Uachtar Ard was well named as it translates from Gaelic to mean A high place, The Round Tower at Uachtar Ard rests beside the ruins of an old church ruin on a quite hill top in Kildare. It is associated with an ancient monastic settlement believed to have been founded here, way back in 605AD by a Saint Briga? It took me some research to check this important fact, as I initially believed that Briga was the Brigid whom also founded the famous monastery in Kildare Town. But this is not so. In fact records show that there were a number of Brigid’s taken from the martyrologies and heroic literature, whom can only be identified by their feast day, so far I have been able to identify 14 individuals known as Brigid or various spellings of the name. So Briga, was the daughter of Congall, and said to have been a good friend of Brigid of Kildare. Some of the information about the great history and archaeology of this great site comes from the guys at Abarta Heritage. Please take a moment and check out the link at the end of this post where you can hear the story for yourself with their free audio guides.
The site is also associated also with another sixth century female saint, Saint Derchairthinn whom was a descendant of Cairbre Lifechair via the Colla Uais line. This monastery was under the patronage of a local branch of the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty whom held the kingship of Leinster between 750 & 1050 A.D. The hilltop monastery and round tower were burned by the Dublin Vikings under Sigtrygg Silkbeard in 995. There is a reference to another raid in 1094 mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters, but nothing else known of it. During the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169–71 the parish was a part of the large estates given as a dowry by Dermot McMurrough on the marriage of his daughter Aoife to Richard De Clare in 1170.
Uachtar Ard or Ougherard became a Royal Manor and Borough in the 12th century. Next it was owned by Adam de Hereford, who willed all his lands to St Thomas monastery in Thomas Street, Dublin, and died in 1210 A.D. For several centuries the monastery rented the land to tenant farmers until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536–41. According to recent research by the archaeological historian Mike O’Neill, the current ruined church on the site dates back to 1350AD and not 1609 A.D. as previously thought. Following the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649–53, land had to be surveyed and then often confiscated from parliament’s opponents to pay its debts under the 1642 Adventurers Act.
Situated not far from Ardclogh I followed the road up a hill for about 2 km before veering off to the right. The main entrance is quite easy to miss as it is located in between two residences which surprisingly I also drove by, not noticing the site until I had driven well past it. I was able to park the car on the verge opposite the entrance. The gate is marked Oughterard Cemetery. When I visited, the gates were locked but access can be had via and old-fashioned turnstile leads to a short trail up the remainder of the hill to the site of a very old graveyard, surrounded by a high wall which also contains the ruins of an old church and the round tower. The gates into the graveyard where also locked, but I was able to climb the wall via an ancient stile. The grounds of this site are kept extremely well and the first thing that struck me was the vast amount a slab marked graves, which I have not seen in such abundance anywhere on my numerous explorations.
The Round Tower which dates back to the 8th century is in quite a bad state with only the lower eight meters still standing. Aside from a burning in the attack of 1096, there is little is recorded about the site and the round tower is not mentioned until 1792 in ‘An Eighteenth Century Antiquary’ by Austin Cooper whom was Deputy Constable of Dublin castle. This is one of five such Round Towers which can be found in Kildare, the others reside at Old Kilcullen, Kildare Town, Taghadoe and of course Castledermot. It looks almost the same as described back in 1792. The last visible remains of the early Christian settlement, it was constructed mostly from limestone masonry. The door which there is no access to unlike the one at Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare town stands approx. 2.5 meters above ground level. It faces east and is round-headed, built from granite with inclining jambs. You can just about make out the three floor-levels with one round-headed window surviving on the first-floor level facing south. The round tower is a National Monuments and in State ownership.
Whilst the first half of the church is in a bad state of ruin, entry into the second part of the church is quite dark. The main window on the east side of the church is still intact but sheds little light into the room. What appears to be a table top style tombstone can be found directly underneath the window. The surviving church remains consist of the lower portions of the walls of a 12th century Nave, abutted by a large barrel vaulted chancel from around 1350 A.D. Access used to be via the chancel arch, built from Tufa, (a variety of Limestone). The arch was blocked up over the years and a square-headed, granite doorway was inserted into it. On the chancels south facing wall, there is a turret containing a stairway which leads up to the top of the barrel vaulted roof. This may have been added to the structure around the same time that the chancel arch was blocked up, but today it is falling away from the main structure and is supported by two concrete buttresses to stop any further movement.
Being the dare devil that I am I decided to climb the turret and safely made my way out onto the roof. The steps leading up seem to be constantly wet and it can be quite slippy in parts, so I would advise using extreme caution, if you attempt the climb. It gets surprisingly windy up there, but there are some magnificent views of the surrounding landscape to be had from up there, if you have the head for it. From here you can really see a better layout of the graveyard and make out where the vaulted tombs are. Moving on to the Nave which was built using large blocks of roughly coursed limestone with a limestone quoin in the north east corner. The original entrance is not known, but a sketch from Cooper’s book, shows a porch on the south wall, the north wall contains a blocked, round-arched doorway near its centre. The nave was lit by a narrow, round-headed window with a chamfered granite arch in the west gable wall, and there are faint signs of a window-splay and tufa jambs towards in the S wall. Above the west gable is the remains of the bell cote.
As you stroll around this graveyard there are numerous grave stones dating back from ancient time’s right up to the modern era. Most of the legible burial markers date from the 18th century, with the earliest recorded death in the year 1700. There are also two rather interesting crosses to be found. One could almost be mistaken for a high cross, but it is not. The other is a rather short cross, which is not to unsimilar to the one at St. Doolaghs in Dublin.
Oughterard once stood on the main road from Dublin to Limerick and Cork, and according to history, Arthur Guinness’s grandfather, William Reed whom was a local farmer first began selling home brewed ale in 1690 to passing troops during the Jacobite wars. Arthur obviously continued this tradition and went on to create the world renowned ‘Black Stuff’, which has become one of Irelands best known exports. Local tradition claims that it was at his grandfather’s home that Arthur was born, so it should have been no surprise when I stumbled upon Arthur’s gravestone within the ruins of the church, but to be honest, I never expected to find his final resting place in this quite, off the beaten track graveyard. Another famous persons from our past buried here include Arthur Wolfe AKA Lord Kilwarden, whom resides within the Wolfe vault. There is a small ruined castle tower which stands about 300 meters south-east of the graveyard, but I shall have to explore that at a later date.