Turtle Bunbury

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Kinsellagh's Hill & the Acaun Monastery


There is a field known as Kinsellagh's Hill on the road between Lisnavagh House and Tobinstown Cross in County Carlow where my parents built a house in 2006. Sometimes called Germaine's Hill, it rolls down to some flat fields running along the River Dereen where the old monastery and graveyard of Acaun are sited. The names on the gravestones are almost entirely worn away but perhaps somebody chanced to write them down before erosion set in? As James Fraser noted in his 'Hand Book for Travellers in Ireland' (1854), p. 219, there was also a castle and abbey at Acaun. The ruins of Acaun church are just north of the Dereen bridge, on the west side of the river, and measure 56’ long and 20’6” wide.

The church was once complete with chancel wall, nave and an adjacent house where perhaps the priest lived. Edward O’Toole of the Tullowphelim Historical Society later wrote of how ‘the upper part of a stone cross [was] sunk in the ground’ beside the traces of the foundation of Acaun Church. (He measured the cross as 2’4” breadth and 4” thick). A tombstone slab inside this church is no longer legible but is believed to have been for the Cogan family of nearby Williamstown Castle. This castle is marked on Sir William Petty’s Down Survey Map for 1683. One of this family, WHF Cogan, was sometime MP for Co. Kildare. They also lived at Tyndale, Co. Dublin. [The Primitive Churches of Rathvilly Parish, Ogham, 1995/1996 Vol. 12]. There was also a weir here which diverted the mill stream from the river. A portion of the old mill was also still standing, including a stone in the mill-race with a deep groove running obliquely down its whole length. O’Toole believed this groove was where the sluice gate was raised and lowered.

Right next door to the church are the ruins of Acaun Monastery, believed to have been part of the Augustinian Order. It is a square building measuring 15’ x 16’ and including an archway which is now so covered in earth that it has vanished. During the reign of Charles II, Thomas Dinely passed this way and wrote in his Journal:

‘From Tullagh Phelim (Tullow) to Hackets-Town is five miles in which two miles from Tullagh you are to pass a river called Dender, but most commonly Derrin (Dereen) upon which is a mill and a Bridge of Timber’.

When the monastery was suppressed, the Abbot or Superior apparently deposited the sacred vessels in a well in the grounds for safe keeping, and this is supposed to be the spot where the grass is greener than elsewhere. To see inscriptions from the Acaun gravstones by Cathy Goss, or view a transcript of Lord Walter Fitzgerlad's take on it all, follow this link.

The river flows beneath Acaun Bridge to what is presently known as the Haroldstown Dolmen, one of the finest I've seen. According to the OPW in their Archaeological Inventory of Carlow, these dolmens were constructed between 3300 and 2900 BC. (The pyramids were built between 2630 and 1814 BC while Stonehenge was built, in different stages, between 3100 and 1500 BC.) The old road from Carlow to Hacketstown is said to have come through the centre of the Lisnavagh estate, arriving at the Ballybit end, coming down the Green Lane and the Lime Walk, past the present house, down Kinsellagh's Hill to what is called Denny's Turn and through the River Field to a spot where the River Dereen was forded. (I like to refer to Denny's Turn as 'Claridge's' after the concierge from Claridge's who lived beside it during much of the first decades of the present century).

Every field, paddock, wood and grove at Lisnavagh has a name. Some of these are straightforward descriptions. The Lodge Field runs along the old avenue by the Gate Lodge. The Pump Field is where the water pump is located. Walter’s Paddock was named for my grandfather’s chauffeur who lived in an adjacent house. The Rath Field is named for a ringfort secreted in the hedges. Massy’s was named for my step-grandfather, Major Hugh Massy. There are others for which we no longer know the origin of their name - Troy’s Wood, Bowe’s Grove, Carr's Hill, Monavoth. And for others, we can guess. The Broom Park may have been where Colonel Kane Bunbury verntured out in his brougham, a mid-Victorian one-horse carriage. The Brick Pond Field must have been where bricks were made when they built the house and farm in the 1840s. At the centre of the estate stands Whelan’s Bank, steep enough to surf down upon tin trays in snowy childhood days, which culminates in Whelan’s Bog where Andy Verney taught the great and the good the art of clay pigeon shooting. I don’t know who Whelan was. A tenant perhaps? A favoured employee?


Perhaps Kinsellagh’s Hill was simply named for a man called Kinsellagh who once owned or leased the field. The Lisnavagh Rent Books for 1800 mentions a tenant by name of Widow Kinshellagh. But I like to think the hill was named for one of the Kings of Hy Kinsealagh who ruled south east Leinster in the 4th century AD, over three thousand years after the Haroldstown dolmen was pitched. The origin of the Hy Kinsealagh is suitably vague but this was certainly their terrain when they came to prominence in the wake of the death of Cormac Mac Art. They seem to have had a series of strongholds at Rathvilly (by the Moat), Rathdaniel, Raheendaw, Rathmore and Rathgall. These presumably included the various raths at Knocknagan, Tobinstown and Lisnavagh (aka the Rath Field), with the aforementioned dolmen by Acaun Bridge of considerable significance.

Not far from the Knocknagan rath is a small, elevated, bramble-covered knoll which may also hark back to distant ages although it could feasibly be a construct of any century. It is rimmed with granite rocks but these may have been flung up from the surrounding field by farm labourers in more recent times. One of the granite rocks has a curious shape, almost like an anvil to my possibly deranged historical radar vision. There are trees at the heart of the knoll, unimpressive trees, probably elders but the brambles promise good blackberries in season. The view is predictably outstanding taking in the skyline of Mount Leinster, Keadeen, Eagle Hill, the Blackstairs and around to the midlands.

There is also a ringfort of sorts just off the R726 at what I think is called the Grangewat turn-off for Rathmore and Rathvilly (see here). It's said that this was Rathmore but I can’t imagine this was the headquarters of a great dynastic leader. Maybe I’m wrong. The Slaney flows just downhill to the east. It’s more like a motte, with steep slopes and thick walls, but I suspect it has been somewhat reduced in size by the evolution of the R726 itself, which has left it more crescent-shaped than circular. I made my debut visit in January 2018 when, in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia and Storms Brian and Eleanor, there were plenty of trees down, mingling with the thick briars and rabbit holes or possibly foxes dens. In fact, it seemed rather like a fox covert. Looking into one of the many wide holes, I could see some sizeable granite rocks suggesting that, perhaps, the walls beneath the earth are more solid than one might think. (With thanks to Paddy and Clare Halligan)


One of the best known early icons of these parts was Crimthann mac Énnai, king of Leinster, who reigned from circa 443 AD until 483 AD when he was was reputedly slain in battle by his own grandson, the usefully-named Eochaid the Slayer. Crimthann, who was from the Uí Cheinnselaig sept of the Laigin, apparently had his main residence where Rathvilly Moat stands today, 1km east of the village. While you can see nine different counties from its summit on a clear day, I’ve always felt the Rathvilly Moat would have been a relatively small royal residence but perhaps he felt small was beautiful? In any event, as Carlow-based writer David Halpin explains in his 2017 article "Who Killed the King? Was it Eochaid the Slayer? An Ancient Irish Murder Mystery”, one translation of ‘Rathvilly’ (Ráith Bilech) is ‘Ringfort of the Sacred Tree’ and, in terms of ancient sky-watching sacred types, one must bear in mind Rathvilly’s relative proximity to such landmarks as the afore-mentioned Haroldstown Dolmen, the passage grave on Baltinglass Hill (aligned with the summer solstice, or is it the equinox?) and the Castleruddery stone circle. Local lore holds that Crimthann met, and was baptized by, St. Patrick; an ancient holy well just above the village is named for St Patrick in honor of the occasion. When Crimthann was murdered, the blame fell on his grandson Eochaid Guinech (aka ’the Slayer’), son of his second daughter Ingren, and a member of the Uí Bairrche. However, the 'Tripartite Life of St. Patrick' claims it was actually Eochaid’s father, Oengus, who killed the king after Crimthann banished a tribe by name of The Sons of Mac Ercae, of which Oengus was leader. The jury is still out.

Heading on down the Slaney to Rathmore, this was apparently home of Colman, King of Hy Kinsellagh in the 6th century, and a great-grandson of King Crimthann. Colman’s mother was Mella, a sister of St. Kevin of Glendalough. The Bunbury family later built Rathmore House close to the rath. In 1598 the castles of Rathmore and Rathvilly were mentioned as two of the eight 'Principal Catherlagh Castles'. Five years later, the rectories, churches an chapels of Rathmore (with Straboe and Mocahon) were granted to John Eustace, gentleman. [In 1611, the manor, castle and water mill of Rathmore passed to Sir Christopher Cheevers of Macetown, Co. Meath - but was this Rathmore in County Kildare?] The late Dick Corrigan told me there was formerly a church on the hill opposite the gate lodge at Rathmore which was abandoned circa 1800. There was a burial ground nearby and human bones have been sighted there in recent times. In the lawn of Rathmore House there is a stone with a rectangular hollow which may once have been the socket for a holy cross.

In the summer of 365AD, a warrior named Enna, said to have been born in Rathvilly, commanded the Leinstermen in a bloody encounter with the highly experienced army of Ireland’s Ard Righ, Eochaidh Muighmheadhoin of the Hy Neils. The battle took place on Croghan Hill in the Bog of Allen. Eochaidh fielded 100 horse soldiers (all nobles) and 500 foot soldiers (mainly free class). Enna has 80 cavalry and 400 foot soldiers. To the sound of blaring trumpets and horns the two armies met. It was to be a decisive victory for Enna, completed by the capture of Eochaidh’s druid, Ceadnathach. The druid took one look at Enna and said: ‘Thou wouldst never conquer from this hill on which I am, if I were to live’. Quickly identifying the solution to this conundrum, Enna hurled his spear into the druid and let out a raucous cackle. With his dying breath, Ceadnathach cursed Enna and his ‘foul laugh’ and, the legend runs, ‘cinnsealach’ is Irish for ‘foul laugh’. There are inevitably other translations, with more likely names such as ‘authoritative chieftain’. (Enna’s eldest son Felimy was forefather of the Hy Felimy from which the parish of Tullowphelim (containing Tullow) is named).

Enna Kinsellagh seems to have lived a very long time, banishing Palladius, first Bishop of Ireland, circa 430. One report maintains that Enna was finally killed at the battle of Oagha in Co. Meath in 445, eighty years after the victory at Croghan Hill, but there does not seem to be such a place as Oagha. At any rate, sticking with the legends, Enna’s third son Crimthann Cass succeeded as King in 445 and ruled for forty years. Crimthan is famous for having been baptized in the waters of the Slaney by St Patrick at Rathvilly in 448. St Patrick arrived in the area about a year after he lit the seminal paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, with his nephew Iserminus on hand to help out. The two missionaries had steered clear of south-east Leinster until Enna’s death in 445. They then crossed down through the hills at Baltinglass, entered Carlow at Graney and followed the river right up to Rathmore where they crossed the Slaney. The Vicarage at Rathmore had St. Patrick for its patron but there is now no sign of church or cemetery. Patrick then continued on to Tubberpatrick and crossed the Dereen at Acaun. There is a tradition that he was in a hurry at this stage but was unable to travel the ‘Red Bog of Carric’, wherever that is. He had to take to the hills and it was from here that he allegedly blessed Ireland and all in it with two exceptions, snakes and the Red Bog. And thence to Rathvilly where he met and baptized Crimthann and installed the King’s son Fiacra the Fair as first Bishop of Leinster. Crimthann was slain in 484 by his grandson Eochaidh Guinech but his descendents continued to rule for numerous generations and eventually became the MacMurroughs.

How do these names connect to the Lisnavagh landscape? What is that strange square shape marked on the old Ordance Survey maps for Bowe's Grove? Am I halucinating the rim of a stone circle in the same wood? What is the double ditch that liesin the old Fox Covert to the west of Carr's Hill, not far from the Knocknagan rath? is it simply the work of a rural Victorian engineering project? Or the small underground stream that runs through the Rath Field below Oldfort, so close to the rath itself, and onwards into the Dereeen? Are the rocks piled into the corners of the field merely the debris of an agricualtural plough or were they once part of some richer past?



Perhaps, by the 16th and 17th century, these sites were connected with the Nolans of Tullowphelim. In 1982, the late Canadian poet and author Alden Nowlan published an article entitled “Nowlan in Ireland: A poet's progress" which told of his journey to his ancestral homeland. Alden descended from John Nowlan, a hedgeschool master from Bunclody, whose son Patrick emigrated to Nova Scotia in the early 19th century. The surviving letters written between John and Patrick subsequently formed the basis of an article written by Father Seamus de Val (anglicized James Wall). In his story Alden noted how Patrick Nowlan's forbears had fled to Bunclody ‘after the English invaders seized the fertile lands around Tullow, where from time immemorial they had kept their almost sacred herds of white cattle.' This remark appears to have been based on conversations Alden had with people in the area. The family are said to have been based at Tullowphelim, named for Feidhlimidh "Reachtmar" (the ever good), High King of Tara in the 2nd century, whose son, Eochaidh Fionn Fothairt, is the recognized ancestor of the Carlow Nolans. The last known Nolan chief was "Cahir O'Nolan" (1525-1592) of Ballykealey who, in his last years, together with Donal Spainneach (the Spaniard) Kavanagh, was in rebellion against English rule. His son Phelim was pardoned for being in rebellion in 1592 and in 1601. The Bruen family papers record that another Cahir O'Nolan and Murtagh Kavanagh forfeited land in 1641 as papists. At the time the seat of the Nolans was in Tullowphelim and after being dispossessed they seem to have established a new centre for themselves further to the southwest, their main territory extending from Kellistown and down to Tullowmagimma (Tinryland area). Their chief burial ground now became that found on the Templepeter townland and Raymond Le Gros' castle on the Castlemore townland acted as a defence against any possible hostile Nolan incursions into their former territory of Tullowphelim. It is conceivable that their fofeited territory included the lands at Lisnavagh which, if you look under Thomas Bunbury of Kill, were being farmed by Stephen Nowlan in the 18th century. [With thanks to Roger Nowlan.]

According to an article entitled ‘Hedge Schools or Pay Schools of Rathvilly Parish’ by Miss K. OToole, Kinsellagh’s Hill was also known as Germaine’s Hill. She writes: ‘About half a mile to the north of Tobinstown Cross Roads, at the foot of "Germaine's Hill" on the road to Rathvilly, a school was conducted by Denis Delany. The place is still called "Delany's Farm" or "Denny's Twin." Delany was a low-sized man with rather flat feet and he was called "Dinny Heels". When the National Schools were established, his occupation was gone, and he used to drive round in a donkey's trap to teach the children in their homes. Many of the old people up to 50 years ago, remembered him very well, but now "the very spot where many a time he triumphed is forgot".[iii]

Denis Delany married Ellen Cummins in 1816, and lived in Tobinstown. Their youngest child was born in 1832 but, by the time of Griffith's Valuation, Ellen was a widow and living in Acaun. It is assumed Denis and Ellen were the parents of Edward Delany who, by his wife Mary Dowd, was father to Patrick Delany, a teacher at the National School in Hacketstown according to the 1901 and 1911 census. Patrick was born in Acaun, in Rathvily parish, where he was baptized in 1863. He married Elizabeth Hughes and had at least two children -Margaret Mary (baptized at St. Andrew's in Dublin, 1899) and Edward Joseph (birth recorded in Baltinglass district, 1902). I asked my Tobinstown neighbour Paddy Delaney if he was related to these people but he maintained his Delaneys were blow-in's.



With thank to JJ Woods for kick-starting these thoughts, and Dick Corrigan, Kathryn Roundtree, Sue Clement and others.