The druids are still haunting the island of Ireland thousands of years after their extinction and the coming of Christianity. Echoes of there chants become almost audible as the mist settles on the banks of the Rver Nore , shortly after it flows from Laois into Kilkenny and through eerie Rathbeagh, Lisdowney - the fort of the birch trees.
It was a Merlin type prophesy that brought an ancient people from the Iberian peninsula to these shores. They ruled Ireland from Kilkenny for centuries and the burial place of their most famous king, Heremon is almost a secret, outside of North Kilkenny and certainly a hidden gem of this county‘s rich and varied heritage.
If National Geographic were made aware of it, they would have a two hour documentary made, comparing it to The Lost Valley of the pharaohs in Egypt. The thought is not as far fetched as you might think. Look at the evidence. - Heremon The long lost king of the Milesians buried in what is known as the Valley of Death, such is the density of hill forts, fairy forts, iron age settlements, bronze age communities, Christian relics and medieval ruins around Conahy, Lisdowney, Freshford, Johnstown and Ballyragget.
Over a hundred burial sites are spread along the Nore valley, of which 80 are located between Kilkenny city and Ballyragget alone. On the opposite bank of the river cemeteries are to be found at Ballyconra, Parks Grove, Grange and Lismaine.
And it is not just myth or legend, these Milesians did exist and this has been documented in ancient manuscripts and backed up by recent DNA testing on the bones of the people whose remains are found at the very bottom of these types of raths, henges and ring forts. They matched those found in Spain, portugal and North Africa from the same time period, accurately estimated thanks to pollen testing.
In a hugely enlightening article written for the Lisdowney parish magazine, The Raven, in 1990, local historian Tommy Maher concentrates on the link between the Milesians and the mystical, even mythical Tuatha De Dannan and the Firbolg. It may require a leap of faith but it is possible that he is right.
Rathbeagh is actually called Rath Beitheach, The Rath of the Birch Trees and is situated immediately adjacent to the west bank of the River Nore, three miles south of Ballyragget in the parish of Lisdowney. It was deliberately sited at the meeting of a stream and the Nore and to take advantage of a ‘kink’ in the river Nore. This allowed for extensive views up and down the river. Today the monument is a large raised, oval earthwork measuring 80 metres across, surrounded by a bank, a deep ditch and a second outer bank. The original entrance was a ramp on the landward side of the earthwork and the illustration produced here gives an idea of what it looked like. We are indebted to Coilin O’Drisceoil and his late wife Emma Devine for their great work in investigating the site.
It has been suggested by some archaeologists that Rathbeagh is a ‘henge’, a place where elaborate ceremonies and gatherings took place in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. A population explosion appears to have occurred at this time throughout the Nore valley, its thick forests were cleared and field-systems such as those recorded by archaeologists at Ballyconra and Foulksrath were laid out to protect crops and livestock. And it seems that Rathbeagh was a village, type community with most of the evidence for this washed away by the Nore.
No dwellings of these prehistoric farmers have been found in northern Kilkenny but there has been no full excavation at Rathbeagh. So this site could hold untold treasures for us in terms of our past but until such time as they are investigated we don’t know what may be there
And as Coilin O’Drisceoil puts it so elegantly, it is the archaeology of death that marks out Rathbeagh and other sites. People lived here 2,500 years ago but it was used primarily for funeral ceremonies. The body of the very important person was usually cremated and accompanied by a pottery vessel, placed in a mound and/or cist which was then surrounded by a circular ditch and then a bank. Most of the examples that are found in North Kilkenny have been damaged by ploughing and only their deepest parts – usually the surrounding ditch - remain intact. These are termed ‘ring-ditches’ and can only be seen from the air when they appear intermittently as crop marks.
As a source of food and drinking water, the Nore was a sacred place and experts may have under-estimated its power and influence on the people, linked in with the moon and other celestial bodies. These hugely superstitious people were full of piseoigiri and the flowing water with its abundance of fish life gave it a symbolism not unlike that of the Ganges today for different religious groupings in India.
As part of Kilkenny County Council’s ‘Heritage Audit of the river Nore’ areas of erosion around the edges of the central platform at Rathbeagh were noted – these produced animal bones and local green-glazed hand-built medieval pottery pieces that suggest the site may have had a late-12th to early-13th century phase of occupation. Its defensive siting on the kink in the river implies it was a built to control river traffic along the Nore and it could well have been one of the wooden castles that the first English colonisers had built in north Kilkenny.
Tommy Maher’s view
Tommy Maher takes a different line on Rathbeagh and equally captivating. So here is a summary of the “real” history of ancient Ireland and ancient Rathbeagh according to Tommy. “The Milesians were followers of Milesius and arrived in Ireland from Spain following a druidical prophecy that they would conquer a western island - their island of destiny (Inisfail). By the time his followers reached Ireland Milesius was dead but his eight sons were among those who set sail in thirty ships. When they came ashore, the Tuatha de Danann objected, claiming that the landing would never have succeeded if they had not been taken unawares. A parley was arranged and Amergin, one of the sons of Milesius, proposed that they would withdraw nine waves from the shore and re-attempt a landing. When they did so the Tuatha de Danann used their magic powers to raise a storm which sank some of the ships and, numbered among those lost, were five of the sons of Melesius. The landing was successful, however and the Milesians defeated the Tuatha de Danann at Sliabh Mis in Kerry and at Tailteann in Meath. At this latter battle three of the Tuatha de Danann kings were slain and power passed to the Milesians. The sovereignty of Ireland was now divided between two of the surviving sons of Milesius, Heber and Heremon. Meanwhile the vanquished Tuatha de Danann retreated into the mounds and raths of Ireland where they have remained ever since. Two years later the two kings quarrelled, a battle was fought, in which Heber was defeated and slain, leaving Heremon as the sole ruler of Ireland - the first Ard Rí. Heremo. Meanwhile Heremon’s wife Tea died and was buried according to her wishes, in Meath. The place of her burial was named Tea-Mur which became Teamhair or Tara. The date given for these events varies but they happened somewhere between 1600 and 350 BC. The Milesian dynasty reigned for several centuries, until the beginning of the Christian era.” A lot of his theory can be proved.
The 1947 Schools Folklore collection also has a reference about Rathbeagh and Heremon: ‘Rathbeagh is about two and a half miles from Greenkil school on the Freshford side. There is a rath in the townland and tradition states that a Milesian King named Eremon, son of Milesius, lived there years before the Christian Era. They generally believe that he is buried there, and in olden times the people thought that fairies or ghosts of the Milesians were to be seen near the spot.”
Celts or not?
The Celts arrived at this time or did they? In what promises to be a great debate, Kilkenny Archaeological Society is attempting to put the age-old question to rest by inviting four leading authorities to discuss the motion in Kilkenny Castle on March 28. While it has always been assumed that we are a Celtic nation, modern research has led to differing opinion, with experts from the worlds of archaeology and academia challenging the cosy consensus. Some respected academics are suggesting that the Celts engagement with Ireland was fleeting, unsubstantial and a myth fostered and sustained by political expedience.