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March 5th 2001
It is generally accepted that Tara, Co. Meath, was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland from the earliest times. This assumptions is based on the writings of 6th and 7th Century scribes who were funded by the Ui Niell Dynasty. Other mediaeval writings, like the Book of Leinster, The Four Masters etc. have followed the earlier writers without questioning the validity of the writings or without checking other sources. Irish historians of the 20th Century have shown that the 6th and 7th Century writers were economical with the truth in order to glorify Tara and its Kings who supported them financially. A new book by Fr. Tom O Connor examines this topic closely and with the aid of the archaeological remains, legend and the findings of modern historians concludes that the glorification of Tara occurred at the expense of the real Capital of Celtic Ireland (outside Ulster) which was situated at Turoe/ Knocknadala/Cotiny in Co. Galway. This recently discovered vast complex is far more important than Tara. This very extensive Belgic Oppidum complex is reconstructed in the new book pending publication:
Hand of History, Burden of Pseudo-History
The manuscript is in the hands of several historians and archaeologists and is fully referenced and illustrated.
To bring out the enormous importance of this newly discovered Turoe/Knocknadala/Cotiny Belgic Oppidum for the early history of Ireland in general and the history of Connacht in particular, this book first shows that the so-called history of Tara of Meath is fraudulent by reference to modern historians and ancient manuscripts. Reference to the fact that early Irish history needed a total reconstruction, particularly the debunking of Tara as the seat of the High Kings, was made by E. MacNeill in 1904, stating that 'the received framework of early Irish history was an invention of chroniclers from the 9th century on, working assiduously for the glorification of their patrons.' By the 1960's the work of a whole generation of scholars had exploded the basis for popular assumptions about early Irish society. The idea that false images of Ireland's past were undermining its present and mortgaging its future was quite current by 1977. Roy Foster noted 'that the accumulated findings of historians from the early 20th century show the High Kingship of Ireland at Tara of Meath did not exist before the 9th century A.D'. William Moody and Dudley Edwards embarked on a scheme to bring about a 'revolution in the aims, method and style of Irish historical writing,' concerned for 'a purer, more scholarly kind of Irish history'. The course of Irish history was to be systematically reconstructed by a new generation of scholars highly trained in the methods of the professional academic historian. A vast amount of superb academic work has resulted from this plan. Yet, major areas remain untouched or have so far been overlooked. Turoe/Knocknadala/ Cotiny is one of these areas. The new book addresses this area and examines closely the ancient records, folklore, archaeology, recent historical findings and other evidence from that area.
The following summary of the book, which has been extensively researched in terms of documents, archaeology, the findings of more recent historians and folklore, attempts to demonstrate the importance of this area, not only to the history of Connaught and Ireland, but to our understanding of the Celts and Celtic Ireland. The summary is not referenced, but the references are to be found in the manuscript of the book.
There are no contemporary written Irish records from the 1st/2nd Century A.D. For this we must depend on the Greek geographer and cartographer, Ptolemy. His work is generally regarded as excellent so it should be assumed that his record of 1st/2nd Century Ireland is accurate. However, because it does not fit in with the accepted version of Irish history, that the High Kings ruled from Tara, it has not been interpreted correctly. Indeed it has been assumed that Ptolemy's informants were not well acquainted with the wild western shores of Ireland and while the North, South and East portions are reasonable, the Western section is not correct. This interpretation seems to be inaccurate. Rather than being unfamiliar with the West coast, the seafarers of the time were very familiar with the West of Ireland. One ancient reference states 'Ath Cliath Magh Ri (Clarinbridge, Co Galway) was chief seaport of Ireland visited by seagoing vessels and through which Ireland has most often been invaded'. Another reference by the Roman author Tacitus states that no British seaport was better known to sailors, than Irish seaports, undoubtedly referring to Ath Cliath Magh Ri. Yet another document states that 'all ships sailing the high seas visited Ath Cliath Magh Ri'. And this is not surprising since of the 11 Irish population centres listed by Ptolemy he recorded one as 'the most illustrious city with the most celebrated name in all Britannia and the most considerable place in size, situated in the west of Ireland'.
An ancient Irish document the 'Dindsenchas' of Carn Conaill (near Athenry), relates that under the leadership of Dela, son of Gann, 2000 warriors landed at Ath Cliath Mag Ri (Clarinbridge) and went on to capture Temhair, which was held until then by the aboriginal Cruithin. The legend further states that Dela went to Dail, settled on the 'Hill of Great Assembly' (Cnoc na Dail, Knocknadala today) and established an 'Oenach' or 'Feis' on the adjoining hill, the origin of Feis Temhro. The 'Feis' was generally held on a prominent height, the only one close to Cnoc na Dail being Cnoc Temhro (Turoe). Dela had a son called Mil who built a beach-head fort on the Aran Islands and another near Clarinbridge, both were called Murvoch Mhil. When he inherited his father's throne he built his palace at Rath Mhil (Rathville) on the summit of Knocknadala. His Fir Belg people erected the Belgic defensive system surrounding the two hills of Turoe and Knocknadala as one oppidum entirety.
Other little known documents such as the 'Dindsenchas' of Medraige (Maree, Oranmore) give a brief genealogy of Dela. Fermhor (Ferach Mhor), son of Eremon (Erc), son of Dela, son of Gann. This Ferach Mor is also called Eochaid Ferach Mhor and was the father of Queen Medb. Another source corroborates this as does British legendary history and Roman records. Ferach Mhor had his fortress on the top of Turoe Hill. The Turoe Stone (see later) was positioned at this Rath as the coronation stone of the Kings.
So with this in mind, let us take a fresh look at Ptolemy's map of Ireland, without the preconception of Tara. The features given in his record are acceptably accurate. There are two Capitals called Regia which are centres of power where Overkings reigned. One of these is in the North at Eamain Macha (present day Armagh) and the second is placed in the centre of Co. Galway, precisely where Turoe/Knocknadala is. Tara is conspicuous only by its absence.
Turoe, Regia E Terra of Connaught. Both Tara and Turoe share exactly the same name in Irish, namely Temhair. In its genitive form it is Temhro, ie., "Cnoc Temhro." In the dative form it is Temhra, ie.,"i Temhra" Ptolemy named the Galway Regia as Regia E Tera (which is as near as he could get in Greek to the Irish "Te[mh]ra"? Ptolemy's record as it stands has 'Regia etera' which should be amended to its original correct form, 'Regia e Tera' (= Royal Capital in 'Te[mh]ra'). Error probably entered the text in the transition from majuscule to minuscule Greek lettering which occurred well after Ptolemy's day. The archaeological site of the Turoe/Knocknadala/Cotiny corroborates Ptolemy's literary record in a most astounding manner. When Cnoc Temhro was anglicised the 'Cnoc' was dropped, so Cnoc Temhro, Feis Temhro and Ri Temhro, all names found in ancient Irish documents, can just as easily refer to Turoe as to Tara. There is ample evidence that Turoe and Knocknadalla were the royal sites of prehistoric Kings of the Fir Belg who dominated Iron Age Ireland. This evidence exists in ancient documents, in the geographical features of the area, the townland names of the surrounding townlands, the folklore of the area and the memories of the elder generation.
A Celtic Oppidum, which is what the Belgic centre of power was called, consisted of an area, called the inner ward and an outer ward which were surrounded by defensive ramparts. Due to farming activities down through the centuries much of these have now been destroyed. Fragments of these defensive ramparts surrounding the inner and outer wards of Turoe/Knocknadala can still be traced today. In addition the memories of the older generation recall further sections since levelled. These have in many instances been corroborated by some of the older Ordnance Survey maps which show earthworks in the area. In order to increase the territory under their control, the inner ward was extended by building another rampart at a distance removed from the first. The ramparts can also be traced on old maps. As each extension became secure further extensions of the ramparts were constructed so that several extensions can be traced, eventually covering the whole county and beyond. Using old maps, recollections of elders and existing fragments all these ramparts can be traced.
It is important at this stage to mention that the old Irish for 'rampart' is 'Roo' and for dyke is 'Doo' Townlands with these words relate to ramparts. For example, Knockroe (Cnoc Roo - rampart hill) and Doughcloon.
Just as Cotiny was part of the ancient acropolis (city), Fearta on the northern slopes of Turoe was the ancient royal necropolis (Cemetery). Elders who passed on some forty odd years ago recalled that the generation in their young days claimed there were more than 100 large sepulchral mounds still standing in this townland before the great famine of 1845 and less than 50 at the beginning of this century. Only one remained up to the 1940's when it, too, was levelled out. Others survived outside the present boundary of Fearta townland on the northern slopes of Turoe. There were others on the SW slopes of Turoe, but only one remains.
One of the last barrow mounds on the northern slopes of Turoe, a saucer shaped ring-barrow, was ploughed out of existence shortly after the excavations of Rath Ferach Mhor in the 1940's. It was referred to in the report of the 1915 excavations. Another tumulus on the northern upper rim of the hill was known as Cruachan Airt. Local tradition is that this was the burial mound of King Art, son of Conn Hundred Battles, father of King Cormac Mac Airt. This monument was bulldozed out of existence in very recent times (1994). The highest point on the western half of Turoe is known as Clery's hill today. It is believed locally to be an ancient cemetery in its own right. Apart from these graves, what look like human bones were constantly being knocked out from the edge of its upper western rim by the hoofs of grazing animals for as long as locals can remember.
One old man long since gone to his glory claimed that after the Great Famine several mounds were dug out by starving people desperately seeking valuable goods to pay their passage to America. This custom continued well into this century. There are also old rumours of buried treasure hovering in the area, as Patrick Keane can testify. One find remembered locally was a miniature replica of the Turoe Stone. This was sold to a 'Yank'. Other finds were a stone head of a three-faced god and the skeleton of a huge dog with bronze collar and lead. This final find was made in the 1930's by Martin Scarry, and a local, Joe Ruane. They dug out a massive round barrow mound known as Cruachu Choolan (Cruach Chu Choolain?), at the foot of Coolan Hill near where the SE corner of Fearta touches the NE boundary of Turoe. Patrick Keane of Fearta is a storehouse of information on Turoe. As a young boy in the 1930's he remembers seeing a massive round burial mound being levelled behind his home.
Local traditions surrounding Cotiny (Cetni), an area in Carrowkeel townland, are very much alive today. Early in the 20th century Michael Kelly with his father, the Smiths and Donnellans of Ballyknock and numerous locals drew tons of stone from ruins of countless small houses and several close-set ringforts and some very large rectangular buildings to fuel numerous local limekilns and build the roads and bridges down to Kiltulla church. This sack of Cetni dated back before the 20th century. Locals claimed that before that, there were countless ruins of little houses along narrow lane ways in the manner of an ancient township throughout northern half of Carrowkeel, that is the area known as Cetni.
Local tradition always claimed that this was an ancient settlement, not a medieval or pre-famine settlement, corroborated by pre-famine records which show that there were no inhabited dwellings then as the area was an inhabitable stone and bush-covered wilderness, which is precisely what the O. Irish word Cotiny (Cetni or Caintiny) means. On the OS map the area is wrongly shown as rock outcrop. A tiny segment of the ancient ruined city still survives in the innermost part of Cetni (away from the road) showing what the larger area was like before land reclamation destroyed it.
All those local statements regarding Cetni (Cotiny) and that of Ptolemy of Alexandria regarding Knocknadala are further corroborated by the record of a densely populated place called "Campum Cetni" in the South of Connacht referred to by E. MacNeill in his list of places allegedly visited by St. Patrick, in his book "Saint Patrick". In recent times land reclamation in the Cetni area has cleared almost all trace of the ancient acropolis including narrow Celtic fields on its east perimeter.
This densely populated area continued on the west side of Dunkellin river
in the Kiltulla South and Clogharevaun (Cloghar Ui Mhaine) areas. Here too land
reclamation removed almost all trace including several ringforts. Cloghar Ui Mhain stood
at the heart of the ancient territory of Main Maigh. The Dindsenchas of Main Maigh states
that this plain (Magh) was named after Maine, son of Queen Medb, who succeeded his mother
as King of Connacht. Cloghar (Royal Palace) Ui Mhain (Clogharevaun today) was his royal
seat. The royal palace ringfort was cut in two by Bookeen road at the bend near the
castle. A vestige of the ringfort can still be seen just inside the east road wall at the
bend overlooking Cetni. An ancient roadway ran past this ringfort straight to Cetni along
an eiscir ridgeway recently demolished in gravel mining. Ptolemy named Knocknadala (Nag na
da[l]) as the name of the acropolis or densely populated area. However, the heights of
Knocnadala itself was reserved for ceremonial purposes and assemblies (Dail/Dala), as the
name indicates. Much of its outer perimeter was a densely populated urban or semi-urban
although having different townland names today, could be classed, as it was by Ptolemy, as Knocknadala in general. The inner ward defensive ramparts converted Turoe and Knocknadala/Cetni, into one vast oppidum nucleus wedged into the fork of two tributaries of the Dunkellin river. This inner ward of the Turoe/Knocknadala oppidum was surrounded almost completely by ancient forest, boglands, marches and rivers in typical Belgic oppidum fashion. Vestiges of the two ancient highways, Sligh Dala and Eiscir Riada, which ran right across the inner ward avoiding all the sacred sites, still survive here.
The Turoe Stone stood on Turoe Hill beside Rath Ferach Mhor. It is covered with continuous abstract curvilinear La Tène art, carved in relief. It is set off by a band of Greek-key decoration at the foot of the stone. It is among the finest examples of La Tène art in Europe. Ireland's oldest origin-legends indicate that the Fir Belg set up the renowned 'Lia Fail' (Stone of Destiny) here as the coronation stone of their kings Ireland despite the pseudo Tara Myth syndrome which tried to claim it for Tara. According to Dindshenchas the 'Lia Fail' was set up on Cnoc Temhro, the Hill of Turoe, not Tara. This stone was used in the inauguration of a new King. Indeed the Turoe stone would be a fitting Stone of Destiny for the Kings.
Townlands are among the oldest divisions in Ireland. Often the names of the townlands reflect some historical or geographical feature of the area. Unfortunately, the origin of many townland names in Ireland have been lost, but with a fresh look at historical events around the area, the townland names (and local names) take on a new meaning.
|Turoe||Cnoc Temhair||The same as the old Irish name for Tara|
|Knocknadala||Cnoc na Dala||The only townland in Ireland with this name meaning 'Hill of Parliament'.|
|Fearta||Farty||Old Irish word for 'Graves', royal cemetery|
|Aberanville||Abar na bhFille||Field of the poets (filli)|
|Raford||Rath na bhfille||Droichead bridge of Poets Palace|
|Rathville||Rath (fort) of Mhil (son of Dela)|
|Cotiny||Cantini||Wild overgrown uninhabitable place|
|Cloghereavaun||Clogher Ui Mhaine||Palace of Maine, son of Queen Meabh|
|Attymonmore||Ait Ui Mhain Mor||Place of the descendants of Maine Mor|
|Clonkeen||Clan Cian||14 townlands of the Ciannachta|
|Clooncah||Cloon Cath||Battlefield where the Ui Maine defeated Fir Belg|
|Ballinaulty||Baile na nUltaigh||Area where Ui Maine Ulstermen steeled|
|Dooughcloon||Doo cloon||Earthen rampart field|
|Cahertinny||Caher Tinny||Caher of Tinny, early consort of Queen Meabh|
|Myode||Magh Fot(ad)||Plain of the Fotad (Votadini)|
|Knockatogher||Hill of the ancient highway|
These are but a few examples of the many townland names that relate to stories in folklore and events of early Irish history. While not being direct evidence, townland names in the vicinity do relate to historical events that occurred in the area during the 2nd Century A.D. This adds to the overall evidence for a fresh look at the origins of Celtic Ireland.
It is now becoming evident that it was the Celts who were the great
road-builders of northern Europe. Celtic roads were mentioned by Strabo, Caesar and
Diodorus Siculus. Looking at Caesar's account of his Gallic campaigns, he was moving his
legions rapidly through (Celtic) Gaul because there was an excellent system of roadways in
existence. Similarly, when Caesar crossed to Britain it becomes obvious to the careful
historian that there had to be a well-laid system of roads in existence. Indeed, due to
recent archaeological finds, it is becoming apparent that the ancient roads of Britain,
which have been attributed to the Romans, had already been
laid by the Celts long before the coming of the Romans. Similarly, in Ireland there is evidence of ancient roadways. The four ancient roads of Ireland were all said to have radiated out from Tara across the face of Ireland. However, only two roads have actually been traced at Tara. These are Sli Midhluachra which linked it to Emain Macha, Capital of ancient Ulster and Sli Cualan, which ran south from Tara to the Cualan district of Dublin which remained in the hands of the Cruithin of Ulster until Cormac Mac Art. The other ancient highways such as Slighe Dala, and Eiscir Riada
running from Galway to Dublin, had no connection with Tara whatsoever, but converged on Turoe/Knocknadala oppidum.
Slighe Dala is said to have converged on 'Temhair', which was actually Cnoc Temhro, Turoe of Galway. Sections of this venerable highway, known to many elderly people in the Turoe area, have survived down to this day stretching across Cos. Galway, Tipperary, Laois, Kilkenny and Carlow. The Eiscir Riada ran from the Iron Age Sea Port of Ath Clee Magh Ri near Clarenbridge in Galway Bay via Athenry and Knocknadala to the Shannon at Shannonbridge on its way to Dublin. Sli Dala ran to Roscrea and Borris-in-Ossory where a segment is known as Boherard. It then went on to Ballyragget (Tulach Ui mBairrche) in Kilkenny and thence on to the ancient Leinster capital of Dind Rig on the Barrow, the Dunon of Ptolemy's geographical record. Intriguingly, legendary history claims that Slighe Dala ran from Temhair na Ri to Roscrea and Borris-in-Ossory and that it was founded by Dela, father of the leaders of the Fir Belg invasion, who set up his royal seat on the Hill of Knocknadala. It further relates that Roscrea, its original destination, got its name from Crea, the Munster Fir Belg Princess who became Dela's consort.
Long-memoried local elders along its course helped locate the route of this revered ancient highway. Some could indicate only short stretches. A rare few like Joe Cooney, Michael Gleeson, Joe Dunne, Duffy/Brett, Deely, Ruane, and Casserly, were not only able to point out its route for long distances (even to its terminus), but were also able to pass on its ancient name(s). It had several local names but only one overall name, Slighe Dala, in the Turoe/ Knocknadala vicinity itself. It was called Bealach Mor Muigh Dala further afield near Portumna and E of the Shannon. Other names for Sli Dala on local lips are Sean Bealach, Bealach Mor, Slighe Mor Dala, etc.
The stretch of road forming the boundary between Turoe and Ballykeeran was built on the ancient Slighe Dala. This ancient highway had low broad earthen banks on either side which were levelled partly in the building of the present roadway along the west boundary of Turoe and partly by Patrick Keane and his father some 60 years ago. Short sections with banks intact can still be seen further S passing alongside Tonnawausa ringfort in Lackafinna, again across the road from the Rugby stadium in Loughrea. The well-informed elder Joe Cooney of Lackafinna recalled that Escir Riada ran from the Iron Age seaport of Ath Cliath Magh Ri (Clarenbridge) in Galway Bay to the massive Caherdrine fort and thence in a straight line to Athenry. It ran E for 5 miles in a straight line to Knockatogher (hill of the ancient highway; traceable on OS map from Carakelly to Raford) where it swung abruptly S through Raford and straight up to Knocknadala where it met Sligh Dala. Escir Riada swung East again heading for Dublin. Sligh Dala ran south via Loughrea and on to Portumna where it crossed the Shannon heading for Roscrea. The present road along Turoe's W Tld. boundary to its SW corner is built on the route of this ancient highway. Remnants of its low wide banks were levelled 60 odd years ago. This ancient highway ran in a straight line for miles on end, unlike present-day roads in the area. It is just over 20 ft. wide at all points where it has survived intact, not including its low wide earthen banks. The section running from Knocknadala via Turoe was used as a shortcut to Loughrea until early this century.
From the point where Sli Dala entered the ceremonial avenue leading to the summit of Knocknadala another ancient roadway ran west passing through Moyode to the southern side of Athenry where it rejoined the Escir Riada on its way to the ancient seaport of Ath Clee Magh Ri near Clarenbridge. It was known as Rot na Ri (Road of the Kings) and is referred to in an ancient poem as Magh Fot ar Rot na Ri. Narrow present-day roads lie along several sections of this archaic one and are notable for their straight alignment.
Another archaic route branched off from Sli Dala at Loughrea and ran S through Clare. Mr. Cooney claimed Irish speakers of the older generation in his young days called it 'Sli Luachra'. Pseudo-history projected 'Sli Dala', 'Sli Midh Luachra', 'Sli Coolan' and the Escir Riada as the four great roads of ancient Ireland converging on Tara. In truth only Sli Midhluachra and a Sli Cualan converged on Tara. Not only the 'Escir Riada' across the centre of Ireland, but 'Sli Dala', Rot na Ri and 'Sli Luachra' (its Munster terminus was the Fir Belg Capital of Temhair Luacra or Temhair Erainn 6 miles south of Limerick which Queen Medb visited as the southern terminus of her kingdom, Coiced Ol nEgmacht), converged on and emanated from Turoe/Knocknadala Fir Belg. Sli Coolan formed a cursus encircling Turoe.
Most of the history of this pre-Christian era is very clouded. It is difficult to tell the difference between fact and myth. Take the tale of the Tain Bo Culaine, for example. There is general agreement that the tale is based on fact, but that it is embellished with a large amount of fiction, myth and legend. Many other events from this period that have been recounted suffer from a similar degree of confusion. The result is that a degree of mythology has been created around the Celts and the people of Iron Age Ireland. The tales don't quite fit the geography and accepted history of that time so, rather than questioning accepted history, myths were created around the tales so that they became legend and their true meaning and place in history was lost. If the accepted history of pre-Christian Ireland is questioned and reconstructed based on physical geography, then the tales that appear mythical take on a new meaning because they fit into place.
Ireland's oldest legendary history, the Ulidian Tales, tells of constant warfare between native Cruithin and invading Belgae whose Capitals the Cruithin of Ulster recognised to be significantly in the SW as seen from their own Capital, Emain Macha. This corroborates Ptolemy's map and the existence as a major Royal Capital at Turoe.
Fr. Tom O'Connor is a Missionary priest in Malaysia.
Dr. Kieran Jordan is a Research Scientist with Teagasc.
He lives at Strawhall, Fermoy,
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