by ehistoryadmin on May 30, 2014


Ancient chieftains gathered on the surprising slopes of Knockaulin

Liam Kenny

Readers of a certain age who are past pupils of the Christian Brothers might remember a schoolboy magazine with the title of “Our Boys”.  It was a good read with articles aimed at leavening young minds with a little dash of Irish culture, a sprinkling of athletic interest, and a pinch or two of useful skills. A typical issue included stories of an ancient warrior band known as “The White Arrows”, some old time Irish fire-side stories, an article setting out a programme of athletic training, and a page devoted to building boys’ toys such as kites or crystal radio sets.  It included some gentle amusing fare too in which a character known as “Mucky Dunne” appeared, generally in the context of a story involving the visit of a school inspector. The bold Mucky was noted for his stock of ready answers to just about any question that the Dept. of Education’s finest could throw in his direction. On one such occasion, during a test of geography, he offered the topographical gem to the inspector that “the mountains were made at the same time as the valleys”!

For some reason this column had Mucky’s enterprising answer in mind when the opportunity arose, courtesy of the Kildare Archaeological Society, to ascend the breezy slopes of Knockaulin, a hill south of Kilcullen and to the west of the old Athy road.

At 600 feet above sea level, Knockaulin, is no Everest. In fact it is smaller in altitude than the Hill of Allen which itself is barely half as high as Co Kildare’s highest point above Kilteel.

However what Knockaulin might lack in altitude it more than makes up for in terms of its outstanding view of the countryside for many miles around. It provide such a broad sweeping vantage point without appearing to offer any commanding advantages from ground-level. The grassy flanks of Knockaulin are hardly noticeable from Kilcullen, or from the Athy road, or from the motorway on which traffic flies by within a kilometre of its base. 

Rather Knockaulin has a slow burn effect in terms of its commanding heights. It is only while ascending its slopes that its almost perfect pudding bowl shape becomes apparent. And this perhaps is the “Mucky Dunne” effect – Knockaulin makes its impact not so much from its own height but from the fact that the surrounding landscape is so low in profile.

A good description for Knockaulin might be “the unexpected hill” such is the element of surprise by which an ordinary looking east Kildare slope becomes a hill with a commanding presence fit for the abode of a chieftain, master of all he (or maybe even she) commanded. On a clear day from the top a view extends to Cappagh Hill, perhaps twenty miles distant, near Kilcock, then to Saggart hill somewhat closer, along the full range of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains down to the brooding north face of Lugnaquilla. On the south-western view there is a perspective to the Red Hills behind Kildare town, and on to Grangehiggin and Dunmurray Hill. Directly to the west the inverted saucer of the Hill of Allen vies for attention and makes its own claim for a noble presence with its place in the sagas as the fort of Fionn and the Fianna.

But while Allen grounds its fame in fable and story, Knockaulin has solid scientific evidence to underpin its associations with ancient royalty. Perhaps its most remarkable feature is a bank-and-ditch which encircles the hill about a third of the way up. The ditch has a length of almost a mile, a depth approaching fifteen feet and a width, before erosion, of twenty-five feet. In modern terms, big enough to drive a bus around the hill. According to some estimates this involved the excavation of 30,000 metric tonnes of rock and soil. The scale of manpower needed to achieve such an excavation must have run into many hundreds of individuals. What was the purpose of such a major operation undertaken by ancient people many hundreds of years before the Christian calendar began?

Some clues were found in an archaeological dig carried out over the summers between 1968 and 1975 by the late Professor Bernard Wailes of the University of Pennsylvania. The summer digs on Knockaulin are fondly remembered by a generation of young Kilcullen folk who got jobs on the site of the dig. Their combined labours resulted in the discovery of signs of a series of enclosures enclosed by wooden palings arranged in broadly circular patterns.

Comparison with other royal sites such as Cruachain in Roscommon and Eamhain Macha in Armagh suggested that Kildare’s Knockaulin was in the first division of ceremonial sites in the country. The discovery of artefacts dated from an astounding 1,300 years before Christ including Stone Age pots and knife blades, and bracelets and a sword from a later period, all pointed to an intensive use in ancient times.

Perhaps the most evocative feature found on the hill was a javelin point which became the inspiration for a striking sculpture near the motorway bridge which gives a modern perspective on this ancient landscape. The sculpture and landscaped park – a kind of scale model of Dun Ailinne – was commissioned by Kilcullen Community Action and completed by sculptor Noel Scullion in 2008.  As the hill of Dún Ailinne is on private property, the sculpture provides an accessible way of understanding the significance of Kildare’s “unexpected hill” now proven to be the abode of chieftains. Leinster Leader 10 September 2013, Looking Back, Series no: 348.

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