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The Monastic Townland of Acaun, County Carlow

On the 6″ Ordnance Survey map (c. 1840), Acaun townland measures as 1 acre, 3 roods, and 13 perches (circa 1.83 acres). On the Historic 25″map, made between 1897 and 1913, the area in the half of the river nearest the ‘island’ shows 0.524 acres, with a further 0.36 acres in the millrace and mill area, making a total of 0.884 acres. The millrace is certainly man-made and the weir is clearly visible, but a bit reduced. Note how the road runs along the west side of river before turning sharp right towards the dolmen (cromlech); today it sweeps west towards Tobinstown Cross; I believe there’s a row of ash trees marking its former route running south. The map also shows a substantial farmyard just across the river that is gone now.


The Monastic Townland of Acaun, County Carlow


The River Derreen at Acaun. Photo: Turtle Bunbury (9 January 2021)

Located just east of the Lisnavagh farmyard, Acaun is the smallest of Carlow County’s 603 townlands. This account considers the origins of its monastery, mill-race and castle and touches on its connections to people such as Dame Alice Kyteler, Bishop Ledred and Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick.



Please be advised that Acaun is on private property. 




See also ‘Haroldstown, County Carlow – The Dolmen, the Barrow Graves, the Lord Chancellor & the Media Mogul.’




In 2008, my wife and I built a house in a field near Tobinstown Cross in County Carlow in south-east Ireland. My family have held the land upon which the field sits since 1669. Ally and I named the house Oldfort, in part because there’s an ancient ringfort in one corner of the field and in part after a place in Nassau she used to visit in bygone days.

The ground slopes lightly down from Oldfort to a soundless underground stream that flows east for half a mile before tumbling into the River Dereen. Sometimes, after heavy rains, the stream rises to the surface in the guise of a river and reminds me that our landscape is riddled with secrets. Close to the confluence of the stream and the Dereen are the very last vestiges of a monastery so old that almost nothing is known of it, save that it is said to have been founded in the 5th century AD to offer sanctuary and prayer to passing Christians.

Across the Dereen, a half dozen flat river-stones are sunk into a diagonal line beneath the shallow waters, rippling the surface bank to bank just as they did when they were heaved into place, perhaps by some of the more muscular monks who lived here back when the world was younger. The weir was probably built with a view to catching succulent eels but I am no expert on early Christian eel fishing.

The monastery is called Acaun, or Níocán in Irish, which appears to translate as ‘laundry’ or ‘wash’. The monastery is central to what, measuring 1.83 acres, ranks as the smallest townland in Carlow. It is almost all gone now but stare at the lumps of mossy-rock in the ground around you for long enough and they start to form shapes, to reincarnate the bold rectangles and square blocks that human hands and ancient tools scraped and carved in those otherwise silent times. Once these rocks were the walls of a chancel, a nave and other rooms within which men – and perhaps the occasional women – lived, toiled, ate and died.

Some of the legible gravestones are for men and women who died in the 18th century but by the time today’s children are the old generation, and another hundred years of Irish rain has drilled into the rocks at Acaun, I can’t imagine there will be any trace left of their holy purpose.

When Acaun was built, Ireland was a land of warring kings such as Crimthann mac Énnai (see below) who ruled the Kingdom of Leinster from 443 AD until his death in 483. If it be true that the monastery was 5th century, it was probably him who gave the monks the royal assent, the planning permission of its day. Crimthann was one of the first Irish kings to tune into the Christian world. Legend holds that Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, led the monarch bare-footed to a holy well in Rathvilly and dunked him in the waters just as John the Baptist dunked Jesus four centuries earlier.

When I walk in these places, I think of the monks and the eels and the saints and the kings and how their world is so utterly, utterly removed from the Ireland of today that it’s as if it was all make-believe.


Acaun Townland & Mill


Acaun is the smallest of Carlow County’s 603 townlands and somehow managed to avoid being subsumed into any of its adjoining townlands – Haroldstown to the east, Lisnavagh to the north or Tobinstown to the west. The Historic 25″map, made between 1897 and 1913 indicates that the townland of Lisnevagh [sic] had expanded into what was previously Tobinstown, so townland boundaries did occasionally shift in age’s past. [The spelling of the name Lisnavagh varies; the townland is often spelled ‘Lisnevagh’ but the house itself is ‘Lisnavagh.’]

On the 6″ OS map [pictured], made between 1829 and 1841, the townland of Acaun computes as 1 acre, 3 roods, and 13 perches, which comes out at circa 1.83 acres, all of which is contained between Acaun’s mill race and the River Derreen. The Dereen, or An Daoirín, which rises on the southern slopes of Lybagh and Slievemaan in the Wicklow Mountains, is a prime salmon spawning tributary of the River Slaney. It flows through Counties Wicklow and Carlow before joining the Slaney about five kilometres downstream of Tullow. It is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under EU legislation. The freshwater pearl mussel, a protected species, is to be found in the river, while salmon also spawn here.

A bit up-stream, level with the churchyard, is what we suspect to be an eel-weir, which shows when the water level is low, although it could simply be stepping stones. Or perhaps it is connected to the now illegal collection of pearls from the freshwater mussel, which took place on the Derreen in the last century. In 1937, Peadar Mac Domhnaill, a collector of material for the Irish Folklore Commission from Tinryland, County Carlow, recorded:

‘Pearl fishing in the Doirin was once a lucrative occupation. The shells are removed from the bed of the river with a cleft-stick. They are afterwards opened and examined at leisure. A good pearl may be worth 7/6.’ [1]

In any case, I don’t think there is a preservation order on the stones, which is something that should be remedied.


Acaun on Griffith’s Valuations, with Lisnavagh Laundry and Tobinstown Post Office also shown. Opposite the post office, Tobinstown School, built circa 1902, seems to face a different way to its later orientation.


Was this the half of ‘a carucate of Nykan land’ [ie: 60 acres] mentioned in the Red Book of Ormond in 1306? As Carlow-based engineer James Grogan observes:

“If you count up the acreage on the Lisnavagh side of the Acaun ‘island’ from the Hacketstown Road up to the stream running just south of Lisnavagh’s “Farm Yard” on the old Ordnance Survey map, and keep between the Lisnavagh road from Tobinstown Cross and the river and exclude the old church and graveyard, you get 59.511 acres! It would be most likely that one land parcel that was recorded, as knowing the ‘lie of the land’ there, it would be the easier side to access it in medieval times … from little Acaun’s, mighty stories grow!’

Map showing the old road in blue, with thanks to Edwin Burgess.

Edwin Burgess, whose family have lived at Tobinstown since the mid-19th century, adds:

‘The old road from Tobinstown to the river went straight and then left down to the bridge or ford, or whatever was there adding about 7 acres to that 59.5 acres. When you are driving to Tobinstown Cross, look straight through the old Tobinstown Inn (now a private house), across McNally’s shed to the trees on the height – that is the route of the road which turned left and down the present road over the tiny bridge on the stream in Pat Coleman’s field  to the river crossing point.’

This route would have served as the access point for the Tobinstown Rath located in a square wood, now overgrown, just south of Acaun but strangely unmarked on the Ordnance Survey. The shape was very clear in the 1960s when it was possible to walk all about it, except for a small bunch of blackthorns on the south side. Edwin has marked the approximate route of the road in blue on the map to the right.


The Washing Place?


A Maynooth University study from 1998 by Liam O’Paircin shows the name was variously spelled as Nikan (1220s), Nichan (1302-6), Nycan (1303), Nican (1303), Nykan (1306), Nicanor, Níocán, Áth Cána (1839) and Eckawn (1933), with the first reference to it as ‘Acaun’ seemingly coming in 1830. [1.a]

Acaun appears to be the place recorded as Nakeen on Taylor & Skinner’s 1777 survey of Ireland (the map is pictured in the footnotes below). However, this seems to be mis-located, being shown on the far side of Tobinstown Cross from Lisnavagh, heading towards Rathwood, on the left. Nakeen was noted as the residence of Mr Paterson in the first edition (1786) of William Wilson’s Post Chaise Companion or Traveller’s Directory through Ireland (here). The spelling (and owner) were still listed as Paterson and Nakeen when the fourth edition of Wilson’s Post Chaise Companion was published in 1820.

And yet it is spelled as Níochán in Irish, according to the respected website. A 2020 update of the online Irish-English dictionary at reveals that ‘níochán’ translates as ‘laundry’ or ‘wash’. One would be forgiven for thinking this explains the nomenclature of the nearby Laundry House, but my father maintains that the Laundry House is so-called simply because it was where all the laundry for the ‘Big House’ at Lisnavagh was washed through until, he reckons, the 1940s. There was a large shed on site where the sheets were washed. I find it curious that such a shed was located quite distant from the river, although the Farmyard Stream does run eastwards, not far to the north of the site. (The stream was charmingly diverted to run through part of the Laundry Wood by the present owner of the Laundry House, circa 2018). And yet, as my father also observed, the stream would have been laced with the discharge of a large volume of cattle and sheep from throughout the time the Laundry House was used, so who knows!? Where else did they get the water for the laundry from? Was there a well, or a tank of some kind?

An eel-weir, or stepping stones, across the River Dereen at Acaun. (Photo: William Dick)

When William Dick, the present resident of the Laundry House, began investigating the name in 2020, he was rather surprised by this interpretation from O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary, with John O’Donovan’s Supplement (Dublin n.d., 1870):

Nightín: a mixture of dog dung, human urine and water, with which the poorer kind of the Irish peasantry use to wash their linen.

In the late 1830s, John O’Donovan, working in the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, undertook an extraordinary project to establish the origin of as many of Ireland’s 63,000 townland names as possible, working with maps and manuscripts at libraries and archives throughout Ireland and England. His deductions were published in 1839 as ‘A note or an Irish form of a placename in the Ordnance Survey Parish Namebooks’. Under Acaun, he stated that the word “Eacaun” was inscribed ‘on ruins of mill in this portion of land.’

O’Donovan also referred to it as Áth Cána, which he translated as ‘Ford of The Tribute’. Between 1883 and 1886, Michael Comerford, a Carlow-born antiquarian and parish priest of Monasterevan (and Coadjutor Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin from 1888 until his sudden death in 1895) published his three-volume work Collections relating to the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. His substantial chapter on the Parish of Rathvilly built on Griffith’s Notes and likewise suggests that Acaun derives its name from athan, meaning “a little ford.”

It’s also possible the original word ‘cana’ is old Irish for ‘cleaning’ or ‘washing’. In the early 20th century, Lord Walter FitzGerald noted: ‘The name “Acaun” is an Irish word, said to mean a “small ford.”‘ [3]

Professor Fergus Kelly, the author of ‘Early Irish Farming’ (Dublin 1997), gave his personal opinion in December 2020:

‘I have had a good nose-around in relation to this mystery place-name. I think I would go for the Nigheachan (Níochán) “washing place” theory. Admittedly, there seem to be no other occurrences of this word being used as a place-name and nothing in Hogan’s Onomasticon of early place-names. But the word nigheachan is well-attested, and certainly it would suit the shallow section of river shown in your photograph – ideal for washing one’s garments. Furthermore, the earliest attestations [as per Liam O’Paircin‘s study, above] support this interpretation, e.g. Nichan, Nikan, etc. And in general, one attaches more credence to an earlier form. How to explain later spellings such as Acaun, Eckaun? Difficult! In my experience, many Irish place-names come out in very odd spellings when copied by scribes or officials who did not know Irish. The accidental omission of initial N- could explain these later spellings. I cannot see any explanation based on “ath” (long a!) in the meaning ford. I can see no connection with “each” (horse) or “achar” (time). So I vote for “washing place”.’ [2]


The Monastery at Acaun


My sister Sasha Sykes on a mound at Acaun that definitely correlates to something ancient – but what!? There’s plenty of secrets locked away here. Taking it from the bridge, with the dolmen field on the far side, one encounters, in succession, a series of channels (one with with a small pedestrian bridge of granite pillars), a weir, an elevated mound, the outline of a rectangular dwelling (a castle or fort perhaps) and a graveyard, but there are cryptic rocks everywhere, much of it hidden in the bramble and furze. Photo taken on 9 January 2021.

I’m not quite sure why we think the monastery at Acaun started in the 5th or 6th century. Where did that information come from? Perhaps it was connected to the monastery at Killabeg, midway between Clonmore and Aghold on the east of the Slaney where there is the ruin of a church and a holy well. [4] Or Clonmore, 8km south-east, founded by – and named for – St Mogue (or St Maidoc) in around 530AD, which St Onchuo once visited? Or Kiltegan, about 8km upriver, if one follows the Douglass? At Ballykillduff, just as one turns off the R727 after the Council Depot (or “dump”), there is also another graveyard, where a castle and another monastery / abbey once stood.

Also of relevance, Griffiths Notes adds:

‘In the Townland of Knocklishinbeg [5-6km north-east of Acaun] are the ruins of an old Church, called in the Name Book Kilnavrithogue or Kilbracken, the graveyard attached to which is not now used nor are any graves visible. The inhabitants generally pronounce the first name Cill (Kyle) na Britóg; by some it is called Cill na bhFrithóg. The name Kilbracken is the one most commonly used by the people. The walls are forty-four feet long, twenty-three feet wide, and about to the height of three feet remain. They are four feet think and of large granite stones; within them are planted cabbage and deal plants. In the descriptive remarks relating to this place in the Name Book is pencilled: “A well in Tombay (Hacketstown Parish) said to have been connected with this place; said by some of the people that Keating’s History of Ireland gives a particular account at this place.” Those whom we consulted say they never heard this except from the Surveyors.’

So, which monks were at Acaun and why? I know not.

Liam Price, the County Wicklow judge, historian and president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1949-1952) visited Acaun in 1945 and wrote about it as follows:

‘23rd June 1945: We crossed the river and looked at the ruins of the ‘monastery’ in Acaun. They really consist of a square moated fort (of the Ballyraine or Talbotstown type) with ruins of a small square tower towards the SE side. But on the S especially alterations have been made in the ground at and outside the moat, and it would be necessary to plan the whole thing carefully to see what it was. There is a graveyard to the N of it, overgrown with long grass and ferns: no remains overground in it except probably marking a church.’  [5]

The earliest reference to Acaun that I know of is a Latin reference in the Calendar of Ormond Deeds I (48) from the 1220s mentioning ‘ten carucates in Nikan’. A carucate was a medieval measure of land and was apparently based on how much eight oxen could plough in a year, which was taken as roughly 120 acres. Does that mean the original 1220s reference equates to about 1200 acres? A subsequent reference in the Red Book of Ormond (38) from 1306 reads ‘pro dim. carucata terre Nykan’, which appears to mean ‘for half of a carucate of Nykan land’ [ie: 60 acres]. Could that be the same 60 acres as in the lower map of Acaun pictured above? [6]


The burning of Petronella by Bishop Ledred. Illustration: Derry Dillon.


The Alice Kyteler Connection – Johanne de Valle  and Hugo le Blound


Richard Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory

Mr O’Paircin’s work ([7]), referred to above, included two entries for 1303 of particular interest from the Red Book of Ormond, viz:

De eodem domino Johanne de Valle pro uno feodo in le Nycan per ann.

De Hugone le Blound pro firme molendini del Nican.

Latin was never my strong point, but James Grogan had a shot at translating these lines in August 2018 and came up with the following:

The same John Wall plea for a fee for a year in Nycan‘.

On behalf of Hugo de Blound, firmly (perhaps meaning solid, working??) mill of Nican’.

So, Johanne de Valle (aka John Wall, or John de Valle) and Hugone le Blound were evidently key players at Acaun in 1303. I imagine de Valle was a kinsman of the de Valle family who were based at what is now Burton Hall and Johnstown just east of Carlow. The other man seems to have been generally known as Hugh Le Blunt (or Blount, Blund, Blunt) and may have been the Hugo De Blound (de Blunt) who served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire under Edward I (Longshanks) between 1276 and 1278. [8] He also apparently served in Edward Longshanks campaigns against the Scots and the Welsh, although I see no obvious reference to Ireland and nothing under 1303. [9]

In 2018, James Grogan espied a potential link between le Blound, de Valle and Dame Alice Kyteler, once the richest woman in Kilkenny, who became the central figure in one of Europe’s first witchcraft trials in 1324. The daughter of a Flemish merchant-banker, Alice outlived three husbands, pocketing the bulk of each man’s fortune. When a fourth husband fell ill, suspicion mounted, along with allegations that she was indulging in weird demon-worship. Alice’s second husband was a Callan moneylender (who was accused of murder) by name of Adam le Blund (who she married in 1302), while her third husband (who she married in about 1316) was a Tipperary landholder named Richard De Valle. After Richard died, Alice sued his heir for her share of his estate. Could these two men have been kinsmen of Hugo le Blund and John De Valle?

In 1324, Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory, set his sights on bringing Alice down. [10] He arrested her maids Petronella and Basilia and then appears to have set to work, using the art of extracting information he’d learnt back in 1308 when he was a young Franciscan monk in France during the annihilation of the Knights Templar. At length, poor Petronella of Meath “confessed” that she sacrificed nine red cocks in the middle of a highway, and offered up the eyes of nine peacocks, amid all sorts of other voodoo madness, in order to commune with an imp, or evil spirit, called Robin Artisson, to whom Dame Alice was said to have made love. This was plenty enough to damn her mistress who was duly ordered to appear before Ledred’s court, charged with witchcraft and demon-worship. Initially Alice’s influential kinsman Arnold de Poer saved her and managed to imprison Ledred. However, Ledred bounced back and ultimately Alice went on the run, mysteriously vanishing. Ledred took his revenge on Petronella and a handful of others whom he had burned at the stake.


Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick


Sir Tom of Acaun, St Patrick’s Day 2021.

1303, the year of the De Blound / De Valle reference, happens to be the very same year that Edmund Butler (1268-1321) was created Justiciar of Ireland with a fee of £500 per annum. Edmund had succeeded to his father’s lands upon the death of his elder brother Theobald, the 5th Chief Butler of Ireland, in 1299, and would go on to become Earl of Carrick. I am pretty sure that Edmund owned all the land around Acaun and Lisnavagh at this time. Edmund held a barony in Tullath Offelmyth, being a military tenant of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk and lord of Carlow, who died in 1307. Edmund’s son James Butler was created 1st Earl of Ormond.

According to the ecclesiastical taxation and evaluation of 1302-1306, ‘Nichan’ was a parish within the deanery of Ofelinech [Offelmidth], which basically covered the Manor of Tullow. It also included Rathmore, Tullowphelim, Rathvilly, Clonmore, Villa Tankard, Lysenrute, Ruchyn, Aghowle (Co. Wicklow) and Rathcoole (Co. Wicklow). [11]

Ongoing regional warfare with the Irish in the Wicklow Mountains had necessitated John Wogan, justiciar of Ireland from 1295 to 1313, to undertake a fund-raising tour of the “countries” to raise a defence budget. This was also the time that Edward Longshanks was taking on Bruce across the sea in Scotland. The Carlow communities contributed generously. Wogan’s forces were defeated by the O’Byrne’s and the O’Toole’s in June 1308.

And just to add to the mix, in 2010 a metal detector unearthed three coins at Lisnavagh. The oldest was found by the Stable Path, minted in Canterbury and dated to the lengthy reign of Edward III (1327-1377). The other two were silver shilling pieces, minted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and found by what we call the ‘Dutch Bank’ (a grass bank, not a money one!)


Post-Reformation: Acaun Church & Monastery


Downstream on the River Derreen at Acaun. Photo: Turtle Bunbury (2021)

The ruins of Acaun church are just north of the Dereen bridge, on the west side of the river, running into Jim Murphy’s farm. Measuring 56’ long and 20’6” wide, this building was once complete with chancel wall, nave and an adjacent house where perhaps the priest lived. St Patrick is said to have crossed the river at Acaun just before he baptised Crimthann, king of Leinster. Right next 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 includes an archway now so covered in earth that it had all but vanished by the time I visited in 2014.

In the early 20th century, Lord Walter FitzGerald noted:

‘There are three (if not more) granite boulders, broader at the top than at the foot, bearing, in relief, crosses of four arms in a circle with long shafts. One is lying flat, and two are being used as headstones. They resemble “Abbot’s slabs.”‘ [12]

When the monastery was suppressed, probably in the 1537-1540 period, 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. It is a rather wonderful place to walk though as you have a sensation that every rock was once hewn by a mason, and you can still see the vaguest traces of the monastic settlement. That said, I stress this is private land!

Edward O’Toole of the Tullowphelim Historical Society later described 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).

The National Library holds a copy of a lease made by the Earl of Ormonde (later the Great Duke) of ‘Tobinstown and the site of the Abbey of Skan (Acaun?)’ to H. Masterson on 20 March 1633. He may well be the Henry Masterson of County Wexford referred to in some depositions taken after the 1641 Rebellion.

In September 2019, Williamstown resident Christy Gahan told me a local tale that when the monks of Acaun were driven out during the Reformation, they came to Williamstown and hid a golden spear in the thatch of a house, as well as some other golden artefacts in the skeagh bushes of a small rath. The spear was apparently found many long years later. I know not if this is true. All we can say is that monks once lived at Acaun and then they did not.

Nor do I know when the monastery ceased to exist. In 1656-1658, Sir William Petty’s map of the ‘Barony of Ravillie in County of Catherlough’ has the land of Williamstowne [sic] along the north-eastern border of the parish of Rathvilly. It is described as ‘arable and healthy’ and there is a castle marked on it. Just south-east of Williamstown, ‘Tobins towne’ is noted for ‘past & Ar’ (ie pasture and arable) and has an abbey marked on its northern bounds. Some of the lands marked Tobinstown appear to have been subsequently incorporated into Lisnavagh. The lands northeast of Tobinstown in the Clonmore lordship belong to Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, who had an address at Ballycrath, County Carlow. There is no mention of the raths at Tobinstown or Oldfort, nor of the Haroldstown dolmen.

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.’ 

It is notable that he makes no reference to any monastery.

Most of Acaun church and graveyard was bought by farmer Jim Murphy in the early 1990s, while the adjoining monastic site and mill, which formerly belonged to Joan Makin / Barbara Herring, is now with my cousin Michael Doyle and his wife Julie of The Rookery in Acaun, so named for all the rooks in the surrounding fields and trees. There was a clean-up of some of the area around Acaun in about 1988 when Sally Fitzmaurice was working for the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.


The Ordnance Survey Map of Ireland shows the Haroldstown Dolmen (or cromlech), as well as Acaun Bridge, Mill, Monastery and Church in the bottom left. It also indicates a ruined church and the site of both a castle and an abbey just to the east in Haroldstown and, beyond that, a well devoted to St Patrick. Was this Williamstown Castle where the Cogan family lived? Was the well the one into which treasure was thrown to save it from Cromwell!?


The Mill at Acaun


The weir on the River Derreen at Acaun. Photo: Turtle Bunbury (2021)

Was the mill-race natural or man-made? Griffith’s map of 1852 marks the mill ‘in ruins’ and shows the ‘island’ as having a Mr. James J. Baggot as landlord.

On both Griffiths and the 1901 census, Ellen Delaney was described as the ‘mill owner’. I think she was a kinswoman of Denis ‘Denny’ Delaney, of Denny’s Turn, who ran a hedge school in Acaun in the  early 19th century.

The 1911 shows no occupancy at the mill. When Edward O’Toole visited [year?], he noted that a portion of the old mill was 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. You can still see the weir that diverted the mill stream from the river.

My father recalled that there was once a Fox Covert located across the Derreen from what was once Lisnavagh’s River Wood. The late Johnny Alexander tried to sell this covert some years ago as it nominally belonged to the Carlow Hunt.


The Castle at Acaun / Williamstown


I get a little muddled as there is also said to have been a castle at Acaun in former times. This is marked on Sir William Petty’s Down Survey Map for 1683, while James Fraser noted both the castle and abbey at Acaun in 1854. [13] Was this the same as Williamstown Castle, once home to the Cogan / Coogan family, who also lived at Tyndale, Co. Dublin?

A tombstone slab inside Acaun Church is no longer legible but is believed to have been for these Cogans. [14]  William Henry Ford Cogan, a member of this family, was Whig MP for Co. Kildare from 1852-1880. The 1808 gravestone at Acaun (below) is to Bryan and Mary Coogan of Williamstown, not Cogan.


Acaun Graveyard


The grave of Richard Healy, who died in 1799, and his wife, Judith, who died in 1795, at Acaun Monastery. Photographed in February 2021.

On a visit to Dublin’s Registry of Deeds, Sharon Oddie Brown ofThe Silver Bowl found a deed of 3 August 1749, by which:

‘John JACKSON of Kilmorey Co. Wicklow farmer demised to Bryan COOGAN of Knockball, Co. Catherlow [Carlow]…. Lands of Williamstown held by Dennis NEILE a sample man held in [Parish Rathvilly] Barony Rathvilly, Co. Carlow rent of 10s/acre. WITNESS Daniel CULLEN of Doronin & Joseph JACKSON of Killmorey both in Co Wicklow, farmers.’ [15]

On a visit to Acaun in 2010, I espied a hefty “moat” around the graveyard and four-foot-high weeds and ferns in the graveyard itself. The names on the gravestones were almost entirely worn away; many had tumbled face-first into the earth. However, Cathy Goss cleverly managed to transcribe three more headstones before total erosion set in. These are all believed to be late 18th century: Edward Fitzsimmons (who died aged 73 yrs), Richard Healy (died 1799) and his wife, Judith (d. 1795); and one with the surname of Linnen (sic?).

My father recalls that Sally Fitzmaurice (sister to Jane de Montmorency Wright) spent much time “rubbing” gravestones down by the river in the 1970’s. Do the Archaeological Society, or other, have the results?

The Primary Valuation of Tenements Poor Law Union of Carlow of c1851/52 records a Judith Drumgoold of Williamstown, while an Ann Drumgood of Rathvilly was born in 1864. In 1908, the Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser (15 Feb) reported:

‘EVICTION NOTICE. An eviction notice in the case of Messrs Woolself, plaintiffs, and Patk Drumgoold, Williamstown, tenant, was handed in as served on the relieving officer, and Thos Doyle, Plaintiff, and Patk Nolan, tenant.’

The names Jackson, Drumgoold and Healy all appear on the list of Williamstown Tenantry offering support to Sir John Wolseley, see below.

ACAUN BRIDGE. RE-OPENING OF ROADWAY. NOTICE is hereby given that the Roadway over the above bridge on the road from Carlow to Hacketstown is open for traffic. E. T. QUILTON, County Surveyor, Carlow, 7th May, 1903 (Carlow Sentinel, 16 May 1903)
ACAUN – Mr Quilton, County Surveyor, brought under the notice of the Council the condition of Acaun bridge, at present undergoing repairs. He said he found it necessary to get the centre arch stripped and examined. He found it would not be safe to allow traffic to go over it in its present condition and consequently it would have to be stopped for three or four weeks. He would have notices to that effect put up. (Carlow Sentinel, 8 July 1905)

Also, over 100 years ago, the “Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead” included the following details on Acaun Churchyard by Lord Walter FitzGerald. [16]

“This churchyard is situated on the right bank of the Derreen river, a short distance above Acaun Bridge. Near it are extensive traces of foundations of buildings, which are said to have been a monastery. The people in the locality speak of a holy well into which treasure was thrown, and the well filled up, in Cromwell’s time: but they do not know to whom it was dedicated. Only the foundations of Acaun Church now exist. A long granite stone, 56 inches in length, now serves as a headstone to a grave in the church ruins. It appears, by the way it is cut, to be a door-lintel, and has a projecting band running round its square head. The oldest inscribed tombstones are of modern date. The first of the two inscriptions which follow are copied from stones inside the church ruins.

This Stone is Erected by Jacob Jackfon [Jackson] for Him Self & his Family.
Here Lyeth the bodys of James Jackfon Who Departd this Life Febry the 6th 1760 AGd 89 and Ann Jackfon his Wife Departd Septmbr, the 22d 1768 AGd 87
Here Lyeth the Body of George White Who Departed this Life the 28 Day of July 1771 Aged 55 years ~

On a flat slab, in the east end, faintly cut, is inscribed:

This tomb was erected in Memory of Mr Bryan Coogan of Williamstown County Carlow, & His wife Mary Coogan alias Drumgoold, & their Family, July 11th 1808

On a headstone of granite near the above:

Here lyeth ye Bodys of Meary & Terance & William Noland who depart ed this life Sept ye 17th Aged 37 in 1740

On a granite headstone to the east of the ruins:
Here lyeth ye Body of Gerald Keoghoe. Decd Nov. ye 2nd Aged 87, 1757

The remainder is underground.’




With thanks to the brilliant James Grogan, William Dick, Jamie Cahalane, Fergus Kelly, Martin Kelly, Cathy Goss, Diarmuid O’Connor, Jim and Theresa Murphy, Michael and Julie Doyle, Sean Murray and Andy Goss.


To my eye, every roll and crevice in the landscape at Acaun belies some ancient function of which we know no more.


(Carlow Post – Saturday 27 July 1872)

WE, the undersigned, your Tenants in Williamstown, beg leave to express our unfeigned regret at the insult which has been so wantonly offered to you and your amiable Lady, by the sending to you of a Threatening Letter. We unite in looking upon the outrage with the utmost abhorrence, as we know you to be a Landlord who always considers the welfare of your Tenants, as far as it is in your power, and we truly sympathise with you and Lady Wolseley. Hoping that you and Lady Wolseley may long be spared to give us your confidence, as hitherto, We remain, Sir, Your obedient servants,


Mount Wolseley. Tullow, July 23, 1872.
Gentlemen, I beg to assure you I feel most grateful for the Address from my Williamstown Tenantry, and for the genuine and prompt expression of disapproval which it contains of the outrage to which I have been recently subjected. I feel highly honoured by your frank and outspoken testimony as to my connection with you as a Landlord, and trust no act of mine shall ever tend to weaken the happy relationship which has always existed between me and my Tenantry.
I also beg to thank you for your kind expressions of regard towards Lady Wolseley, and I remain, Gentlemen,
Yours, very sincerely,


Extract from Taylor & Skinner’s map of 1777 showing Haroldstown, Lisnavagh [sic] and Nakeen (aka Acaun).



[1] Lucey, John. “The Pearl in Irish Folklore.” Béaloideas, vol. 69, 2001, pp. 77–81.

‘Pearls from the freshwater mussel, known to the scientific community as Margaritifera margaritifera and in Irish-speaking districts as Diúilicin fionnuisce, were collected from Irish rivers and lakes for a long period up until relatively recently when the practice became illegal. Indeed, so strong was the pearl-fishing tradition that it had survived at a low level of activity into the twentieth century and pearls have even become incorporated into the legend and folklore of some areas.’ Peadar Mac Domhnaill’s recollections are also recorded here.

Employees of the inland fisheries have been espied wading in the river by the churchyard, checking for mussels, in recent years. William Dick has seen ‘some quite large empty shells, ~3”, probably discarded by an otter.’

[1a] Liam Ó Paircin, ‘Imlcabhar II Trá c h ta s do chéim dhochtúireachta sa Nua-G haeilge’ (Maynooth University, 1998) via this link, pages 558/559.

[2] James Grogan noted that ‘each’ is formed from the older Irish word ‘ech’ (both pronounced as one would the English word ‘ache’) which was used to describe a more prestigious riding horse rather than a working horse referred to more frequently as ‘capall'”. Could the name refer to some form of horse paddock? Or is it a corruption of “achar”, simply meaning ‘area’ or ‘space’ (and presumably from which the word “acre” derives?).

Jamie Cahalane of the nearby Sawmill House observes: ‘The word Nykan sounds distinctly un-Irish to my ears, and quite Scandinavian, particularly containing as it does the letter “y” which, along with the letters “v” and “w”, is not in the old Irish language alphabet does. It has, to my ear, a more Scandanavian ring to it, like Howth, for example. As the river flows, it isn’t a million miles from Waterfjord, Wexfjord or even Naas … there are no double “a”s in the Irish language either.’

[3]Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead” (Vol VI, Issue 1904 -05 – 1906, Carlow, p. 430)

[4] It has been suggested that this was Domnach-Fiacc, founded by St Fiacc after his conversion by St Patrick, but I think Domnach-Fiacc was at Bestfield, opposite St Fiacc’s monastery at Sleatty. See: Loca Patriciana Part IX. The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Fourth Series, Vol. 3, No. 24 (Oct., 1875), pp. 487-529. With thanks to Sean Murray and his account of St Fiacc.

[5] ‘The Liam Price Notebooks, Vol II, p 438,’ edited by Christian Corlett and Mairead Weaver, editors (Duchas, 2002)

[6] The Red Book of Ormond is a cartulary (or chartulary) containing Latin records of the Butler family’s rentals, deeds, grants, covenants and quitclaims from about 1192 to 1547, marking the oldest Irish family register in existence. It was complied by a single scholar in the 14th century, with additional information added in the following centuries. (It should not be confused with the Red Book of Ossory, a contemporary register of the diocese of Ossory, compiled on the watch of Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory, containing 79 vellum leave, on which are written a bunch of constitutions and taxations, charters and rentals, memoranda relating to rights and privileges, deeds and royal letters. Aside from his role in Dame Alice’s trial, this was Bishop Ledred’s principal legacy. It makes for turgid reading but there are two fine elements to this collection. The first is the texts of some 60 Latin songs, composed by Bishop Ledred, for the vicars choral of St Canice’s Cathedral ‘so that their mouths be not defiled with theatrical, foul and secular songs’. These were to be sung ‘on great festivals and other occasions’; the focus seems to have been about the sufferings, and resurrection of Christ, and the virtues and afflictions of his mother, so I’m not widely convinced they’re worth looking up on YouTube. The second big noise from the Red Book of Ossory apparently dates to 1324 and concerns a medical treatise from the Mediterranean that shows that at least some people in Kilkenny had a handle on the art of distillation seven long centuries ago. My Latin is a little rusty but the treatise not only describes the distillation process in some detail, along with the alleged wonderful medical outcomes, but it also offers a neat distinction between aqua vini and aqua vitae (ie: usquebaugh, or whisky). Everything must have a beginning. Even whiskey. Whiskey begins with distillation? And, as the Red Book of Ossory tells us, one can therefore argue that distillation began in Kilkenny! Whether the Bishop himself was partial to a drop of usquebaugh, I know not. Certainly it became a popular drink among persons of rank in Ireland although the first written record of it is not until 1405 when the Annals of Connaught clocked Richard MacReynolds, a contender for clan chief, who ironically ‘entered into rest [as in died] at Christmas after drinking ‘water of life’ to excess.’

[7] Liam Ó Paircin, ‘Imlcabhar II Trá c h ta s do chéim dhochtúireachta sa Nua-G haeilge’ (Maynooth University, 1998) via this link, pages 558/559.

[8] Vol. 1, The History of the Worthies of England.

[9] There is a solitary reference to a ‘Hugone le Blound in Gyng Joybert’ in the “Inquisitions and assessments relating to feudal aids, with other analogous documents preserved in the Public record office; A.D. 1284-1431”, which was published in 1900 by authority of the Secretary of State. Full details of his military service in Longshanks campaigns can be seen in ‘The Parliament Writs and Writs of Millitary Summons’ (1827) by Francis Palgrave (p. 476).

[10] Richard Ledred, a Franciscan monk from England, became bishop of Ossory in May 1317. Eight years earlier, while based in France, he had participated in the persecution of the Knights Templars. In order to become bishop, he had to go to Avignon to be consecrated by Cardinal Nicolò Albertini, the powerful Bishop of Ostia, who had personally crowned at least two Holy Roman Emperors. 1324 was the year of a major rebellion in England launched against King Edward II by no less a duo than his wife Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. You may recall Isabella from ‘Braveheart’. She’s the beautiful French princess who William Wallace seduced in a tent and then she gets to whisper into Longshanks dying ear that the baby she is carrying is not the pathetic Prince Edward’s but is, in fact, Mel Gibson’s. In reality, Isabella was 9 years old when Wallace was executed! One of Lederede’s arch-rivals was Alexander de Bicknor, Archbishop of Dublin, and de Bicknor supported Isabella. When Isabella won the war, things became rather hot under the collar in Ireland for Lederede who fled for the good of his health Amazingly he lived to be close to 100, dying in Kilkenny in 1360. He is buried somewhere in St Canice’s, the Kilkenny cathedral upon which he had expended considerable sums decorating.

[11] Adrian Empey, The Liberty and Counties of Carlow in the High Middle Ages, Carlow: History & Society (ed. Thomas McGrath), p. 158.

[12]Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead” (Vol VI, Issue 1904 -05 – 1906, Carlow, p. 430).

[13] James Fraser, ‘Hand Book for Travellers in Ireland‘ (1854), p. 219.

[14] The Primitive Churches of Rathvilly Parish, Ogham, 1995/1996 Vol. 12.

[15] Bk 133 – Pg 452 – Deed 92455. Knockball could be short for Knockballystine, a 405-acre townland located a few km south of Acaun, or Sharon wondered if it was Knockbawn in the Parish of Old Leighlin? Kilmorey may have been the townland of Kilmurry in Upper Talbotstown, Baltinglass, but I’m unsure about ‘Doronin’.

[16]Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead” (Vol VI, Issue 1904 -05 – 1906, Carlow, p. 430).