by ehistoryadmin on February 3, 2016

The scary road to Clane

Liam Kenny

It is the time of year when stories of sinister magic and terror abound. The dark night of Hallow’een approaches when even the most rational feel the chill of a world beyond our understanding. Known to earlier generations of Irish as Samhain, the night is replete with folklore of the grisly goings on of the ancient Celtic past. And in more recent times the gothic horror stories of the Dracula genre conjure up images of tombs, vaults and mausoleums, the hardware of the cult of death.

Every turn of the road in Kildare has its share of dubious but still scary stories. But one where the frisson of fear is most concentrated is the remnant of the ancient route to Tara from the Liffey at Clane to the old cemetery of Mainham on the Kilcock side of the castellated gate to Clongoweswood college. At both ends of that direction of road lie two great mounds of earth. Archaeologists maintain that they are mottes or, as pronounced locally “moats”, built by the Normans about the 13th century to keep an eye on the rebellious Irish. However locals insist that they are the burial mounds of an ancient king and his queen who met their deaths in terrifying fashion.

The story may be called “the legend of the moat” and its principal characters are: Mesgegra, king of Leinster; Buan, the king’s wife; Conor MacNessa, king of Ulster; Aitherne, chief bard to the king of Ulster; and Conall Cearnach, leader of the Red Branch Knights who supported of the king of Ulster. And according to local tradition the story unfolds as follows.

It was the year of 31A.D. when Conor MacNessa, king of Ulster decided that he would like to visit another chieftain, king Mesgeg0ra in Naas of the kings. The protocol was that he would send his poet Aitherne in advance and if he returned with gifts it meant that MacNessa would be made welcome in the court of king Mesgegra. Aitherne and his assistants arrived in Naas and were made welcome by Mesgegra. When it came to the time of his departure Mesgegra presented him with 100 cattle, sheep and goats. But Aitherne was avaricious and demanded 700 cattle, sheep and goats and fifty daughters of Mesgegra’s warriors and middlemen in Naas. After some consideration Mesgegra agreed to his demands and with his warriors escorted Aitherne and all his gifts to the borders of his kingdom of Leinster where he was met by Conall Cearnach and his Red Branch Knights who would escort them back to Ulster.

Mesgegra and his warriors returned to Naas where they held a meeting and came to the conclusion that Aitherne’s demands had been outrageous . So they set out after Aitherne and Conall Cearnach and caught up with them at the hill of Howth (editor’s note – there was clearly no Newlands Cross traffic queues in those days). There was a siege followed by a battle; Mesgegra and his warriors were hammered and the humiliated king led the remnant of his army back to Naas. However his woes were not over because Conall Cearnach learned that two of his brothers had been killed by Mesgegra’s men and he took off in pursuit of Mesgegra and caught up with him at the ford over the Liffey at Clane. A fierce combat followed and Mesgegra was beheaded. Conall Cearnach ordered his knights to build a mound of earth over Mesgegra’s decapitated body. With Mesgegra’s head as a trophy he set out to return to Ulster.

On the road north at Mainham he met a woman in a chariot who was accompanied by forty nine maidens. Mesgegra said to her “who are you?” She replied: “I am Queen Buan, wife of Mesgegra of Naas and I am returning home after visiting the royal court of Tara.” Conall Cearanach replied: “I have killed your husband and I am taking him you back to Ulster with me.” Buan asked for evidence: “prove to me that you have killed my husband.” Conall Cearnach reached into his chariot and produced the severed head of her husband still dripping with blood. When Buan saw the grisly spectacle she screamed so loud that her heart burst on the spot. Conall Cearnach then ordered his Red Branch Knights to build a mound of earth over the body of Queen Buan and to her grave he added her husband’s head.

It’s highly unlikely that the moat of Clane and the moat of Mainham will ever be excavated. But if it were to happen – and if the legend bears truth as locals believe – then under the moat of Mainham will be found the skeleton of a woman and the skull of a man and under the one at Clane will be found the decapitated skeleton of a man.

Fast forwarding our Hallow’een time machine and we come to a much later time when a dispute over death also makes its mark on the north Kildare landscape. Within a banshee’s call of the moat of Mainham stands another funereal monument of a later time. The 18th century Wogan Browne Mausoleum is the last resting place of the one-time lords of the Clongowes demesne. What is conspicuous about the mausoleum is how it stands outside the wall of the old cemetery and not inside where a burial place would be expected. The reason for its unlikely location is told in a remarkable plaque over the door from 1743 which recites a dispute between Stephen Browne, lord of the locality, and a Reverend John Daniel who had charge of the old cemetery. Apparently Daniel insisted on a stipend of five guineas from Browne who sought to build his family mausoleum within the cemetery. Browne took umbrage of this demand and in a demonstration of defiance built the mausoleum on his own ground separated only by a yard from the wall of the cemetery. Within the building are the vaults of members of the Browne family including the remains of some exhumed from their original burial place at St Audeon’s in Dublin.

Fortunately there is a happy ending to this particular story. In recent years Kildare County Council’s Monuments Committee has repaired the roof and carried out other works to preserve this gem of funereal architecture. Leinster Leader 28 October 2014 Looking Back, Series no: 405.



Previous post:

Next post: