The Dublin to Navan Road and Kilcarn Bridge,

by Peter J. O’Keeffe.

Who said Dublin Castle spies were unIrish ? Without Richard Halpenny’s information about Hugh O’Neill and his Meath allies plans to invade the Pale in 1599, we might have no firm idea of the actual date of Kilcarn bridge, only removed from vehicular use since 1980, when an upriver cutwater collapsed.

The bridge currently stands in better fettle than ever, following the 1992 works carried out by the Co. Council, funded by a £ 25,000 National Heritage Council grant – which the “Save Kilcarn Bridge” committee and An Taisce, Meath, lobbied hard for.

Joint author a few short years ago of the superb “Irish Stone Bridges,” Peter J. O’Keeffe has set about a seemingly dry-as-dust task with great thoroughness, coupled with a most enjoyable light literary touch. He traces the development of roads radiating from Tara in pre-Christian times, through the Norman, Georgian tollpike and post-1798 post roads. The delightful fun we today have, damning local authorities and central government for the state of our roads, pales by the shattered surveyors discoveries of just 200 years ago. Roads inflicted on landlords and local communities for maintenance simply were not maintained!

Perhaps we ought to have had more rebellions, to judge from the author’s very detailed account of the post-1798 road building explosion. It is something of a revelation to learn that turnpikes were abolished as recently as 1856 – some consolation to city motorist on the Links!

The author’s exhaustive study of Kilcarn skilfully disentangles the numerous repair jobs done on it since the mid-17th century. He modestly posits that it was originally built in the 15th century – and happily entrusts the task of further finding out to “local antiquaries and historians.” He provides a thorough overview of other Meath bridges, including Lissenhall, Dardistown, Pollboy [Poolboy is a much more recent spelling in Navan], old Kinnegad, Bective, Stackallen, Navan New Bridge [Athlumney], Flemingstown, Scariff, Derryindaly, Ballinter and Dowstown bridges.

Peter’s detailed accounts of the pre-1656 Pollboy bridge should make every Navan driver shudder. It has been extensively overhauled, particularly in the past two centuries.

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Archaeological Inventory of County Meath, compiled by Michael J. Moore, (Dublin 1987)

p.151
1564 - JOHNSTOWN - OS 25:15:6 (62.5, 5.3) Not marked OD 100-200 N 8948, 6599
Two Fonts - Font from old church of Kilcarn (1422) now in RC church (Roe 1968, 60-6) as well as one from Follistown (1402) (Roe 1968, 60-6).  SMR 25:41   16/1-/1984

p.182
1826 - BALLYBATTER OR BALREASK NEW / BALREASK OLD / KILCARN OS 25:15:4 (53.8, 1.3) 'Kilcarn Bridge' OD 137 N 8843, 6530
Bridge - Brisge of eleven arches, channel now confined to four larger ones in centre. Brisge has been widened and wicker centering survives in third arch from E. bank.   SMR 25:39   3/9/1984
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Recent Excavations:

County: Meath   Site name: KILCARN
Excavations.ie number: 2000:0756        License number: 00E0020
Author: Mark Clinton, for Neil O’Flanagan Ltd, 20 Drury Street, Dublin 2.
Site type: Souterrain
ITM: E 689732m, N 765520m
Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.631781, -6.643293

The laying of a water mains linking Johnstown reservoir with Johnstown village took place from 15 December 1999 to 12 January 2000. The pipeline ran by a known souterrain, and two days were spent in the investigation of the area in its vicinity.

As it transpired, the trench was located to the immediate west of the public road, while the souterrain was located to the east of the road. The souterrain was therefore not affected by the trench.

The trench was almost 1.4m deep and 0.5–0.6m wide. The exposed stratigraphy generally consisted of topsoil overlying boulder clay, which in turn covered a shale bedrock. In the vicinity of the souterrain site there was an additional element in the form of an intermediary layer of silty, moist, yellow clay.

The existence of a souterrain at Kilcarn has been known since 1928, according to a report lodged by F.E. Mooney in the topographical files of the Ordnance Survey Office (Eamonn Cody, pers. comm.). The monument was visited by L.S. Gogan of the National Museum of Ireland, but there are no files on the monument in the National Museum. Furthermore, there were no files on the monument in the National Monuments branch of Dúchas The Heritage Service until the present development.

The discovery of a souterrain in the townland of Drakestown in 1935 instigated an exchange of letters between the local Roman Catholic parish priest, the Rev. R.R. Callary of Castletown, and the director of the National Museum, Dr Adolf Mahr. In a letter dated March 1935, Dr Mahr referred to other known souterrains in the county including a site that he had recently visited. He described it as being located ‘near the main road from Dublin to Navan, not very far from the Boyne’.

In the late 1970s the writer, while engaged in research work on souterrains in County Meath, was informed by the late Elizabeth Hickey of Skreen Castle of the existence of a site in the townland of Kilcarn. A subsequent visit to the area led to an interview with the landowner, Mr Edward Oakes. The writer was accompanied to a field adjoining the Johnstown to Kentstown Road and shown two closely sited depressions located in a low hillock. A vivid description of ‘an underground drystone-built passage and chamber’ that had been personally explored by Mr Oakes left no doubt as to the monument type. The surprise element of the account was that the souterrain had been visited in the mid-1930s by Dr Adolf Mahr, accompanied by Professor R.A.S. Macalister and Dr Bradley of Navan. As the site is located c. 1300m from the River Boyne, and from the Dublin to Navan Road, and taking the date of the visit into account, there is a high probability that the Kilcarn souterrain was the site referred to in the Drakestown correspondence. There is, however, no record of the observations of the three visitors.

The souterrain, and undoubtedly its associated house, were located on the upper reaches of a low hillock. There would have been an extensive view in all directions, with the exception of the south-west, where it was somewhat limited by a slightly higher-lying rolling hilltop. The evolution of the public roadway had led to a pronounced change in the profile of the western sector of the site. In effect, the ground level beneath the eastern flank of the road has been lowered by approximately 1m. Given the gentle downsloping of the terrain, it would appear that the corresponding western flank of the road had to be accordingly slightly raised to achieve a level plane.

In the course of the recent investigation, it proved possible to obtain a number of additional personal accounts of the monument. Mr James Callan recalled that the local Roman Catholic priest, a Fr Menton, had conducted a tour of the souterrain for the interested youth of the locale. This event could be dated to the early 1930s. The structure was described as one that extended in two directions from an open-topped ‘room…towards the road and out into the field’. Mr Oliver Oakes relayed the first-hand witness accounts from his aunts that established the use of a ladder being required to descend into the chamber. Again there was the insistence that the structure extended in two directions. These independent accounts would seem to indicate that the souterrain featured more than one chamber.

The original discovery of the souterrrain was as a result of a subsidiary roofing stone being displaced by a farm animal. The opening of the chamber roof had subsequently been enlarged to facilitate exploration. When interviewed in the 1970s, the late Mr Edward Oakes also revealed that the monument had been illegally excavated by locals in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The two visible depressions at the site are undoubtedly the result of these activities. There is no visible stonework in either of the depressions. The ‘southern’ depression is 3.5m x 4m and attains a maximum depth of 0.5m. The northern depression is 3.2m x 3.3m and attains an average depth of 0.4–0.5m. The depressions are located 2.5m apart.

The general description and suggested internal dimensions for the monument came from Mr Edward Oakes. He recalled ‘the passage’ as being approximately 1–1.25m high and 1–1.5m wide and possessing a ‘flagstone’ roof. He described the chamber as being in the region of 2m in diameter. Its height was described as being much greater than that of the passage. The overall stonework apparently consisted of angular stones.

The original topography of the site, the known remains and the various witness reports suggest that the souterrain originally featured an L-shaped format. It appears that the entrance feature was sited in the area of the modern road, with beehive chambers located in the bend and at the outer extremity of the monument. Such a configuration has immediate parallels at such sites as Baltrasna (Feeley 1990–1, 151), and Bective (Orpen 1890–1, 150), both in County Meath. It should be noted, however, that the prevalent form employed in the east of the county consisted of an entrance passage and a single end-chamber (Clinton 1996, 31).

Furthermore, the proposed configuration would suggest that the house associated with the souterrain was probably located in the area now occupied by the roadway. The available data indicate that souterrains in the east of Ireland were mostly of late first millennium to early second millennium AD date and associated with rectangular houses. There are no indications of a ringfort on the ground or of any other enclosures on the relevant Ordnance Survey maps, nor is there any local tradition of the existence of an enclosure in former times. The noticeable curve in the road appears to be the result of some extraneous factor, possibly related to the course of an ancient route to St Stephen’s church, which lies c. 150m south-south-east of the souterrain. It is therefore suggested that any settlement associated with the souterrain was of an open, unprotected nature. Research by the writer has established that a minimum of 65% to a maximum of 75% of the known souterrains in County Meath were associated with open settlement sites (Clinton 1998, 125), the major focus being natural hillocks (Clinton 1993, 124). The souterrain at Kilcarn, therefore, in its projected structural composition, siting and association, appears to conform to the general pattern of the monument as recognised throughout the county of Meath.

References

Clinton, M. 1993 Souterrain at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle, County Meath. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 123, 120–6.

Clinton, M. 1996 Two recently discovered souterrains in County Meath. Ríocht na Midhe 9 (2), 30–6.

Clinton, M. 1998 The Souterrains of County Dublin. In C. Manning (ed.), Dublin and beyond the Pale: Studies in Honour of Patrick Healy, 117–28. Dublin.

Feeley, E. 1990–1 Early Christian and Anglo-Norman settlement in the townland of Baltrasna, Ashbourne, County Meath. Ríocht na Midhe 8 (3), 151–3.

Orpen, G.H. 1890–1 Subterranean chambers at Clady, County Meath. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 21, 150–4.