THE fire lit up the night sky for miles around. Incantations rang out as the druids said their words of homage to the gods. And as the flames went higher, the community closed-in to pay their last respects to their loved ones, sending them on their way, skywards.
The image is from the 3rd century, 100 years before St. Patrick came to Ireland and relates to Freestone Hill, situated on the southern ridge of the Castlecomer Plateau. It is a most important pre-historic, archaeological monument and an ideal place with which to launch our series on the hidden gems of our city and county.
It catches the eye as you drive from Kilkenny city to Carlow on the old road. You come to the Fox and Goose, and as you reach the brow of the hill it meets you. You are faced with a lone, eerie looking hawthorn on top of a hill. As you come closer, you can just make out the circle of the ring fort and as you pass by Clara GAA club you are struck by how it dominates.
Everyone is aware of Kilkenny Castle, Rothe House, St Canice’s Cathedral and the like. however, sprinkled around the city and county are hugely impressive heritage sites which we will highlight over the next 12 months. We hope it will add further to the mystique of the county as a place where heritage has a huge role to play in the lives of ordinary men and women. We start with Freestone Hill.
Debate still rages about how so many Roman coins were found at Freestone Hill and of the status of the 16 people buried there, all burned beforehand, all save one - a child. Again more questions but few answers because the remains are there so long, it is not possible to say if they died of natural causes or suffered violent deaths. Freestone Hill has a national significance because it is the first place in Ireland where evidence of mining or ore prospecting from the Bronze Age was found. It was used again in the iron age, giving us two sets of prints from which to draw conclusions about who lived there. It also plays a small part in our recent history during the White Boys disturbances between 1700 and 1772 when a prisoner from Kilkenny Gaol, John Quinn, a schoolteacher of from nearby Blanchfield, was captured there and one Michael Keogh received a reward of £50 for catching Quinn who was simply protesting against paying tithes (taxes) to absentee landlords and the Protestant Church.
Freestone Hill is part of the psyche of Clara and the county, with views of a huge hinterland, into Carlow and stretching to the Wicklow mountains. Although it is only 140 metres above sea level it has an enchantment of its own and was an ideal spot from which to defend against intruders. Although it is only 460 feet high, it boasts a steep incline, springing up suddenly. More of the archaeology later but first the folklore.
It is the hawthorn (tree) bush at its centre which distinguishes Freestone Hill and helps to define it. It has a spirituality about it. It is steeped in history and while, there has been great work done by archaeologists like our own Coilin O’Driscoll, the exact significance of the site and the tree and what exactly it was, is still a bit of a mystery - All the pieces haven’t yet been put together.
It’s powerful draw is just as strong today. It is said that if a woman from the parish of Clara brings a young man up there for a walk, he has no chance of escaping marriage from her. Every child in the area has, at some point, climbed (walked) to the top and marvelled at what’s below. Your first visit to the Hawthorn on the cairn (mound of rocks) of Freestone hill is awesome.
All this makes it hard to understand why three young men from around the area tried to cut it down a few years ago. It is claimed by those living close to the hill, that anyone who interferes in anyway with the Hawthorn will have bad luck visited upon them and this is what happened in the case of the three men involved. Piseoigeori at its best.
The people on whose limestone based land the cairn is situated have always treated it with reverence and the farm is beautifully kept with a texture of grass, even in January, of which most landowners would be envious.
The tree is now officially protected by the Heritage Council and while it is impossible to say how long it has stood there, conservative estimates by the Kilkenny People gardening columnist, Shirley Lanigan, put it at over 300 years. And it probably replaced another Hawthorn before that. Tribute must be paid to the OPW who saved the tree when it was cut. Officers carried out an amount of work to make sure it blossomed again.
Back to the geography and archaeology - There was a community here because outside the ring fort there are cultivation areas and there were sleeping huts and many pieces of every day ware which showed people getting on with ordinary chores like cooking.
To back up this assertion that it was a cult type community at one stage probably around the 4th or 5th centuries AD, successive archaeologists have pointed out that the site is similar to other sites in south western Britain where shrines were built to a number of deities.
Many international experts have wondered about the finds there. There were a number of Roman bronze pieces excavated on the hill including a decorated bracelet, a possible buckle stud, a strip of decorated bronze and three rings, a copper coin of Constantine The Great (c. 337 to 340AD), iron needles, a blue glass bracelet, two shreds of later roman pottery and a small, polished cone.
It has been argued convincingly, we are told by Coilin O’Drisceoil that these finds, especially the exotic bronzes, represent votive offerings made by a community who were well versed in the ritual practices of roman Britain, though whether they were local inhabitants or persons of Romano-British stick.
Following a geophysical survey carried out by Coilin, he agreed with the man who carried out the definitive research on the site, Barry Raftery’s assertion that the site approached the status of a small defended village.
For me, the most revealing information on Freestone Hill came from Prof Gerhard Bersu, who was a former prison of war in Ireland during World War 11.
He did extensive work on the site in 1948. He deduced that the site gave concrete evidence that mining or prospecting for ore took place there. That the Roman pieces found there in 1951, marked the first time in Ireland that such a find was made and that makes it a most important pre-historic, archaeological monument. So when you next drive past Freestone Hill, remember that it is an ancient site providing us with a glipmse of the life led by our ancestors. If you would like to comment on the article please email email@example.com