Monday, May 24, 2010

Eye 906

I travelled on the new road leading from Gallowshill to the M9 motorway over the Easter weekend and marvelled at the previously unseen landscapes which the changing geography of the district has now opened up for us. The previously circuitous route via Shanrath and Foxhill leading to the village of Ballitore has been replaced with a direct route which leaves what was once the meandering track way of medieval man and beast, like a modern day castaway. Almost, but not quite superfluous, the ancient roadway now serves as a way of passage to dwelling houses which over the decades sprang up amidst the quietness of a rural setting.

The geography of this part of South Kildare has been changed in much the same way as the original road from Athy to Dublin was changed two hundred years or so ago to give us the straight stretches of roadway on either side of the Moat of Ardscull two hundred years or so ago. The old Dublin Road ran a few hundred yards to the east of the Moat but why it was changed I do not know. As the old road approached Athy it passed through the lands of Gallowshill, as did its 18th century replacement and as still does the new 21st century roadway.

Gallowshill was then a much more important part of the town’s geography than it is today. As the name confirms it was the site of the town’s gallows which stood as a permanent reminder of the fate which awaited those who infringed the law. Property rights in the 17th and 18th centuries and earlier were far more important than the right to life and the death penalty was applied rigorously for what might now appear to have been the most minor of offences. The path to Gallowshill was a well trodden one as the unfortunate miscreants were brought to the public place of execution where afterwards their bodies were left on the gallows as a deterrent to others.

A decade or so ago when excavations were being carried out on sandpits at Gallowshill a number of skeletal remains were found. In all probability these were the remains of some unfortunates who breathed their last on the town gallows at Gallowshill. Now as we approach the new Gallowshill roundabout we can be forgiven for overlooking the history of a place which in another age struck fear and loathing in the hearts of so many. Its story may never be fully known.

On another side of the town, this time out on the Carlow Road, there remains another new roadway awaiting completion. The Ardreigh bypass, which was the subject of much comment after the costly rediscovery of the medieval village of Ardreigh, will hopefully be finished before the year is out. In the meantime the archaeologists who spent so much time and money on excavating the Ardreigh site have provided a multi volume preliminary report on their findings.

The findings indicated that the Ardreigh site was of regional and possibly national importance. As in Gallowshill where the road alignment was changed over the centuries, it was clear that the medieval village of Ardreigh was served by a road which ran to the east of the present roadway.

A quite enormous amount of medieval material and artefacts was unearthed at Ardreigh during the archaeological excavations which commenced in 2000 and initially lasted for just over three years. The site was not worked on again until 2007 and was finally completed approximately a year later. In addition to medieval material the site also gave up evidence of prehistoric life, including a Neolithic stone axe head, as well as several sherids of prehistoric pottery and flint tools. One of the most important finds on the excavated site was an intact late Bronze Age pot. The findings all point to the Ardreigh site being a settlement dating from prehistoric through to medieval times.

The existing graveyard at Ardreigh was always assumed to have been the more modern successor of an ancient burial ground and the finding of nearly 1300 skeletal remains outside the eastern boundary wall of the graveyard confirms that the commonly held belief was indeed correct. The ‘Lost’ graveyard would appear to have held an unusually large number of child skeletons, an obvious indication of the high mortality rate in medieval times. Where however was the explanation for the five skeletons found buried outside the medieval graveyard boundary? Three skeletons were buried in the same grave which might indicate individuals executed for some criminal offence or other. The traditional Christian practice of burying corpses on their backs with their heads to the west and their eyes to the east was practiced during the life of the Ardreigh settlement. Incidentally it is a practice which was and is still followed in Old St. Michael’s cemetery but not in new St. Michaels where corpses are buried in a north south orientation.

The finding of the remains of large lime kilns, lime storage pots and industrial hearths, together with corn drying kilns, fragments of quern stones and the remains of some medieval structures points to Ardreigh having been the site of a substantial settlement. Its importance in terms of Irish archaeology awaits the outcome of further studies including carbon dating and Ardreigh may well prove to have had an early Christian existence. No matter what further findings are made Ardreigh has provided a unique collection of artefacts which adds enormously to the heritage resources of the area. The concern must be that those artefacts can eventually be restored to this area to help us redefine and clarify our prehistoric and medieval past.

The skeletal remains which were removed from the site for analysis will presumably be eventually returned to Ardreigh for re-internment. Would it be too much to hope for the recreation on the ‘idle’ land between the old and new road of the Ardreigh medieval village as found by the archaeologists?

My thanks to the readers who contacted me about the cast of Mary Mullans’ play, ‘The Turn of the Wheel’. Unfortunately no one has yet turned up a photograph of the cast, although I believe that such a photograph exists. If you can help me in my quest I would be delighted to hear from you.

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