The Barrow Valley Project is a study of the prehistoric landscape of Ireland’s second longest river. The Barrow defines much of the landscape of mid-Leinster, and has been both a boundary and a routeway throughout prehistory and into the historic period. The project is based on research, museum archives, the Record of Monuments and Places, and on extensive fieldwork along the valley. The geomorphology of the region has also been examined (by Robbie Meehan) to give some idea as to vegetation and land use in the past.
The River Barrow rises in the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Laois, flows eastwards to Monasterevin where it turns south, linking the towns of Athy, Carlow, and Graiguenamanagh. It joins the River Nore north of New Ross, and the River Suir at Cheekpoint. The ‘Three Sisters’ then enter the Atlantic at Waterford Harbour.
The earliest settlement along the Barrow dates from the Mesolithic. Evidence in the form of stone tools has been gathered from an area to the north of Athy, and also along the gravel terraces further south along the river between Carlow and Graiguenamanagh.
The Neolithic is represented by a series of important megalithic tombs in the area north of Borris. Most of these are portal tombs, and they include tomb with the largest capstone in Ireland at Brownshill, near Carlow town. There are also Neolithic finds from all over the valley, particularly polished stone axeheads, which suggest that the landscape was being cleared for agriculture during this time.
The Bronze Age sees continued expansion across the valley. This area has one of the highest concentrations of Early Bronze Age burials in the country, a testament to the rich tillage land and the proximity of the Wicklow Mountains and their alluvial gold. There are also considerable numbers of standing stones, several stone circles, and a range of burial monuments such as tumuli, cairns and barrows. Barrows often appear in groups as at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, but along the Barrow valley there are also several groups of cropmark enclosures. These monuments are no longer extant above ground but are in many cases likely to be the remains of ring-barrows and ring-ditches, such as those near Kilgraney and Fenniscourt, Co. Carlow. Large numbers of contemporary artefacts have been found in this area; again an indication of increased population and wealth in this fertile valley.
The last phase of the prehistoric period – the Iron Age – is somewhat enigmatic, in the Barrow Valley as elsewhere in Ireland. It is likely that a proportion of the barrows and other burial monuments (particularly on the Curragh) are Iron Age in date, and there are small numbers of excavated Iron Age burials in the area. One of the best known contemporary sites is the royal site of Dún Ailinne near the Curragh. This is a large hilltop enclosure overlooking the Curragh, which was excavated in the 1970s and which has similarities with other royal sites such as Tara and Emain Macha (Navan Fort).
Project Director: Dr. Annaba Kilfeather