five Fifths were not then in existence but the memory of it may have influenced Tuthal’s decision.  The new kingdom was called Midhe (Meath), said by most philologists to mean “Middle” from the Celtic root allied to the Latin “medium”.  Some derive it from the word for a plain (in modern Irish Maighe – anglicised Moy).  Tara, the new Royal Residence, was in the Leinster part, Tailte in the Ulster part, Uisneach in the Connacht part, and our hill, Tlachtgha, in the Munster part.  (It may be noted that these four hills were already sacred places and this aspect will be discussed later).  It would appear that Tuathal had a Royal Residence on each of these four hills and that he paid them state visits in turn.  From descriptions in early Irish poetry, the Palaces of pre-Christian Ireland were of great magnificence.  There are references to lime-white walls, pavilions thatched with brilliant coloured feathers, pillars inlaid with bronze and gold and hangings of costly embroidery.  The ladies of the royal household had a special house on the sunny side of the hill – it was called the Grianán (sunny place).  Wood, so plentiful in those days in the plain was the usual building material; therefore when the palaces were abandoned (in the fifth and sixth centuries) they soon fell into decay, and the only remains today are the ridges of clay which marked the sites of foundations, and the concentric rings of clay which carried defensive palisades.  No excavations have been made at Tlachtgha, but from the work done on Tara during the past decade we can assume with fair certainty that the spade would yield up on Tlachtgha the traces of extensive habitations.

Abandoned or not, Tlachtgha was a landmark and gathering place right up to the days of the last independent High King – Ruaidhri O’Connor – who held a meeting there in 1167.  Time will not permit a detailed account of all the references to Tlachtgha  in the Annals and in oral tradition;  a few will have to suffice.

The first is the tradition that St. Patrick visited the hill.  There are the remains of an ancient church in the vicinity called Teampall Cuimhne (translated as The Church of Remembrance).  The local tradition is that at this spot St. Patrick remembered where he had left his Mass Books on the course of his journey.  This is the sort of fantastic explanation that local scholars invent for a name they do not understand, but from what we know of St. Patrick’s journeys from hill to hill – Slane, Tara, Tailte etc – we may be certain that he visited here.

The next record is better authenticated.  After the Danes had been defeated at Clontarf by Brian Boru in 1014, many of them remained in the coast towns which they had founded.  Dublin was their greatest stronghold on the east coast, and from there they made a raid into Meath in 1022.  They were defeated by the High King Maol Seachnaill (Malachy) at Ath Buidhe Tlachtgha – the Yellow Ford of Tlachtgha.  As you can see, a river flows below us, and there was a ford or crossing place where the modern town of Ath Buidhe (Athboy) now stands.  It is a common development elsewhere; people settled near the ford, which in course of time was replaced by a bridge.  (Compare ‘Drogheda’ – Droichead Atha – the Bridge of the Ford).

The century following the defeat of the Danes was a turbulent one: a series of wars following the breakdown of an older order.  The High Kings from the time of Tuathal had been drawn from the same ruling family, but in Danish times Brian of Munster had broken the tradition by usurping the High Kingship.  After his death at Clontarf, Malachy, of the old dynasty, resumed office and, as has been said, defeated the Danes of Dublin here in 1022.  But after his death, there were periodic contentions for the High Kingship between various great families.  During one of these wars, Athboy was burned by the O’Briens (descendants of Brian).  Eventually, order was restored under the O’Connors of Connacht, a branch of the old ruling family, and the country settled down to what appeared to be a new era of peace and progress.  Ruaidhri O’Connor called, in 1167, a great council of the principal clergy and laity of the country and they met at Ath Buidhe Tlachtgha to discuss the reorganisation of church and state.  When you hear the names of just a few of the people who attended, you will realise that Athboy must have been a considerable place if it could provide them with food and shelter.  No doubt pavilions were erected for them, and the meeting itself probably took place in a large and elegant structure on top of the hill itself.  There were the Archbishops of Armagh and Tuam and Dublin (the last one later to be known to history as St. Laurence O’Toole).  With these were the chief abbots and a large concourse of attendant clergy.  All the chiefs of Meath, Ulster, Breffini, Oriel and Kildare were there with 13,000 horsemen.

At this conference all sorts of matters were settled amicably, including the exact boundaries of the territories of the various chiefs.  Two years later Tighernan O’Ruairc, Chief of Breffini, was confirmed a ruler of this district of Tlachtgha, on the border land of Meath.  Everyone was happy about the future, but alas, in a very short time, Dervorgilla, wife of Ruairc, was instrumental in bringing in new invaders – the Normans – and so setting a naught the plans so happily inaugurated at the great conference of Ath Buidhe Thachtgha.

Hugh de Lacy

Hugh de Lacy was given the Kingdom of Meath by King Henry ll of England, but O Ruairc did not submit easily to having his territory included.  A conference was called between himself and de Lacy here on the hill.  Each left his bodyguard at a distance and they met alone and unarmed with only an interpreter – one Domhnall O Ruairc  (Incidentally the fact that O Ruairc could speak Norman- French would point to intercourse across the Irish sea before the invasion).  The Four Masters record that during the conference the captain of de Lacy’s bodyguard crept up and treacherously murdered O Ruairc.  The contemporary Norman account says that the captain, Griffin by name, had a dream the night before in which he saw his master being attacked by the Irish chief, and to forestall such a calamity, he got his blow in first.  O Ruairc’s head was severed and spiked on the fortress of Dublin (the fort which preceded the present Dublin Castle).  His body was gibbeted, feet upward, at the northern gate of the city.

Gradually as the Normans made themselves masters of the Central Plain, and when the Pale, or Boundary Fence, was built to defend the settlement, it passed more or less along the river through Athboy, till on the Trim side it crossed the river to take in the Castle of Trimblestown and the town of Trim itself, the capital of Anglo Norman Meath.  Parts of the Pale can still be detected in wide fences here and there on the Dublin side of the river.  Athboy itself was a strong walled frontier town, with defensive walls and castles; even its monasteries were more like fortresses than religious houses, and their occupants were Norman Monks of the new religious orders that the invaders had brought with them.  The town was often attacked, and sometimes sacked, by the Irish of the O Ruairc country – the Reillys, Farrellys etc.  The town had its typical Market Cross, said to have been buried in the middle of the present main street during the Cromwellian wars.  In times of peace, however, there was much trade in wines and other continental luxuries which the native Irish imported through Galway.  The wines were stored in vaults still existing under the houses in the main street, and we can guess that the revenue benefited very little from them.  Remains of the town wall exist at the junction of the Kildalkey Road and behind the present Catholic Church.  Connacht Street preserves the memory of the Connacht gate.  The Protestant Church is pre-Reformation; the tower is 14th century.

We hear little of the hill itself during these centuries – the town is known in the Irish records as Ath Buidhe and in English ones as Athboy.  By the year 1640 the descendants of the first Norman planters were menaced themselves by the laws of England, which they still regarded as their mother country.  Most of these Lords of the Pale had adhered to the Celtic Faith, and now threatened with Penal legislation and with the confiscation of their lands, they made reluctant alliances with the native Irish chiefs, whose leader was Eoghan Rua O Neill.  This scion of the great northern royal house had won fame as one of the finest soldiers in Europe where he served in the army of the King of Spain.  He was the obvious selection as commander-in-chief in the war which was now beginning, but traditional jealousy caused the Palesmen to restrict his command to the Ulster forces.  In the course of the war, however, the Leinster army was unable to hold its ground against the English forces.  Eoghan Rua came down to their assistance and having taken the town of Athboy, set up his camp on the Hill of Tlachtgha.  He made entrenchments on the remains of the original ring fort, and these ridges at present rather complicate the study of the site by archaeologists.

A few years later Eoghan Rua was dead, the Confederate army was not able to stand up to meet the new forces under Cromwell, and after the massacre of Drogheda, there was little further attempt at defence in Leinster.  Cromwell, marching south, is said to have camped on the hill, on the site of O Neill’s entrenchments.  The ruling (Norman) family of the district were the Plunketts of Rathmore.  There today stand the ruins of their castle and their beautiful church.  Cromwell summoned Plunkett, Lord Rathmore, to a conference, and Plunkett rode to the hill accompanied by his seven sons.  Tradition says that their mother begged them not to go as she dreamed that they would all be slaughtered.  Whether she dreamed or not, the whole Plunkett family was wiped out that day.  (There is a legend that the youngest boy escaped, but there is no reliable record of his name in later history).  The Cromwellian cannon was directed on the castle of Rathmore, leaving it in ruins.

It is historic fact that most of the lands of Ireland was confiscated in Cromwellian times and given to soldiers and ‘undertakers’ but the circumstances of the confiscation in this district is a living legend to this day.  There was a man named Bligh in Cromwell’s army, described as a butcher, but more likely was the man in charge of providing food for the army on the march.  Cromwell was grateful to him for the efficient manner in which he discharged his duty, so when the Plunketts were disposed of he gave Bligh all the land he could see from the hill, looking south.  The first high ground in that direction was the Hill of Kilmer (parish of Ballivor) some ten miles away.  Up to the early days of this century, when most of the property was sold to the Irish Land Commission, the Bligh estate extended to this hill.  A later Bligh was ennobled as Lord Darnley, and a descendant of his a hundred years ago was the friend and neighbour of Charles Dickens when the novelist lived at Gad’s Hill.  The Darnley house was Cobham Hall, and there the Lords lived for most of the time, only coming to Ireland for the hunting and shooting.  Their home here, Clifton Lodge, is still occupied, though the Darnleys have passed out of history.

John O’Donovan

I have said that the name Tlachtgha dropped out of common speech, and with the gradual loss of the language it was forgotten altogether, and the name Hill of Ward substituted.  The origin of this name is doubtful; some say it is from ‘Bard’ (Cnoc an Bhaird, the Hill of the Bard); others that Ward is a personal name, and others that the hill was a lookout or place of ward (guard).  The great antiquarians of the 19th century had doubts about the location of the ancient Tlachtgha.  John O Donovan when working on the Ordnance Survey took great trouble in establishing the identity of the place.  He was hampered in his work by the difficulty in consulting manuscripts housed in Dublin and comparing the information they recorded with what he had learned on the spot.  So he was in the habit of writing to his colleagues in Dublin asking them to look up sources for him, and fortunately, his letters are preserved, so that his difficulties are our gain.  There is in Meath County Library a copy of the letters relating to the county, as prepared by the late Rev. Michael O Flanagan.  Here is the letter relating to Tlachtgha:

                                                                                                                           Authrumiae, Augi, 8, 1836
Dear Sir,

Yesterday (Sunday) I travelled about sixteen miles in search of traditions about Tlachtgha, but was very much disappointed, as very few of the aboriginal methians are now in the neighbourhood.

I visited the hill (accompanied by an old soldier who was as anxious as myself to discover the site of Tlachtgha) and was puzzled for a long time about the shape of the fort until at last, we observed that the original palace of Tuathal had been variously dissected and modelled into a modern entrenchment.  The original fort consisted of four (perhaps five) concentric rings, with a moat in the centre now much lowered.  The diameter of the outer circle (as well as I could ascertain from the irregularity of the ground) in 136 yards.  From what remains of this fort, which I now assume to be Tlachtgha, it will appear that several of the rings of Telton have been levelled; the circle remaining there at present seems to have been one of the external ones.  The internal circles have been so much broken up to form the fossae, valla and redoubts of a modern foslongphort, that no peculiar features can now be observed as belonging to the original fort, except deep hollows, and one (i.e. one not well acquainted with the mode of entrenchment in 1641) should not too hastily assume that these were formed during the Rebellion of 1641.

This hill, the highest in the neighbourhood, stands over the town of Athboy (Ath Buidhe Tlachtgha), three-quarters of a mile to the north east, but as you look down the summit of the hill, Ath Buidhe Tlachtgha looks quite close to you in the hollow beneath, and like Tailteann, commands an extensive view of the country around.

After carefully viewing this fort, which now stands in the middle of a field of oats, and after listening to a long lesson from my military guide upon the nature of entrenchments, redoubts and other things of which, no doubt, I knew very little, I set out in search of the chief antiquarian of the district, a Mr Eaglison (Mac an Iollar) who lives on the margin of the bog of Rathmore.  I found him by chance at home and questioned him very cautiously about the Hill of Ward.  He said that tradition handed down very little about it except that it was a place of meeting established for Bards regarded by Tuathal Teachtmar, that the fort was formed into an entrenchment by Owen Roe O Neill during the War of 1641 and afterwards by Cromwell.

I would like to direct your attention to the suggestion that there were none of the natives left, and this thirteen years before the famine and the beginning of the great clearances; also to the fact that the old soldier was probably a veteran of the British army of Napoleonic times, for after the French Revolution Irish soldiers no longer went to the Brigades in France.   Mr Eagliston seems to have been knowledgeable for later in the letter it is stated that he told O Donovan much about Ros na Riogh and other sites far distant from Rathmore.  In other letters, O Donovan mentions getting place names from Irish speakers and from English speakers.

Now having brought the story of Tlachtgha from the dawn of definite history down to almost our present times, I would like to go back for a few moments to the period before the founding of the Kingdom of Meath.  For Tlachtgha was old in fame when Tuathal chose it as the site of a palace – how old we cannot say in years, or even centuries.  The annals say that Tuathal celebrated the festival of Samhain at Tlachtgha, thus continuing the ancient custom.  Samhain is the beginning of winter; and the word used in modern Irish for the month of November (‘Samhfhuin .i. bás an tsamraid’).  We know the feast of Samhain today as Hallow Eve, but there is nothing hallowed, in the Christian sense, about the games and customs associated with it; the nuts and apples, the claw of wool in the limekiln, the rings, the divination by ivy leaves and melted lead are obviously remains of pagan practices – rites of thanks given for harvest gathered, and of commemoration of the dead which winter symbolises.

Before the coming of the Celts (or Milesians) some three centuries before Christ, the two great feasts of the year were Bealtaine and Samhain.  Bealtaine, celebrated by the lighting of fires, heralded the coming of summer, and Tuathal re-established this feast on the Hill of Uisneach.  There was also an Autumn Festival, consisting chiefly of athletic contests, which was celebrated at Tailteann.  It was called Lugh-neasa and has given the modern Irish Lughnasa (August).  There is less record of the spring festival, which has been replaced in Christian times by St. Brigid’s Day.
Perhaps we may suppose that it was celebrated in a special way on the fourth hill – Tara.  It appears from place names and other evidence that the great feasts were celebrated elsewhere through the country, always on hilltops, but possibly, in every kingdom, a particular hill began the celebration.  I say this because we know that though Samhain was inaugurated here at Tlachtgha, there was, some time later, a great triennial assembly at Tara (Feis Teamhrach) where laws were revived and disputes settled.  It lasted for three days before and three days after Samhain.

The impression we get is that the district was altogether bilingual, some preferring to use one language, some the other.  O Growney’s written accounts show how rapid was the deterioration during the next thirty-five years – the result of a generation of ‘National Education’.

There is an earlier legend about this hill which gives it a special significance, and for a short account of it I am indebted to the little booklet Royal Meath by Rev Donncadh O Meachair – both book and author are known to many of you.  The legend says that the hill owes its name to a woman named Tlachtgha, back in the early days of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the Bronze Age people, probably 1800 – 300 B.C.).  She is said to have made the Roth Ramhach, or Rowing Wheel, the Lia or Flagstone, and the Coirthi or Pillarstone, three things of awful magical power, and she brought these three things with her from the east till she reached this hill, and there she remained and bore three sons, and there she died, and is buried in this Dún.  Tailteann is named after Queen Taillte; Sliabh na Callaighe near Oldcastle is the mountain of the old woman; Tara itself is said to be named after a woman – Tea. These legends, taken together, seem to suggest a connection from the very earliest times between the four hills.  We now know that the hill at Loughcrew (Sliabh na Callaighe) contain numerous cairns of Bronze Age times, and recent excavations have shown that when Tara was chosen as a Royal Residence it was already a pagan cemetery of great antiquity. Indeed it was probably for their ancient sacred association that all the hill-sites were chosen as palaces.  Therefore I think we would be justified in believing that we are standing today on top of a great burial mound, ‘half as old as time’.

Fr. Eoghan O'Growney
Fr. Eoghan O’Growney

Only excavation can tell the tale, and in that respect, Tlachtgha has been sadly overlooked.  Besides the visit of the Antiquarians in 1884, I can find no record of any pilgrimage to the spot.  Even that event is not mentioned in the official records of the Royal (Dublin) Society.  Fr. O’Growney’s note is the only evidence that a visit was at least projected.  We may, therefore, be the first organised group of people to come here, not for purposes of war and murder, but to pay homage to the ancient glory of Tlachtgha, where for four thousand years the ancient Dé Danann Kings and Queens lie buried, their ashes mingling with those of Gael and Dane, Norman and Cromwellian as they wait alike the Resurrection Morn.

These legends, taken together, seem to suggest a connection from the very earliest times between the four hills.  We now know that the hill at Loughcrew (Sliabh na Callaighe) contain numerous cairns of Bronze Age times, and recent excavations have shown that when Tara was chosen as a Royal Residence it was already a pagan cemetery of great antiquity. Indeed it was probably for their ancient sacred association that all the hill-sites were chosen as palaces.  Therefore I think we would be justified in believing that we are standing today on top of a great burial mound, ‘half as old as time’.  Only excavation can tell the tale, and in that respect, Tlachtgha has been sadly overlooked.  Besides the visit of the Antiquarians in 1884, I can find no record of any pilgrimage to the spot.  Even that event is not mentioned in the official records of the Royal (Dublin) Society.  Fr. O’Growney’s note is the only evidence that a visit was at least projected.  We may, therefore, be the first organised group of people to come here, not for purposes of war and murder, but to pay homage to the ancient glory of Tlachtgha, where for four thousand years the ancient Dé Danann Kings and Queens lie buried, their ashes mingling with those of Gael and Dane, Norman and Cromwellian as they wait alike the Resurrection Morn.

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