Achadh Úr or Freshfield was a 5th century foundation. From about 400 A. D. onwards new lands were conquered and settled on the banks of the Nuenna River by the Uí Duach clan from Muskerry, west Cork. They settled in north Kilkenny and broke new ground giving us Achadh Úr, the Fresh Field later mistranslated as Freshford. Much of north Kilkenny was later known as Ua Duach or Odagh. The name is retained to this day in the Irish for Three Castles - Bán Ua nDuach.
The growth of Freshford corresponds with the spread of Christianity. Around 100 years after its foundation Achadh Úr became the principal foundation of our patron saint Lachtain. He too was a native of Muskerry, born c. 550 AD. After study under Comhghall in Bangor, he was drawn to preach the gospel to his kinsmen in Ossory at the end of the 6th or early in the 7th century.
Today the remains of the outer enclosure of the early Christian settlement around the Nuenna river can be clearly seen from the air. This enclosure is now the northern boundary of the site of St. Lachtain’s National School. The presence here of the plant Alexander, which is associated with medieval sites, means that Freshford may have one of the few “living relics” of an early monastic site.
In time Lachtain returned to his own people. One of the churches associated with him in Cork is Cill na Martra or Church of the Relics and refers to the Shrine of St. Lachtain's Arm which was made for his relics but was confiscated during the Reformation. It was brought back from England in 1884 and can be seen today as part of the Treasures of Ireland exhibition at the National Museum in Dublin. Lachtain died in 622 and his feast day is celebrated on the 19th of March.
Today the greatest claim to fame of this grand site is the Hiberno-Romanesque church doorway on St. Lachtain’s Church of Ireland. It dates from c. 1150. Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel and Clonfert Cathedral are other examples of this style of architecture. The porch over the doorway was added when the church was rebuilt in 1730 but the doorway itself puts the site on a par with many of the great ecclesiastical sites around Ireland.
However it is ironic that just as it acquired its iconic doorway and 12th century church, Achadh Ur's days were numbered. The Synod of Rathbrassil in 1111 defined the Irish dioceses as we more or less know them today and Achadh Úr was subsumed into Ossory. Its status changed thereafter and the site declined during the second millennium to what it is today.
As one door closed, another opened. Probably because of its high ecclesiastical status, around 1250 Freshford was chosen by the bishop of Ossory, Hugh Mapleton, for his seat in Upper Ossory, giving it the name Uppercourt. Some later lay owners called it Upperwood.
Some of the bishops of Ossory left a mark on Uppercourt. Bishop Ledrede resided here when he campaigned against Dame Alice Kyteler and her alleged witchcraft in the 14th century. Oliver Cantwell built a castle there in 1500. In 1553 the first Protestant Bishop of Ossory, John Bale, lived at Uppercourt but later fled the parish and the country when his servants were attacked and five of them murdered. Soon after, Uppercourt came into lay ownership.
The lay history of Uppercourt involves confiscation following the Cromwellian invasion; a connection with the “Prince of Swindlers”, John Sadlier, and a court case about inheritance which ended up in the British House of Lords where it was finally decided.
Sir William Morres built the present house about 1795. It was extended later by another landlord, Thomas Eyre, before returning to local ownership when the Maher Brothers bought it in 1918.
Uppercourt returned to ecclesiastical ownership in 1932 when the Mill Hill Fathers opened it as St. Joseph’s College. They remained until 1982. Since then various lay owners have occupied it. It is currently being renovated.
The Millennial Quater Centennial, 1400th anniversary, of the death of St. Lachtain will be commemorated in 2022. It is hoped to celebrate this event in an appropriate way with a religious, educational, cultural and social dimension. It would be a great time for our exiles to return. Watch this space!