STANDING a staggering 18 feet high, it elicits a gasp from unsuspecting visitors as they walk down from the public road and turn the corner of the hedgerow and see Leac An Scailc. It is Ireland’s tallest dolmen situated in the rolling hills between Mullinavat and Piltown which should be a jewel in the heritage crown of Kilkenny. Yet, the mystical tomb of the warrior/hero (Leac An Scailc), also known as Kilmogue Dolmen is by and large forgotten.
We know little of the people who left us these portal tombs and places of reverence in this small area of South Kilkenny, comparable to Tara even if some of the tombs in nearby Raheen have been destroyed and no one brought to account for it.
Even the sign posts to Leac An Scailc are misleading. Some say Harristown Dolmen when it is obvious to everyone that it is in the townland of Kilmogue and that is also the postal address.
Before we delve into Leac An Scailc, there are two really positive aspects to our visit to the site. A few hundred yards away from Leac, double all Ireland senior hurling medal winner, Liam McCarthy was busy making hurleys on Wednesday morning, preserving another hugely important part of our heritage and just yards from a place known locally as Ashtown.
And an archaeology student from University College Dublin is doing her thesis on these burial places along the Suir Valley. She is investigating the micro lines on these stones, made of quartz, (white marble like blooded nuggets) and if they formed part of worship to deities. At last interest from officialdom and who knows we might finally see a first ever excavation of the site which boasts such a magnificent reminder of our past.
Leac An Scailc doesn’t feature on our famed tourist trail and no coach tours stop here and even local people are unaware or uninterested in it. It doesn’t stop Germans, English and other foreign visitors from coming to see this man made creation and marvelling how , without pulleys or wheels or JCBs, they managed to place such huge boulders on top of each other to create a mystical place which has enthralled civilisations during the 3,000 to 5,000 or more years it has been there.
These tourists get lost on their way but still manage to find for what is for them a magnetic place where you can touch history and get an idea of what our first ancestors were and how they honoured their dead. We also have to ask if these dolmens served another purpose? We just don’t know but they seem, in the case of south Kilkenny, to have been placed strategically and if you take away the ditches, boundaries, bungalows and plantations of coniferous trees that are there now, you get some sense to their importance. Maybe as lookouts along valleys giving commanding views of huge distances.
It is sad, therefore, that our generation seems to care least about something which should be really important to us, part of our national psyche.
Taken in isolation Leac An Scailc is just an anachronism of sorts but when taken in tandem with all the other tombs (Raheen, Knockroe and Kilmacoliver), all pre-Christian standing stones and other Neolithic nostalgia in the immediate area, it has a far more important significance that no one has yet put their finger on precisely.
With just a little imagination, you can visualise that Leac An Scailc was the only large structure on the horizon. Now, nestled in between the border of the fields and part of its structure used as a boundary, it is no longer visible from the road or from Corbally Woods, few miles below on the other side of the valley or above from Kingsmountain or Bolleyglass.
It should be mandatory that every schoolchild in Kilkenny be brought here to heighten their awareness of our past. The sheer size of the portal tomb is amazing but the engineering that went into putting a large granite capstone, resting on two equally large stones with a pillow stone resting on a back stone for extra stability is equally enthralling. The stones at the base are around 12 ft high and the capstone reaches 18 feet. The entrance faces North East, away from the prevailing wind and it has an enormous door-stone almost 10 feet high. It is spectacular and when you go and see it, you have to use your imagination to visualise its intimidating presence without ditches, hedges and bushes when it was built around 3,000 BC.
It is a fantastical place and begs more questions than answers. We can be sure that the people who built were our first farmers who carved patches out of the forests. Who were they? did they come from Scandinavia? Growing evidence suggests they came from north Africa.
In the mid-morning the such catches the side of the dolmen and it looks majestic with a unnamed tributary of the Poulanassa river trickling next to it and eventually finding its way into the River Suir, and you realise as photographer Eoin Hennessey did, that whatever the real use of this huge piece, it had a relevance and importance to the people who built it and who obviously came to worship at it or to pay homage to their dead, probably their chiefs.
The Office of Public Works have a little plaque telling everyone that reads it, that the monument is in its care. God help us if it is. It should be part of a heritage trail of Kilkenny, properly sign posted from both the Piltown and Mullinavat sides and highlighted and investigated..
As we drive down to the site, five miles away in Owning a local woman didn’t even know of its existence and remembering back recalled how she had heard something about it at national school but had never visited the site. We scold her and explain that it is a special place, steeped in our past, a part of what we are and we explain how much trouble the builders went to, honouring and bury their dead.
The importance of Leac Na Scailc should not be understated. It is at the heart of an area with almost the same concentration of ancient chambers, and other archaeological and historical gems as Newgrange or the Hill of Tara, yet it is left relatively untapped as a resource on which to build our understanding of our predecessors and on which to build a heritage tourist trail. No words can adequately describe the impact it has on you when you first see it. Yet it is now hidden between two fields with bushes and undergrowth continually threatening to claim it.
We are told that the first people to come to Ireland, when the ice had melted, were hunter-gatherer people, having crossed from Scandinavia to Britain in circa 6000 BC or earlier, moving firstly into Antrim and Wicklow and then down into Kilkenny.
We know little about these middle-stone age or Mesolithic people whose funerary monuments; portal tombs, court-tombs, wedge-tombs and passage tombs dot the countryside What kind of homes did they live in? What language did they speak? The landscape of Templeorum district, along with neighbouring Owning, is rich in Neolithic funerary remains such as Leac An Scailc, and the smaller one on O’Shea’s Hill in Raheen (which is well minded by noted scholar and historian Mary O’Shea). In Owning district there is the portal tomb on Owning hill, in Carraiganaug wood, at Ballyhenebry and at Kilionerry. How a place with such wonders can still remain an untapped resource in a county with such a love of its heritage is hard to fathom.