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

Part V: The Corofin District

The extreme richness of the north-west angle of the County Clare in prehistoric [1] remains rendered an attempted survey far longer and more difficult than one could have foreseen when, in 1895, I laid the first of this series of papers before the Society. We have now reached the eleventh of the series; with one more paper I hope to close it, completed, at least as regards all structures of any importance. Begun in May 1878, and continued (at first at long intervals, 1883, 1885, and 1887), I have, from 1892, striven to work over the district as methodically as possible; but no worker can have been so many years as even from 1892 without modifying and widening his views. Structures, only briefly noticed in the earlier sections, seemed to be of greater importance as the value of their lessons was better appreciated. Trying to revisit in later times the chief remains, new facts stood revealed. So perilous and difficult were the fissured and often overgrown crags, that I had at first turned aside from sections of the county which later experience led me at all risks to examine. From these causes I soon found that a perfectly methodical design was sacrificed. Completeness of description, however, is of far greater importance, and the table giving the forts and dolmens under each parish in their natural sequence (with which I purpose to conclude the work) should compensate for the broken design, and bring together all references in the series of papers.

It became plain, even before the first part was published, that, instead of merely describing some eight or ten of the chief forts, a survey was needed.[2] Though this detailed task called for far longer and more severe work, and for more patience in students of its results, no one can question (however my personal work may have fallen short of my ideal) that this, and not merely records of exceptional remains, could alone be valuable to scientific workers. After Mr. Borlase’s book, The Dolmens of Ireland, appeared, the notes (which I had previously sent to him as soon as I examined any such monument) were included along with the forts. No one realizing the swift destruction falling on Irish field antiquities will grudge the publication of such notes; but the subject is neither popular nor fame-winning, and, to those who are interested only in history or elaborate architecture, must always be distasteful. Scholars both of our islands and the Continent, however, have already formed a different judgement.[3] To those who wish to follow it on the field, great are the fascination and interest; for the wildernesses blossom with flowers and ferns; and the dainty colouring of the rock-ledges and their shadows, the lovely outlooks to distant hills and out on the sea, the ivied cliffs, the spray of the waterfalls, the loneliness, and the strange weird sounds on the uplands, have a vast and lasting charm. No one fully realizes how he loves the strange hills, glens, and plateaux till, after absence, he feels the joy of returning to them again, no matter how often this may recur.

The types of remains may be briefly enumerated as: - (1) promontory forts on inland spurs; (2) simple ring-walls or ring-mounds; (3) ring-mounds of more complex character, with more than one girding wall; two, as at Glenquin and Tullycommaun, or three, as at Cahercommaun; (4) the more or less rectangular ‘mothair’; (5) the hitherto inexplicable parallel earthworks, as at Ardnagowell; (6) ring-walls for worship or sepulture, like that around the dolmen of Creevagh and those at Ballyganner. Of other remains: (7) pillars, which are few; (8) simple tapering cists, usually in a mound, or cairn, the mound rarely higher than to the bottom of the cover; (9) anomalous monuments, like the pillared dolmen of Ballyganner or the enclosure of slabs round the cist of Iskancullin; (10) carns and tumuli, often with cists and kerb blocks, sometimes mere memorial carns; (11) tumuli within an earth-ring (like Lislard and the Mote), or carns within a stone ring-wall; (12) avenues, formed by removing the surface layer of the crags; (13) huts, which are usually badly preserved, but which were beehive structures, sometimes of several cells; (14) souterrains, usually simple, straight, curved, or L or T-shaped, in plan. Rarely do side cells occur. The nearest approach to a fort with a raised platform is the rock-cut fort of Doon. One fort, Ballykinvarga, has a remarkable abattis. Alignments and large circles of stones are unknown in the district. None of the complex (and therefore possibly later) gateways with side cells and loopholes exist; all are simple passages, with a lintelled outer gate, and, as a rule, coursed jambs, far more rarely with stone posts. The steps are equally simple, in Clare, usually running straight up to the terrace, or from it to the wall; a few examples of sidelong steps occur, as at Cahergrillaun and Cahernahoagh. There is rarely a second terrace. The wall is sometimes built in sections, like the Aran forts. The masonry of the stronger and probably older forts is very perfect, with beautiful curve and batter; cells never occur in the walls.

The district originally intended to be worked (as may be seen in the second section of this survey) covered the Barony of Burren, or East Corca Modruadh, along with the craglands adjoining it in the parishes of Killilagh and Kilfenora, the parishes of Kilnaboy and Ruan in Inchiquin, and a portion of Dysert and Rath. The present section completes the Inchiquin portion, and I hope to complete the Corcomroes in the closing paper. There are, roughly speaking, 280 forts in these parishes - in Kilnaboy about 90, in Ruan over 100, in Rath 30, in Dysert O’Dea over 40, in Kilnamona 20.