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-
HOME AT FIRST'S

ADVENTURE

CENTRAL IRELAND
-

  Can you                 find the

GRAVES

 

OF

THE

LEINSTERMEN?

(and why                  should you bother?)

This article first appeared in JUNE, 2004. most recent update: 2014.
Photos © HOME AT FIRST

 

The Facts:
          It was 1,000 years ago, and Irish history was boiling like laundry. There were four Celtic kingdoms dividing Ireland into roughly four quadrants: Ulster (north), Connacht (west), Munster (south), and Leinster (east). But the Irish Celts were tribal folk, and the kingdoms were subject to shifting borders as intertribal marriages led to shifting allegiances. More importantly, there was constant pressure from the outside, from Viking invaders who for 200 years had been penetrating coastal rivers looking to colonize the lush agricultural lands of Ireland.
          By the turn of the first millennium the Northmen had become well established in parts of eastern and southeastern Ireland — largely in the Kingdom of Leinster, and, especially in and around Dublin. They also controlled
Limerick in Munster, south Central Ireland, where the Shannon River emerges from the Shannon Estuary in the midst of productive, low farmlands. These Viking/Irish were powerful and aggressive. They had no intention of giving up their new

The 1,000-year-old Oratory of St. Lua sits atop Killaloe hill near the site of Brian Boru's castle. The stone chapel remains a mute witness to what may have befallen the Leinstermen. Photo © Home At First.
The 1,000-year-old Oratory
of St. Lua sits atop Killaloe
hill near the site of Brian
Boru's castle. The stone
chapel remains a mute
witness to what may have
befallen the Leinstermen.

Photo © Home At First

homelands, so much more fertile and mild than the rocky,

 

coastal Scandinavian inlets they came from. And they found the clannish Gaels disunited, easily suppressed, and often willing participants to battle against their rival Irish neighbors. Then Brian Boru rose up in Munster to become greatest of the Irish kings.

 

          When Brian’s brother, Mahon, King of

The Rock of Cashel, Brian Boru's fortress castle in Central Ireland. Photo © Home At First.
 The Rock of Cashel, Brian Boru's
fortress castle in Central Ireland.

Photo © Home At First.

Munster, decided to battle Limerick’s Viking King Imar in opposition against his heavy taxation of Munster, Imar’s men killed him. Brian replaced his brother as Munster’s king and tracked down Imar and his army, slaughtering them on an island in the Shannon Estuary. Brian Boru now controlled much of the south of Ireland, and, in the process, became the enemy of the Irish King of Leinster and his ally, Viking Sitric Silkenbeard, King of Dublin, ally of the Limerick Vikings.
          In 999, the Leinstermen and Dublin Vikings were defeated in battle by Brian’s Munstermen.

 

Three years later, Brian bested Sitric Silkenbeard

himself, and became High King of Ireland. For another decade, Brian’s army skirmished with Vikings who were seeing themselves being pushed out of Ireland. Finally, at Clontarf near Dublin, Brian Boru decisively defeated the Vikings in 1014, although he was murdered in his tent by fleeing Norsemen after the battle was over.


The Legend:
          Sometime during the years when Brian was King of Munster, a royal wedding was to be held near Limerick. The King of Leinster, allied with the Limerick Vikings, was invited to attend, and, with a small contingent of his army set out to cross northern County Tipperary about 30 miles of Munster — enemy territory — to reach Limerick and the wedding. The route selected would avoid towns as much as possible, to avoid detection and confrontation with Brian’s Munstermen. It was to cross the highest of the Arra Mountains, Tountinna, 1,500 feet high, where there were some old slate mines and a few farms, but no villages until reaching the River Shannon at Ballina, not far from the Limerick border.

          Brian Boru’s castle was atop the hilly town of Killaloe just across the Shannon from Ballina. The view from the castle looked across the river toward Ballina and the Arra Mountains. Gormlaith, bride of Brian, was at home in Killaloe when she received word of the wedding guests underway from Leinster. It so happened that Gormlaith was none other than mother of Sitric Silkenbeard, Viking King of Dublin, mortal enemy of Brian Boru and the Irish of Munster. Although Brian was at that moment away from Killaloe, Gormlaith knew an opportunity when she saw one, and proved to be no shrinking violet. Calling on her loyal friends in Dublin,

The Lough Derg Way climbs through the gorse and bracken to the summit of Tountinna. Did the King of Leinster meet his fate here? Photo © Home At First.
 The Lough Derg Way climbs through
the gorse & bracken to the summit
of Tountinna. Did the King of
Leinster meet his fate here?

Photo © Home At First

Gormlaith ferreted the travel plans of the King of

 

Leinster and his militia and planned a surprise welcome for them when they neared the end of their journey.

          As the tired wedding guests traversed the heights of Tountinna and came into sight of Lough Derg, the great lake of the Shannon, and the Slieve Bernagh mountains to the west, they were set upon by the murderous attack of a superior force led by a fierce woman. No mercy was shown. The entire wedding party — including the King of Leinster — was slain on the slopes of Tountinna. They were buried on the spot, and the graves marked with several medium sized blocks of native stone.


The Adventure: Finding the Graves of the Leinstermen
          Today, as in the Dark Ages of 1,000 years ago, few people and fewer roads are to be found on Tountinna, highest of the Arra Mountains. There are still some tailings from the old slate mines, and patches of pastureland cover the few reasonably flat portions of the hillside. There are a few stands of trees — perhaps fewer than a millennium ago — and they tend to be on the lower slopes of Tountinna. Most of the mountain is covered with gorse and bracken, the same tough rough that makes Irish golf doubly challenging. When the gorse is in flower, as it is in May and June, Tountinna takes on some of the aspects of a patchwork quilt, with the large gorse patches a surprising bright yellow even when thick clouds obscure the sun.

 

          A poorly marked mountain road — barely one car

Are these the Graves of the Leinstermen? Photo © Home At First.
Are these the Graves
of the Leinstermen?

Photo © Home At First

wide, and sometimes just two gravel strips on either side of a grass median — climbs steeply from just south of Portroe village and again from Ballina, 4-5 miles to the south along Lough Derg. As the road climbs from either end point, it follows the gullies and contours native to the mountain, and is intersected by several other minor roads at oblique angles and without markings. All these twists and turns and intersections ensure that the Graves of the Leinstermen are difficult to find. But they are there, just uphill 25 yards from the road at its apex, like a small campsite in a clearing surrounded by gorse and bracken. Bisecting the gravesite is the foot trail leading to the summit of Tountinna, still 500 feet above, and marked prominently with an Eiffel Tower of a microwave relay antenna.
          At the right spot along the road, there are pull-offs — "lay-bys" in the Irish vernacular — on either side. Park your car here, and look for the little trail on the up slope that 

 

leads to the graves, which, disappointingly, anthropologists

tell us are a burial place, but probably from Neolithic times, some more millennia older

than Brian Boru and his Amazon queen.

 

          But, never mind. It’s finding the stones, you see, that is the adventure here. And then, turning, cross to the downhill side of the road and see what you have discovered that is truly grand about Central Ireland.


The Moral of the Story:
        Discover a truth that finding the Graves of the Leinstermen shares with treasure hunts and maybe life in general — it’s not the treasure, it’s the hunt; it’s not reaching the grave, but

Some treasure hunts lead to gold. Photo © Home At First.
Some treasure hunts lead to gold.
Photo © Home At First.

the journey. Life, you see, is much

 

poorer without appreciating the travel required to reach your goals. Even grand goals, like Ireland.

 

— TAKE YOUR OWN TREASURE HUNT —
as part of your next visit to Central Ireland.
If there's no gold at the rainbow's end,
at least there may be a rainbow.

This article comes from Home At First's exclusive
"Ireland Activities Guide" that comes to you as part of your trip.

Learn all about Home At First's travel programs to: IRELAND

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