MADE famous in the 18th and 19th century by notorious rapparees (highway men) with lingering rumours of hidden treasure and secret chambers, Tory Hill has a special place in the hearts of the people of South Kilkenny and beyond.
Set 966 feet above sea level (only 44 feet short of mountain status) it offers commanding views of the rich countryside on all sides and you can see Tramore beach on a clear day as well as an outline of Duncannon and the new bridge linking Kilkenny and Waterford which looks like a large water spray from 15 miles away. And on Wednesday morning last in the company of photographer Charlie Maher I gazed at the ferry leaving Rosslare for Fishguard in Wales from the Marian cross at the top of Tory Hill. It has been in continuous use for thousands of years going back to 4,000 BC when the Greeks were there.
And while it was used as a refuge for those avoiding the law, it is the long history of pageantry and idolatry on Tory Hill that sets it apart. With a number of ancient sites set along its slopes, including the Farnogue Court Tomb, Tory Hill is a hidden gem and kept even more hidden lately thanks to a vicious group of criminals. The barrier to the top of the hill has been locked because of the huge increase in illegal tree felling and robbery at the state owned forestry.
As soon as the Coillte workers put up a new barrier and locks they are cut and removed by the gang. Someone must know who they are and they should get in touch with the gardai.
So unless you have a good pair of walking shoes don’t go as no vehicles can get up and you have to wash your shoes in the little bath at the barrier because of the incidence of tree disease and the risk of spreading it.
Tory Hill is the recent Irish name of the site and it is called after two highwaymen called Edmund and James Den). However it is the association with the Robber Freaney, the highway man of the later part of the 1700s that is still best remembered. Freaney. who took from the rich and gave to the poor, used the hill to get away from the English army and in much the same way as another rapparee Edward Denn before him did and incidentally, Sean Maher told me Denn is buried in Dunkitt graveyard in Kilmacow, Little is known of the man who operated around the early 1700s, except that he was very popular with the local people, who despite offers of gold and other inducements, refused to give any information on him to the authorities.
Freaney on the other hand was a larger than life character, an Irish Robin Hood, his name was uttered with a mixture of fear and awe and he was one of the few highwaymen to escape the hangman’s noose.
In his 40s, Freaney gave up the highway and turned respectable, becoming a customs and excise officer at New Ross port. He later went on to write his memoirs and these are housed in Kilkenny County Library. Michael Holden from Kilfane has written an excellent biography of Freaney and it is well worth a read.
The word Tory derives from the Irish - Toraidhe, meaning outlaw, or more precisely, one who is being pursued. The older name is Sliabh gCruinn (mountain of trees) although this is not accepted by Canon Carrigan, in his book on the history of the Diocese of Ossory.
The hill will welcome hundreds of people on Sunday, July 8 for Fraughan or Fraochan Sunday. Fidelis Doherty, the local county councillor will be there.
The rosary will be recited and a hymn sung at the Marian Cross erected in 1954 but this is only a very recent initiative. For thousands of years the people of the area came to Tory to celebrate the summer festival of Lughnasa and to eat the wild berries which it has been claimed, intoxicated then as they fermented in their stomachs. There is a long history of gathering and eating these fraghans (a form of sloe berry) from the vaccinum family and a number of studies have shown they have healing properties and are excellent anti-oxidants.
According to the old quacks, the berries which will not bloom fully for another fortnight were used traditionally to cure diarrhoea, dysentery, haemorrhoids, gastrointestinal inflammation, scurvy, and urinary complaints. Decoctions of the leaves, we are told, were also used internally for diabetes and externally for
inflammation of the eyes and mouth, infections, and burns.
And of course there is the mystery of an inscription found on the hill. In his book, the Statistical Observations relative to the County Kilkenny, William Tighe claims that the words on the stone come from the Pelasgian era, referring to the indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region and their cultures before the advent of the Greek language.
According to Canon Carrigan Tory Hill was the culminating point of the Barony of Ida and he claims that the name does not mean mountain of trees but the mountain of the tribe of Ui Crinn. He also said in a kind of throw away remark that alder trees grew here which had some fantastic properties but he did not go into what they were.
Overshadowed by Brandon Hill in some respects, Tory Hill has a fascinating history and although a Christian cross has been erected at its summit, it is to the druids they we again turn. Because of its location, it was a natural spot for burials and there is a front alter at the Farnogue tomb that makes this clear that these holy men, were central in glorifying deities at this spot.
Farnogue Court Tomb
Located on the eastern slope of Tory Hill, overlooking a visually stunning valley with a small tributary of the Munster Blackwater, the Farnogue Court Tomb is the only one in the county and one of the most southern in Ireland. The tomb is orientated NE - SW and consists of three chambers, one erect stone of the facade and some kerb stones around the edge of the sub-trapezoidal cairn. The south chamber measures 7 metres in length, the central chamber is three metres in length and the north chamber four metres long. The chambers are separated by sill stones and are one metre below the present ground level. No roof-stones remain and the court is incorporated into a field boundary. A very substantial amount of the cairn remains in place and drops off steeply to the east. Trail Kilkenny have two different walks taking in Tory Hill and they can be obtained on www.trailkilkenny.ie