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Archaeology of the Burren: Prehistoric Forts and Dolmens in North Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp

Part I: Foreign and Irish Forts

Prehistoric [1] events in Ireland have too often been treated in an extreme spirit of acceptance or negation. Some speak of our pre-Christian kings with a certainty scarcely suitable to the reigns of Brian or Roderic; others write of Laoghaire’s predecessors as if all were as mythic as the heroes of the Nibelungs Lay. In all probability the centuries preceding St. Patrick handed down not a little real history [2] to his scribes, whose successors passed it on, but possibly with added errors, to the compilers of the earlier encyclopædias of Irish literature. In the earliest of these we meet a legend versified by Mac Liag, Brian’s bard, who died 1016, and ascribed to Amergin mac Amalgaidh, circa 550, on which an unreasonable stress has been laid to make it support a popular theory. On its supposed authority most of our antiquaries, begging the question, attribute the great forts of Aran and Clare to the Huamorian Firbolgs in the first century. Now the Lay of Carn Chonoill certainly connects Oengus with Dun Oengus, but names no other western fort, nor does it even state [3] that the fugitives entrenched themselves. Even if it did so, a writer, as far removed from the period of his legend as we are from the time of Alfred the Great, cannot be taken as an unimpeachable authority, and, where the old poem, The taking of Dun Oengusa, is lost, we have practically no earlier legend than that in Roderic O’Flaherty’s HIar Connaught, 1686, which attributes the building of two only of the Aran forts to the Firbolgs, no fort in Clare being mentioned.

The original story so often alluded to, and so little known, is thus translated by Dr. Whitley Stokes [4] :-

‘Conall, the slender, son of Oengus, son of Umor, fell there (at Carn Conoill). Once upon a time, when the sons of Umor made a flitting over sea out of the province of the Picts (of Scotland), they come to the plain of Meath to Cairbre Nia-fer, the Lord of Tara, and of him they sought land, the best in Meath, to wit, Rath Cennaig, Rath Commair, Cnogba, Brug Mna Elcmair, Taltiu, Cermna, Tlachtga, Ath Sige, Bri-dam Dile. Cairpre required them (to perform the) base service of Tara, like everyone whom he permitted to dwell in Banba (Ireland) and (especially) Bregia. So for this (performance) the children of Umor gave four sureties, namely, Cet mac Magach, Ross, son of Deda, Conall Cernach, and Cuchulainn. Afterwards Cairpre imposed on the children of Umor a rent which could not be endured: so they decamped from him, with their possessions, westward to Ailill and Medb, and set up beside the sea. Oengus in Dun Oengusa in Ara; Cutra to Lough Cutra; Cimbe Fourheads [5] at Lough Cimbi; Adar at Mag Adair; Mil at Muirbech Mil; Daelach on Dail and Ennach, from whom is Ennach’s house (Tech nEnnaich); Bir at Rind Bera Sirraim; Mod at Insi Mod (the Clew Bay Islands); Irgus at Rind Boirne [6] ; Cingid at Cruach Aigli; Bairnech Barannbel at Laiglinni; Conchiurn at Inis Medon (Middle Island Aran); Lathrach at Lathrach’s Hill (Tulaich Lathraich); Taman at Taman’s Point (Rind Tamain); Conall the slender at Aidne; Mesc on Lough Mask.

So then the four sureties and guarantors are summoned by (the creditor) Cairpre, Conall comes with his (comrade) Cuchulainn from the Ulaid; Ross, son of Deda, from the Ernai; and Cet went out of Connaught to Cairpre’s house. Cairpre demanded their honour or their soul (life). So then, under Cet’s safeguard, the sureties repaired to Cruachan, and there, on the green of the fortress, they commenced their fasting. Cet’s wife entreated the respite of a single night (that the children of Umor might consider what was to be done). On the morrow Oengus comes, and said that his son, with his three brothers, would fight on his behalf with the sureties. Cing against Ross, Cimbe Fourheaded against Conall Cernach, Irgus against Cet mac Magach, and Conall, son of Oengus, against Cuchulainn. So the sons of Umor were killed, and the sureties brought their four heads to Cairbre to boast of them. Then Oengus was buried, with his son Conall, under this cairn.’

Elsewhere, in the Dindseanchas, [7] we learn that Maistiu, sister of Conall the slender, and Maer, who was twin with him, died of sorrow at his death.

Every passage of the story is excessively improbable, from the Firbolgs getting the royal forts of Taltiu and Tlactga, and the royal cemeteries of Knowth (Cnogba) and Newgrange (Bru), down to the death of Oengus and his daughters; and a tribe that could find space among the Milesians in nine raths in Meath must have been very small, so we can give this story little weight in any question relating to the forts. We are left equally in the dark by the early records and legends of possible historic value. Ptolemy places the Ganganoi near the Shannon estuary, there the Firbolgs Gann, Genann, and Sengan [8] appear. Cormac mac Airt wages war on the inhabitants of the Burren, defeating them on Slieve Elva in the third century, while in the fifth the Dalcassian kings have their palaces in Co. Limerick, and do not yet hold Aughty or Elva, and the king of Aran seeks refuge with the pagans of Corcomroe. If the smith legend of Glasgeivnagh is ancient, [9] the Celtic warriors of the third century found the hills behind the Fergus at Corofin garrisoned by Tuatha De Danann. This may represent, in outline, an early fact of the Dalcassian conquest, [10] and that proud tribe boasted to the king of Cashel, about 840, that they had won the land by their own swords; yet many of the fort-names and legends are of Celts alone. [11]

It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that our forts are not a unique and isolated class of structures, as several seem to have considered them. Ours may be some of the finest and best preserved, but they are only the latest and most remote of a series extending across all Europe, wherever the Celtic race held sway. This people attained the summit of their power between 450 B.C. and 220 B.C. The Phœnicians were over-lords of Spain, under Hiram of Tyre, 537 B.C.; but by the time of Herodotus, 450 B.C., the Gauls had gained the upper hand. About 390, the Celts overran Etruria, and destroyed Rome. In 280, they invaded Thrace and Macedonia, defeated Ptolemy Keraunos, raided up the very glen of Delphi, and formed a colony in Galatia, giving that country its name. Internecine feuds and lack of writers crippled their power and obscured their fame. Their ‘empire’ was 2000 miles from east to west, from the mouth of the Danube to the Tagus and Shannon, from Etruria to Northern Scotland; all across the district the names and remains of ‘duns’ occur, from Singidunum (Belgrade), on the Danube, to the utter-most verge of the old world, as a well-known antiquary writes [12] : ‘The names of Gaulish villages handed down the ages the living remembrance of the dominion exercised by a people which preceded the Romans in empire, the Germans in civilization.’ The fall of this many-headed ‘empire’ was speedy. It began historically in Spain, Hamilcar Barca 238 B.C., Hasdrubal, 230, and Hannibal, 219, drove back the Celts and Iberians from the Mediterranean; the resistless hordes of the Germans pressed the Eastern Gael over the Rhine. The arms of Cæsar broke their power in Gaul, and it may well have been that many a dislodged tribe, whose traditions may have descended from those who saw the hill-forts of Greece and Asia Minor, [13] fled into this island during the two centuries before our era, bringing knowledge of fort-building. We find forts of dry stone or earth, very similar in plan, construction, and features to ours, scattered across Europe, almost from the borders of Thrace, the traditional starting-point of the Firbolgs. In Bosnia Herzegovina [14] they are oval, or with several concentric walls, and sometimes have stone huts near them. A triple concentric fort near Cserevics and a ‘hring’ of three semicircles, on the edge of a steep hill at Bény, occur in Hungary [15] : they are called ‘Poganvyar’ (or pagan forts), Földvar (or earth forts), and ‘Devils’ ditches’ in that country. Still northward, in Bohemia, we find many forts, notably the Hraditsch, near Strakonitz, Ginetz, and the Knezihora, near Katovic. [16]

Foreign, British and Irish Forts
Foreign, British and Irish Forts

In Baden we find examples (possibly Celtic, though attributed to the Ubii), probably earlier than 100 B.C. Their great stone ‘Wallburgs’ and ‘Ringwalls’ gird the Altkönig in the Taunus and the wooded crests of the beautiful Heiligenburg [17] overhanging Heidelberg. Dry stone ramparts sometimes semicircular, called ‘Heydenmauer’ (or heathen walls) exists in the Vosges Mountains [18] ; others are found in Oldenburgh and in Switzerland on the Jura, [19] and in Zurich; several occur in Alsace Lorraine [20] as the ‘Altschloss’ (old fort) of Haspelscheidt, an elliptical ring 980 feet across, of rude stones with a side enclosure to the north as at Dun Conor. In France along the bank of the Seine [21] in Normandy and between that river and the Loire [22] there are many forts like our Irish ones, and the series runs out to the sea in Brittany, especially in Côtes du Nord and Finistere, [23] scattered examples occurring as far south as the Pyrenees, and in Great Britain, in Cornwall, and Wales, with numerous examples in Scotland. [24] They are of every period from the Flint Age to the Roman Conquest, while in Scotland they undoubtedly date to the legendary period of the sons of Huamore. Flint weapons have been found in Dun Aenghus, [25] but iron objects were found in the walls of Cahercalla, Clare, and iron axes in Caherspeenaun on Lough Corrib. There are forts in France, Scotland, and in this island, as at Moytura-Cong, Deerpark, Co. Sligo, Ballykinvarga, and Tullycommane, Clare, and elsewhere associated with stone circles, cromlechs, and primitive burials, [26] while the furrowed and weatherworn tops of the pillars of the chevaux-de-frise of Dun Aenghus and Ballykinvarga testify to the long period which has passed since their erection.

On the other hand the Clare cahers [27] are manifestly of very different periods, many are residential rather than defensive, resembling our enclosed yards rather than castles; others are not the hurried entrenchments of a small and hunted tribe, but the deliberately built citadels of a settled and powerful nation, fearing assault rather than siege. Antiquities found in their enclosures may have lain there long before the fort was built. If a great caher were erected in our day from the crag blocks, it would look venerable and antique even in the lifetime of its builders, for its materials would be already fretted with more ages of storms than have lashed the ramparts of Aenghus and Conor, while some of the churches of the eighth and ninth centuries [28] are of more massive masonry and even more weatherbeaten than some of our forts. There is no hint that the buildings were regarded as unusual or non-Milesian; some bear Celtic proper names, even later than the eleventh century, and were used for ordinary residence through the Middle Ages to recent years.

In 1317 Donchad O’Brien, before the fatal battle of Corcomroe, did not leave ‘a man dwelling in an ‘ooan’’ [29] (caher’s souterrain) unsummoned to his army. Dromore Caher was inhabited 1569; Cahermacnaughten in 1675, and Caherballiny to 1839. As a result one is driven first to merely negative conclusions: (1), it is more than questionable whether any of these cahers are the work of Firbolgs who built none in their undisturbed settlements [30] and had hardly leisure or resources to build the huge fortresses of Aran and Clare; (2), nor can they be the work of sea-rovers for the same reason, and the occurrence of many important cahers on mountains difficult of access from the sea; [31] (3), nor by the Dalcassian kings who never settled in the districts where they most abound, and built none in the neighbourhood of their own residences; [32] (4), nor by the Danes [33] for similar reasons; (5), nor by the monks, who in this district seldom attempted even a slight mound and ditch and left their chief monasteries unfenced in the open fields; (6), nor as cattlepens, to which such ramparts, terraces, and steps are unsuitable; (7), nor primarily as fortresses, for overhanging hills and want of water seem to have been matters of indifference to their builders. [34] Where unquarried stone was so easily procured and in suitable blocks [35] it is probable that a series of cahers, necessarily in one nearly invariable style, were built, rebuilt, and repaired from early pagan times down perhaps to the fourteenth century, when they were superseded by square towers; the straight-sided cahers and mortar-built gateways in circular forts being transitional. The more elaborate forts are not necessarily the latest; they only imply better organisation and greater population. Moghane required the collection and laying of some 1,177,000 cubic feet of blocks, the average fort of at least 40,000 cubic feet. A group of six or more cahers (we shall examine several such groups) implies a much denser population than in the thirteenth century or even now; but it may equally imply that the country being overgrown and wild, men congregated into the cleared districts. O’Donovan [36] noticed this in 1839, though he was a firm believer in the pagan origin of the Aran cahers and attributed Dubh Caher to 1000 B.C. ‘The Firbolgs were never more than a handful of men in Ireland, and it must have required a dense population and several centuries to erect all these cahirs.’

The stone forts of Clare lie mainly in Burren and the adjoining parishes: most of the others in eastern Clare lie on two lines running more or less from the N.W. [37] from the hills of Glasgeivnagh and Inchiquin to Cratloe Hill, all three being noted in pre-Christian tradition. [38] The only noteworthy group in the S.W. is that of Loop Head. Though excelled by the Duns in Aran (which, however, belonged to Clare till the later part of the sixteenth century, and were evidently built by the same race as those in the Burren) their number enables us to form a more accurate notion as to what is exceptional and what commonplace in the former and in others of our cahers. The traces of structures in their enclosures, if we except the oval cloghans and the souterrains, are probably fences round wooden houses.

Cahercalla, near Quin
Cahercalla, near Quin

Cahermacnaughten and, perhaps, Ballyallavan have foundations of late mediæval buildings. The older residences must have been groups of huts with cup-shaped roofs of wicker and thatch, such as we see in the Gaulish huts on the Antonine column. The walls were of wood and clay, decorated at times with carved yew posts, bronze studs, and designs in colours and lime; the outer rampart was often whitewashed, [39] lime being used for the purpose before being used for mortar. We find round pits, perhaps the bases of wooden huts (the Germans made wooden souterrains, possibly the Irish occasionally did the same), for timber was more plentiful even on the heights of Burren when such names as Ardross, Behagh, Feenagh, and Killoghil were first adopted than in 1652 when Ludlow made his grim joke, ‘There is not wood enough to hang a man.’

This Paper is intended to collect facts rather than to advance theories. Baffled in our search into the records, lost in the mazes of tradition, and getting no certain answer from the forts, we must lay up careful descriptions for that future scholar who can answer the riddle of the ruins. For the rabbit-catcher and road-contractor are overthrowing the walls, and even where conserved they have too often been rashly modernized; ‘palaces and castles,’ it has been said, ‘are more attractive objects in ruins than in complete repair.’ I cannot pretend to describe even the most interesting of some 400 forts, nor to give popular accounts of bardic glories, ‘duns, snow white, with roofs striped crimson and blue, chariots . . . bearing the warrior and his charioteer,’ for such fall as little as landscape-drawing within the scope of this Paper; but I hope to help better antiquaries than myself in their libraries, and to save them on their journeys from the disappointment of taking a long and weary drive to find some fort attractive and conspicuous on the map reduced to mere heaps of featureless moss-grown stones.