I've been meaning to write about the burial mound at Ashleypark for a while but never got around to it. One of the main reasons probably is due to the lack of folklore associated with this mound.
It was located within 40 acres of forestry which had been there for at least 200 years and didn't even feature on any of the OS maps. The area was known as "the oakwood".
In 1979 the land was bought by a new owner from the Ashleypark estate and it was the new owner's intention to level the trees and use the land for tillage. It was during these works in 1980 that the chamber was discovered and an excavation begun.
The excavation report notes that "there was local tradition that a king or chieftain was buried in the mound" (Manning et al, 1985, 63).
In 2005 I was looking for another cairn at Whitstone a couple of miles from here and got talking to a local farmer. He told me a bit about the Ashley Park cairn as well. He told me "that the mound at Ashleypark was originally capped "like a pyramid" by the stones that are lying around the field. When the chamber was opened they found 3 skeletons - one 7ft tall, the next 6ft 6inchs and the third 6ft. He also reckoned that the 7ft tall skeleton was featured on the Late Late Show at the time. He thought that the name Ardcroney referred to the tall skeletons here - Ard being Big and Croine being the chief buried within."
The only thing I could find in the National Folklore Commission manuscripts anyway similar to this folklore was as follows-
"About four miles from Nenagh is situated the historical parish of Ardcroney which means the height of Croney. It is believed a saint or chieftainess of that name lived in the district in ancient times. A woman's head is carved in stone at the western side of the castle."
In the wider area there is a mention of underground tunnels in the general vicinity of Ardcroney village. (I'm struggling to find the exact quote in the Folklore archive but will update when I do.)
This seems to have been proven true to some extent as along with Ashley Park there are another two linkardstown type tombs in the area. All could be thought of as entrances to tunnels.
There are also other megalithic remains in the area including a Portal Tomb outside the village of Ardcroney. This tomb has interesting folklore linking it to St. Patrick.
There is also some kind of megalithic tomb at Whitstone - the exact type is unclear.
It is interesting that there is a Portal Tomb - they are often said to mark a new territory. Today this area doesn't seem to be a "compact" area but perhaps during Neolithic times with wetlands etc it could have been.
Also it is interesting that into medieval times the area was a small tuath in the control of the O'Hogans.
So now to look at what the excavation found? What was particularly unusual was how the burial chamber in the mound was constructed. It is thought that a large long glacial eratic was split into two pieces with one part being used as the sloping floor of the chamber and the other as one of the sides. Other large stones were used to make up the other sides of the chamber. The excavation showed that one of these stones was just placed on the old surface of the ground, not placed in a socket and so this is the likely construction method for the others.
Regarding the "giant" skeletons, I don't know where the farmer came up with them but the excavation report is very different.
The longest of the three was labelled Burial 1 and is thought to have been a male aged around 60 and 5ft 7" in height. He would have been of above average height for the time and his age would have been far greater than the normal lifespan at the time. So it could be that he was this "chieftain" remembered in local tradition. One of his femurs was radio-carbon dated to c. 3350-3650 BC which places the tomb in the Neolithic.
Burial 2 was a child of between 4-5 years old and Burial 3 was an infant thought to be about 8 months old. The relationship of the 3 is obviously not known.
The remains of a pot were found next to Burial 2. The condition of the remains within the chamber were in such good condition that they were able to interpret two stones found near the remains as being used to keep the jug "level" on the sloping floor so that whatever was in it had to be kept in that position so that it didn't spill. So it is likely to have been a liquid of some kind.
|Similar Jug found at Cahirgullamore in Co. Limerick (Jones, 1999, 175)|
There was no evidence of what was in it but interestingly enough over in Wales at Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey (another burial chamber) they were able to pinpoint the remains of a stew that was cooked on a fire within the chamber - it included "wrasse, eel, frog, toad, grass-snake, mouse, shrew and hare, the covered with limpet shells and pebbles".
Sherds of different pottery were found scattered inside and outside the chamber and it is supposed that it may have been smashed as part of some kind of ritual.
However they did discover a large quantity of animal bone and this is where the tag-line for this post comes from - "A Final Feast".
They found over 300 cattle bones which would likely represent three fully-grown cattle. The evidence appears to show that the large skeleton and remains of the child were buried to the rear of the chamber and this was covered with a stone to form a roof. However the "antechamber" to the front was not roofed. Here Burial 3 was placed in a cleft between "the basal boulder and one of the side slabs" (Jones, 1999, 181). It is possible then that a funeral feast was held with these cattle and then the front section of the chamber was filled with stones and the remains of the bones from the feast.
|The chamber from the front.|
How do we know it was a feast? Well the bones show butchering marks and some were split to get the marrow out, all evidence of feasting. It is possible along with whatever was in the pot, that animal bones found in the rear chamber may have been joints of meat left as offerings for the dead. In the rear chamber was found "pig humerous, a sheep/goat astragalus and a calf humerus" (Jones, 1999, .
Next a cairn of stone was built up around this chamber to a height of 3-4m. A ditch was then dug around this and the clay placed on the cairn. Another ditch was created several metres out from this to form an outer bank which gives the monument its now distinctive look. It is thought to have all been constructed in one sequence.
It is often wondered about the large stones left lieing around to the "rear" of the mound. The reports suggest that these were more or less how they were prior to the damage caused during the tree knocking works. Jones (1999, 178) wonders if they could have been the remains of a megalithic structure of some kind.
|Stone left to the "rear" of the tomb.|
Manning, C. et al, 1985, A Neolithic Burial Mound at Ashleypark, Co. Tipperary, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol. 85C (1985), pp. 61-100 Published by: Royal Irish Academy Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25506126
Jones, C., 1999, Temple of Stone, Published by: The Collins Press.