The discovery of a 175-year-old document, the clearing of an ancient, overgrown graveyard and the determination of a local man to follow a hunch have culminated in what could be the cultural find of a century.
The 1,500 -year-old burial mound of one of the Fianna’s greatest warriors - a man whose legendary passion for a beautiful princess led to his tragic death - is now believed to lie just a few miles outside the West Cork village of Enniskeane.
The story begins 20 years ago, when Newcestown Heritage Group began clearing an old cemetery tucked away off a winding back road in West Cork.
Two years ago another group from an adjoining community – the Ballineen & Enniskeane Heritage Group - joined in, assisting with plotting and mapping the site and researching its history.
Eighteen months later in what was the first major development in the story, the Ballineen group found an article written by noted antiquarian John Wendele about a visit he made in 1843 to Murragh Graveyard, a few miles from the village of Enniskeane.
Wendele had carefully recorded his visit to what he referred to as “Diarmod’s Grave, a tumulus erected to the memory of Diarmod O’Duivne, one of the principal heroes of Fenian romance, the successful lover of Grainne, a princess, and daughter of King Cormac.”
A tumulus was a grave in which only people of extremely high social status were buried - and Diarmuid Uí Duibhne, who, as long suffering Leaving Certificate Irish students ( of a certain age) will know, was a legendary member of the Fianna and a major figure in a fabled Celtic love-triangle.
His story, and that of his royal lover Gráinne is told in Toraíocht Dhiarmada Agus Gráinne, a tragic epic of passion, betrayal, elopement and death.
It began when Diarmuid runs off with the beautiful and headstrong Gráinne, daughter of Cormac mac Airt, the High King of Ireland.
At the time Gráinne was betrothed to Fionn MacCumhail, the ageing leader of the Fianna.
Diarmuid Uí Duibhne was Fionn’s best friend – but he was also young and extremely handsome. The moment Gráinne set eyes on him, she fell in love.
The couple elope after Grainne drugs Diarmuid and are pursued across the country by the Fianna for years before Diarmuid is finally killed by a giant boar as Fionn baulks at saving him.
And now, it seems, according to Wendele, this legendary figure has lain buried for centuries near Murragh Graveyard.
Intrigued by Wendele’s claim, Michael O’Connell, a member of the Ballineen group, carried out further research. He discovered that the tumulus mentioned and sketched by Wendele had, along with a large part of Murragh Graveyard, been officially been deemed destroyed in 1950.
Undeterred, O’Connell decided to search for the tumulus.
He contacted Daragh Smyth, an authority on Celtic mythology, author of two books on the subject, and a former lecturer in Irish Cultural Studies at Dublin Institute of Technology.
The two searched the area, says O’Connell, “literally hacked our way through thick undergrowth,” eventually finding a large mound.
“When we examined the mound, it seemed very similar to the sketch by John Wendele back in the 1840s,” says O’Connell, who explaining that a tumulus is a burial chamber covered with a mound of soil.
“The mound near Murragh graveyard was originally 15 feet high and 81 feet long,” he says, adding that the heritage group believes the mound was built around 200 AD.
“We believe some of it has been eroded since the 1700s, when the construction of a nearby bridge interfered with a local floodplain. This in turn led to serious erosion downstream, affecting the graveyard.
“However, we think a large amount of the tumulus remains – and that the part that remains is its highest point. This, we believe, contains the burial chamber, which we also believe is substantially intact.
“We located the tumulus about six months ago. At the time we contacted the Cork county archaeologist, who in turn notified the National Monuments Service.”
Personnel from both organisations travelled to the graveyard and following an comprehensive inspection, confirmed it was the tumulus which in 1950 had been deemed as destroyed.
“At our request they have said that they would once again include it in their list of monuments.”
The Ballineen group also requested that the mound be referred to as “Diarmuid’s Grave,” in honour of John Wendele, whose notes and sketches had been so crucial to its rediscovery.
Following official verification that the site was indeed an ancient burial mound, the heritage group commenced research into the possibility that it could contain the body of Diarmuid Uí Duibhne.
“We soon established a strong network of connections between this area of West Cork and Fionn MacCumhail, the Fianna and a deposed High King of Tara, Lugaid MacCon.” MacCon is believed to have been born and ruled over the area of Enniskeane in West Cork before ruling as High King of Tara for 30 years.
However, he was expelled from Tara by his successor Cormac mac Airt, whose father Lugaid had killed years earlier in battle.
Lugaid returned to West Cork. However, Cormac didn’t trust him, and later had him assassinated.
Lugaid, according to legend, was buried amid much ceremony in a cairn atop the panoramic Corrin Hill or Currane Hill, a few miles outside Enniskeane.
Meanwhile Cormac succeeded the throne, offering Grainne’s hand in marriage to Fionn MacCumhail, then an old man and setting in motion the tragic events which later became the subject of the Toraíocht.
“From the Toraíocht, a poem written about the elopement, we know that Diarmuid’s tribe was from the West Munster area, which would probably have included West Cork,” says O’Connell.
“We also know that West Cork was a popular recruiting and training ground for the Fianna from a number of mentions in ancient Celtic literature. “We believe it very likely that his body was buried among his own people in West Cork.”
Daragh Smyth agrees: “I think there is a strong possibility that the tumulus at Murragh is the burial site of Diarmuid,” says the author of A Guide to Irish Mythology and Cú Chulainn; An Iron Age Hero.
After fleeing from Fionn, adds Smyth, Grainne and Diarmuid returned to Co Cork, staying for a time in a cave half-way up what is now known as Owen Hill, several miles from Enniskeane and five miles west of Dunmanway.
Over the centuries, he says, this cave became “almost a place of pilgrimage, as was Diarmuid’s tumulus at Murragh.” “
Although he is believed to have been killed in Sligo, I think Diarmuid would have seen himself as a native of Munster.
“That he stayed with Grainne at Owen Hill where the river rises, would show that he was familiar with the River Bandon.” O’Connell, who along with other members of the heritage groups, will shortly oversee the publication of a book on the renovation of the graveyard and the re-discovery of the tumulus, says: “We believe the tumulus became a sacred site, even, possibly, a place of pilgrimage, to the extent that its significance was recognised by the early Christians who then “adopted” the site and built the church and graveyard on it.”
Gráinne, a beautiful, headstrong princess and daughter of the High King of Tara, is promised in marriage to a powerful, but elderly chieftain, Fionna MacCumhail, but falls in love with his handsome young lieutenant, Diarmuid Uí Duibhne instead.
However, similar to the tale of Adam and Eve, this great and loyal warrior is reluctant to do any wrong — but is seduced by a wily woman.
Once she realises that his loyalty to his chief renders him impervious to her charms, the flighty royal beauty casts a spell on the young warrior, compelling him to fall in love with her and they elope together, bringing about his eventual, tragic death.