The Bog Wood Story 2
The History Behind the Craft
2.1 Our boglands
Peat is a soil that is made up of the partially decomposed remains of dead
plants, which have accumulated on top of each other in waterlogged places for
thousands of years. Areas where peat accumulates are called peatlands. Peat
is brownish-black in colour and in its natural state is composed of 90% water
and 10% solid material. It consists of Sphagnum moss along with the roots,
leaves, flowers and seeds of heathers, grasses and sedges. Occasionally the
trunks and roots of trees such as scots pine, oak, birch and yew are also
present in the peat.
As the summer draws to a close, the boglands stand out most distinctively
from the rest of the landscape. The leaves of both the common bog cotton
and, in particular, the deer grass (Scirpus caesitosus) turn the sward to a
brilliant russet which seems to glow in the low winter light. These russet
patches, swathes, or even entire landscapes, are sure indicators of bogland.
2.1.1 Where are the bogs?
Raised bogs occur in the midlands of Ireland and in the Bann River Valley
where rainfall is between 800 and 900mm per year. Blanket bogs are found
along the west coast of Ireland and in mountainous areas around the country
where rainfall is 1200mm per year or more. 17% of the land surface of this
country is covered with peatland and Bord na Móna who are responsible for
industrial peatland development in Ireland, owns 25% of the midland raised
2.1.2 Raised bog history
Raised bog formation started at the end if the last glaciation – some 10,000
years ago – when the glaciers had retreated northward. At this time much of
central Ireland was covered by shallow lakes left behind by the melting ice.
Lakes also formed where glacial ridges, such as eskers, impeded free drainage
and trapped the water. At the base of these shallow lakes there were deposits
of lake marl overlying clay and glacial drift. These lakes were fed by mineral
rich groundwater and springs and supported floating plant communities, which
sometimes produced a thin peat layer just above the lake marl. The lake
edges were dominated by tall reed and sedge beds. As these plants died, their
remains fell into the water and were only partly decomposed. They collected
as peat on the lake bed. With time this process formed a thick layer of reed
pear that rose towards the waters surface. As the peat surface approached
the upper water level, sedges invaded and their remains added to the
accumulating fen peat.
In time the fen peat layer in these shallow lakes became so thick (up to 2m)
that the roots of plants growing on the surface were no longer in contact with
the calcium rich groundwater. When this happened the only source of
minerals for the plants came from rainwater, a very poor source of the
essential minerals needed for plant growth. As a result plants invaded that
were able to grow in the mineral poor habitats on the surface of the peatland.
The best indicator of the changing conditions was the invasion of the bog moss
or Sphagnum. The moss became common in such transitional fen/bog
habitats, and made the ground even more acid, by its ion exchange activity.
Plants typical of raised bogs, such as Heathers, Sundews and Deer Sedge
invaded the tops of the sphagnum hummocks, completing the invasion of bog
The bog moss is important as it acts like a sponge or candle wick, drawing up
water and keeping the surface of the bog wet and waterlogged, in all but the
driest periods. So, even though the bog continued to grow upwards, away
from the water table, the bog moss ensured that the water table rose in
tandem with the rising peat level. During the long history of bog growth, there
has been occasional changes in the overall climate in Ireland. About 4,500
years ago the annual rainfall decreased. This caused bog surfaces to dry, and
allowed the invasion and establishment of a pine wood land on the surface of
the bog. This woodland persisted for some 500 years, until the climate
changed again and became wetter. Rapid bog growth recommenced as the
surface became waterlogged, and trees died. Tree stumps and whole tree
trunks were buried and preserved in the rapidly accumulating sphagnum peat.
The layers of fen and sphagnum peat and the buried pine stumps are often
seen exposed by turf cutters at the margins of raised bogs.
2.1.3 Life on the bog lands
Perhaps the most spectacular and best-known adaptation to life on the bogs is
the carnivorous plant. Several species have developed the ability to trap and
eat animals as a means of supplementing their meagre diet. The animals are
very small and almost exclusively insects, although the sundews (Drosera
species) are able to trap the bigger darter dragonflies, which have wingspans
as wide as the human hand.
The sweet scented bog myrtle (myrica gale), typical of western boglands,
forms a partnership with bacteria in its roots to obtain extra nitrogen, while
the common bog cotton (eriophorum agustiffolium ) uses a snorkel technique,
relying on large air filled cells in its roots based to survive in oxygen poor
environment beneath the living carpet of sphagnum. A family of tiny brilliantly
coloured `jewel’ beetles (Donaica species) use these air spaces as living
Boglands are home to only a few species of animal, yet can boast the largest
animal in Ireland today-the red deer. Red deer can be found wallowing in peat
baths to rid themselves of flies and parasites, otters and badgers occasionally
venture out into the bogs in search of the eggs and chicks of ground nesting
The songs of skylarks and meadow pipits provides incessant background noise
on the boglands. But perhaps the most characteristics sounds of the boglands
are, first, the rustle and buzz of dragonfly wings on a still, sunny day as these
huge insects patrol the pools and hollows that are dotted across the bogs, and
cries of the birds. Most evocative of all, however, is the combination of bird-
songs; the cry of the curlew, the shout of the grouse and the sad “wheep” of
the golden plover.
2.1.4 History of peat use
Peat has played an important role in the history and development of Ireland
particularly in the midland counties. There is documentary evidence that peat
has been used as a fuel since the 8th century in this country. The destruction
of our woodlands in the 17th century meant the only other fuel available was
peat. Prior to the famine the population of this country was 8.2 million people.
It is estimated that at this stage 6-7 million tonnes of peat were used in this
country annually. Records show that the earliest attempts at peat use on a
large scale was reclamation of the peatlands for agricultural purposes. Several
other uses for peat were found in the 19th century varying from peat paper
(1835), to peat charcoal (1850), peat moss products (1850), turf distillation
(1849) etc. None of these enterprises were successful at that time but showed
the commitment the Irish people had in trying to make good use from this
freely available natural resource
Moving forward then, to World War II, Ireland found itself in economic
isolation, in particular in relation to its energy supply. That led to the
establishment of Bord na Móna and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), in the
mid 1940’s, with the role of developing the resources and creating finance in
the midlands. This is the context in which the peatlands were developed for
2.2 Our native trees
After the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, Ireland gradually became
covered with trees. These spread naturally across a land bridge, which
connected Ireland with the UK and possibly the continent. Species, which
colonised Ireland naturally, without the influence of people, since the last Ice
Age, are referred to as native trees. At first, juniper and birch started to cover
the land and this was followed with hazel and Scots pine. Around 8,000 years
ago, when conditions were favourable, oak and elm started to expand.
Woodlands of oak, ash, Scots pine, alder and elm developed throughout
Ireland between 7,000 and 5,500 years ago and the country was cloaked in a
rich tapestry of woodland at that time. The arrival of early farmers heralded
the beginning of the steady decline of Ireland's natural woodland cover. From
about 5,500 years ago people have hindered the natural development of
woodland by felling trees for timber and clearing the land for agricultural use.
This list of 28 trees and shrubs, drawn from the 8th-century legal tract Bretha
Comaithchesa, classifies them in four groups of seven. Due to its date, some
of the old Irish names for trees differ from modern versions; translations have
been guessed when there was no definite correlation. Different variations
exist; in some cases, Blackthorn is listed as a Chieftain.
Airig Fedo - ‘Nobles of the Wood’ (Chieftain Trees):
* Daur - Oak
* Coll - Hazel
* Cuilenn - Holly
* Ibar - Yew
* Uinnius - Ash
* Ochtach - Scots Pine
* Aball - Wild Apple
Aithig Fedo - ‘Commoners of the Wood’ (Peasant Trees):
* Fern - Alder
* Sail - Willow
* Scé - Hawthorn (Whitethorn)
* Cáerthann - Rowan (Mountain Ash)
* Beithe - Birch
* Lem - Elm
* Idath - Wild Cherry
Fodla Fedo - ‘Lower Divisions of the Wood’ (Shrub Trees):
* Draigen - Blackthorn
* Trom - Elder (Bore Tree)
* Féorus – Spindle Tree
* Crithach - Aspen
* Crann Fir - Juniper
* Findcholl - Whitebeam
* Caithne - Arbitus (Strawberry Tree)
Iosa Fedo - ‘Bushes of the Wood’ (Bramble Trees):
* Raith - Bracken
* Rait – Bog Myrtle
* Aiten - Gorse (Furze)
* Dris - Bramble (Blackberry)
* Fróech - Heather
* Gilcach - Broom
* Spín - Wild Rose (Dog Rose)
2.2.1 Historical uses for timber
The first farmers had to create patches of open ground in which to sow crops.
They felled and burnt small areas of woodland, grew crops for several years
and abandoned each patch when the soil was exhausted, moving to another
piece of woodland and repeating the process. The plough is thought to have
arrived in Ireland about 2,600 years ago and this was followed by a substantial
decline of woodlands. Uses for timber varied from the construction of bog
roads, crannógs and dugout canoes, to ship-building and charcoal for smelting.
Significant areas were also removed to make way, not only for agriculture, but
to reduce the cover woodlands provided for 'rebels'.
A major drive to 'regreen' Ireland began after the formation of the State, as
people realised just how important it was to have our own supply of timber.
Approximately 9% of Ireland is now covered by forests, mainly non-native
coniferous trees. The situation has improved a lot over the last century,
nonetheless, Ireland today still stands as one of the least wooded countries in
Europe. Trees were very important to the survival and daily lives of people
long ago. They provided food, firewood for heat and cooking, wood for spears
and fish traps, dye for cloth and poles for fencing and building dwellings.
People valued trees and laid down rules to protect them. Under the ancient
Brehon Laws trees were divided into four groups in order of importance and
usefulness. Even heather, gorse, bracken and brambles were protected. If you
damaged or cut a tree or branch without permission, you would be punished
2.2.2 Historical beliefs surrounding our native trees
In very early times, trees were associated with religion and the gods. It was
believed that Nine Hazels of Wisdom grew at the source of the river Boyne.
Five magical trees were believed to protect Ireland; three ash, an oak and a
yew. Sacred trees guarded important tribal sites or wells. Christians adapted
these old beliefs and trees were sometimes linked with saints. Old beliefs
about trees survived in folklore. St. Patrick was said to have banished the
snakes with an ash stick. Trees beside holy wells were often decorated with
rags or other offerings. Rowan was once thought to frighten off witches and
bring good luck. The rules to protect trees survived in some beliefs, for
example, that cutting down a hawthorn brought bad luck because the fairies
used it. The names of trees are seen in place names all around the country.
Derry and Kildare are called after Dair, the word for oak; Glenbeigh in Kerry is
named after Beith, the word for birch; Drumkeeran in Leitrim is named after
the Caorthann or rowan tree.
2.2.3 Ogham writing
In ancient times in Ireland, before people used the letters and writing we use
today, a form of writing called Ogham was used. We can still see some
examples of this on carved standing stones in old monastic sites, in particular
Clonmacnoise near the Celtic Roots Studio, in the National Museum of Ireland
and in the Ulster Museum. Ogham came from an earlier form of writing, the
tree alphabet, where the letters came from the trees the people were familiar
with and used. There were only twenty letters in this alphabet.
Fig. 2.1: Ogham Tree Alphabet
2.3 History of bogwood
Bogwoods are retrieved from the boglands where they have been buried for
over 5,000 years and have come to the surface as a result of turf production.
In famine times in Ireland these woods proved to be an important source of
fuel, and were also used for ropes, furniture, torches and thatches. The
antiseptic action of the bog causes the texture of the woods to undergo a
unique transformation. The oak becomes a fine black, self-lubricating wood,
the yew, a rich auburn and the pine takes on a golden hue.
Buried trees and forests are common and widespread in Irish bogs. In
extensive areas of the west of Ireland entire forests of pine lie preserved
underneath the blanket bog. In raised bogs pine forest is part of the natural
vegetation succession from lake to bog. The three important types of wood
found preserved in bogs today are Scot's pine, oak and yew. They can be from
4,000 to 7,000 years old. Pine, often referred to as deál or fir, is found deep in
the bog, and occurred in times when the drying of surface peat allowed a
migration of pines on to the bogs. These Scot's Pine woodlands were open in
character and had an under storey of birch. In the ground layer Ericaceous
shrubs or heather species were important including Ling heather and
Crowberry. They were maintained on the bog for up to 500 years. Eventually
the bog surface became unsuited to tree growth and regeneration of the
woodland. As the climate became increasingly wetter and bog growth became
active again the trees were drowned and seeds could not germinate.
Oak and yew trees are generally found around the edges of the bog and were
drowned as the bog expanded out of its basin onto the surrounding mineral
soil. The lack of oxygen in waterlogged peat prevents the natural process of
decay and ensures the tree trunks and stumps are preserved for years in the
Fig. 2.2: Bogland
2.3.1 Age of bogwood
Scientifically, bog wood has proved invaluable as a dating tool and for studying
climate change. This is made possible because of annual variations in the
diameter size of tree rings. Tree rings are wide in a good growth year and
narrow in a poor growth year. Studying variation in the pattern of tree rings is
known as dendrochronology. By studying and matching the patterns in tree
rings from a wide range of bog wood samples, a year-by-year chronology can
be built up. Queens University in Belfast has tree ring records compiled from
4,000 year old bog oak and other ancient oak timbers that spans 7,000 years.
A pine chronology for Ireland is also under development. The tree ring
chronology allows accurate dating of anything made from oak or pine in
Ireland. The annual growth rings in bog wood timbers also give a record of
past climatic conditions. The basis of these studies lie in the fact that in a
favourable growth year the tree lays down a wide growth ring. In unfavourable
years, a narrow ring and so on. The patterns in the rings analysed using
statistical packages and related to calendar years give a detailed record of
climate change over time.
The Celtic Roots Studio sent samples of their bog oak and bog yew to Queens
University Belfast to get the samples of wood carbon dated. The results were
Radiocarbon dating at Queen's University, Belfast confirms;
"In providing dates along with sculptured wood, you can safely say, in the case
of the bog yew, that the date of the growth of the wood is between 2,000 and
2,200 BC and for the bog oak, the date of growth of the wood is between
3,300 and 3,600 BC." Dr. F.G. Mc Cormac, Radiocarbon Research Unit.
Fig. 2.3: Bogland
2.3.2 Traditional uses for bogwood
In famine times in Ireland these bogwoods proved to be an important source
of fuel, and were also used for ropes, furniture, torches and thatches. For to all
that worked the land the relics of the subfossil timber were generally seen as a
nuisance, cluttering the bogs and obstructing the business of turf- cutting. We
say ‘generally’, and should add ‘in our time’, for these roots and trunks and
fallen branches - tough and, one would say, intractable survivors of vast
stretches of geological and paleobotanical time - had served generations of
Irish people well. Harvested and conditioned by generations of rural expertise
(particularly during the famine), bogwoods were once a very important part of
their domestic and communal economy. They were in fact an essential
resource for the tenant farmer, as for the landless and near landless, when the
landlord retained to himself and his household the felling and use of ‘standing
timber’. And as the forests were stripped and sold, the bogs provided an
answer to the question: “cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad?” For
bogwoods could, when properly dried and seasoned provide an excellent fuel;
and at Christmas, “bloc mór na Nollag”, the Yule log, was commonly of “giúis”
or bog fir. The “saor adhmaid” could fashion a roof of timber, or a chair, or a
table, or a loom or a boat.
Churns and milk-pails and butter-boards were all made of bogwood. So were
ropes for various purposes; on the farm, in the boatyard, even for thatching.
The bogwood torches and candles – “geatairí giúise”, provided domestic
lighting, and lights for fishing (legal and otherwise). As to the illumination
provided by the bogwood tapers, the journal Béaloideas has record of a
Kerryman who read ‘a whole series of Dickens novels’ by their light. The
method used to find tree trunks in tact bog remains unexplained today.
People would search bogs for areas wherever the early morning dew, frost or
snow disappeared first, these areas suggested the presence of buried wood. A
long metal probe was used to confirm the presence of timber. It is said that
an experienced hand was able to tell the size, the way in which the timber lay,
the tree species and the quality of the timber, all with a metal pole.
2.3.3 Bogwood artefacts
The Downhill Harp Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh (1695-1807), known in English as
Denis O'Hampsey, Hampson or Hempson, was a contemporary of Irish harper
Carolan. The ‘Downhill Harp’ was made of bog timber in or near Baile na
Scríne in Co. Derry. It was presented to Ó hAmhsaigh (O’Hampsey) on his
eighteenth birthday. Harp and harper survived to have an honoured place at
the Belfast Festival of 1792. The harp, now a famous instrument with
provision for 30 strings, was made by Cormac O’Kelly of Ballynascreene. The
bogwood harp was inscribed by him with the following poem:
“In the time of Noah I was green,
Since his flood I had not been seen,
Until seventeen hundred and two
I was found By Cormac O’Kelly underground:
He raised me up to that degree
That Queen of Musick you can call me.”
Hempson played with the Downhill Harp most of his life. When he died in
1807 at the age of 112, his harp was taken to Downhill for safekeeping, by his
friend and Patron, Rev. Hervey Bruce. The Guinness family acquired the harp
in the 1960's and it can now be seen in the Guinness Hop Store exhibition
centre in Dublin.
Fig. 2.4: The Downhill Harp
on exhibition at Guinness Hop Store, Dublin
Bog oak souvenirs, generally speaking, some not particularly attractive articles
in themselves, were made for sale over many decades, chiefly in Dublin. Thus
Lucas provides us with a reluctant introduction to the second half of his brief
account of the past use of bogwoods.
“What might be called the industrialisation of bogwood dates from the early
nineteenth century. It flourished in Victorian times, after which it went into a
slow decline and was moribund by the Second World War. In its heyday those
engaged in the industry produced a vast corpus of work: furniture, statuary’
domestic bric-a-brac and a wide range of items of personal adornment,
including brooches, bracelets, and other forms of jewellery. Many of the ‘Irish’
artefacts were either of the wolfhound/Round Tower variety, or else celebrated
a drunken Paddy (with shillelagh and pig) but there were also models of
castles and abbeys, ‘Tara’ brooches and - one very popular item - the Brian
Neville Irons a collector of bog oak work, wrote the following in the Irish Arts
Review in 1987,
“While there can hardly have been a more intrinsically Irish craft, either in
aspect or material, than the beautiful carvings in bog oak and yew of the
nineteenth century, yet up to now these have been received little serious
assessment. The Art Journal of 1865 did give some account of the origins of
the craft. More recently the only published information I have found are six
paragraphs in the article “Irish Victorian Jewellery” by Elizabeth McCrum,
Assistant Keeper, Ulster Museum, five paragraphs in The Rediscovery of
Ireland’s Past, The Celtic Revival, 1830 - 1930 by Jeanne Sheehy, and a three
page article by Charlotte Raftery, entitled “Up from the Bog”, published in
Research is now removing the layers of surface dust to reveal and industry,
the magnitude of which has hitherto been almost totally unsuspected. Not
only the carvers themselves, but also retailers and stylistic traditions, have
come clearly into focus and the bustling social background against which this
Irish minor art flourished has emerged. Patrick McGuirk is generally credited
with having been the first professional practitioner of the craft. It is said that
he served in the British army, and while at his last posting, Gibraltar, he
exercised his carving skill on the local hard coconut shells. He later returned
to Ireland and in 1821 presented a carved bog oak walking stick to George IV
during that monarch’s visit to Dublin. However, as it was reported that
McGuirk presented examples of his carving to the Duchess of Richmond, who
was so impressed that she suggested that he use his skill on his native bog
oak, one must conclude that his return to Ireland occurred some years earlier
while the Duke of Richmond was lord Lieutenant of Ireland, (1807 - 1813).
John Neate (1796 - 1838) is mentioned in The Art Journal, 1865, as having “so
far back as 1820 manufactured articles from bogwood and was certainly
among the first to profess it, if he did not actually originate the trade”. Neate
lived in Killarney, where the baptisms of a daughter and a son are recorded in
the Roman Catholic parish register in 1826 and 1831. An elder daughter,
Anne, born 1817, married Cornelius Goggin, who may have been trained by
John Neate, and who, himself, became a very successful manufacturer of bog
Although the references to McGuirk and Neate are perhaps the earliest to the
professional craft, it no doubt existed at an earlier date throughout the country
for the fashioning of small domestic utensils such as spoons and other cooking
implements, small furniture, etc. What is certain is that by the time of the
1851 Great Exhibition in Britain, and of the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition in
Dublin, it was a firmly and fashionable established feature of the Arts and
Crafts scene in Ireland. The 1851 Exhibition catalogue lists several Irish
manufacturers and there must surely have been others throughout the country
working on a more humble scale in what started essentially as a cottage
Fig. 2.5: Artefacts made from bogwood
2.3 Our craft
During peat production, the ancient remains of trees - over 5,000 years old,
come to the surface of the bog. Celtic Roots then retrieves the wood and
takes it back to their workshop where it is slowly dried over a period of two
years, taking great care not to try to rush the process. Occasionally at this
phase it can be anticipated as to what the wood will be best suited for
creating. While the wood is drying, each piece is labelled in order to identify it
by origin i.e. bog location and species etc.
Depending on the scale of work, the design or the form of the piece, the artist
commences working on the wood. Other times the shapes of the sculpture is
revealed in the forms inherent in the piece itself. Each piece, great or small
undergoes nine different hand processes before it is perfected with a light
coating of beeswax. The fine sanding which is synonymous with Celtic Roots’
work, highlights the grain in the wood beautifully.
The pieces created by Celtic Roots, bring together past and present Ireland.
Elegance in its most pure and honest form is at the very heart of all the pieces
made. The creative designs use the lines and elegant shapes of the Irish
landscape as well as the fluid lines of the flowing water and the soft and
natural colours of the landscape's rich palette. The inspiration for Celtic Root’s
designs is the natural hinterlands of the midlands.
Celtic Roots are very proud of the new tradition that has been created with this
age-old material. They strive for perfection and excellence in each unique
creation and are committed to providing a service of the highest quality for
their customers. The craftsmanship is a celebration of our rich Irish heritage
and unspoiled local environment.
2.3.1 The carving process
The artists take the old trees into their workshop and dry
them very slowly over two years to convert them into wood that can be carved
and polished into a sculpture or a jewel to wear.
They take the bogwood into their workshop where they dry it carefully for two
years and when it is finally ready to commence its long slow work of carving,
to reveal the colours and shapes inherent in the wood. Each piece goes
through 19 different processes by hand before it is finally bees waxed to
highlight the grain in the ancient bogwood.
They feel lucky to be able to work with and feel apart of a long tradition in this
material. They are aware of using every remnant of the bogwood and treating
it like a beautiful Irish living jewel that it really is.
They work in a sustainable way using basic tools and natural materials, like
beeswax and olive oil to highlight the grain in the finely sanded wood. They
have used recycled paper for the last twenty years in their packaging and
while each of the sculptures are placed in wooden boxes (that they make),
their customers over the years have told stories of how the boxes are often
used for storage of everything from toys to shoes or prized family documents.
The hessian bags that holds the recycled paper comes from a local
company . It is these long relationships with the
bog, Bord Na Móna and the locality that reinforces their sustainability.
2.3.3 Environmental policy
Celtic Roots cares about the world and they do their best to contribute in a
positive way to this beautiful country. In a small way they contribute to the
- Recycling as much raw material and used materials as possible.
- The bogwood used is a recycled material and left on the headlands of bogs to naturally decay over time.
- They never take bogwood out of the bog without the required permission.
- They use natural beeswax to finish their sculptures.
- Their packaging uses recycled paper and they have been using this material for the last 28 years.
- Their boxes are made from plywood in their own workshop. They are happy to have the box returned to the studio to recycle afterwards and offer €5 off subsequent orders to say thank you. However, their boxes are great for using as storage for precious items and have wonderful stories where people have found great uses for them over time.
- The hessian bags in their packaging has been sourced in Ireland
- In their own office they recycle as many components and materials as possible.
- In the refurbishment of their studio they recycled all their old furniture and display units to minimise the waste to the environment. Their paints were also eco-friendly and lime based.
- They source materials as kind to the environment as possible.
- They use recycled materials in communication materials.
- Their packaging for dispatch purposes often incorporate reused boxes.
- They participate in local community life, making it a better place to live and do business and are actively taking part in recycling programmes within the village.
- Ballinahown village has recently been nominated as an eco village by the local authority in Co. Westmeath on account of the local communities endeavours to recycle and think and act in a sustainable way
3.1 Ballinahown Village
Celtic Roots Studio is located in Ballinahown, a picturesque village situated on
the borders of Westmeath and Offaly on the main route to the south of Ireland
Clonmacnoise is one of Europe’s most highly regarded monastic sites, which is
located approximately 10.5 km from Ballinahown village. The monastic ruins
are the most extensive of their kind in Ireland consisting of a cathedral, eight
churches (10th - 13th century), two round towers, three high crosses and a
large collection of early Christian grave slabs. The original high crosses and
grave slabs are on display in the visitor’s centre. The ancient monastic site of
Clonmacnoise is situated at the crossroads of Ireland in County Offaly and
dates back almost 1,500 years. St. Ciaran, the son of an Ulsterman who had
settled in Connaught, chose the site in 545 AD because of its ideal location at
the junction of river and road travel in Celtic Ireland. The location borders the
three provinces of Connaught, Munster and Leinster.
Ciaran did not live to see his monastery grow and flourish, he died of yellow
plague just four years after settling and was only 33 years old. The monastery
attracted many of the scholars of Ireland and from across Europe and it was to
become the most illustrious school in Europe.
It was a Scriptorium from the 8th-10th centuries and many scribes toiled long
and arduous hours learning the skills which were to become world renowned in
works such as the Books of Kells and Durrow. Metal workers in gold, silver
and bronze produced some of the world's finest Celtic craftwork, not surpassed
since the 11th century.
The site is superbly placed, overlooking the River Shannon from a ridge. Many
of the remains are in remarkably good condition and give a real sense of what
these monasteries were like in their day. The monastery is on the east side of
the River Shannon, in what was then the Kingdom of Meath, but occupying a
position so central it was the burial-place of many of the kings of Connaught as
well as those of Tara. Low, marshy, ground and fields known as the Shannon
Callows surround the site. These are home to many wild plants and are one of
the last refuges of a seriously endangered bird, the corncrake.
3.2.3 Lough Boora Parklands
Just 25 km from Ballinahown are the Lough Boora Parklands; a 2,000 hectare
parklands project consisting of a magnificent collection of natural & manmade
lakes, wetlands, woodland areas, 50km of walkways, natural recolonisation
and pastureland whilst providing a new habitat for wildlife, flora & fauna.
During the 1940’s and 50’s Bord na Móna was set up to develop Ireland’s peat
resources. Since its establishment it has purchased thousands of hectares of
peatland and now owns approximately 7% or 80,000 hectares of Irelands
lowland bogs. Once considered an economic wasteland these bogs have been
turned into a commercial enterprise; peat is milled for energy production,
harvested for horticultural products and commercial fuel production. Over
recent years large tracts of bog have been cutaway- “cutaway” being the term
used to describe an area that has come out of production once all commercial
peat has been removed. The Boora bog complex in Co. Offaly is one of the
oldest areas of commercial production and as a result was the first area where
large tracts of cutaway emerged. Over a short period of time it has been
flooded and allowed to recolonise naturally. As a result of this development
the area has become a new home to many birds and animals at risk in local
farm areas. Hundreds of birds and animals have made a new home in the
magnificent wilderness. Surprisingly it has only taken a short length of time
for plants and animals to recolonise the area. Different varieties of plants and
bird communities have developed. Over 250 vascular plants have grown and
its developed into one of the most amazing mosaic patterns of life and habitat
range in Ireland. The habitat range goes from woodlands to open grasslands,
to reed beds, to heather areas, to mossy areas, and rush covered lands. The
cutaway bog landscape is a lifeline for many bird species today. Natural
recolonisation of large tracts of cutaway is providing new habitats, replacing
those that have disappeared from farmland. The absence of fertilisers and
pesticides has allowed a rich diversity of insects and plants, and birds flourish,
creating a mosaic of wetland and terrestrial habitats throughout. Resident and
migratory birds alike are attracted to the cutaways in increasing numbers.
Lough Boora Mesolithic site was discovered in 1977 when what was first
thought to be a stone track way was brought to the attention of the National
Museum. This was investigated and found to be the storm shoreline of a post-
glacial lake, a remnant of an era when the Shannon and its lakes - Lough Ree
and Lough Derg covered much more of the Midlands than today. Further
investigation of the shoreline revealed the charcoal remains of ancient
campfires. Associated with these were approximately 1,500 artefacts. The
campfire sites, date to between 6,800 and 6,500 BC, and were the temporary
campsites of hunters during the Mesolithic age (Middle Stone Age). The site
itself is not the most spectacular archaeological feature as nothing remains of
these encampments. However, it is one of the most important archaeological
finds in Ireland. Prior to its discovery it was thought that the first human
settlements were nearer to the coast and that the midlands remained
uncolonised. The discovery of the Lough Boora Mesolithic site has proven this
to be inaccurate and pushed the accepted date for the colonisation of the
midlands back by over 3,000 years. The site, part of which is now a National
Heritage Area, is situated at the end of a 1.75 km walk, which is being
developed as a sculpture trail. Beginning at the edge of Boora Lake and
continuing through coniferous, oak and birch woodland, the walk ends at the
storm shoreline in a remote open area. A stone plaque marks the location of
3.2.5 Clonfinlough Stone
Three kilometres east of Clonmacnoise, near Clonfinlough Catholic Church, is a
curious limestone boulder half buried in the ground. Its surface is engraved
with crosses and markings resembling human forms. They are thought to date
from the Stone Age and the patterns resemble similar ones found in Spain and
France. Some suggest the carvings depict a prehistoric battle. To get there find
Clonfinlough Church; a rough path behind leads over fields to the stone.
3.2.6 Athlone Castle
The first real signs of settlement at Athlone grew up in Anglo-Norman times
around the castle, which was built for King John of England by his Irish
justiciar Bishop John De Gray of Norwich. Though not the first castle to be
built at Athlone this castle has endured like no other. Looking at it today it still
incorporates elements of the castle of 1210 together with various additions
and alterations, which were made in response to advances in warfare. It has
many of the characteristics of a Napoleonic fortification as it was remodelled
during that period to defend the crossing point of the Shannon.
Over the centuries it has been the nucleus of the Anglo-Norman settlement; a
stronghold of the rival local families the Dillons and the O’Kelly’s; the seat of
the Court of Claims; the residence of the President of Connaught and the
Jacobite stronghold during the sieges of Athlone. After the Siege of Athlone it
became incorporated into the new military barrack complex. It remained a
stronghold of the garrison for almost three hundred years.
In 1922 when the Free State troops took over the Barracks from their British
counterparts they proudly flew the tricolour from a temporary flagpole much to
the delight of the majority of townspeople.
In 1967 the Old Athlone Society established a museum in the castle with a
range of exhibits relating to Athlone and its environs and also to folk-life in the
district. Two years later when the military left the castle it was handed over to
the Office of Public Works and the central keep became a National Monument.
In 1991 to mark the Tercentenary of the Siege of Athlone the castle became
the foremost visitor attraction in Athlone. Athlone Town Council (then Athlone
UDC) made a major investment in the castle creating a multi-faceted Visitor
Centre. The castle is currently undergoing an upgrade to its facilities once
again and to bring the standards of interpretation and display in line with the
visitor expectations of the twenty-first century. The Keep of the Castle will be
used to tell the dramatic story of the famous Siege of Athlone while the other
buildings will house a modern interpretative centre focusing on Athlone, the
Castle and the periods both before and after the Siege. There will also be a
new presentation on the life and times of John Count McCormack Athlone’s
most famous export. Athlone castle is located approximately 12 km from
3.2.7 Athlone Town
Athlone is strategically located in the centre of Ireland, on the border of two
counties; Roscommon in the province of Connaught and Westmeath in the
Province of Leinster. Given its central location, Athlone is a natural hub for
transport. It is easily accessed by both rail and road with frequent bus and
Athlone offers overseas visitors a genuine and welcoming Irish experience and
the Irish visitor benefits from the variety and competitiveness of the many
excellent deals offered by the hotel and leisure industry and a friendly local
welcome. A wide range of amenities and services are available within a 20-
mile radius of the town including excellent hotels, Spas, B&B's and other
accommodation options. The town is renowned for the wide variety of
restaurants and eateries catering for all tastes and budgets.
Athlone's position on the River Shannon at the foot of Lough Ree has ensured
a consistent influx of water enthusiasts including those who participate in
sailing, cruising, wind surfing and canoeing. Angling enthusiasts come to fish
the Shannon and the many lakes located in the Hidden Heartland Region.