Tuesday 16 January 2018

Hope springs eternal, not just at Easter

The entrance to the Dunmore Caves Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
The entrance to the Dunmore Caves Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

Fiona O'Connell

Easter symbolises not just religious or nationalistic risings but especially natural ones, with hidden wonders emerging daily from the earth. It reminds us that much growth happens underground, before it shoots up to literally see the light of day.

And while caves can be barren of buds and blossoms, many have saved lives through the centuries by offering sanctuary. Although their shelter is not infallible, as an infamous cavern from the Dunmore Caves reminds us.

Ironically, the caves were known as one of the three darkest places in Ireland (the other two being the Caves of Knowth and Slaney) long before the attack in 928 that is recorded in the medieval chronicles The Annals of the Four Masters.

Though tragedy is no less poignant just because it happened in a vanished time. For no doubt the residents of the two large ring forts that gave Dunmore its modern name of 'big fort' experienced the same quarrels and celebrations that all tight-knit communities do. They were drawn there by the monastic presence in the nearby Rath of Mothel.

Unfortunately, such sites were also magnets for marauding mobs. Which is how a hyped-up Viking horde - en route to loot monastic settlements around Kilkenny city - happened by chance upon their home.

A thousand terrified men, women and children had no chance to cover their tracks as they fled in panic to the shelter of the caves - making it all too easy for the aggressors to follow them.

Maybe so many petrified people cowering in that dark pit baited their blood-lust. Perhaps they enjoyed the power trip of knowing they were entirely at their mercy. But they showed none.

How the horror must have mounted for those frightened folk huddled helplessly within that rocky refuge, many injured by the chaotic scramble to reach its safety, as the Vikings calmly gathered sticks from the surrounding woods, filled up the mouth of the cave, and set them alight.

There was little those trapped within could do about their predicament, as their large number meant trekking deeper into the caves was impossible. As smoke began to smother them and hot debris from the fire to fall, they had no option but to surrender.

It seems the men went first, hoping to save their loved ones. And so a little town was torn apart as they became prisoners to be used as mere trading pawns and galley slaves. Perhaps they had to stand and watch as their new masters decided that women and children were too much baggage, and left them to burn.

Yet the recorded remains account for only 44 people, of which 19 were female adults and 25 children. Maybe more lie buried in those timeless tunnels. Or the Vikings took some as slaves. But it is possible that others managed to get out after the Vikings left and the fire died down.

For just as new life springs forward every spring, so hope springs eternal in us.

Sunday Independent

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