A sense of place: the 6,000 year-old portal tomb at Killaclohane

By: Owen O’Shea

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: EDSO CROWLEY / EDITOR: MICHEAL O COILEAIN

According to the French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, ‘an individual is not too distinct from his place. He is his place.’

My ‘place’ has always been part of who I am, wherever life has taken me. Milltown is a place rich with an archaeological heritage and landscape which provides a strong and binding sense of place, a series of dramatic topographical features, old buildings, ruins, and monuments, all of which serves to ground and anchor those who live there and are from there, to those that came before us. 

The iconic portal tomb of Killaclohane continues to fascinate and appeal to my sense of place, not least because it stands just a few hundred yards from where I was born and grew up. It was always known colloquially as ‘The Dolmen’ when I was a child. It was a place which drew visitors from afar and those with an interest in heritage, but those who lived near where it stood knew little of its importance – until a few years ago, that is.

Coincidentally, I found myself at the centre of the revelations about the true significance of the tomb at Killaclohane. As a journalist with Radio Kerry, I heard a rumour that there was an excavation at the tomb, that work was being done to investigate its significance. An excavation was being led by County Archaeologist, Dr Michael Connolly. For weeks he and his team had been examining the site on the lands of my neighbour, Ken O’Neill. Ken had noticed cracks in one of the two stone uprights and feared that the enormous 15-ton capstone was about to collapse. Restoration works led to the excavations which followed.

Days later, I was standing with my Radio Kerry microphone interviewing Michael Connolly beside the Killaclohane tomb. Among the many astonishing revelations were that the structure was a portal tomb which dated to almost 4,000BC, some 6,000 years ago, making it the oldest surviving structure in County Kerry and the county’s oldest known place of burial. It is believed to be one of the most important such sites in all of Ireland.

6,000 year-old portal tomb at Killaclohane
6,000 year-old portal tomb at Killaclohane

Among the tantalising discoveries at the site were items such as flint arrowheads and knives, early Neolithic pottery and a coin dating from 1523 during the reign of King Henry VIII, suggesting that the site retained an importance for thousands of years. The finds suggests that this was one of the earliest settlements of humans, when mankind transitioned from their hunter-gatherer phase to that of settled farming, tilling the soil and growing crops.

Even more tantalising is the revelation that Killaclohane is one of three similar tombs within a one kilometre radius. Work is underway on excavating and studying a second portal tomb, deep in the forestry of Killaclohane Wood and the potential for further revelations enthrals and excites.

Inspired by the portal tomb, a few years ago, the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann decided to host an evening of music, song, poetry and reflection at the site at Killaclohane. It took place, appropriately, on the Summer Solstice, 21 June. It was an enchanting and invigorating reconnection with the past, set against the sun-kissed and sweeping majesty of Cathair Con Rí, Sliabh Mish, and the harbour of Castlemaine.

Like the ongoing discovery of archaeological treasures in Egypt, so do the people of my home place come to find out more about their place, our ancestors and those who walked and first farmed the fertile lands of the Maine Valley. 

Mythology, folklore, and archaeology will continue to tie and connect us to the people who walked and farmed the lands which we now call home. The tomb at Killaclohane forces us to remember and reflect upon our ancient roots and those who came before us, millennia ago.

In the words of the American novelist, Wendell Berry, ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.’
Owen O’Shea is a historian and author of several books and articles on Kerry history and politics. His book on the Ballymacandy Ambush of 1921 will be published by Merrion Press in May 2021.For more information on the Killaclohane Portal Tomb, see the exhibition and videos on the excavations on the Kerry County Museum website.

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