Archaeological Heritage

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Over the centuries, Ireland has accumulated a lot of statues and monuments around the country. Many are positioned on remote hill tops or prominences. However, these remote locations are now making them vulnerable to vandalism.

Manannan Mac Lir statue stolen

Statue of Manannán Mac Lir, an ancient Celtic sea god, stolen from a hill overlooking Lough Foyle. (Photo credit: bbc.com)

The oldest of these monuments are simple stone cairns built up on mountain tops. These can be difficult to date, particularly because succeeding generations of local residents and more-recently hikers tend to add stones to the cairn to mark their visit. (In recent years, some misguided people have taken stones from some cairns as some sort of good luck charm — causing concerned locals in at least one location to remove signs pointing to cairns that are particularly badly affected.*) Read the rest of this entry »

Fore Abbey is one of the lesser-known monastic ruins in Ireland, which is a shame, as it’s a great place for a family day out, offering places to climb, a stream to play in, a rag tree to decorate, and hills to explore. 

Fore Abbey Rag Tree

The Rag Tree with Fore Abbey in the background.

Founded about 630 by St. Fechin, Fore Abbey lies near Lough Lene in Co. Westmeath. The original monastic community was largely rebuilt by the Benedictines in the 13th and 15th centuries, and these comprise most of the ruins you can visit today.

In its heyday, there were seven “Wonders of Fore,” but not all are verifiable anymore. These were:

  1. The monastery in a bog
  2. The mill without a stream
  3. Water that flows uphill
  4. The tree that won’t burn
  5. Water that won’t boil
  6. The anchorite in a cell
  7. The lintel-stone raised by St. Fechin’s prayers

Read the rest of this entry »

Ireland’s wealth of valuable historical sites are in danger. Every day they’re under attack from the elements, from neglect, from developers, from public apathy or ignorance, and from misuse by landowners. It’s time to face the fact that many may not be there for the next generation.

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. (photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology)

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. Photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology

2014 has shown us two extreme examples of these dangers as first the severe winter storms eroded the cliffs beneath Dúnbeg Fort in Co. Kerry, resulting in large parts of the structure’s defensive wall falling into the sea, and then the storms caused part of Coolbanagher Castle in Co. Laois to collapse. After that partial collapse, the rest of the castle was completely demolished, although the circumstances of the decision and the identities of those who undertook the demolition are unclear at the time of writing. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is made up of three major passage grave sites: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. I’ve written about the first two already, so it’s time to explore the most-complicated of them all, Knowth: quite literally, a city of the dead.

Knowth passage grave

One of the satellite tombs at Knowth.
(Photo by Photolifer/Marc Gautier via cc license/Flickr)

Constructed contemporaneously with Newgrange, the Knowth site consists of a cluster of 18 smaller tombs around one huge central tomb. When I was a child, I used to peer through the gate to the site at the huge network of rectangular pits that marked the excavation that continued for decades before the site was finally open to visitors. It took the archaeologists five years of digging to discover the entrance to the first passage, and then another year before they found the second one. Eventually, archaeologists would spend over 40 years excavating Knowth, and the story they discovered was extremely complex.  Read the rest of this entry »

Distinguished historian Graham Robb is the latest to contract Celtomania, coming up with a fascinating theory that the ancient Celts possessed advanced knowledge of surveying and astronomy in his new book.

In The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost World of the Celts (published as The Ancient Paths in Europe), Graham Robb (author of Parisians and The Discovery of France) proposes a new theory that the Celts built their communities in Gaul and Britain (less so in Ireland) along precisely aligned solar pathways. Some of these ancient paths could have been formal roadways, but many may have only ever been well-worth tracks or simply maps in a Druid’s head. When the Romans conquered Gaul, they seem to have paved these pre-existing roads and traditional paths in Roman fashion, and over time a complex system of Celtic self-organization was obscured.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’m reading Graham Robb’s fascinating new book about rediscovering the ancient roadways of the continental Celtic world (it’s called The Discovery of Middle Earth in the US, and The Ancient Paths in Ireland and the UK) and I’ll review it soon) and interviewing another author for an article I’m going to post next week, so time is short right now. Here are some links to interesting new archaeological discoveries relating to Ireland and the ancient Celtic world in lieu of a longer post to get the week off to a good start.

County Kerry Snails: Early Immigrants from Central Europe

Cepaea Nemoralis (Wikimedia Commons, Photo: Michael Gäbler)

Cepaea Nemoralis (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photo: Michael Gäbler)

Geneticists studying Irish snails have discovered a species in Co. Kerry which is directly related to snails in Europe. Cepaea nemoralis or Grove Snails, are not related to any other snail found in Ireland, but instead hail from the Pyrennes, and seem to have first appeared in Ireland 8000 years ago, along with the first continental Europeans. It’s thought these snails were deliberately brought as a delicacy, rather than being accidental passengers. This would have been before the land bridge connecting Ireland to Europe at the end of the last ice age was submerged and washed away. We Irish have rather lost the taste for snails since then.

Read more at Archaeology.org…

Read the rest of this entry »

The accepted theory that Scandinavian explorers were the first to discover the Americas, long before Columbus, has been taking a battering lately. There’s now more evidence to support the discovery* of North America by the Irish.

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan's  voyage to the New World. (source: wikipedia commons)

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan’s voyage to the New World.
(source: wikipedia commons)

An Irish village in South Carolina

When Spanish explorers first came to the Americas in the early 1500s, some explored the Carolinas and founded a settlement in Georgia around 1526. The settlement was near Charleston, South Carolina, and was populated by fairer-skinned, very tall people with beards — completely unlike the local Native American tribes. Relations between these agrarian settlers and the native population are recorded as being peaceful, and one fairly detailed account of their way of life was recorded by Spanish chroniclers at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.

Newgrange and Knowth as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded. 

The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.

The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.

Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.

Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.

 

Notes
This is my second post about the Hill of Slane. Read the first part, “Exploring the Hill of Slane…
If you are interested in the Hill of Slane, you should also visit The Hill of Tara

 

The Hill of Slane is one of the major archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Ireland, but recent research has suggested that there may be more truth in the ancient legends about the site than previously thought.

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda (via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda
(via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

The traditional St. Patrick story holds that around 433AD Patrick built a bonfire on the hill to celebrate Easter. However, this coincided with the feast of Beltaine, the spring rite of renewal and rebirth in the Celtic world, and tradition held that all fires must be extinguished and relit from the King’s bonfire on Tara Hill — although in practice, there would likely have been many communal fires around the country, given that the Hill of Tara is not visible from everywhere in Ireland. Tara is visible from Slane Hill, however, and tradition holds that the High King, Laoire, sent for the person responsible for this break with tradition. His druids had warned him that if that fire was not extinguished there and then it would consume the whole kingdom, and figuratively that’s just what it did. Read the rest of this entry »

At Duleek, a small village near Drogheda, a large medieval bell tower stands by a ruined church on the outskirts of the town. The first thing you’ll likely notice about this site is there are two church towers side-by-side. The smaller one belongs to “The Spire” restaurant, which is housed in a deconsecrated church building much younger than the tower that looms over it. This tower marks the remains of Duleek Priory, a 12th century monastery built by the Augustinians. However the site itself is reputed to have been the location of the first stone church built in Ireland around about 472; founded by St. Cianan (c. 442-489), who was converted and consecrated a bishop by St. Patrick himself. Consequently, Duleek has in many ways as strong a claim to historical significance as the nearby monastic sites of Monasterboice and Slane.  The main interest of the site today, however, lies in the ghostly afterimages it retains of its own storied past.

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time. (Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time.
(Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

While the remains of the original stone church can be seen in very overgrown condition at the edge of the site (so overgrown that it’s really not possible to explore it anymore) the bulk of the ruins belong to the 12th century abbey built by the Augustinians. Most of one long side wall links the mostly-intact tower with the the skeleton of the great central window at the other end of the main building. A large sarcophagus-type tomb stands inside in what would have been the main alter area of the church. Near the top of the tower the original roof line can be seen, demonstrating by its height and the ornamentation of the windows how far the engineering ability of the Irish church had come since the early days of that first stone church. Near the spire restaurant you’ll find the remains of an old high cross, and throughout the church yard there are broken fragments of others; all suggesting the great center of learning and religious art this once was.

Walk around the corner of the bell tower you’ll note part of the wall is very uneven and dilapidated. However, change your perspective by walking over to the graveyard wall and the scar in the side of the tower might make more sense. Gently tapering to a conical point, the north wall of the tower shows the impression of a round tower, a ghostly image of a tower, carved in its side. Studies have suggested this was the original round tower on the site, which may have been the only part of the abbey still relatively intact after centuries of Viking raids had left the monastery without an abbott and possible uninhabited by the time the Augustinians were granted the land by Hugh de Lacy after the Norman conquest.

The churches annals record that the cloictheach (bell tower or round tower) of Duleek was hit by lightening in 1147 and the roof was demolished. Going by the impression left in the side of the 12th century bell tower, the roof may have been replaced sometime before the Abbey was constructed in 1182, and the builders simply incorporated the round tower into the wall of the much larger bell tower. In fairness, that repair could have been made as the new abbey was going up, but it’s hard to see why the builders would have incorporated a damaged and relatively short round tower into the new bell tower. The incorporation of a round tower into later construction of a bigger building is not completely unknown; the tower at Lusk in Co. Dublin was incorporated into the church there, and continues in use as a bell tower, but that building is no bigger than the original tower, so incorporating it would have saved time, expense and materials. Why the tower at Duleek was so adapted is a bit of a head scratcher.

It’s interesting to reflect that the height of the ghostly impression of the Duleek tower would have made this one of the shorter round towers in Ireland. Suggesting that the ground level surrounding the tower may have changed significantly since it was first constructed. Whether this was a change made during the building of the abbey (perhaps to afford direct access to the tower’s door?) or as a result of the cycle of destruction of earlier churches and monastic buildings is unknown, but the riddle of this ghost tower presents some intriguing possibilities.

 

Notes

You may be interested in my earlier post “When is a Round Tower Not a Round Tower?

 

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