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The Muscraige are perhaps one of the most enigmatic groups in early medieval Munster. Muscraige, as a sept name ending with the element –raige, can be parralled with groups whose name ends in –ingas in Anglo-Saxon England. This would appear to be an element effectively signifying ‘kingdom’. Muscraige, however, are a polity who are not mentioned in our sources until the 8th century at the earliest. Indeed, this fact stands in stark contrast to the seemingly archaic form of the sept name’s nomenclature. When our sources permit us to locate them, there are roughy five distinct and largely separate Muscraige kingdoms. One in North Tipperary, in a territory which stretched from the River Brosna south as far as the river Gaetheach, where Nenagh possibly represented their caput. Perhaps the principal Muscraige kingdom was that of Muscraige Breogain, centred on the distrcict of Cliú and the plain Mag Breg, effectively the southeast corner of Co Limerick, extending into west Tipperary as far as the river Suir. The possibility that Muscraige Breogain was the principal Muscraige kingdom might be suggested by reference in a 10th century list of tales, to the now lost text ‘The Migration of the Muscraige from Mag Breogain’. There appears to be two Muscraige kingdoms in Co Cork, accounting for a large portion of the north of the county; Muscraige Mittine, and Muscraige Trí Maige. Finally, and perhaps more enigmatically, there was a Muscraige kingdom in south Tipperary, just east of Cashel, known as Muscraige Airthir Femen.

Constituent kingdoms of the Muscraige polity c.1000-1100 AD

This kingdom of Airthir Femen, ‘east of [Mag] Femen’ (Mag Femen being the plain stretching south from Cashel as far as where the Suir forms the county boundary between Tipperary and Waterford) is really only a sliver of a territory, and indeed, it is by far the smallest of the Muscraige terroitories. In the genealogies of the Muscraige Airthir Femen, there is a record of a Rath Meic Carthaig (CGH 324d30), a royal site of that group, preserving the name of a dynast who was a ‘son of Carthaig’. This name is preserved in the townland names of Rathmacarthy East and West, which form the southern boundary of the parish of Kilbragh. While there is no recorded monument in Rathmacarthy east, there is a single ringfort in Rathmacarthy west. This (TS069-042) monument is c.30m in diameter, with a single enclosing bank of substantial proportions, surviving up to 2m in height in parts. Nevertheless, an alternative location for Rath Meic Carthiag may be proposed as the fort marked on 1st edition OS maps as Seancaislean, a few hundred metres northwest of this ringfort, in the townland of Rosegreen, and just out with the townlands of Rathmacarthy.

Seancaislean: a large fort surrounded by four concentric banks. Possibly the Rath Meic Carthaig mentioned in Muscraige Airthir Femen genealogies

Rosegreen accounts for the majority of a detached portion of Tullamain parish, with the core remainder of the parish adjoining Kilbragh at the east. Tullamain is rendered by Logainm as Tulach Mhéain, and the tulach element has been shown by Dr Elizabeth Fitzpatrick to be a common toponym at royal assembly sites, along with terms such as Mullach, carn and cruachain. Sometimes tulach is used specifically to describe a mound, but it may also be a toponym which is solely descriptive of topography, such as signifying a low hill. Rosegreen in this regard is intriguing, as it adjoins the townland of Lowesgreen at east, with the latter (Lowesgreen) located in Kilbragh parish. Rosegreen and Lowesgreen (Faiche Ró and Faiche Ló respectively) both incorporate the element faitche, which has been argued to be a term effectively signifying a large area of open space or green in front of a high status dwelling. In this case, they are recorded as such from at least the 16th century, but one might surmise earlier significance. These account for the majority of a low hill, upon which Rosegreen is situated, which falls off the east, but has a mound and adjacent medieval church site (probably late) which occupy its highest point. Seancaislean is located on the gentle NE slope, in a natural hollow at the base of the hill.

The fort of Seancaislean is a hugely impressive quadri-vallette enclosure. That is, it has four surviving banks with intervening ditches, which are preserved to a height of up to 3m in parts, but which sadly have been much demolished on the south. The impressive ditches of the fort retain water to this day, and the interior is raised c.3m above the surrounding field, having what appears to be the footings of a tower house built on this raised platform at its centre. In its original form, Seancaislean is likely to have been c.150m in diameter, and thus, in terms of scale and morphology, it parallels other royal enclosures such as Rath na Seanad (late Iron age enclosure) at Tara, Garranes (4th – 6th century) in Co Cork, Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) in Co Meath and Rathra on the outskirts of the Rathcroghan complex. In the immediate local landscape, Seancaislean has further analogous enclosures near Cashel, such as Rathnadrinna, Windmill and Ballinree, with the latter, ‘place of the king’ also being quadri-vallette. This type of enclosure has been suggested (by for instance, Gerard Dowling and Conor Newman) as perhaps being slightly earlier than the more pedestrian ringfort, and therefore, conceivably c.400-600 in date. While a note of caution might be sounded by the fact that few of these sites have been excavated, Tom Kerr has noted from an analysis of radiocarbon dates that multi-vallette enclosures tend to be slightly earlier than uni-vallette ringforts.

Circular enclosure which adjoins Seancaislean at west. This forms a conspicuous figure-of-eight.

This may suggest Seancaislean is an early and important site, a notion conducive to its identification as the Rath Meic Carthaig of the Muscraige. As distinct from these royal associated sites, so similar in their scale and the morphology of the enclosing feature, Seancaislean is rather anomalous as these latter enclosures almost invariably tend towards a topographic location on hilltops which allow commanding views of the surrounding landscape, and indeed, are clearly visible within their hinterlands. Seancaislean is located in a natural hollow, which does not take advantage of the surrounding topography. Indeed, this may be precisely why the tower house is built on a raised platform. The precise site chosen for Seancaislean, however, has the effect of placing the enclosure in a natural amphitheatre, and another intriguing point, is the remains a of a low circular earthwork, c.25m in diameter, which is appended to its eastern edge forming a conspicuous figure-of-eight, an element of a monumental iconography redolent at many royal sites.

Considering the suggested royal associations of Seancaislean, one could surmise that this was a royal landscape of a branch of the Muscraige. Such a suggestion finds support in the location of a conspicuous mound on a hilltop adjacent to Seancaislean, which perhaps may have held assembly and inauguration functions. Considering the presence of the toponymic element faitche, one might further conjecture that this is a royal estate of the Muscraige Airthir Femen. At minimum, this would include the detached portion of Tullamain parish, and the part of Kilbragh parish accoounted for by Rathmacarthy East and West and Lowesgreen. The possibility that this hypothetical estate would have included the parish of Kilbragh is suggested by the derivation of Kilbragh (following as Cill Bhrátha, ‘church of judgements’. Kilbragh is attested in our sources from at least c.1200 AD, and a find of a crozier knop in its vicinity attests an early importance. While judgement in this instance might be connected to Doom, and the idea of the Last Judgement in Christian eschatology, given the close proximity of Kilbragh to Muscraige royal site of Rath Meic Carthaig, one might winder whether this has anything to do with judgement in the sense of judicial and legal activities, which we know were a facet of assembly landscapes. This represents an intriguing, albeit speculative possibility.

What we have then is a micro-royal landscape appropriate to the minimal polity of Muscraige Airthir Femen, a segment of the larger Muscraige federation. The presence of a royal dún, a prominently sited mound on an adjacent hilltop, and a possible church associated with ‘judgement’, might lead one to wonder whether this was a landscape of assembly for that polity, which could have held inauguration and assembly functions. Whether this was an Óenach specifically is difficult to tell, but it would seem that this was partly a royal estate, and thus, such an interpretation, when read alongside the other functions this landscape seems likely to have fulfilled, might suggest that an interpretation of this site as a place of Óenach is appropriate.

Regardless, in terms of function this was clearly a landscape of royal importance, and which would seem likely to have been a place of assembly for communities within that polity of Airthir Femen. Considering the likelihood that this was part of a royal estate, probably accounted for by the parishes of Tullamain and Kilbragh collectively, it is intrigueing to note that it is located on the boundary of the territory of Muscraige Airthir Femen with Éoganachta Caisil. More specifically, this Muscraige royal estate adjoins St Patrick’s Rock parish, which is almost certainly part of the ancient royal demense of the kings of Cashel. This symbolised in an administrative relationship, the status of the Muscraige as primus inter pares among the king of Cashel’s vassal states, a development which probably originates c.800, and extended to the Muscraige pronouncing a blessing over the king of Cashel on the occasion of his inauguration.

So the likelihood is that this is an important royal landscape with assembly functions for the local polity. Given that it may have fulfilled at least some functions associated with other Óenach sites, should it therefore be regarded as an Óenach in all but name?

by Patrick Gleeson