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The old & the new: community heritage project report

category donegal | history and heritage | news report author Friday July 07, 2006 23:30author by SpunOut.ie crew Report this post to the editors

Twenty somethings given young warriors an insight into an ancient world

Celtic warriors, old Irish saints, famous wells, High Kings palaces and rare old bridges all came to life recently in the Ballintra-Laghey area when a group of primary school children went on a mystery heritage tour. The tour was organised by youth worker Paul McGroary and staff from the Ballintra-Laghey Cross Community Youth Project with the support of Keith Corcoran from Community Creations and special guest Charlie Gallagher.

Charlie and the crew
Charlie and the crew

Dohertys red mini-bus served as the time machine for the day with Pauline at the wheel. First stop was 471 AD and the hill of Racoo, outside Ballintra. After a fun race to the top, everyone got a chance to admire the view and hear a little history about the area. It was at this site that St Patrick was said to found an early Christian church but because of hostile vibes he got from local Gaelic chieftains he decided not to venture any further into Donegal!

Instead he prophesised the birth of Colmcille 50 years later who after a few shaky starts (including causing a furious battle) became a deeply holy man and spread Christianity throughout Donegal and as far away as Scotland. A young man born in the locality by the name of Eunan Tinney (St Eunan) would go on to write ‘The Life of Colmcille’, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of its kind in Europe.

The stone burial monument at Racoo was built in honour of St Assicus who was an early Christian bishop and who’s bones are said to be buried underneath. St Assicus was also a famous metal worker who made special religious relics for St Patrick, some of which survive to this day. It was also explained that a very important monastery and school of learning existed at Racoo until the early 1600’s and the ancient boundary walls were pointed out to everyone.

It was then back into the time-machine bus and a quick stop at the ‘boiling well’ in Glasbolie which was famous in times gone by. It got its name ‘the boiling well’ because the pure spring water literally bubbled up above the surface from underground. People would come from near and far to draw water for home use and farm animals and some believed it had special mineral qualities long before Ballygowan came on the scene! After a quick group photo it was a short walk across the road to ‘The Giants Grave. Although overgrown and scarcely known off nowadays, in ancient times, perhaps over 4,000 years ago, it was a very sacred site where local people would bury tribal members in earthen clay jars or urns after cremation took place. As time went by it became known as the Giants grave instead of its actual purpose, a giant grave!

The Place of High Kings

It was then unto the highlight history stop of the day and the ancient fort of Ard Fothaidh, also in the townland of Glasbolie. Due to Bernard Egan’s excellent scholarly research in his local ‘History of Drumhome’, the tour leaders were able to reveal that the massive fort was once more important that the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland. In fact between 568 AD and 729 AD, the fort at Ard Fothaidh and South Donegal was the royal residence of many an Irish High-King. Families such as Gillen, Dorrian and Gallagher all share a common ancestry with the famous High-King Hugh Mac Ainmire. And to think that we’ve been living in the presence of local Irish royalty all these years!

The view from the fort under the warm summer sunshine was truly breathtaking stretching across Donegal Bay to the Bluestack mountains and over to Bearnas Mór (The big gap). Gaelic warrior Charlie Gallagher then gave a highly entertaining and interesting demonstration, with sword and spear in hand, of how the fort would have been defended against an attack from a rival Irish king. He also revealed the secret of how the people in the fort would have called up for support in the days long before mobile phones. They would a have lit a specially prepared bonfire which smoke could have been seen up to 20 miles away from the fort.

It was then on to Laghey for a bite of lunch by the 7 Arches bridge. It was explained how the bridge was built by the McClay family back in 1768 for the sum of 7 pounds and six pence, raised by the local landlords John Hamiliton and Robert Thompson. The McClay and Mc Murray families were renowned skilled stonemasons at that time and it was explained how they were showing off their talents a bit by building seven arches over such a small river. An ancient stone ford crossing between Rathneeney and Laghey was also pointed out before everyone went for a quick exploration under the bridge as it was such a wonderful sunny day and the river was in slow flow.

Although this was the first event of its kind in many years, its hoped that thanks to the Ballintra-Laghey Cross Community Project and the support of the three local primary schools, it can become an annual day fun day out and a way of handing over knowledge of local history to the next generation. Thanks should also go to past generations of local people who showed such respect and wonder for our shared heritage and have preserved for us such a rich legacy of ancient sites, old stories and historic places.

Related Link: http://www.community.ie
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