Photo Credit:

Professor Barry Raftery, the recognised Hillfort scholar in Ireland, described a hillfort as ‘a hilltop enclosure of considerable size and strength, which deliberately exploits the natural properties of the situation for defensive purposes’. In other words, a large enclosure that availed of the natural terrain for defensive reasons.

It is difficult to give the precise number for hillforts in Ireland, but we are talking of no more than a hundred. By contrast, ringforts number over 45,000.

The complex of hillforts in the vicinity of Baltinglass is remarkable. A necklace of five hills play host to no fewer than seven hillforts and three enclosures. The fertile valley of the River Slaney snakes its path through these hills. To the west and north-west of the modern town of Baltinglass lies Hughstown and Tinoranhill. The summits of these two hills both feature individual hillforts. Baltinglass Hill, to the immediate north of the town, hosts two hillforts: Rathnagree, sited on the summit of a shoulder of the hill, and Rathcoran, sitting on the summit proper. To the north-east, Spinans Hill features a striking variation of the norm: both Brusselstown Ring on the southern summit, and an un-named companion hillfort on the northern summit are, in turn, enclosed by an outer rampart that shadows the contours of Spinans Hill.

Finally, we come to Kilranelagh Hill, that lies to the south of Spinans Hill. It is only in recent time that research work conducted by Dr. Alan Hawkes and Dr. James O’Driscoll, under the auspices of Professor William O’Brien of UCC, has revealed the presence of a hillfort on the summit of this hill. It is located in the townland of Colvinstown Upper. The monument would appear to have featured a single rampart comprised of rubble stone. The enclosed area would appear to have been in the region of 5.3 hectares. The site is obscured by thick vegetation and other features may await future discovery. The south-western section of the rampart is contiguous to the perimeter of a large burial cairn. The association of hillforts and cairns/burial mounds is a well- known phenomenon (over one third of hillforts contain cairns).

There are at least two other cairns on Kilranelagh Hill and further along the ridge, to the east, a stone circle and a mound barrow. The latter two monuments are both located in the townland of Boleycarrigeen. The stone circle, known as ‘The Griddle Stones’, features eleven stones. The interior of the circle is 13.5m. The entrance is at the south/south-west. It is subject to a Preservation Order.

Stone circles are ritual sites. Their association with astronomy has been advanced by many scholars. The orientation being determined by drawing a line from midpoint at the entrance to the centre of the recumbent stone at the back. Clearly, therefore, an unimpeded horizon is of paramount importance. The mound barrow is circular and built of earth and stone. In length it is 2.40m. There are traces of a shallow external fosse. There are indications of a possible cist.

The townland of Boleycarrigeen also contains an Early Medieval ringfort known as ‘Crossoona Rath’. It is notable in that an Ogham-inscribed pillar-stone was uncovered at the site by the distinguished antiquarian Liam Price. The inscription reads ‘VOTI’. The Ogham-inscribed pillar-stone would be of greater antiquity than the ringfort. The floruit of these inscriptions occurred in the 5th/early 6th centuries. This site is also subject to a Preservation Order.

On the north-western slopes of Kilranelagh Hill, in the townland of Colvinstown Upper, there is an early church enclosure with ancillary internal features. The enclosure has a diameter that varies from 120m (north-south) to 113m (east-west). Within the enclosure are the remains of an undivided church, a graveyard, two stone crosses and a well. The well, now known as St. Bridget’s Well, may have had pagan origins in its usage given the known presence of ritual Prehistoric monuments on the hill.

The concentration of hillforts in the Baltinglass area is unique in Ireland. Whilst there are known examples of the pairing of hillforts elsewhere, for example at Rathgall/Knockeen in County Wicklow (which lie to the south) and at Knockadigeen/Ballincurra in north Tipperary, there are no other examples of a cluster of seven, hillforts at one location. Some of these hillforts are amongst the largest in Ireland. The evolution of the complex requires further investigation.

Did Early Neolithic hilltop enclosures inspire the subsequent appearance of Bronze Age hillforts, or were they independent innovations?  In the meantime, the integrity of the complex must be sustained and protected. To intrude on the archaeological landscape of Kilranelagh Hill would be akin to intruding on the summit of Baltinglass Hill, or indeed on any of the other related hilltops, for they must be regarded as one. Simply put, this unique archaeological landscape must be protected in its integrated entirety. 

Dr. Mark Clinton,

Monuments & Antiquities, An Taisce.