Aghade Holed Stone

Tullow, Co. Carlow

Aghade Holed Stone

“Then Niall went to Leinster on a raid, and he said that he would not go from them so long as he was alive, or until Eochaid were given him as a pledge and hostage. And this had to be done. So Eochaid was taken to Áth Fadat in Gothart Fea on the bank of the Slaney, and was left there before Niall, with a chain around his neck, and the end of the chain through the hole of a stone pillar. {The] champions advanced towards him to slay him. “Woe”’ said Eochaid, “this is bad indeed!”
With that he gave himself a twist, so that the chain broke in two. He seized the iron bolt that was through the chain, and advanced to meet them. He plied the bolt on them so that [they] fell. The other men turned before him down the hill. Those of Leinster pursued them and slaughtered them, so that they fell.”

“The Escape of Eochaid,” from “The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages,” Book of Ballymote (14th century)1

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The high-resolution photograph (left) was made with a large-format view camera in 1979. Click the photo, and then click the button at the right of the Zoomify toolbar to see it full-screen. (See example.)

The smoothly bored aperture in the broad Cloghaphoill (“holed stone”) was not able, in the legendary tale quoted above, to long hold Eochaid, Niall’s prisoner.

“The unfortunate prince [Eochaid] was compelled to maintain one position, with his back to the stone, and subject to the galling weight of the iron chain…2

Eochaid used the hole in the stone to help him break the chains with which he was bound. Some writers reported noting, in the modern era, the marks left on the stone by the friction of the iron chain. In 1839, the Ordnance Survey’s Eugene O’Curry visited here and reported finding a field with “small graves formed of flagstones,” which he considered a confirmation of the traditional story.3

Into the eighteenth century it was reported that “ill-thriven” infants afflicted with rickets were passed through the hole, 29 cm (11.5 in) in diameter, in an attempt to obtain a cure. In 1833 an antiquarian wrote:

“Great numbers formerly indulged in this superstitious folly, but for the past twenty years the practice has been discontinued. My informant on this occasion was a woman who had herself passed one of her infants through the aperture of this singular stone. She informed me, that some of the country people talked of having it cut up for gate posts, but a superstitious feeling prevented them.” 4

According to archaeologists the Cloghaphoill may have once stood upright, serving as a “porthole stone” that closed the burial chamber of a megalithic tomb from the Neolithic. The large hole then may have served as a way for the descendants of the deceased to offer food or other tributes into the afterlife.5 The stone stands 2.3 m (7.5 ft) above the ground, and is 1.7 m (5 ft 8 in) wide, and up to 46 cm (18 in) thick.

“The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages” in The Book of Ballymote. (RIA. MS 23 P 12, f. 7 v)

Niall of the Nine Hostages may be the first of the Irish mythological heroes to have been an actual historical character, belonging to the fourth or fifth century CE.6 He is known as the legendary ancestor of the Uí Néill tribe, which would prosper to become the feudal rulers of all Donegal and who dominated Ireland from the sixth to the tenth century. The traditional coronation site of the O’Donnell branch of this family is visited in our entry on the Rock of Doon.

In one legend, Niall of the Nine Hostages agrees to lie with a “hideous crone” in order to obtain water from her. She then magically becomes a young girl, representing the sovereignty of Ireland, “more radiantly beautiful than the sun” and promises the warrior that he and his descendants would become the rulers of the land.7

There is little that can be noted with certainty about the historical Niall, as all the written information comes from genealogies (now thought to be dubious) of Irish kings and other medieval texts that date from long after the purported reign of this late Iron Age pre-Christian king, known as the 126th High King of Ireland.8 Writing in the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating claimed that it was one of Niall’s raiding parties in England that kidnapped the young St. Patrick in 405 CE; the result was that Patrick’s initial experience in Ireland was as a slave.9

Niall gained his traditional sobriquet, Noígíallach (“of the Nine Hostages”), from the story that relates how each of the five provinces of Ireland, in order to demonstrate their fealty, sent Niall a hostage. He also received additional hostages from Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons, and the Franks, totaling nine.

“Niall of the Nine Hostages was the greatest king that Ireland ever knew. His reign was epochal, and was the Irish equivalent of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but also carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations. He was, moreover, founder of the longest, most important, and most powerful Irish royal dynasty. Almost without interruption his descendants were the High Kings of Ireland for 600 years. Under him the spirit of pagan Ireland leaped up in its last great flame of military glory.” 10

Whatever the place in history of Niall of the Nine Hostages, some have called him the “Irish Genghis Khan” due to the number of his descendants. Geneticists have determined that more than three million men around the world are likely to be descended from this prolific medieval Irish king. Scientists suspect that Niall, or someone very much like him, may be the ancestor of one out of every twelve Irishmen, and as many as 22% of the men up in the northwest of the country, where Niall established his kingdom. The study of the Y-chromosomes appears to trace back to one particular person. One of the researchers, Brian McEyon, at Trinity College, Dublin reported that, “there are certain surnames that seem to have come from Ui Neill. We studied if there was any association between those surnames and the genetic profile. It is his (Niall’s) family.”11

The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages.

It is unclear at what point in the history of the Cloghaphoill it began to be used as an agent of folk medicine. An author in 1937 pointed out the tantalizing coincidence that its traditional use as a way to affect a cure for rickets, involved a disease that was a scourge of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.12 While the practice of passing infants through the hole in the Cloghaphoill faded away more than two centuries ago, the Tobernaveen Holed Stone in Co. Sligo has apparently been utilized in a curative ritual in very recent times.

Other standing stones with apertures have acquired different traditions in folk practices around the country. An early-Christian pillar stone that serves as one of the stations of the Turas (procession) in Glencolumbcille, Co. Donegal, has a small hole once used by engaged couples that would touch their fingers from the opposite sides of the stone. In Co. Antrim, the Doagh Holestone is used still today for a similar betrothal ceremony. Guidebook author Anthony Weir has considered the possibility that the hole was once used in a more primal fertility ceremony.13

If the Cloghaphoill eventually developed the ability to affect cures, it did not have such a salutary effect for Niall of the Nine Hostages. The stone proved unable to hold his enemy Eochaid, who later caused the death of Niall, piercing him with an arrow shot from across a valley in Scotland. His men carried his body home, fighting bloody battles on the way, and buried him at a place now known as Faughan Hill in Co. Meath (see illustration, above left).14

“Like the foxglove, like a calf’s blood–a feast without a flaw!
Like the top-branches of a forest in May.
Like the moon, like the sun, like a firebrand was the splendor of Niall,
Like a dragon-ship from the wave without a fault was Niall the son of Eochaid Mugmedon.” 15

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Aghade Holed Stone, Co. Carlow
Nearest Town: Tullow
Townland: Ardristan
Latitude: 52° 46′ 9.41″ N
Longitude: 6° 44′ 45.73″ W