Freshford, Part I

Ned Kennedy

Freshford is situated on the banks of the Nuenna river which flows through the heart of the village. The river name is the Anglicised spelling of An Uaithne which means Green River. The moss growing on the riverbed still bestows a pleasant green hue to the flowing water as it did when inspiring its name, perhaps fifteen hundred years ago.

Around 400 A.D. the first settlers came from Munster to our area in search of new lands. At that time north Kilkenny was known as Mágh Airgid Rois, the Plain of the Silver Birch. The invaders came from Muskerry in central west Cork led by Cucraí, son of Duach. Having come so far into Ossory, they stopped on the banks of An Uaithne and broke new or fresh ground amongst the Silver Birches, which was called simply, but meaningfully, Achadh Úr or Freshfield. Unfortunately the descendants of our Norman conquerors later mistranslated this as Freshford because the Irish word Achadh, meaning field, sounded like the Irish word Áth, meaning ford. Thus we got our present day placename – Freshford.

Evidence of the original settlement location was presented by the modern day phenomenon of an aerial photograph taken by the Ordnance Survey. When experts viewed the photograph they saw that the last remaining sections of the inner and outer enclosures of the early Christian settlement were still clearly visible near the church site. When the photograph was studied, an imaginary line was drawn from the section of ditch, still visible to the experts, in an arc from Prince’s Bridge to Old Bridge Street to show us the dimensions of the settlement around the church of Ireland grounds. The existence of both inner and outer enclosures is regarded as evidence of a high-prestige site.

By now most of the inner enclosure, has been replaced by block walls but the remnant of the outer enclosure is today the northern boundary ditch of the local national school separating the Scoil Lachtaín site from the houses on Kilkenny Street. The presence here of the plant “Alexander”, which is associated with medieval sites, means that Freshford may have one of the few “living relics” of an early monastic boundary ditch.

The invaders, in need of more land, continued their conquest eastward along the banks of the Nuenna giving us the road to Kilkenny. Leaving Achadh Úr, they cheekily called the next townsland Bánta na Maoinigh, the Fields or Plains of the Munstermen. They continued their conquest eastwards and rnamed the territory, known today as Three Castles, between Achadh Úr and Cill Chainnigh, as Bán Ua nDuach, the Plain of Duach, in honour of their patriarch in Cork. Miraculously it has retained its grand old Irish name to this day.

A large settlement grew in Achadh Úr coinciding with the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Our patron saint Lachtain arrived late in the 6th century. He was born around the year 550 in west Cork, son of Toirbín and Senecha. He studied at Bangor in Co. Down under St. Comhghall. After ordination he came to preach God’s word amongst his kinsmen or cousins in Ossory. He founded a church here which acquired importance because Lachtain is referred to as Bishop in some annals and he is listed as the third Bishop of Ossory on the tablet in St. Mary’s Cathedral.

In time Lachtain returned to his own people and founded a church at Donoughmore in Cork. Another church associated with him is in Cill na Martra. This translates as Church of the Relics and refers to the relics of St. Lachtain which were kept in an arm-shaped reliquary. This reliquary is known as the Shrine of St. Lachtain’s Arm and it can be seen today in the National Museum in Dublin in the Treasures of Ireland exhibition.

A holy well on the Kilkenny Road is still known as Tobar Lachtaín. In days of old it was the scene of an annual pattern and water from Tobar Lachtaín is reputed to hold a cure for ailments of the eye. Lachtain’s feast day is 19 March. He died in 622 and we hope to commemorate this date in two years time in Freshford.

The greatest claim to fame of the church site is of course the Hiberno Romanesque church doorway. It was built around 1150 and has survived more or less intact to this day. The porch over the doorway was actually added when the church was rebuilt in 1730 but the doorway itself puts the site on a par with many of the great ecclesiastical sites around Ireland. However, it is ironic that just as it acquired its iconic doorway and 12th century church, Achadh Ur’s days were numbered. The Synod of Rathbrassil in 1111 defined the Irish dioceses as we know them today and Achadh Úr was subsumed into Ossory.

The monastic site must have retained its importance and mystique into the 13th century because around 1250 Hugh Mapleton, Bishop of Ossory, sited his palace at Uppercourt in Freshford of which more anon.

Go to part 2.