25 Jan 2022

Murder, the Bresna women and Freney the Highwayman on Brandon Hill

The purest and best tasting water in Kilkenny (which is free), a double murder still recalled, the spirit of the country’s most notorious highwayman is only part of why Brandon Hill (named after St Brendan The Navigator) occupies such a deep rooted place in the psyche of the people of Kilkenny and especially Graignamanagh.

The purest and best tasting water in Kilkenny (which is free), a double murder still recalled, the spirit of the country’s most notorious highwayman is only part of why Brandon Hill (named after St Brendan The Navigator) occupies such a deep rooted place in the psyche of the people of Kilkenny and especially Graignamanagh.

Most people living around Graig will tell you they have only ever once been at the summit and many have never been. Yet stories about it seem to dominate the town and it as if the people of Graig are living in the shadow of the hill; the giant cairn and other Neolithic features. it makes Brandon Hill, the most spectacular place in the county as well as being the highest point (515 metres) above sea level.

It should be compulsory for every Kilkenny person who is able to walk to the summit of Brandon and take in the commanding views on all sides. It is exhilarating and there is a direction indicator on top and it points on all the main geographical features around you and you can see the Saltee Islands and every mountain range in the east of the country as well as the winding route of the River Barrow as it meanders down towards St Mullins and on to New Ross.

However, there is one haunting picture from the past that is hard to escape when it comes to Brandon and for this we are indebted to John Joyce and his beautiful book, Graiguenamanagh A Town And Its People. The Bresna women who cut and then carried the heather from the side of the hill and sold it below in the middle of the town and on the quay are gone but not forgotten. A poem given to us by Billy Hoare, encapsulates their hard life and it is important that the present generation understand what it means to really struggle. The author is the late Kate O’Leary from Lower Main Street, Graignamanagh and these lines were first printed in 1901. It is called A Bresna From Brandon Hill:

A Bresna pulled from Brandon

Here at your mercy lies,

I pray you look upon it

With a kindly critic’s eyes,

For sake of hill and valley,

And pleasant days at home

Give failte to the bucket

Wherever it may roam.

These women had no money and they sold the heather or fraochan as bedding for animals and fuel and it is noticeable that parts of the lower slopes of Brandon are actually bog, so thick and condensed is the black turf like substance beneath the sod which has been exposed lately by the huge amount of rain.

Sad to report that like Tory Hill, the gate to the summit and Freney’s well have been locked by Coillte. People have been going up there and robbing the timber. The thefts don’t seem to be as well organised as Tory Hill but it is still very significant. It’s a pity because it makes it more difficult for older people to enjoy Brandon.

Through the Millennia, Brandon Hill has been attracting people. Thousands of years before the coming of Christianity and the erection of wooden cross complete with electric lights, fires blazed on Brandon Hill and could be seen for hundreds of miles on a clear night and again the druids, worshipping a selection of deities were central to this and where better to gaze at the stars and the moon with which our ancestors had a huge affinity. The giant cairn at the very top of Brandon remains and there are a number of Neolithic sites on the way down including an enclosed area believed by archaeologists, to be used for rituals and some kind of sacrifice, animal or maybe human. We don’t know.

There are also two Norman moated sites and these are believed to be connected to Duiske Abbey.

It has seen it’s share of sadness and heartbreak, the murder of a young poacher and a gamekeeper on the slopes on August 6, 1888 is still discussed in detail around Graig, The Great Hunger of 1845 had a severe impact on the Sallybog families that lived for generations, up to the 1840s, on north western slope of Brandon, semi-protected from from the prevailing wind. The potato blight wiped out a whole village, a community of mountainy people. What a loss.

Anyway, to get to Brandon Hill you turn off the bypass and take the turn where the statue of the monk now stands. Keep driving until you come to the metal barrier. here is room for a few cars on the town side of locked gate and it is only a short walk up to Freney’s Well where local people have inserted a black pipe where the aqua pura which has been filtered through the heather. Little benches have been made and on a good day you san sit there and look at the view of Coppenagh and mount Leinster. “On the warmest day of the year, the water from the bowels of Brandon would hatter your teeth,” Billy Hoare has claimed.The water tastes delicious with no tang of fluoride. It’s a wonder no one ever thought of bottling it. With a bit if branding and marketing it could be a huge hit - the robber Freney’s Water” and no problem with copyright.

After relaxing there, if you feel up to it, you can walk to the top, there is lopped walk or a more direct route, there isn’t much difference. would suggest, go up one way and come down the other.

As you climb to different levels you can understand why Freney loved it here. It’s impossible to see anything unless you are on the western ledge coming towards the Barrow. Michael Holden in his great book, “Freaney the Robber-The Noblest Highway Man in Ireland,” gives a wonderful account of his dramatic life. Freney was supposed to have been very chivalrous with the ladies in the coaches that he robbed or held for ransom. But when he was caught and sentenced to death, he got off due to the influence of the Earl of Carrick, who it is said owned Freney a favour that it had something to do with a woman. However, part of the deal was that Freney would give up eight of his gang. Which he did. They were all hanged. Not very chivalrous. Loyalty I would have thought was a most important trait in any person. Freney actually published his memoirs in 1750 and died an old man of natural caused.

Why did Freney use Brandon Hill so much. It was partly wooded, giving great cover and more importantly the spring like heather made it impossible to track. Freney was a fox and used to put the horse shoes on backwards on his mounts, just to confuse his pursuers. And when the dew descends on it, it is difficult to see further than a few hundred yards.

Freney it is said sat below at the edge of the Barrow at Freney’s chair, near Buttimer’s lock (which is still there today) and before Ballyogan wood grew, he could see Brandon and the spot where his treasure was hidden.

John Joyce gives an excellent account of the death of two men on Brandon in 1888. and EM Hughes writing in the Old Kilkenny review of 1994 goes even further. The story begins with three men, Patrick Byrne, Ballybeg, St Mullins; Pierce Dreelin, Ballycrinnigan and James Doran, Knockmanus, Borris going hunting and staying overnight in what is now Murphy’s pub, The Rower before going across the Barrow and on to Brandon Hill to go hunting illegally with three trained gun dogs.

At the time EM Hughes explained that Brandon was divided into, half owned by Lord Clifden, Gowran and the other belonged to The Tighe estate, Inistioge. A small stream divided the land and the three man strayed over the boundary into Clifden preserve and bagged a number of birds and then went back over into the Tighe land. three gamekeepers working for Clifden followed them on to Tighe land and after words were spoken, a gamekeeper. Michael Walsh fired a single shot and killed Patrick Byrne’s dog. Hearing the dog cry out, Patrick Byrne returned and shot Walsh. Byrne was fatally wounded in the thigh and h died on the hillside

At the inquest into his death, it was found that Michael Walsh was guilty of manslaughter because he had shot Byrne in Tighe land and not Clifden land. A warrant for his arrest was issued but Walsh died a few hours later.

EM Hughes said at the end of her enthralling and incisive article. that she attended an event on August 7, 1988 at Brandon Hill where a commemorative plaque to both poacher and gamekeeper was unveiled with a large crown from St Mullins, the rower, Inistioge and Graignamanagh present.

The inscription reads: 1888-1988 to commemorate the tragic death of Patrick Byrne of Ballybeg and Michael Walsh of Inistioge resulting from a shooting incident in this area on August 7 1888.”

At the end of her must-read piece, EM Hughes says: “I like to think that after a lapse of over a century this ceremony for the first time brought together families long separated by this sad event and by doing so thankfully ended a controversy which down the years, bedevilled relationships on both sides of the River Barrow. For this to Pat Doyle and his colleagues in Muintir na Tire let the greater praise belong.”

We would like to thank Billy Hoare for giving us so many of the songs associated with Brandon. In his book “Down by the Devils Eyebrow”, he has a number of poems about Brandon Hill including “Moonshine over Brandon”; “Farewell to Brandon” and “Beneath Mt. Brandon’s Shade”.

The book by Michael Holden “Freaney the Robber-The Noblest Highway man in Ireland” is a major addition to our knowledge of the master highwayman. Their are few people as kind or as generous with their time and knowledge as Owen Doyle of Tinnahinch. As always, Kilkenny Archaeological society came up trumps with the article on the shooting on Brandon Hill by EM Hughes. Again the staff at Rothe house were kindness personified. thank you.

Final word - Someone should do more to promote Brandon Hill with exact directional signs and a large map, showing you all the main facets of the structure made from granite but with deposits of marble and iron as well. and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that someone might seek exploration licences to harvest them.

And the Clapper Bridge is still missing its central piece.

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