Saturday, 22 April 2017

The House of Cleitech and Rosnaree: on the trail of the ancestors, crossing the ancient ford of the Boyne

In ancient times, long before stone bridges, the places where you crossed rivers were called fords. These were generally shallow parts of the river, sometimes stony, where one could expect to be able to walk or wade across in general safety, except when the river was in full torrent.

Ironically, there is no modern bridge across the River Boyne between Slane and Oldbridge – around the whole Bend of the Boyne – except for the pedestrian footbridge that is used by visitors to Knowth and Newgrange to access their buses from the visitor centre. However, in the olden days there were fording points along the Boyne, and one in particular that may have been where an ancient road from Tara crossed the river as it headed north.

Aerial view of the Boyne at Rosnaree showing (right) the old mill house and (arrowed) the ford.

This road was the Slighe Midhluachra, and it crossed the Boyne very near to the old mill house which still stands at Rosnaree. The ford was a paved ford, and was in regular use until the early years of the 20th century(1). Elizabeth Hickey, writing a half century ago, says this of the ford:
This was the Áth na Bóinne of the ancients. Near here Mananan, son of Lir, tied up his magic boat, the Ocean-Sweeper, the craft which knew his thoughts; here came the Sons of Turenn to borrow it in order to pursue their quest. Across this ford the builders of the great tombs, which tourists see today, passed to and from their work. Milesian fleets rowed past these tombs to battle with De Danaan magic. Warriors from the North descended to the ford, King Conchubar with Cuchulainn and his army, to fight at Rosnaree. St. Patrick and his followers passed to Slane.
The Boyne at Rosnaree, looking downstream towards the ford - Áth na Bóinne.

In ancient times of course, rivers and watercourses formed the only effective transport network. The builders of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth knew this. They brought huge stones, many weighing three tonnes and more, up the Boyne on barges. However, they did not haul these stones beyond the shallow waters of the Boyne at Áth na Bóinne. It is likely that they landed much further east, somewhere in the vicinity of the lands that now form part of Dowth Hall, and hauled their stones from there. (The journey from that landing spot to Newgrange is a very arduous one. I might cover that in a future blog post).

The ford of Rosnaree was paved, i.e. artificially augmented with stones placed by people so as to raise the river bed and provide a more solid causeway across which the crossing could be made. The owners of the mill house in the middle of the 20th century were the Johnsons. Mr. Johnson told Elizabeth Hickey about the ford, "of travellers on horseback, travellers on foot, and hay-carts passing over, and men at work to keep it paved, not so very long ago".(2)

The ford marked on an old Ordnance Survey map. (Click to enlarge)

The precise location of the ford is still known, of course, not only because it is pinpointed on the older OS maps, but because a crossing is still possible in modern times, as pointed out locally, and indeed the rocks that undoubtedly form the augmented crossing cause the surface water of the river to rise and ripple over them.(3) 

Close by to the ford of the Boyne at Rosnaree is a place anciently called the House of Cletty (spelt variously as Cletigh, Cleiteach, Cleitech and Cletech, among others). Cleitech is said to have been the place where King Cormac Mac Art died after choking on a salmon bone, something that is very interesting because of Cleitech's proximity to Rosnaree and the Boyne, and the locality of Fiacc's Pool, where Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Finnegas were said to have caught the Salmon of Knowledge.

For a long time there was some mystery as to where Cleitech was located. The antiquarian William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) suggested it might have been at Clady, near Bective, south of Navan.(4) O'Donovan, in his notes on the Annals of the Four Masters, placed it "near Stackallen Bridge, on the south side of the Boyne."(5) Both were wrong. O'Donovan was closer, but Stackallen is several miles upstream from Rosnaree, west of Slane. It was Elizabeth Hickey who finally pinpointed its location through "considerable research"(6) and a healthy dose of doggedness. Here is her own account of the matter, based on her reading of the various myths and manuscripts. It is an excellent piece of detective work:
The Táin tells us that Cuchulain, when he went to woo Emer, descended to the Boyne on its lower reaches, between the Brugh of Oengus [Newgrange] and the Sidhe of Bresal to the west, and crossed the river between the houses of Cleitech and Fessi. From the story of the death of King Cormac we know that Cleitech was on the southern bank and was likely to have been near to Rosnaree, certainly not too far below the ford, for Cormac's bier was carried from the House of Cleitech to the river and borne by the river down to Rosnaree. Another story tells us of autumn games held between Newgrange and the House of Cleitech, and from these games and young folk ran to Knowth. The story of the death of Muirchertach gives us more detailed topography – the House of Cleitech was above the Boyne and above the green-topped Brugh; a glen lay to the south of the house; the grave of Muirchertach was to the north-east, according to another poem... There is only one spot on the map which fulfills all the conditions and this is the plateau-like elevation where Rosnaree House stands today.(7)
Síd in Broga (Newgrange) viewed from the Boyne at Rosnaree, near Cleitech.

Whatever the House of Cletty might have been, it is gone now. Its earliest mention as a house above the Boyne is in the Táin. One can imagine it might have been an Iron Age ringfort, something the Irish would have called a rath or a lios. But because it was the abode of kings (Muirchertach was the last king to live there), it might have been something more special, like a multivallate fort.(8) The Edwardian mansion of Rosnaree House is the most likely location of Cleitech, according to Hickey. The house is situated high above the river and from the terrace upon which it sits a great deal of the area can be seen, and there are views across to Knowth and Newgrange. According to archaeologist Geraldine Stout, a 14th/15th century reference "indicates that Cleitech lay near the Síd in Broga (Newgrange) and opposite Knowth".(9)

What might be the meaning of this name, Cleitech?

In a dialogue between Cúchulainn and his lover Emer, in the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Cúchulainn refers to a journey and masks the locations with obscure references, including: "over the Marrow of the woman Fedelm, between the Boar and His Dam", "That is, between Cleitech and Fessi. For Cleitech is the name for a boar, but it is also the name for a king, the leader of great hosts, and Fessi is the name for a great sow of a farmer's house."(10)

The old mill house at Rosnaree, close to Áth na Bóinne, the ancient ford across the Boyne.

Pigs and boars are prominent in Irish mythology. Long before the arrival of the builders of Newgrange and the neolithic farming revolution that saw the introduction of cows, wild boar was part of the staple mesolithic diet.(11) Pigs are plentiful in myth too. Lugh Lamhfada's father, Cian, took the shape of a wild pig to try to avoid the attention of the sons of Tuirenn. Diarmuid, one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, was gored by a wild boar and consequently died. He was later brought to Newgrange by Oengus an Broga, "to put aerial life in him so that he will talk to me every day".(12)

But there is, perhaps, another meaning for Cleitech that makes sense in the context of a paved ford across the Boyne. In Shaw's dictionary, there is a word Cleitach which means "full of rocks", and a similar word, Cleitadh, meaning "a ridge of rocks in the sea".(13)

Whatever its meaning, Cleitech was an important place, although its house is long gone. However, the area around the ford at Rosnaree and the eminence upon which the House of Cletty once sat retain an ancient feel, and it's not difficult to see how the file (poet) or the draoi (druid), who might have drawn great inspiration from being close to the flowing waters of the Boyne, might have felt himself in heaven in these places.
...from just such ancestral visions the stuff of ancient history was made. This gentleman knew the river as the men of old, the number of the cygnets with the swans, the way the salmon ran, where lay the deep pool which must have been Linn Feic, the fox's way, the badgers' earth, the sunny sheltered place, a likely spot for hermitage. If Cleitech has disappeared, its environs remain unchanged – Cuchulain could cross the river today, and thinking of Emer, see nothing of the twentieth century but a slight untidiness of overgrowth.(14)
Rosnaree House (left), the most likely location of the ancient Cleitech, overlooking the Boyne.

(1) Holten, Anthony (2017), The River Boyne, p.527. See also Hickey, Elizabeth (1966), I Send My Love Along the Boyne, p.9.
(2) Hickey, op. cit, p.9.
(3) The present owners of the old mill house, the Heise family, showed me the location of these rocks.
(4) Wilde, William (1849) [2003], The Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater, p.116.
(5) O'Donovan, John (translator and editor) (1854), Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, Vol. I., pp.115-116.
(6) Hickey, op. cit., p.65.
(7) Hickey, op. cit., p.66.
(8) This, of course, is mere speculation on my part.
(9) Stout, Geraldine (2002), Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, Cork University Press, p.68.
(10) Lady Gregory, Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, p.353.
(11) Mallory, J.P. (2013), The Origins of the Irish, Thames & Hudson, pp.44-45.
(12) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1982), Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, p.43. This is cited from Ni Sheaghdha, N., (1967), Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.
(13) Shaw, Rev. William (1780), Galic and English Dictionary, Volume 1.
(14) Hickey, op. cit., p.68. Hickey was here speaking with the then owner of Rosnaree House.


  1. I am fascinated by fords. Wouldn't the name Ros na Ríogh, meaning promontory (or wood) of the kings, suggest that this is the site associated with king Conchubar and Cormac Mac Airt?

    1. 100% correct Brendan. See: