Relating to the past can be incredibly difficult in the 21st century. Our distant ancestors lived what seem to us incomprehensible lives. When we think of things like the Roman Empire in many respects its like an alternate universe.
Kilree monastic site is one of the few places you can visit that provides continuity through changes over the centuries. It was built not long after the Roman Empire crumbled, it was well established when Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E. and when Brian Boru was killed at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 C.E. it was already middle-aged. Indeed it was around five centuries old when the Normans invaded Ireland in 1169 C.E. However the most incredible aspect of this remarkable site is that through the numerous wars, disasters and changes in life in the following centuries people have returned to this site right up to the present day.
The site according to folklore dates back to the 6th century, it was dedicated to St Rhuidche a name preserved in name Kilree, meaning the church of Rhuidche (pronounced Ree). The area came to historical prominence in 844 C.E. when the Northern O Neill High King, Niall Caille was drowned in the nearby Kings River. According to legend he is buried beneath the high cross close to the Monastic site.
While high crosses are not thought to have marked graves, given that a return journey to Ulster would have taken several days in the mid 9th century it is not inconceivable Niall Cáille was buried in the monastic grounds.
The site is littered with centuries of life with the church showing the scars of constant reworking. In the 12th century the area was transformed when an Augustinian priory was constructed three kilometres north at Kells. In the mid 13th century Kilree was placed under the control of Kells priory.
In recent centuries death and burial has been the stock trade of this enduring site with local people still returning to this through the past 15 centuries of change to bury their dead most recently as 2003.
Located south of the Kells around ten miles from Kilkenny city this simple monastic site has three main features. There is a small medieval church built on the ruins of the earliest structure of the site. This is now buttressed in an unusual manner on its western gable. An entrance on its eastern side has been blocked up.
To the north of the church a round tower rises nearly twenty-eight metres in the air. It is well-preserved save it is missing conical cap. These generally date between 950 C.E. and 1100 C.E. Although originally thought to be a defensive point after monasteries came under heavy Viking attack in the 9th century (You can listen to a podcast on this here), this theory has been challenged recently.
Historians have pointed out that the worst viking attacks had passed by 950 C.E. while it has also been observed that they make for a natural chimney once set alight and therefore not an ideal refuge.
To the west of the monastic site is the remains of a high cross dating from the 9th century. Although it was originally highly decorated with lace motifs and biblical scenes these are almost entirely worn away now.
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