For over 35 years I lived adjacent to the small village of Ardagh in rural west County Limerick. We came here from London in 1981, back to the parish where my late husband was born and grew up. It is astonishing to think that I have lived here much longer than he did and this opens up interesting questions about where ‘home’ is. Is it where we grew up? Is it where we lived longest? Is it where we have best memories? A debate for another day, but Ardagh is the place that was ‘home’ to me for longer than anyplace else, in fact for almost half of my life!
At first sight Ardagh is a low key unremarkable place. The village has suffered from the general decline in the towns and villages of rural Ireland, having seen the closure of general stores, petrol stations, a number of pubs and more recently, the Post Office. It is not on any tourist route, and but for GPS systems routing vehicles (and inappropriately heavy commercial traffic at that, on our twisting narrow access roads) through the village on shortcuts to and from Listowel, Limerick and Foynes, we would probably see relatively little traffic. The village street dominated by a Catholic Church, in all honesty has little to commend it. It has a few commercial properties including a butcher shop, and a couple of pubs. It has many traces of better times, throwbacks to times of more commercial activity in the village, such as closed and abandoned public houses, a closed timber factory, and several houses with very large front windows, indicators that once upon a time shops traded from these premises. A road leads off the main street towards the local school that caters for pupils up to age 11 or 12, a school attended by my own children. The village ‘ends’ at the junction of the Main Street with the busy Newcastle West/ Foynes Road, for many years a dangerous junction that is thankfully now marked by traffic lights.
But there is more to Ardagh than the very unremarkable village street. It is in fact a shining example of a ‘Hidden Ireland’, an Ireland that has to be sought out and explored and when that surface is scratched there is real treasure to be found! The Ardagh locality has a number of historic features and a very rich late prehistoric and early medieval heritage, making it unique among the villages of Ireland.
A glance back at the 1901 and 1911 census for Ardagh reveals that not much has changed in the village over the past century. The census returns show a small number of grocers and publicans and a number of servants, farm labourers, railway workers, coopers, blacksmiths etc such as would be found in a small rural community. The hinterland is lush farmland at the edge of the Golden Vale which provided employment for farm and agricultural workers.
The name Ardagh is derived from the Irish word, Ardachadh, which means ‘High Field’. The Ardagh area has been inhabited for aeons, and there is evidence for such all about the place. The area has a high concentration of ‘Ringforts’, which are fortified dwellings dating back to the first millennium. There are quite noticeable Ringforts at several townlands near the village including at The Commons in Ardagh, at Dunganville, at Rathronan and at Reerasta with their earthworks quite evident to this day.
In 1981 a very large Hill Fort, covering over 50 acres and dating back possibly 3,000 years to the late bronze age, was identified during an aerial survey of the area. The climb to the top is worthwhile, and will be rewarded with stunning views of five counties – Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, Cork and Kerry. This Hill Fort at Ballylin, known locally as The Black Hill, is one of the largest ever discovered in Ireland, yet it remains relatively unknown.
Just across the road from our house was the Ringfort at The Commons with a beautiful view of thousands of years of heritage!
Ringforts are often associated with fairies! My mother in law used tell tales of cattle straying into Dunganville Fort (which was near her home ) and people trying to round them up unable to find their way out again sometimes for hours on end!
There is a ‘Holy Well’ dedicated to St. Molua, the Patron Saint of the catholic parish adjacent to the graveyard in the village. St Molua died in 629. It is not really known whether or not he lived in Ardagh as there is no written evidence of any direct connection with him, and it is thought that there were dozens of St Moluas in Ireland. So which one was he? Mary Kuiry local historian is an authority on the St Molua associated with Ardagh and an interview with her can be heard here.
The ivy clad ruins of an old church in the graveyard date to about the 15th Century and it is believed that there was an earlier church on this site. According to Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland the church ‘was destroyed in the insurrection of 1641, and has not been rebuilt’. Among the burials in the ruins are those of a Bishop of Limerick, Robert De Lacy. He was made bishop by Pope Clement XII in 1737 and died on August 4th 1759. He chose to be interred in the family vault in Ardagh rather in more sophisticated surroundings!
The present Roman Catholic church dates from 1814. I found this very surprising as both inside and out, it looks very modern. A 20th Century renovation seems to have removed every vestige of an earlier building .
The interior of the church is very pleasant and bright and visitors are welcome.
There are two other churches in the vicinity – the ruined Church of Ireland at Kilscannel which dates from 1822 and is interesting as there are both catholic and and protestant burials in the grounds. The oldest headstone in this graveyard dates to 1795. This church is located adjacent to a sharp bend in the road, where motorists must slow down. A local story tells of car doors mysteriously opening and closing again at this spot, souls apparently getting a lift to someplace. Of course you do not believe these tall tales, but you cannot help but wonder when you pass by late at night!
The other church is the Kilronan Church of Ireland and is also in ruins. Dating from 1820, this little church is accessible by means of a narrow lane. I find that there is something very serene and magical about it. Attached is a small graveyard with about 40 or fifty headstones and two mausoleums.
I was fortunate enough to get to see inside this church a few years ago. It has some nice windows and the pulpit stands abandoned.
This beautiful spot is the final resting place of William Smith O’Brien, Irish Nationalist, Member of Parliament and leader of the Young Ireland Movement. See an earlier post about him here.
The road to the little graveyard where Smith O’Brien rests is accessed from the Foynes road.
His family worshiped at this church as they lived nearby in Cahermoyle House. He died in 1864. His funeral was attended by crowds of people who lined the route between his home and the graveyard. It is fascinating to walk up the quiet narrow laneway in the footsteps of such a famous funeral cortege. This site is of national importance because of his sacrifice for the people of Ireland and really deserves to be better known as indeed does this beautiful site.
Just three years after the death of William Smith O’Brien, on March 5 1867, about 40 men attacked the police barracks in Ardagh. This was part of a general national rebellion against British Rule in Ireland, organized by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and known as the Fenian Rising. I think Smith O’Brien would have been proud that the small village near his home put up such a show of strength with their pikes and muskets marching on the police barracks! The insurrection was unsuccessful, due mainly to lack of planning and coordination, but nevertheless it set the scene for the 1916 rising in Ireland.
One year later again, Ardagh was back in the news. This time it was because of the discovery of one of the most wonderful treasures ever found in Ireland!
While digging potatoes in a field at Reerasta Ringfort, two local men, Jimmy Quin and Paddy Flanagan, unearthed the treasure. This hoard of magnificent objects included the very distinctive 8th Century Ardagh Chalice, fashioned from silver, bronze and gold. The chalice and the rest of the hoard are in the National Museum of Ireland where they have pride of place. The Sam Maguire Cup, awarded to winners of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, is modelled on the Ardagh Chalice. Our home was for many years the only house in Reerasta South in modern times, a fact that filled us with pride. Our site was at the edge of the farm on which the Ardagh Hoard was discovered.
There is a very nice new monument in the grounds of the Catholic church in Ardagh marking the discovery of the hoard in the parish. It would be wonderful if there were some decent replicas in the village as it would certainly be a tourist attraction for the thousands of tourists who pass within a few miles of it on their way to Kerry!
The Great Southern Trail, an off-road walking and cycling greenway passes through by the disused Ardagh Railway station. For delightful traffic free walks and spins in all seasons this amazing amenity is second to none and in my opinion is one of the highlights of West Limerick.
Located in a beautiful part of West Limerick, with lovely views across the rich farmland, Ardagh deserves to be ‘on the map’ and explored and is a perfect day tripper destination.
You will be very welcome!
*I am much obliged to Skyview Photography for permission to use the wonderful aerial footage of the village. See more awesome footage and images at their website http://skyviewphotography.ie/