William Murphy & Mary Cassin
Tullaherin has been a site of great historical importance since the very earliest times. The name Tullaherin itself however has always been a source of contention between the scholars. Canon Carrigan is adamant that Tullaherin should be rendered in Irish Tulach Thirim i.e. a dry mound or hillock, whereas others including Hogan and Fr. Shearman argue that it means Tulach Chiarain, the tumulus of Kieran, and that Tullaherin is the burial place of St. Kieran, patron and first bishop of Ossory. Tradition in the area however is more definite concerning this matter. Local people point to the fact that the parish is dedicated to St. Kieran; that a pattern was held on each St. Kieran's Day (March 5th) in Tullaherin up to the 1820's or 1830's and that there is a well dedicated to St. Kieran about 1½ miles from Tullaherin in Castlegarden Bog, as proof that he had strong links with the area and that his final resting place is indeed in the shadow of our round tower.
The main antiquities of Tullaherin are the Round Tower, the Ruined Church and the two Ogham Stones; although one of these has only recently been removed there from Loughboreen. The Round Tower dates from the early part of the 9th century and was probably built by Cearbhall Mac Dunghal as a fortification against the Norsemen. It consists of 7 stories and is 73 ft. high. The circumference at ground level is 50 ft. and at the top 44 ft. The walls are roughly 3 ft. in thickness and are composed for the most part of chiselled blocks of a silecious breccia not found naturally in the Tullaherin area. These must have been transported from several miles away when the Tower was being built. The blocks in each layer are the same size and as each block is wedge-shaped and goes the full thickness of the wall, every layer forms a horizontal 'arch' of great strength. The upper storey of the Tower was built at a much later stage than the rest. From the type of stone used and the style of building it is thought that it was added at around the time that the adjoining church was built i.e. the 11th or 12th century. The workmanship of this part is much inferior to the original building and a large part has since fallen away. This upper storey was once lighted by eight windows, a feature it shares with the Round Tower at Clonmacnoise, but many of these have since crumbled away. The whole Tower is out of plumb, leaning 2-3 ft. towards the South. Entrance is gained through a doorway 11 ft. above ground-level. Some historians have suggested that there was once a connecting link between the Tower and the west gable of the church which was raised for the purpose. However, at this stage we cannot be certain that this was the case.
In the latter part of the last century the Tower was taken over by the Board of Works who carried out some much needed repairs in 1892 which included the building up of a large breach that had developed around the original entrance door. When they were repairing the top the workmen found several walking sticks there. Their presence was explained by the fact that the young men of the area used challenge one another to throw a stick over the Tower with one hand while keeping the other hand pressed against the wall at the bottom.
The church adjoining the Round Tower was built about the 11th or 12th century, although the eastern portion may not have been added until after the Reformation. It consists of a nave 65 ft. by 24 ft. and a choir 32 ft.by 19 ft. The west end was raised higher than the rest to either facilitate a connection to the Tower as mentioned, or to serve as a belfry. Bishop Tennison in his 'Vistitation' of 1731 had the following remarks to pass on Tullaherin: "The church is in ruins, the chancel only is used, the covering of the roof wants mending, the windows want glazing, the font is exposed to the air in the west end of the ruined part of the church." It was used at this time by the Protestant community in the area and the vicar, who lived at Kilfane, officiated at Tullaherin and Kilfane on alternate Sundays.
In 1852 an Ogham Stone containing 11 scores was discovered by Mr. J.G.A. Prim of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. It was of the same type of stone as the Round Tower and was located 1 ft. from the South wall of the church and 9 paces from the Tower. Much of the stone had already been broken off and so the inscription was incomplete.
In 1857 what was left of the writing was interpreted to mean 'fatha h-ogh' which Mr. Williams completed as 'fatha hog thigherin', the field or plain of Ahern. He even went so far as to suggest that Tullaherin is derived from Tulach Ogh Thigherin, the burial place of Ahern. His reading of the inscription was disputed by others who claimed that it meant simply FIR and that the full inscription should read Fircorb Mac Cormac. However the best authority (Brash) deciphered it as FAU AHG and said that he had no idea of its signifigance. Which of these is correct we will never know as the inscription has been badly damaged over the years and is now illegible.
In 1983 a second Ogham Stone came to notice in the lands of Lar Mahon at Loughboreen. Mr. Mahon had unearthed it over 30 years before and it had served since as a gate-post. In November 1983 it was brought to Tullaherin under the auspices of Dúchas. The stone which is about 5 ft. in length does not have many scores.
Finally, mention must be made of a fragment of a 'daisy stone' or 'marigold stone' discovered by Canon Drennan during his time as Parish Priest in Tullaherin. These stones date from pre or early Christian times. They were generally used to mark the burial places of people and were in many ways a precursor of the Celtic Cross. Unfortunately, this stone has since disappeared and despite numerous enquiries and several attempts to locate it, can no longer be found. However, shortly before Canon Drennan's death several photographs of it were taken and these still survive. The sketch featured under is taken from these photographs.
The whole site at Tullaherin is dedicated to St. Kieran. A pattern was held here every year on March 5th. How popular this pattern was can be gauged from the fact that in 1800 there were no less than 75 tents and stalls erected to cater for the crowds attending. However, because of episcopal disapproval all patterns were dying out about this period and the pattern of St. Kieran seems to have suffered the same fate in the 1820's or early 1830's.
The present church at Tullaherin was built about 1840. This church thus extends a continuity of worship in the area which stretches back well over 1000 years. While there are other sites which may ay claim to greater importance, there are very few to match a record such as this. We hope that we are not the generation that will break the sequence reaching back to the time of St. Kieran!
Note. The marigold stone was subsequently located on the site by the late Mary Breen (Chairperson of the Society when this first issue of In the Shadow of the Steeple appeared) and is now located in the Society's museum.
In the Shadow of the Steeple No. 1