Kilcullen (Co. Kildare / East)
Kilcullen, technically Kilcullen Bridge, (pop. 3000, having doubled in recent years), is perched on both sides of the River Liffey.
Kilcullen (Photo – www.mylocalnews.ie)
A major equestrian centre, Kilcullen is a good place to shop for saddlery and tack. The village has several good pubs and restaurants.
Kilcullen Bridge was built along with a nearby castle by canon Maurice Jacques / Jakis of Kildare Cathedral in 1319, and soon grew in importance to surpass the original hillop settlement nearby, now known as Old Kilcullen.
The Earl of Essex stayed overnight in 1599, preparatory to his disastrous campaign against Hugh O’Neill. His secretary Henry Harvey recorded “The village of Kilcullen lies upon either side of a bridge of planks which crosses the river Liffey . . . In number it contains perhaps twe’nty cabins, the owners of which had fled leaving them empty.. . My Lord’s own quarters were in the principal house in the village. When I went in to him he was sitting upon a great heap of straw gathered together in the middle of the room, with a light fixed above his head, and a letter newly writ upon his knee . . . Next day the army advanced towards Athy.”
Kilcullen castle and parts of the village were destroyed by Cromwellian soldiers in 1650.
One of the first major confrontations of the 1798 Rebellion was the Battle of Kilcullen of 24th May. At daybreak about 200 insurgents gathered on a hillside souh of the town, where they fended off a cavalry attack with their pikes, killing 30 soldiers and almost as many horses. Inspired by this early triumph, hundreds of locals joined the rebels in fording the river to occupy positions overlooking the Dublin road at Turnpike Hill. General Dundas sent a decoy party of horsemen to tempt them down; the rebels chased the group and fell into an musket ambush. About 150 were killed, with no government losses. Despite this rout, the army withdrew to Naas, and the rebels did not formally surrender until two days later.
Kilcullen’s Heritage Centre is housed in the foyer of the modern Town Hall Theatre, in which all the seats are taken from Volvo S80 cars. A pleasant riverside walk starts beside the building.
The award-winning Valley Community Park dates from the 1970s, as does the sculpture of Saint Brigid erected above a well dedicated to her. An old Mass path leads to a late medieval cemetery and ruined monastery, still known as New Abbey, established in 1485 by the Eustace family. The effigies of Roland FitzEustace, Baron Portlester, and his lady can be seen amongst the tombstones.
Castlemartin belonged to a branch of the Eustace family from the time of King Henry III until the late C17th. This family, once one of the most prominent in County Kildare, intermarried with such ancient lines as the Talbots of Malahide and the Plunketts of Dunsany (twice) but eventually lost all their holdings in the area.
In 1642 an army led by the Marquess of Ormonde “passed over the Liffey, two miles beneath Castle-martin, in which there was a garrison of Rebels, under the command of one Fitzgerald. It was resolved to take this castle, and if they stood out, to kill and burn the house.” The garrison surrendered and were allowed to depart.
Castletown House (Photo – Martha Stewart)
In its current form, Castlemartin House was built by a Dublin banker, Francis Harrison, in 1720, and within ten years sold to Captain Henry Boyle Carter. The house was commandeered during the 1798 Rebellion as the headquarters of Sir Ralph Dundas, and the interior was badly damaged. Restored, the property was owned by the Blacker family from 1854 to 1967, when the widow of Lt. Col. Frederick Blacker left it to her great nephew, the British Conservative politician Lord Gowrie.
Since 1972 Castlemartin House and Estate has belonged to Dr. A.J. O’Reilly, aka Tony O’Reilly, former international ruglby player, Heinz CEO, Chairman of Waterford Crystal and current owner of Independent News & Media, knighted in 1980, who has a stud farm and also breeds Charolais cattle on the 600-acre property. Although he has spent millions on restoring the house, Sir Anthony and his wife, Greek shipping heiress Lady Chryss Goulandriss, live for most of the year as tax exiles in the Bahamas, returning for Christmas family reunions.
St. Mary’s church (1490), a ruin on the Castlemartin Estate, aka Catlemartin Chapel, was restored and reconsecrated in 1981.
Gilltown Stud is the Aga Khan’s horse breeding centre.
Old Kilcullen is the name given to a monastic settlement founded by Saint Patrick on a neighbouring hilltop. It flourished for 900 years, becoming the hub of a large town with substantial walls and seven gates. The importance of this town came to an end suddenly – and peacefully – in 1319, when the citizens moved to take advantage of the trade generated by Kilcullen Bridge. The walls and the castle of the old town have disappeared.
Little remains of Old Kilcullen beyond a truncated C10th Round Tower and the uprights of some High Crosses similar to the ones farther south at Moone and Castledermot. (Photo by thomashu)
Knockaulin & Dún Ailinne
Knockaulin (180m) is a green, flat-topped hill adjacent to Old Kilcullen, with wonderful views over the fertile plains of Kildare and beyond.
Dún Ailinne is a large ancient enclosure on Knockaulin. The surrounding stone wall measures 4m, making it one of the highest of pre-Norman origin in in the country, similar to others found in Western Europe dating to as early as 4000 BC. There is a deep ditch inside the wall. (Photo – users.unimi.it)
Indications of earliest use are from the Neolithic period; there is no evidence to suggest the site was ever inhabited, but instead, it is believed to have been used for rituals in the Bronze Age and later for the inauguration ceremonies of the kings of Leinster until c.500 AD.
Five phases of structures have been identified within the enclosure, each more sophisticated than its predecessors. The last one seems to have included an altar-like platform. One also had an annexe enclosure at its south-eastern perimeter.
References to it having been a “palace” of the kings of Leinster are now considered inaccurate. This makes it analogous to the earlier Neolithic henges rather than the contemporary Iron Age hillforts. This henge is the best preserved of its type in Ireland, with a circumference of almost 1.45 metres deep, which would have required the excavation of 30,000 metric tonnes of rocks and soil.
Excavations in the late 1960s uncovered an unusual La Tène-style sword and bronze fibulae (brooch / cloak-fasteners) of Roman origin, not uncommon in C4th AD Ireland. and evidence of cooking and eating meat has been found to include large quantities of bones from cows, sheep, pigs, deer and horses. It appears to have been occupied regularly during the Spring/Summer months, but was largely abandoned in the C6th, around the time the early Christian settlement at Old Kilcullen was established.
Dún Ailinne is one of a small number prehistoric inauguration site identified in Ireland; the others include Tara, Co. Meath (Meath, the ‘middle’ province), Emain Macha / Navan Fort (Ulster) and Cruachan, Co. Roscommon (Connacht). Archaeological excavations of these sites reveal very similar Iron Age ceremonial structures.
The site is on private land, and visitors should ask permission to approach it, taking care not to disturb livestock.
Dún Ailinne Interpretative Centre, opened in nearby Nicholstown, features a miniature reproduction of the site with an explanatory panel.
Kilcullen is quite near Brannockstown & Harristown on ByRoute 6.
Burtown House & Gardens, founded by Robert Power in 1710 and initially known as Power’s Grove, has descended mainly in the female line through a series of surnames associated with the Quakers of nearby Ballitore, most notably when Jemima Fennell (née Wakefield) unexpectedly inherited the property in the mid-C 19th after her brother was killed by an errant cricket ball. Her son William James Fennell (1866 – 1928) was ‘asked to leave the Quakers … for driving a carriage with uniform flunkies on the back’. His wife Isabel, a cousin of the famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, strengthened the family’s strong gardening tradition. Wendy Walsh, one of Ireland’s finest botanical artists, has a studio in the grounds, as does her painter daughter Lesley Fennell, whose son James is an internationally acclaimed photographer. The splendid gardens, open to the public in late spring and summer, include several large shrubberies, a rock garden, a yew walk, a pergola, a sundial garden, an old orchard, a more formal stable yard garden, a Victorian walled vegetable garden, a contemplation garden with bronzes by sculptor Catherine Greene and the Nutgrove, a large woodland garden surrounded on all sides by water. The Gallery Café serves lunches and homemade cakes amidst interesting photographs and paintings.
Burtown Crossroads is within easy reach of Ballitore and Moone on ByRoute 6.