Monday, 19 October 2020
Climbing to the highest
point in Limerick and
recalling Famine tragedies
Knockfierna, at 949 ft, is the highest point in Co Limerick, and said to be the cone of an extinct volcano. It stands within this group of parishes in West Limerick, but I climbed it for the first time only last week.
Two of us climbed Knockfierna (Cnoc Dhoinn Firinne, ‘Truthful Hill’) late one morning, along one of the many tracks and pathways that start in Ballingarry. The views from the top are spectacular.
The spires of the churches and the roofs of the houses in Ballingarry were immediately below. From there, rich green fields and farms spread out into the Golden Vale and Co Limerick. We could see beyond to parts of Clare, Kerry, Tipperary and Cork, from the Shannon Estuary to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Co Kerry, to the hills of Co Tipperary and north Cork.
The 18th century Limerick poet Andrias Mac Craith from Kilmallock, known as An Mangaire Súgach, described it as ‘the Ultima Thule of our imagination … Beyond it stretched the unknown and the unknowable. It stood there as solitary as Etna, as majestic as Olympus, as awe-inspiring as Everest.’
Samuel Lewis said in 1837 a conical pile on Knockfierna was ‘raised on the spot where stood the ancient temple of Stuadhraicin.’ The conical pile is a great cairn.
Local lore says the Fianna stood watching the chase from its summit, and Midheach came along up the plains from the Shannon to lure them away to the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees. Other legends in the area speak of this as a ‘fairy hill’ and the abode of leprechauns.
We began our walk at the Knockfierna Famine Memorial Park. The path goes all the way to the top of the mountain, making it easy to reach, and on the way we passed a number of cottages abandoned during the Famine.
The paths, tracks, trails and monuments were first proposed over four decades ago when the Knockfierna Heritage Society was established.
The late Biddy Alymer could remember every house, recall every name of every field and every well, and helped to provide information about the area when the ‘Rambling House’ started in 1986.
In total, three miles of pathways around the hillside take walkers past partially-restored famine cottages and potato ridges or ‘lazy beds’ dating back to famine times, as well as a mass rock, and a number of other ancient sites, including forts, dolmens, cromlechs and cairns.
Knockfierna was common land so anyone could live there. In the early 19th century, it became a refuge for many evicted and dispossessed families who moved to its upper slopes between 1830 and 1845. The mountain became heavily populated, with over 600 people and 123 houses at its peak.
The foundations of scores of primitive shacks have remained in place on Knockfierna since it was deserted in 1847. Spread over some 200 acres are the remnants of many houses – some as small as 8 ft by 8 ft – with nothing more than walls and clay floors with sod roofs. It is estimated that about 130 families lived here at one time.
However, this population was devastated with the arrival of the Great Famine in 1845. On 6 May 1847, 1,000 people Knockfierna Hill, and a flag of distress was raised on a pole. They marched to the town of Ballingarry below, where their numbers grew to 2,000 people demanding relief and work. They were given porridge and yellow meal to eat and relief schemes were organised to provide them with employment.
As the death tolls rose, their emaciated bodies were brought to the graveyard in Ballingarry without any coffins bodies to be buried in pits without gravestones, names or identities.
It is not known how many men, women and children died on Knockfierna during the Great Famine between 1847 and 1851. But they had starved to death in sight of the lush green fields of the Golden Vale below, one of the richest and most prosperous agricultural areas in Ireland.
Half a century later, the population had declined to just 91 people in 26 houses by 1901. The houses are now preserved in memory of the people who died during the Great Famine, and the names of many of those who died are inscribed on the walls of the Knockfierna Famine Memorial Park at the beginning of the walk to the summit.