Unravelling the secrets of the Laois landscape
Published 19/12/2012 | 06:00
According to the storyteller Eamon Kelly there was a time in Ireland when you couldn't throw a stone without rising a lump on a king's head, so numerous were Irish kings and their kingdoms.
The same could be said of the myriad of ruins, follies and curiosities that dot the countryside.
Often little is commonly known about them. Indeed, the most mundane daily journeys take us past many of these things, and while we might be given to wonder who built them and why they were built, we never really expect to find out.
If you live in Co Laois you need wonder no more about the walls, stones, ruins, towers and memorials that puzzle you as you pass on your way.
A wonderful book entitled "The Built Curiosities of Laois" contains 175 pages of photographs, maps and words that take the reader on 15 tours of this beautiful midland county, giving seed breed and generation of stone, steel, steeple and standard.
Written by Laois historian, writer and master of antiquities, Dr Jack Carter, the book is set out as a series of guided walking and driving tours. Each tour takes a day to complete and is clearly explained, colour coded and numbered.
The book not only describes and details the provenance of the built curiosities, it gives detailed walking and driving directions and works on the very sensible assumption that "signposting is absent at many junctions".
Among the more poignant pieces described on one of the tours is a pair of small stone crosses at Hackett's Cross south east of Stradbally.
The crosses were erected in memory of two boys, Edward and Andrew Hackett aged 13 and 15.
The brothers perished under their cart when they took shelter from a snowstorm while returning from carting corn to Athy on February 16, 1838.
The story transforms the significance of that little monument.
As a one-time resident of the Slieve Bloom Mountains I was always intrigued by the presence of quasi-orderly heaps of stones at various points on the mountains, the most prominent being 'The Stoney Man' near Capard.
Carter explains that it was customary for travellers in the area to leave a stone, the symbol of self, as one passed certain points and he references an ancient Irish tradition which tells us that five stones constitute a cairn since they represent the five old kingdoms of Ireland.
One of the more intriguing stories in the book concerns the ruin of Morett Castle located to the east of the current M7 motorway near The Heath.
In its 17th-century hey day the castle was owned by one Elizabeth Fitzgerald and her husband Stephen.
At the height of the Jacobite War in 1690 the fortification was attacked by the O'Cahills, who also claimed ownership of the place.
They were repulsed with "weighty stones' and boiling water and immediately afterwards the wounded lying at the foot of the castle wall were hung on the orders of Elizabeth.
However, when her husband went out from the castle to walk in his garden he discovered to his cost that not all the O'Cahills had left the scene of the fracas.
They captured the hapless Stephen and offered to swap him for the castle.
But Elizabeth was quite attached to her country pile and declared: "Elizabeth Fitzgerald may get another husband, but Elizabeth Fitzgerald may never get another castle."
Her husband was last seen suspended from a gibbet, "dangling and performing various evolutions in the air."
This book is written for the lay reader and the lay historian and as such is eminently readable and is the ideal companion for the Sunday drive or the school tour.
However, in its attempt to fit everything in it suffers in terms of depth and sometimes leaves more questions than answers.
Those criticisms aside, it is an immensely valuable and practical piece of work contributing handsomely to a greater local sense of history, heritage and knowledge.
Indeed, the book is a template that every county could do well to imitate.
The Built Curiosities of Laois is published by Laois Education Publishing (LEP) and retails for €17.99.
A percentage of the proceeds from the book go to the Cuisle Cancer Support Centre, Portlaoise.
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