The Winter Solstice
Boleycarraigeen Stone Circle Summer & Winter Solstice
This is an environment which seems destined to become a World Heritage Site.
and there is nothing like this concentration of Hill Forts anywhere in Ireland or Europe,
Located on the top of a high hill in West Wicklow is one of the largest hill-forts in the Country. Known as Brusselstown Ring Fort, its single stone rampart composed of limestone boulders is enormous enclosing an oval shape site with axis measuring 320 meters x 200 meters.
Dr Alan Hawkes, Consultant Archaeologist – The Baltinglass and Kilranelagh Landscape
Illustrated Interpretative 3D Brochure detailing how our Ancestors lived in these Hilltop Settlements
Dr Alan Hawkes, Consultant Archaeologist and Researcher, Department of Archaeology, UCC
It’s the size and concentration of hill forts in the Baltinglass area that separates this area from any other landscape in Ireland; it's a really unique landscape in that aspect.
"What we have here is a landscape that is only giving up its secrets now. We could be looking at an area that would rival the Hill of Tara, the Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site or Skellig Michael for instance." "We have identified two, possibly three, large hilltop enclosures built by the first farmers in Ireland 6000 years ago." There were only a handful of these recorded prior to our work. Baltinglass hill forts landscape is the most famous concentration with nine recorded hillforts. We knew very little before recent excavations and thought we were looking at the early Bronze Age. But from current excavations a new picture of the Baltinglass complex has now emerged. The dating evidence from six of the nine sites points to distinct phases of construction over a 3,000 year period.
This commenced with the large enclosures of Hughstown and Spynans and now from our excavations at Rathcoran dated 6,000 years ago the early Neolithic Period.
Current excavations at Rathcoran have discovered evidence of a 10 Hectare Palisade enclosure built 5.500 years ago. This the largest and most impressive Neolithic in Ireland.
A recent analysis of human remains excavated from the Baltinglass tomb in the 1930s points to the tomb being one of the earliest in the country predating all the tombs in the Boyne valley.
Hi, my name is Robert Hanbidge and I am a local archaeologist living in West Wicklow. This particular area of West Wicklow centred around Kilranelagh Hill but including all the surrounding hills along with the linked mountains of Keadeen and Carrig, form integral elements of a vast prehistoric landscape that is actually quite well preserved, and it is just waiting to be explored. Until recently, its significance as an intact prehistoric landscape has remained unrecognised. This area is best known for having a cluster of nine hillforts, a density which does not occur anywhere else in this country, let alone north-western Europe. However, these are just one element of this prehistoric landscape that includes both upland and lowland cursus monuments, linkardstown burials (recent developments indicate that there may be several of these in the area), rock art, enclosures, passage tombs and cairns along with several stone circles (generally assumed to be Bronze Age, but it is likely that one or more may be much older), multiple standing stones, etc. Recently discovered evidence of ritual/ceremonial elements to some of these monuments in relation to the tracking of the sun on both the summer and winter solstices appears to have been a central consideration in their positioning. This is best noted with cursus monument on Brewel Hill Co. Kildare some 16km away to the northwest which is aligned to face the rising sun on the winter solstice and clearly gives a scale to how extensive this prehistoric landscape is. The Keadeen Cursus is also aligned to the summer solstice. Later in the Bronze Age, this solar significance is still maintained with the positioning of the entrance stones to Boleycarrigeen Stone Circle facing the rising sun on the summer solstice.
Through to the early medieval period, the prominence of Kilranelagh Hill in particular does not diminish either. Several ringforts are positioned around the hill with Crossoona Rath having special prominence. It is therefore not surprising to find an early Christian element to this landscape: Kilranelagh Graveyard. Here this graveyard contains early examples of stones crosses, a holy well and a unique stile known as the “Gates of Heaven” that gave passage into the central D-shaped enclosure. There is also a strong tradition around the lower slopes of Kilranelagh hill associated with Saint Bridget.
It truly is a unique landscape that is dominated by its upland topography that has resulted both in its preservation but also in its immense scale. It is only in the last decade that has seen substantial research and survey work in this area that has led to the realisation that this is a significant landscape that spans several millennia. The future potential for archaeological research and the incorporation of these discoveries can only lead to both an appreciation and enrichment of our locality. It is worthy of us now to highlight its now recognised significance and do our best to preserve it as it is for future generations. In Liam Prices own words, he appreciated the opportunity he had to see this landscape in its undisturbed form before it vastly changed, let’s make sure we do our bit to appreciate what we have here and where it can take us.
BiIly Timmins....preserving the hillfort cluster of Baltinglass and Kilranelagh
Other Useful Heritage Links...
Scroll through these pages to discover more about this area and the County of Wicklow.
Heritage Week, West Wicklow’s Ancient Hill Forts – WicklowNews
The Heritage Council provides policy advice for government on heritage issues that include sustainability, landscape management, high nature value farming, forestry and climate change. www.heritagecouncil.ie
This is Kilranelagh Hill, one of a small group of hills at the western edge of the Wicklow Mountains. Little-known and unassuming, Kilranelagh has aunique atmosphere that echoes through Irish history and forms part of one of the world’s great prehistoric landscapes. In mythology, in archaeology, in history, even in ancient literature, it is a precious part of Ireland’s heritage. As a rare and wild environment close to Dublin, it is now a living ecological treasuretoo.
For most visitors, it starts with a cemetery and the ruins of a church; Kilranelagh Graveyard, where the dead are part of the living hillside. But that is only one remarkable space on the remarkable mountain that is Kilranelagh.
For thousands of years Kilranelagh Hill has been a burial site. At least one High King lies here. Thereis a memorial to Sam McAlister, who fought beside Michael Dwyer in 1798. Here, also, lie generations of people whose families live nearby. It is an isolated spot, a place of calm and quiet beauty.
Two stones stand in Kilranelagh Graveyard, as they have for thousands of years. They are called the Gates of Heaven. Those of us who live here know that they mark a passage from this world to the next. No Catholic interment was complete till the coffin passed through these stones. It was a link to a pagan past no priest questioned. Kilranelagh Graveyard is among the oldest continually functioning burial sitesin the world. It may even be the oldest in Europe.
The Hill of Kilranelagh features in many ancient stories and legends. It is one of few locations in Ireland where you can actually see something described in an ancient saga. In the 10th century Fingál Rónáin, a tale of murder, mayhem and betrayal, there is a place called Bae Aifi, ‘the Cows of Aife’. The story tells us the ‘cows’ are an outcrop of white stones on a hillside. The poet says:
‘It is cold in the face of the biting wind
For anyone who herds the cows of Aife’
Even older memories lurk there. The Celtic goddess of the Boyne is Boann, from bó fhionn, ‘white cow’. These things take a long time to forget. In 1655, someone scribbled on a map a note about ‘a heap of stones at White Cow Hill’. The stones are still there, white quartz against Kilranelagh’s dark heather.
In another tale, the Wicklow antiquarian Liam Price identifies the home of the legendary figure Buchat, ‘on the Green of Kilranelagh’. The ‘Green’ was where ancient earthworks were destroyed in the 18th century, when Kilranelagh House was built. In the Book of Leinster, Aedh mac Ainmirech, High King, is buried on Kilranelagh Hill after the battle of Dún Bolg, maybe at Brusselstown Ring. But Kilranelagh is the first place mentioned in the battle poem:.
‘I entreat the mighty Lord, the Protector of Cell Rainnearach’
Sagas and annals weave Kilranelagh into layers of mythology and history. It was significant from ancient times till the Middle Ages. When Strongbow carves up the area, Kilranelagh marks an important boundary. Centuries later, in the last stirrings of the 1798 rebellion, Michael Dwyer finds refuge nearKilranelagh. In a 19th century ballad he escapes his enemies to marry his sweetheart at a priest’s house there. The ruins of the house still stand.
But what is most remarkable about Kilranelagh Hill is the human landscape it is part of and has shaped for over four thousand years. The hillfort near its summit, now a national monument, is one of a cluster of nine surrounding Baltinglass, some, like Brusselstown Ring, on a huge scale. There is nothing like this concentration of hillforts anywhere in Ireland, Britain or Europe. The hills are littered with monuments, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age -graves, cairns, standing stones and circles, including one on Kilranelagh, where there is an Ogham stone.What we see is a fraction of what was there.
This ‘Baltinglass Cluster’ is an ancient landscape comparable in scale to the Boyne Valley or the area round Stonehenge. The work of constructing these hillforts, built and rebuilt over centuries, is on a par with the Pyramids. They form a monumental landscape that must have had great religious, social, political and territorial significance. The marks of ancient field systems and huts suggest a high population at times. Archaeologists are discovering that aspects of the landscape may relate to solstices and other astronomical features. It is an environment so unique that it seems destined to become a World Heritage Site, yet it remains a hidden treasure, even within Ireland. And it is almost unspoiled.
To look out from Kilranelagh Hill, eyes half-closed, is to see almost what the people who built these hill forts saw. It is almost to feel you could turn your head and hear their voices. And when you stand there, your only company may be a buzzard sailing overhead. The only sound may be the haunting scream of a peregrine, or the call of one of the rare curlews that still nest on the mountain.
To walk from Kilranelagh to the other hill forts that look down on Baltinglass and the Slaney, is to inhabit a unique space, in which you not only touch the deep past of Ireland’s ‘Ancient East’, but experience something as unique and inspiring in the extraordinarily beautiful views of Ireland’s present.
© Eamon Sinnott & Partners 2020