The Druid’s Alter, the Newgrange of the South East, the Red Hill, The Coshel, whatever you call it, Knockroe Passage Tomb is the by far the most important, intricate, complex and most interesting pre-historic site in this region and we are still literally, unearthing it’s secrets. It predates the Pyramids of Egypt and is considerably older than Newgrange or Stonehenge and yet, is still shrouded in mystery.
To this day it is used for pagan worship and all sorts of people go there to get closer to nature and modern day druids and others go there, cognisant of what Knockroe is - A special place where ancient clans came to bury their dead and to celebrate the coming of the new year and give thanks to the gods out of respect and fear of the elements as part of a series of similar sites dotted along the local landscape.
Knockroe resonates with people and you have to visit there to appreciate its beauty, its mysticism - where cremations were held and sacrifices were made; where depictions of life at that time were chiselled on to the huge boulders used to bind the two chambers there and which are still evident today.
It draws people like a magnet and when they leave, they feel enhanced by the experience of just being there.
And every year on December 21, the shortest day of the year people come to the Liguan valley, called after the river of the same name that separates Kilkenny from Tipperary, to watch the sun set in precise alignment with the length of the west tomb.
The people who built Knockroe did this on purpose and it is one of a group of burial mounds which are intervisible and aligned with the large mound on the summit of Sliabhnamon (there is no getting away from Tipperary).
At this point it is important to mention Prof Muiris O’Sullivan of UCD. The professor of archaeology has made Knockroe his magnum opus and if it had not been for his research and hard work we would not have Knockroe in the state that it is in today.
When I first visited there, 23 years ago, black polythene plastic sheeting was strewn around it and access was very difficult and it was deteriorating even faster than it had in all the millennia before. Now the site has been excavated, put back the way it was, preserved, cleaned up in the proper manner and fenced off. It is hugely impressive and it has the wow factor.
The Office of Public Works (OPW) has been criticised in this series for not giving enough care to various hidden heritage gems in County Kilkenny but here in Knockroe, the OPW is doing a fantastic job in what is a complex situation to enhance our knowledge of it and to eventually, have it opened up to as large a volume of people as possible without affecting its integrity. In tandem with Dr O’Sullivan, they are painstakingly working to ensure that it is eventually given the priority it should
Sad therefore to have to report that is a hard place to find. There is no signpost telling you where it is. To get there you drive to Callan from Kilkenny city and take the road to Carrick-on-Suir, At the Slate Quarries and opposite noted musician, John Delaney’s fantastic pub, you turn right and at the top of the hill with the Slate Quarries on your right, you turn tight at the top the hill (not left as I did) and go on a couple of hundred yards before turning right again down a farm yard.
It is well worth going there and every child in the city and county should be brought here and be told how inventive our ancestors were and how these two tombs were not just built on a whim but as part of an aligned maize of cairns that have survived. The alignment of both chambers is wonderful to see, the quartz rock, the river Liguan, 150 yards away, with Coonan’s Hill and Carraigdoon facing you - Knockroe is magical,
And it was Dr O’Sullivan in 2010 who found that on December 21 when the sun does shine into the outer compartment of the west tomb it veers off the line and faces slightly further north than the setting point of the sun. Dr O’Sullivan argues that it is as if the changing of the entrance arrangement was a deliberate intervention in ancient times, possibly relating to an expansion or restructuring of the over all complex.
Nobody has a better feeling for Knockroe than Sean Power, who was born a few yards from it in a cottage that is now in derelict. The widower has an honesty that is rare and a knowledge of Knockoe that no expert can match.
He has witnessed the “mad people” coming down from Kilkenny and other parts on the shortest day of the year to give homage to deities or spirits. He smiles at the thought of them and throws his head in the air as if to say, they can’t help it. But he understands why they come and that is why he never left Knockroe even though his new home a short distance away has a Tipperary postcode (Ahenny) even though he remains in County Kilkenny.
He has heard stories of late night-early morning covens but has never seen them and dismisses them. And growing up there, he never witnessed anything out of the ordinary at Knockroe but explained that it is a sacred spot and holds a special place in the hearts of the older people in the locality. He has great time or Dr O’Sullivan and you can feel the pride he has in the place.
I went there on Thursday of last week, on the longest day of the year and there was no sun and it didn’t matter because the alignment of the west tomb doesn’t allow the sun to come through the chamber on June 21.
According to Dr O’Sullivan, the tomb at Knockroe has proved to be a treasure trove of of information about the Neolithic age and it has a gallery of weather beaten, eroded megalithic art.
Some of the artwork in the west tomb is very similar to decoration in Gavrinis, Brittany and several of the stones decorated with megalithic art, show a unique similarity between Knockroe and Newgrange in the Boyne Valley
Although Knockroe is noted in the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century carried out by Slieverue man, John O’Donovan it was not until the 1980s and the work of local antiquarian Johnny Maher and Con Manning from the National Monument Service that Knockroe was, so to speak, put on the map, Dr O’Sullivan explained in one of his many papers on the site.
The monument known locally as ‘The Caiseal’ has two passages on the southern side. The eastern passage has a cruciform chamber with a sill stone towards the front of the passage with very large kerbstones on the southern side arcing around to the western passage. Quartz is scattered around the site. Although the western passage has a more simple design it is more interesting in that it has an alignment to the winter solstice and on both sides of the entrance are several large graded orthostats (large rocks) that give the impression of a court when viewed from the front.
Without Dr Muiris O’Sullivan, there is no telling what would have happened to Knockroe. We owe him and his team from University College Dublin (UCD) a huge debt for what they have done and continue to do. This article is in large measure, thanks to him and we hope he continues his love affair with the Druid’s Alter.
Thanks goes to Máire Ní Fhaircheallaigh of the Office of Public Works for all her help and kindness and meeting Sean Power was a pleasure that will long remain with me.