On Monday, after much waiting, I finally got to visit the Hill of Allen (Cnoc Alúine in modern Irish) in Co Kildare. This iconic hill, jutting out of the flatlands of the Curragh, is said to be the site of Almu, the home of Irish legendary hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall, and as my second book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King is based upon his story, and ready to be formatted, I was anxious to pay a visit as soon as possible.
I visit all the sites I feature in my books; I think it’s important. I want you to really get a feel for these fantastic ancient places, and I can’t give you that if I don’t go and soak them up myself first.
But it’s not always that easy in Ireland; many sites are on private property, and visitors are not always welcome. Finding the landowner to request permission can be an arduous task.
On this occasion, I would like to thank my WP friend and fellow blogger, Ed Mooney, who had already done all the legwork, and passed me on his contacts. Cheers, Ed! Please take the time to click through to his blog, he is the most amazing photographer of ancient buildings and landscapes, if you don’t already know.
But I have to say, it’s all a LOT confusing! The County Kildare Failte (tourist board) informed me that there was NO public access to the Hill of Allen, or Aylmer Folly, AT ALL.
Kildare Heritage say it is owned by Roadstone Quarry (more of this later), and permission must be obtained from them. Roadstone were only too happy to facilitate a visit, thanks Tim Cullen for taking so much time out of your schedule to show us around!
However, according to Roadstone, the Folly and the hillside with the path leading up to the Folly, is still in public ownership. Despite this, there were no signs to the site along any of the roads leading up to the hill, and the car park has been completely blocked off by three large boulders across the entrance. It doesn’t seem to be Roadstone who don’t want visitors there.
But back to Almu. It’s a wonderful location. The views from the top of the tower are breathtaking. It’s name in Irish means ‘the great neck’. Although it doesn’t look very high, it rises out of the extensive flat lands of Allen to a summit of 676ft. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see Dublin, Wicklow, and the Slieve Bloom mountains from the top.
The plains of the Curragh are spread all around, a chequered blanket of orderly crops, lush pasture, and only a few remaining patches of brown bog, where turf cutting is no longer permitted. I completely understand why Fionn would have wanted to make his home here; it’s beautiful, inspiring, the land was good for farming and hunting, and it was very defensible… you would have seen everything which moved across that flat vista.
In mythology, Fionn was given the fort of Almu by his grandfather, Tadg (who was the son of King Nuada of the Tuatha de Danann), when as a boy he slew the fire-breathing Sidhe, Aillen mac Midhna, who had been terrorising Tara for years.
High King Cormac was so grateful, that he re-instated Fionn’s birth right to the leadership of the Fianna. However, he spent much time out with his men, training on the Curragh, or hunting and camping during the summer months.
It is said that Almu was whitened with lime, so to the visitor approaching across the distant plain, it must have shone like a jewel in the sunshine on top of the hill. The evidence of any such building is long gone, although it is said that the summit of the hill was surrounded once by earthen banks and trenches, with a small mound known as Fionn’s Chair at the centre. I didn’t see it.
In 1859, Sir Gerald George Aylmer, lord of Donadea castle, decided to build a tower on top of the hill. It took four years to construct, working in the summer only, as the winters were too harsh and the hill too exposed for building work.
Known as Aylmer’s Folly, the tower stands 60ft high, has an internal diameter of 9ft, and is fashioned from limestone blocks quarried from Edenderry (which is somehow ironic, when you consider the size of the quarry which now almost undermines its foundations!).
One of the lovely, curious quirks of the tower, is that all the names of the people who worked on the building have been inscribed into the 83 steps which lead up to the top, and these look as fresh and clear as if they were carved yesterday.
Unfortunately, there is some graffiti inside the tower, which is why Roadstone have taken to locking it, but on the day we visited, the door already stood open, (which is just as well, as Tim didn’t have the key!).
There is a kind of glass conservatory structure at the top, but one of the windows was open, so we were able to climb out and stand on the roof, peering between the crenellations so as to better appreciate the view… just be very careful if you have small children.
Although the Quarry is undoubtedly an eyesore in the landscape, it is possible to look beyond it and appreciate Almu for what it is, and once was. I’m sure Roadstone paid handsomely for the right to quarry there, and created many much needed jobs in so doing.
But I wish the authorities could have found another, more imaginative way to make money; a Fionn mac Cumhall heritage site and visitor centre, maybe, with reconstructed hill fort; a training academy for young wannabe warriors of the Fianna; maybe even a regular hog roast fullachta fiadh style.
Fionn is one of Ireland’s most well-loved and well-known heroes around the world… I’m sure tourists would have come. What a missed opportunity.
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