On top of the world at Croghan Hill
This article was published in the Offaly Independent on Sat 22nd May 2021 - full text and an additional gallery of images below
On top of the world at Croghan Hill
For one of the most remarkable viewing points in the midlands, a climb up Croghan Hill should be on everyone’s list this summer. Regarded as one of Ireland’s most isolated hills, it rises from the Bog of Allen to stand proudly over the surrounding landscape, the only high point in an otherwise flat plain of farm and bog land. After a short but steep uphill climb to the trigonometrical or trig point at the summit, a 360-degree panorama is your reward with breathtaking views in all directions.
Standing at 234m above sea level, it affords excellent views across three provinces of Offaly's bordering counties: Westmeath, Meath, Kildare, Laois, Tipperary, Galway & Roscommon. If conditions are right, you can see the Slieve Bloom mountains to the south, the Hill of Uisneach to the west and all the way to the Wicklow mountains in the east. Apparently, on a clear day, the Mourne Mountains in Newry are also visible.
The turbines at the Mount Lucas wind farm are one of the dominating features of the skyline, turning slowly as if performing a synchronised dance. Set against a mountain backdrop, their movements are both hypnotic and beautiful. Surrounding the foot of the hill is a patchwork of fields in every glorious shade of green, punctuated by areas of bog land and plots of bright yellow rapeseed which seem to glow in the sunlight.
Not only are the views remarkable, its history is a fascinating one too. Let’s start with the fact that Croghan Hill is an extinct volcano, dating to approximately 300 million years ago. Its human history is also significant: dates provided by substantial archaeological finds suggest people have inhabited the area around Croghan Hill since prehistoric times. There are a number of Neolithic burial mounds on and around the hill, with others to be found in the surrounding area. The distinctive mound at the summit is thought to be a Bronze Age burial place, though it has never been excavated.
Most compelling of all was the bog body uncovered in May 2003 by a local man digging a drainage ditch in a large peat bog at the foot of the hill. Now referred to as 'Old Croghan Man', he was found in a remarkable state of preservation, and dated by archaeologists to the Iron Age period, sometime between 360BC - 170BC. He met a gruesome death, killed by decapitation and repeated stabbing, and his legs were missing. It is believed that he was ritually sacrificed – Croghan Hill has long been a site associated with the rites of Irish kingship. On his upper arm, a leather band was found with a metal fastener still attached. Most remarkable of all are the nails and hands which are extraordinarily well-preserved. A specialist team of archaeologists from the National Museum of Ireland were called to examine and take care of the body and he is now on display at the museum on Kildare street in Dublin. There are excellent close-up images of Croghan Man on their website from the Kingship & Sacrifice exhibition which you can view here.
He is commemorated in stone on the newly erected trig point at the hill’s summit, a stunning piece of sculptural work by artist Ciaran Byrne - “Clonearl bog sheltered Croghan Man, permeable peat his only shroud”. Installed in 2020, it replaces the damaged trig point which was originally erected on the hill for surveying purposes in the 1830s. Also carved into the stone is a haiku written by Offaly poet Pauline McNamee in response to the volcanic origins of Croghan Hill.
After a long history of use as a sacred site, Croghan Hill became one of the first locations in Ireland to be Christianised. In the fifth century, Croghan became a monastic site and has long associations to St Brigid – it is believed this is where she became a nun and her image is delicately engraved on the new trig point.
One of the most striking sights from the summit is the ancient graveyard standing downhill on the south-east slope, enclosed by a stone wall and with a vast area of bog land behind it in the distance. This marks the location of a fifth century Early Christian church, associated with Bishop Macaille. It is believed that the stones used to build St. Macaille’s church were later used for the building of the wall which surrounds the cemetery, still in excellent condition despite the exposed location.
The graveyard is definitely worth visiting on your ascent, taking a short detour through a wooden stile. Accessible by gate or an ancient stone stile in the wall, it is eerily atmospheric: a series of weather-beaten headstones of all shapes and sizes protrude from the grassy undergrowth, leaning in all directions as if in conversation with each other. A high cross dominates the skyline while others form a circle, a visual not unlike the stone circles of prehistoric times. There’s a strange power to this place and you can’t help but feel the pull of thousands of years of history.
The main access point to the hill is from the village of Croghan on its southern slope, about 5 kms from Rhode. A pedestrian laneway opposite Grattan’s accountants leads you to a small gate at the top. A short but steep uphill climb brings you to a wooden stile with gorgeous views through the trees on either side, and the route to the top is way-marked from here.
There are two options for parking: outside of the school, or in the carpark of Croghan Community Centre which also has a nice grassy park with picnic benches.