Holywell Hill – Part 2

As I got home there was very little information to be found. I reached first for Mabel Colhoun’s The Heritage of Inishowen, remembering a short entry at the end:

Holy Well
(Early Christian)

47/11 Townland Altaghaderry

Situation: Alt. 859 ft. On Holywell Hill (859 ft.) on march between Counties Donegal and Londonderry. Approached from Eire side by road continuing from Portlough Upper past Bogay; in about 2 miles take road to N to Castruse Upper, from there by track and over moor E. about 0.75 miles to site. Approached from N. Ireland side, from Sheriff’s Mountain near Killea Waterworks, then by ‘unapproved’ road and over moor W. to site. Mountain moorland. Wonderful view in every direction.


Next was Brian Lacey’s Archaeological Survey of County Donegal (1983), Chapter Cairns and Mounds, p.59.

233 Altaghaderry
OS 47:15:5 (593 063) 8 OD 800-900 C382170

A cairn of earth and stones 1m high surrounded by an earth and stone bank with an overall diameter of 15m. Slightly W of the highest point of the cairn is a stone slab-lined grave, 1.5m N-S and .85m E-W. It is tilting inwards under pressure from the cairn. A mound of stones on top of the cairn is probably the remains of a trigonometrical station. It is situated on the summit of Holy Well Hill in mountain terrain on the border with County Derry and is regarded as a holy well locally.


A further mentioning of the hill is in his Cenél Conaill and the Donegal Kingdoms (2006), Chapter Early medieval geography of north and east Donegal; Inis Éogain, Tí r Énnai and Magh nItha; Cenél nÉnnai, pp. 126-128.

The southern and western boundary of Cenél nÉnnai probably extended to the better known Swilly – river and lough – and would have included the area later known as the Lagan (Ó Tuathail 1937, 79-81). The northern boundary of Cenél nÉnnai  must have been along the same line as the southern boundary of Cenél nÉogain, that is the wetland valley – the Pennyburn Depression – running between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle, to the north of Derry and the range of hills that terminates on the west side at Greenan Mountain. The highest point of this range, at 856 feet (262 metres), is now known as Holywell Hill, on the summit of which is a cairn of earth and stones with an open, stone-lined cist (Lacy 1983, 59: 233). Until relatively recent times, the rainwater that collected in the cist was believed locally to have special qualities, that is, it was the ‘holy well’ of the name. However, the hill was known to the English surveyors of the early seventeenth century as Knockena, presumably a reflex of Cnoc Énna (Bryson 2001, 197).

With one exception (Dooish Mountain; summit at 266 metres) Holywell Hill is the highest spot in all the territory suggested here as having belonged to the Cenél nÉnnai. It can be seen, more or less from everywhere in that territory and, from it, the whole of the kingdom could be seen and surveyed. Could it be that this was the inauguration place of the kings of the original Donegal Cenél nÉnnai? The Cenél nÉnnai disappeared from history for about four hundred and fifty years, between the late sixth and the early eleventh centuries. However, it is likely that some remnants of the earlier kingdom clung on in their own territory and that it was their descendants who as it were, re-appeared in the annals with the same name in the early eleventh century. In neighbouring Co. Derry we can see the same thing happening with the Uí Meic Cáirthinn Locha Febail and the Cíannacht Glinne Gaimen; that is, an early small kingdom was apparently destroyed through the conquest of a more powerful neighbouring kingdom but actually hung on in some form to re-emerge briefly in the eleventh century (Lacey 1999, 126). This was a phenomenon well known in other parts of Ireland also. By that stage the area around Holywell Hill would have been dominated by The Cenél nÉogain. The latter’s post eight-century caput at the Grianán of Aileach is only two miles from, and completely intervisible with, the cairn on Holywell Hill. It is extremely unlikely that a Cenél nÉnnai inauguration site at this cairn could have functioned so late as that, literally on Cenél nÉogain’s doorstep. However, it could have been so used, as we will see, up to the end of the sixth century.


“The English surveyors of the early seventeenth century”  must be the “Inquisition taken at Derry, in 1609” as mentioned in the Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry and the Memoirs of the Parish of Templemore from 1837, which states:

(History and Antiquities of the Parish, Section I. – Townlands, p. 207)
Inis Eogain, or Owen’s Island – being nearly insulated by the two arms of the sea, called Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. The ancient and natural boundary of this peninsula extended from Castleforward – anciently called Cúl-mac-an-treoin – on Lough Swilly, by Lough Lappan, now Port Lough, to Carrigins, on the Foyle, and included the whole of the present parish of Derry, or Templemore. After the erection of the abbey at Derry, by St. Columbcille, a portion of this ancient district, lying immediately adjacent to it, was given as a support to that establishment; and hence the territorial boundary of Inishowen, as a temporal lordship, became changed so as to exclude the island of Derry and the other church-lands.* This change appears evident from the Inquisition taken at Derry, in 1609, before a jury composed of resident English, and of Irish natives of the principal ancient septs of the district, who were impannelled to ascertain among other matters the extent of the possessions of Sir John O’Doherty and his son Sir Cahir, as lords of Inishowen. Their return was, “that the auntient and knowne meares of the countrey of Inishowen, als O’Doghertie’s countrey, to the south and southeast, are and have bene tyme out of mynde as followeth, viz. from pte or branche of Loughswilly on the west and southwest pte of Birt (Burt) thorough the midst of a bog which extendeth to Loughlappan [O’Lappan’s Lake] (Portlough), and soe thorough the midst of that lough, and soe alongst the midst of a small river, fallinge into Loughlappan, from a well or springe uppon Mullaghknockemona (Bogey Hill), and from the topp of that mountayne the meare extendeth thorough a small bogg which runeth alonge the topp of the hill of Ardenemahaill (Ardnamoyle Hill), and so to the top of the hill of Knockenagh (Holywell Hill/Brian Lacey:Cnoc Énna), uppon the east pte of which hill ariseth the streame of Altbally Mc Rowertie which runneth ameare betweene Bally Mc Rowertie (Ballymagroarty) in Enisowen and pte of the lands of the Derry and Garrowgarle (Carowgort on 1661 map; now Spring Town/Pennyburn), to the cawsey, under Ellogh (Elaghmore), and soe down thorough the bog to Loghswilly, and from the foresaid cawsey the meare of Inishowen aforesaid is thorough the midst of the bogg to Loughfoile.

*This seems to be incorrect. As the royal seat of Aileach was destroyed by Muirchertach Ua Briain, King of Munster, in 1101, the then kings of Aileach, the Mac Lochlainns, moved their residence to Derry, lock, stock, temporal lordship and all. There is a further mentioning of ‘caisel an urláir being built at Doire Cholum Chille round Tempal Doire, people forbidden to cross over it, 80 houses removed outside that wall of Derry’, indicating residential use (Onomasticon Goedelicum Letter C)

Detail of the Hollar/Parson map of 1661

A last entry for the hill was found in Samuel Lewis’ A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, (1837) Vol. 1, Templemore, p. 609

In Ballymagrorty there is a small cromlech, the table stone of which is 4 feet by 3 ; and on the summit of Holywell Hill are the remains of a cairn, about 40 feet in diameter, in the centre of which is a small pit, 3 feet square and 5 deep ; the rock of the mountain forms its bottom, and it is called the Holy well, from a small pool of rain water being found in it, which is supposed to possess healing virtues. There are also two cairns of modern construction ; one is called “Jenny’s Cairn,” from having been the spot where a young woman was murdered under very atrocious circumstances ; the other, in the bed of a rivulet, is called the “Priests Burn,” from a tradition that a priest was killed on the spot.


Being noticeable uncomfortable for days with Brian Lacey’s somewhat certain identification of the hill as Cnoc Énna  and its possible function, I came up with a notion or two of my own.

Elizabeth FitzPartick suggests Grianán as inauguration site in her book Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland c. 1100 – 1600, a more realistic purpose of the hill than having accommodated an entire palace, a ‘caput’ or stronghold.

Although not impossible but it seems unlikely that two such sites would be so close and visible to each other, even if they were not used at the same time, since the right to the land, and therefore to rule, depended on proof of descend and ancestry. For this very reason, sites chosen for inauguration usually are at a place for the ancestors (burial site), including those of the defeated, in which case it only required an accordingly altered genealogy by telling a most wonderful story (dinnseanchas) of the founder of this clan, his great adventurers and his heroic death on this particular spot, where he now lies buried and from whom the hill hence has been named. Therefore the importance of one site did not necessarily change with new rulers, often only its name and past, for it was vital for them to lay legitimate claim to the newly conquered land. And in case their perceived right to the land should come under threat, by whatever means, they have an even older and wider reaching descend to recite in their defence. As the case of the Northern O’Neills has shown, this would include all their subjugated territories, leaving little trace where people originated from, not just geographically, as well as leaving a series of black holes in their now rewritten past.

Unable to locate any hill or height called Enna in poems, texts and manuscripts at hand within the vicinity, I read again and carefully the spelling of Knockena of the ‘English surveyors of the early seventeenth century’ and found that it was actually spelled Knockenagh, which not necessarily is ‘a reflex of Cnoc Énna (Bryson 2001, 197)’. And enagh, as the ever so helpful electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language points out, is the anglicised version of oenach and a word ‘often used of the place where the assembly was held and hence figures in many place-names’.

Having now a more probable suspect than the name of some ambiguous son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, I went back to the one page of manuscript, which gave me the proof for Grianán Gormlaig in native tongue and hand. There are a few áonach, even one with a grave (fearta), which may seem more likely to fit Holywell, but the one I decided upon is only three lines below ard álaín.

Collection of University College Dublin, MS A 31, item 4 r.

This should transfer into
Ard an cuileann baile áonach la feil Cainnech a patrun ann ubi ecclia
Height of the Holly, place of the assembly at the feast-day of Cainnech the patron saint of it, belonging to the church

Of course, it is more conjecture than certainty to presume that being so close to each other on the page could also mean a geographical proximity. But there was something a local farmer told me, who went by the wonderful fitting name of Columba, recalling that the hill in old days was known to the people of this area as Hollywell Hill. Apparently their memory served them well and the original name may have been ard an cuilean – the height of the holly. The pilgrimage to the well of ‘miraculous healing virtue’ could have been a remnant of the adoration of Saint Cainnech, who would have had the assembly at his feast-day carefully placed on an older, ancient site. Strangely enough, but suitable with the difficult to navigate Lough Foyle close by, plenty of sandbanks, he is the patron saint of the shipwrecked.

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