KELLS just oozes heritage. It is laden with jewels from our past and while most people are drawn immediately to Kells Priory, one of the largest and best preserved walled monastic sites in Europe, there is another just as important with a history stretching back longer than the Cistercian brotherhood of the priory.
At Kilree, there is a trio of treasures - A round tower, an ancient church and a high cross where a king may or may not be buried. And adding to the mystique is a fourth, natural phenomenon, a Ballaun stone going back to pre-historic times that was used by the first inhabitants of this island. to drink from an for pagan idolatry.
Historians and archaeologists may have got it wrong about Kilree on a number of levels. When you first view if coming from Kells village it reminds you of Freestone Hill - An ancient place used before Christianity. It has commanding views of the surrounding countryside and seems to be the highest spot in the area and therefore a natural stronghold. Looking from it, you take in Knockdrinnagh Wood, Ballygowan, Hugginstown and the high lands beyond it and around to the Slieveardagh Hills. It also boasts commanding views of Sliabh an mBan and the Comeraghs in the distance.
So it begs the question was the ancient round tower of Kilree used as a look out with the bells on top sounded when danger was imminent. Was it used in the 13th, 14th or 15th century by the monks who were for all intents and purposes living in a hollow by the King’s River and therefore had no idea of who or what was approaching them. It’s probably too simplistic a view but we are sure of one thing - the tower was built around the 11th century and would have been used as a defence against the maurauding Vikings who had a stronghold in Waterford.
It is said but not proven that the bones of a great king are buried under the high Cross at Kilree, just 40 yards from the round tower and the church of St Brigid that lies in ruins yet still has a strong association with the people of the area in both Kells and Stoneyford. Although it stands 90 feet high, Kilree Round tower is not easy to see because it is set amid a grove of trees. A fine slim building with a diameter inside of just 9 feet it must have been tight in there. With six different levels and a battlement area at the top as well as a belfry, it is little wonder that rope ladders were used here.
Like the other round towers in the county, its entrance faces the church and there is a long association between the two.
The round tower and church are enclosed in a grove of beautiful trees which seem to detract slightly from the height of the tower but once you enter this wonderful place you can feel the past coming at you. It’s sad that a sign in bold yellow at the entrance tells you to beware of the bull. What a lovely first impression for visitors. The land is extremely fertile and there is a rich covering of spring grass on the field and you can appreciate why a farmer would be so anxious to keep it so but the sign should be taken down when the bull is not there.
It is important to appreciate the work done by researchers over the years on Kilree and the rest of the county none more so that Canon Carrigan in his History of the Diocese of Ossory; the wonderful parish history of Dunnamaggin by Richard Lahart which provides us with so much detail but it is the findings of Ireland’s great antiquarian scholar from Slieverue in South Kilkenny, that is most revealing. The research by John O’Donovan on place names and on sites like Kilree for the Ordance Survey is invaluable in deepening our knowledge of our past.
Up to the middle of the 19th century it was claimed that King Niall Caille was buried here in 844AD and that his bones lay under the high Cross which is uninscribed. It seems now that the high cross was erected significantly before this date and we learn from different researchers that these kind of crosses were commemorative and not built to cover the dead. He upset a lot of people when he said the real ancient Irish name for the site was not actually Kilree which up to them was meant to be the church of the king but Cill Freach after a female saint, Freach. Canon Corrigan also studied this and felt that Kilree was a corruption of the name Cill Ruiddchi, the church of St Ruiddchi. While it is hard to go past the original name of Cill Bride as the name for the church, named after St Brigid, we do know from local people and from Richard Lahart that the well at Kilree was also named in honour of St Brigid and that goes back over 1,000 years. It is hard to see past Cill An Ri and of course it is still known locally by people as The Steeple, a reference to the bell tower on top of the round tower.
Only the outer walls remain of the church and inside the tombs of local people remain. The poorer people would have bee buried furthest away from the church. From Norman times the Howlings, Holdens or Howels are associated with the site and for some reason these are the same people as the Walsh’s of the Mountain (I don’t understand that). From medieval times, the Comerfords were closely associated with Kilree along with the Izod family, Flemings, Ryans, St Legers and of course in recent times, the Goreys who represented Kilkenny in Dail Eireann.
Again the lack of signposts for such an amazing place is sad. The only sign coming from Kilkenny city is at Kells Priory and those in charge of the site, have done a good job in keeping it quiet.
But what stands out most about Kilree is that it is still used as a graveyard and the ancient burial ground is well looked after by the people iving in the area..
Kilree is also home to a Ballaun Stone located 250 yards north of the round tower in the corner of a field of heavily weathered limestone and is marked on the Ordance survey map for the area. A bullaun is the term used for the depression in a stone which is often water filled.
Local folklore often attaches religious or magical significance to bullaun stones, such as the belief that the rainwater collecting in a stone’s hollow has healing properties. Ritual use of some bullaun stones continued well into the Christian period and many are found in association with early churches like Kilree or should that be St Brigids or St Freach’s or St Ruiddchi’s/ take your pick.