Located just six and a half miles from Kilkenny city, Dunmore is by far the most historically significant cave on the island of Ireland. With strong links to Celtic mythology; the scene of the massacre of 1,000 women and children; reputed to be the hiding place of Dame Alice Kyteler, who was accused and sentenced to death for witchcraft in the 14th century, but escaped and it is claimed that she remained in the cave until she was smuggled to New Ross to board a boat to escape to England.
Michael Collins sent some of his men into the cave in 1919 to check if it was suitable as a hideout and if there was another way out in case they were pursued by Crown Forces. In his memoirs, the late Judge James J. Comerford of the New York State High Court said he was sent there by Collins to check out the place as a possible hide-out for volunteers.
The massacre at Dunmore in 928 AD is written about in the Annals of the Four Masters and while the Dublin based Vikings killed all the men, they then went to the cave and those they could not get out, were burned out while any youngsters they got were sold as slaves in Dublin, and many bones have been found over the years.
Treasure dating back 1,000 years was found by a tourist guide picking up litter in a crack in the wall of the cave. The haul was made up of silver and bronze objects and coins. They included conical silver wire Viking age items not previously found anywhere in the world. Experts believe they may have formed the personal wealth of an individual. The silver coins dated from 970, some 40 years after the great slaughter at Dunmore. The smaller cones in the hoard have parallels in Viking burials on the Isle of Man.
More exciting was a small, unpromising-looking remnant of textile that turned out to be very fine silk. It seems that this was a fabulous dress with a silver wire border and cones that functioned either as tassels or as buttons. The silk itself was more valuable than all the silver ornaments put together. It had come, almost certainly, from either the Byzantine empire or the Arab world. The dye used to colour it was either red or purple and used by only the wealthiest.
Officials from the Irish Government’s Duchas heritage service described the latest find as ‘very exciting and of major significance’. The development was reported to the authorities late 1999, but only confirmed on 8 January. The cave has been sealed off to keep out treasure-hunters with metal-detectors, and the artefacts have been transferred to Ireland’s National Museum in Dublin for further examination, cleaning and restoration.
The haul was expected to go on show to the public later that year. Duchas archaeologist Richard Buckley said: ‘These items were pricey at the time they were made – the Versace of the Viking period. “They have not been seen anywhere else. It’s an important part of the Viking jigsaw.’ He added: ‘One of our guides was cleaning the cave. He was picking up discarded crisp packets at the time and found the jewels and coins in a crack in the wall.’
Images | Dunmore Cave, Co Kilkenny | Mark Head on Flick (Creative Commons)