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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Thousand Year Tower




Ardbraccan 1.   My mistake was not doing proper research before visiting Ardbraccen.

Passing references to it in books led to listing it as a possible place of interest near Navan but I did not expect much. And first impressions were not good.

A boarded up COI church is its main feature of its remote location. There is an unusual ‘standing-alone’ tower beside the church but it did not seem very old. The elaborate gravestones around the church also seemed recent.

On returning home I checked on google and found enough stories about Arbraccan to fill two or three posts.

It turned out that the ‘stand-alone’ tower is almost a thousand years old. The site itself was a sacred location since pre-history.  Two of the ‘Five Great Trees’ of ancient Ireland once stood there, the Bile Tortain and Mullyfaughan Tree. A holy well nearby had been venerated long before the man with whom it is now associated arrived on the scene.

In the early Christian era is was the centre of an independent diocese for five hundred years. At least three historically-important individuals and over a hundred bishops had lived there. 

Braccan, from whom the hill is called, came from country Clare and was one of the first generation of Irish Christians. An enthusiastic spreader of his way of life, he set up communities across the country, first at Arbraccan but later in Clare, Galway, Carlow, Kilkenny and Derry before settling down on Aran Island. There, famously, he divided the island between his community and that of St Enda.

On leaving Ardbraccan he put one of his disciples, Ultan, in charge.  This Ultan was to become equally famous.

In ‘modern’ times Dr Kathleen Lynn, one-time chief medical officer in James Connolly’s Irish Citizens’ Army and a Sinn Féin TD for County Dublin, was impressed by Ultan’s story. She visited Arbraccan in 1919 and heard that after an outbreak of the Yellow Plague in 570, which killed adults but often spared children, Ultan had housed, fed, clothed and educated 500 orphans.

When Dr Lynn founded a hospital for infants in Dublin she gave it his name. She was an early suffragist and at the beginning St Ultans was staffed by women only. Every year the hospital organised a pilgrimage-cum-picnic to Ardbraccan.

One of the ancient sacred wells at Ardbraccan is named after Ultan and in 1210 when King John of England was in Ireland he visited ‘Tiobraid Ultain’. The well is located just outside the cemetery but I did not know that at the time. I must go back and check on it and much more I had missed.   

(Some from Co Monaghan might be aware that the patron of Killanny is St Ultan. However, he is a local and not to be confused with the man in Arbraccan.)

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