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Prehistoric Stone Forts of Central Clare: Moghane and Langough, near Dromoland by Thomas Johnson Westropp [and Cahershaughnessy, near Spancel Hill by Mr H.B. Harris]

Prehistoric Stone Forts of Central Clare: Moghane and Langough, near Dromoland by Thomas Johnson Westropp [and Cahershaughnessy, near Spancel Hill by Mr H.B. Harris]

This article was first published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. iii., Pt. iii., 5th Series, pp 281-291.

Crowning a gentle height, thickly planted with trees, beside the lofty gabled tower of Moghane Castle,[1] in the Dromoland demesne, stands one of the most remarkable forts in Ireland, as yet undescribed, though its strange shape and large size make it very conspicuous even in the key map of county Clare in the Ordnance Survey. Struggling through high brakes of fern, alive with birds and rabbits, we wander along masses of fallen stones, through gateways (green gaps in the ruinous heaps), and, standing on the highest summit, look around us.

Three broad circles of grey, bleached, weather-worn stones gird the hill top; beyond lies one of the widest and loveliest of Clare landscapes. Round us we see in turn the quaint towers of Dromoland in its deep woods, the flashing estuary of the Fergus, the Shannon, the long line of lakes towards Kilkishen, the smoke and high spire of Ennis, the richly chequered hills of Burren and Aughty, Slieve Bernagh and the Galtees, the Abbeys of Ennis, Quin, and Clare, and the numerous brown, square towers, so old to us, yet mere mushrooms of yesterday to the vestiges of human labour that hem us round. Confused by sloe, hawthorn, and undergrowth, it is only on comparing a plan with the fragments that we form a clear idea of the venerable ruin.

“Wondrous is its wall of stone
But the Fates have shattered it;
Shorn away and sunken down
Are the sheltering battlements,
Under-eaten by Old Age.”

Prehistoric Forts of Central Clare: Moghane and Langough, near Dromoland

Moghane consists of an oval “cashel” (round the summit of a hill 263 ft. above the sea). This has entrances to the east and west, simple opes in the wall, nor are any great lintel stones apparent among the ruins. The three ramparts vary from 13 ft. where most distinct, to over 20 ft. but they seem to have been so systematically overthrown that we cannot say for certain whether they had terraces and steps; as these do not occur in the forts of Langough and Cahershaughnessy, they were probably absent here.[2] The inner fort (A on plan) measures 350 ft. N. and S., 380 E. and W., and 327 internally from gate to gate, the circuit of its walls being about 1100 ft. round. Concentric to this is a second enclosure (B) 650 E. and W., and 630 to 650 N. and S., with a circuit of wall 2200 ft. round. It has gates to the N.W., the E., and the S.W., the last defended by a small round caher (E1), about 100 ft. in diameter, and much rebuilt, the walls 8 ft. thick, and 5 to 7 ft. high, enclosing a plantation; its entrance faces the inner fort. The third enclosure (C) is a great irregular oval, adapted to the edge of the steep cliffs and crags westward, and running nearly in a straight line to avoid the abrupt eastern slope. It has three northern entrances and one southern; the Ordnance Survey marks four to the west, but two seem mere accidental gaps. The western wall is defended, like the inner gate, by a caher (E2) over 100 ft. across; it is rebuilt, its entrance closed, and thickly planted; while another small fort (E3), a mere ring of mossy stones in the depth of a wood, stands on a hillock to the south of the great fort, guarding the approach to its more accessible southern face and gate.

Wall in Moghane

The whole great fort measures 1500 ft. N. and S., and 1050 59 1100 E. and W.; the circuit of the outer wall is 4550 ft. and of all the three ramparts no less than 7850 ft. enclosing over 27 acres. The interior spaces seem to have been filled up behind each wall, so as to be 6 or 8 ft. above the outer ground level. A few radiating walls, of modern appearance, and some curious circular hollows occur in the two outer enclosures, and the rock crops out everywhere. It is much to be regretted that the site was not inspected, even at the risk of a wetting, when our Society and the Cambrians visited Dromoland in August 1891. The northern side can be well seen from the railway between Ballycar and Ardsollas, but the eastern is screened by a dense mass of larch and fir growing up to the very foot of the wall.[3]

Wall in Langough

About 1500 ft. S. of Moghane, in the lands of Langough,[4] is a noteworthy fort, of complicated plan. It consists of a nearly circular cashel (F) 110 ft. E. and W. by 95 N. and S., enclosed by a wall 6 ft. thick, of which only the lower part, from 2 to 4 ft. high remains, the entrance not being discoverable. It is of the usual construction – facings of dry stonework, of large oblong blocks, roughly coursed, many 3 ft. by 2 ft. by 1 ft. 6 in. beautifully fitted, with a filling of smaller fragments of crag. This circle springs from the edge of a small cliff, 10 to 12 ft. high, so that the next enclosure (G), an oval 450 N. and S. by 250 E. and W. “rings” into the inner wall at the cliff; it is similar to the first wall, but 5 ft. thick, and of even larger stones, and is leveled to the bottom courses except at the cliff. North of this is a third wall, 4 ft. 6 in. thick, running to a point, and pear-shaped in plan, to enclose the whole summit of the ridge (H) and measuring 600 by 300. This was probably the original fort, as the second rampart crosses its nearly defaced walls. South of this, two dismantled parallel walls, 300 ft. apart, run for 400 ft. into the lands of Rathfollane, in which they have been demolished. The total length of the walls of Langough is about 4000 ft. A small round cashel, 65 ft.N. and S. stands in tilled ground to the S. E., its facing entirely removed. A bold round hill, like a tumulus, of natural rock, stands. N.E. from the main fort, and is the best guide to the latter, as the whole ruin and crags are buried in high nut-trees and hawthorns.

Not only is Moghane, even in its overthrow, a most interesting example of our prehistoric forts, but it is probably one of the largest (whether of earth or stone) in Ireland.[5] It could contain Dun Enghus and Dun Conor, Emania, or the two largest forts of Tara; while, to give a definite notion of its great size, it is three times the length and four times the greatest width of St. Paul’s Cathedral, or three times the size of the Acropolis of Athens. The Colosseum could stand within its second rampart, and the outer wall could enclose Trinity College, Dublin, with its Park, and much of Nassau and Brunswick-streets. The walls of Moghane and Langough are 2¼ miles long, and the forts, respectively, cover 27½ and 5½ acres of land.

With natural hesitation and doubt one faces the question of the origin of the great forts of Moghane and Cahershaughnessy, which Messrs. Harris and Creagh describe below. The aspect plunges us back to the ages, perhaps five hundred years before the written history of Clare commences, when the Amazonian Maev reigned in Rath Croghan, and the sons of Huamore were entrenching themselves behind giant ramparts of dry stone in the sea-defended Arran, “for they are not of to-day or yesterday, but are everlasting, and no one knows whence they originated.” It is only in a poem by Murchad MacLiag, who died in 1016, that we even find a sufficiently definite legend to guide us; but, though a millennium had elapsed from the asserted date of the events to the time of their recorder, we cannot altogether neglect the persistent story of Adhar, son of Huamore, gave his name to the central plain of Clare, and was buried under the great mound, near the centre of the district bearing his name in the earliest traditions of the Dalgais, whose princes were inaugurated on its summit, as if to emphasize the conquest of their Celts over the Firbolgs.

The forts here described lie to the north and south borders of the plain, and Cahershaughnessy is, roughly speaking, half-way between the alleged Firbolg Kingdom of Cutra, round Lough Cooter, and Moghane, which latter is on the northern edge of Tradree, alleged to take its name from a Druid prince. To come to historic times, the Dalgais, under Lachtna son of Corc, about 845, asserted to the ambassadors of Felim of Cashel, that their race had won all eastern Clare from Connaught; while, in the legends of St. Patrick, the Dalgais Kings resided in County Limerick at Singland and Duntrileague, and Senan (or perhaps Patrick) prophesies that their kingdom will reach to Elva beyond Lisdoonvarna, and Eachty beyond Feacle, as if it then included only southern Clare. So we may conjecture that one group of settlers won the kingdoms of Corcovaskin and Corcomroe (the last of the Firbolg estate of “Daelach”), while the Dalgais expelled their foes from “Adhair,” and this seems borne out by the fact that out of some 60 cromlechs in County Clare no less than 24 occur in “Daelach” and 25 in “Magh Adhair,” while 8 more are in the hills along the east border and in the latter district.

MacLiag tells how the Huamorian Firbolgs, flying from the Picts to Cairbre of Tara, and from his tribute to the King and Queen of Connaught, were given lands by the latter. Aenghus and Conor got Arran, and their brother Adhar, Dael, and Cutra, got Magh Adhair, Daelach, lying north of Ennistymon and Hy Fiacra-aidnê, round Lough Cooter. Meanwhile their sureties to Cairbre, the great mythic heroes, Ross, Keth, Connall Cairnech, and Cuchullin challenged them to single combat, in which the Firbolg champions, Connel, Kime (suggesting Caherkine[6] near Moghane), and Jargas, were defeated and slain, and their countrymen driven to the islands. The Clare colony was apparently expelled by the victor, Ross MacDeaghaid.

How much of this is primitive legend, and how much emanated from the gifted elegist of Brian Boru – whether the Firbolgs gave their name to the forts or the forts to them – few would be hardy enough to decide in these days of unbelief. “We are Time’s subjects,” and he has closed their records against us; but we may receive it as a dim historic fact that a colony of foreigners, tolerated by the Kings of Connaught, settled between the Shannon and Lough Mask, and if this race built the great forts that crown the hills and sea cliffs of Aran, it is reasonably certain that they built the similar strongholds of central Thomond to dominate the lands of Adhair and Tradree.[7]

Cahershaughnessy, near Spancel Hill

Mr. H. B. Harris contributes the following Notes about this Fort : -

About two years ago Mr. Arthur Gethin Creagh, of Carrahan, accidentally mentioned to me that he had discovered a curious structure at Cahershaughnessy, near Spancel Hill, which he had not found marked on any map. When an opportunity presented itself I visited the place myself, and was much struck by the remarkable appearances of these ruins, not on account of their beauty or imposing aspect, but because of the peculiarity of their design, which, with the entire absence of mortar or cement in the building of the massive walls, pointed to a period very remote in history. I communicated the existence of the place to Captain Paske, of the Ordnance Survey, and to Mr. Thomas J. Westropp. The latter visited and carefully planned the ruins for illustration in the Journal.[8]

Plan of Cahershaughnessy Inner Fort

It is remarkable that a large structure, existing for many ages, should have been hidden from everyone except those living in the immediate neighbourhood, yet, so far as I can ascertain, no book of reference alludes to this fort; however, the absence of any lofty buildings to attract the notice of those traveling on the highway not far to the north, and the shrubs and brushwood rising nearly as high as the caher itself, hid it from the curious; nor is there any place of general interest, or picturesque scenery to make it a holiday resort for pleasure seekers.

Its builders chose a low and even swampy hollow, overhung by two hills. One of these seemed the obvious site for defence and outlook, being detached and with a prospect from the river Fergus to Slieve Bernagh. This hill is actually crowned by a little earthen rath, with a perfect fosse, and a large triangular stone, about 4 ft. high (like one of the pillars on the hill S.W. of Carrahane). This fort was no doubt employed as a look-out post; its entrance faces S.E. towards the caher. An old roadway can be traced up to it from the latter, and westward into the opposite valley towards Spancel Hill; so perhaps the builders of the caher trusted to the protection of a low and swampy situation, buried deep in the woods which give the place its old name “Drum Urchaill.”

Mr. Creagh wrote to me: “It was about fifteen years since I had last seen Cahershaughnessy, and since then the road contractors have worked their will on it, and taken away any immense quantity of the facing, so that the centre, which consists of small loose stones, had run down into a heap. I miss one curiously-shaped building, which existed when I first saw the remains. It is regrettable that the havoc made by the contractors has disfigured the structure; however, the present tenant has promised to stop the vandalism.”[9]

Cahershaughnessy Fort, Co. Clare from Rath to N.W.Cahershaughnessy Fort, Co. Clare from Rath to N.W.

The caher is circular in plan; the walls are built of dry stone, tapering upwards from 12 ft. at the base to 8 on top, and 6 ft. high. They had no steps or terraces, and only one vertical joint is apparent in the stonework, which was evidently built simultaneously, and not in divisions like the Aran Forts. Nearly the entire inner face of well-fitted cragstones, bearing no trace of hammering, exists; from this long “headers” bond for 3 ft. into the filling. The gateway (A) lies to the N.W., and is completely defaced. The inner caher measures 166 ft. 6 in. E. and W. and 148 Ft. N. and S.

Cahershaughnessy, Interior from South

The east side is occupied by two enclosures (E 1 and E 2) overgrown with sloe bushes. A small cell (G 1) seems to have stood at the south end of their western wall, and two similar cells (G 2 and 3) probably stood against the south segment of the rampart. A small oblong building (B), facing N. and S., stands near the centre of the caher. The foundation walls of all these structures are roughly built of field stones and earth, and, strange to say, are continued in the same direction outside the caher, radiating like five spokes of a wheel (D) to the outer rampart, and varying in length from 105 ft. to the south, 144 ft. 6 in. S.E., 197 E., 182 N.E., and 159 N., while on the W. where no radiating wall occurs, the distance between the ramparts is 171 ft. 6 in. Between these walls, in the outer circle, are large irregular enclosures, probably for cattle.

The second rampart measures 567 ft. E. and W. (in Moghane the second wall is 561 ft. E. and W.). It includes between 5 and 6 acres, is 6 ft. wide and 5 ft. high inside, and built like the caher. It has narrow entrances to the E. and W; no trace of lintels remaining. South of the fort are a number of small enclosed plots of about 20 perches each cleared from the surrounding crags and bushes.

Cahershaughnessy – Inner RampartCahershaughnessy – Inner Rampart

Spancel Hill is not without a history. We know that a very early abbey existed there, of which no trace remains except we look for it in the caher, and that the enclosed buildings are ecclesiastical, as at Inismurray. Domnall, son of Aed, Abbot of Dromurchaill, died in 837. Its only other record is that King Mortough O’Brien marched past it on his way to the battle of Dysert, May 1318, and that it was the scene of the defeat of Conor, Earl of Thomond, by Garrett, Earl of Desmond, 1559; in confirmation of which history Mr. Creagh tells me he saw some years since a cannon ball which was dug up near Spancel Hill. Meagre as these notes are, few, if any, in the neighbourhood, ever heard of these events, and but for the interest created by our Society since they adopted the plan of visiting places enriched by remarkable ruins or historic memories, which let Mr. Creagh to speak to me on the subject, the caher might still be unnoticed.

I now close my observations, and if I have not done justice to this grand old fort, I trust every allowance will be made for me.


1. Moghane Castle was granted by letters patent, to 1560, Conor, Earl of Thomond.
In 1584 it was held by Donat O’Brien, under lease of the Earl of Thomond. In 1641 it was forfeited by Mahon, son of Teige MacNamara, and sold to Thomas MacNamara. It escaped being dismantled, and was occupied by a Cromwellian garrison in 1652. It was occupied by Aney Macnamara and Thomas Burton in 1663. Moghane consists of a lofty square tower of three storeys, in excellent preservation, the two lower are vaulted, the upper one has a handsome fire-place, on the keystone of which, on a small shield, appears in raised capitals, “T.MCMOM-N.ME.FIERI.FECIT.IN.A.D. 1610.” The staircase is in the north-east corner, and, like the door and windows, is beautifully built of well-dressed limestone. A small enclosure with bastions and embrasures surrounds the tower. Professor O’Looney states that the tradition of the Sixmilebridge district asserted that the fort of Moghane was called after a certain warrior, who built it for a fighting ring, and, being presented with a gold cap by his admiring tribe, took the name “Oirceannagh,” whence his descendants are surnamed Mac Inerney. Another tradition says its last chief sold it to Sir Donat O’Brien for threescore cows and twenty bullocks. The unfounded view advanced in our Journal for 1864 (“Note on Tomfinlough,” p.176 – Dyneley’s Tour), that Moghane was erected by the Danes in the tenth century, refutes itself – the author seems not to have visited the remains. Strange to say Vallancey also advanced a theory that Staig Fort was an amphitheatre for contests. The peasantry call the forts named in this Paper “Moohan” or “Meihan,” and “Loongah.”

2. Mr. Wakeman tells me that absence of steps is a characteristic of the inland forts of County Galway. The three small forts (E 1, 2, and 3) show that attack was most feared from the direction of the Fergus.

3. Moghane Fort has been placed on the Schedule of National Monuments since this Paper was written.

4. The R.I.A. “Gold” Catalogue, p.31, and our Journal, vol. iii, Part 1, p.181, wrongly describes “Laungagh” and “Moghane” as earthen forts.

5. Moghane, 1100 x 1500 feet (in round numbers). Caher Crofinn (Tara), 950. Emania, 850. Rath Maeve (Tara), 800. Grianan of Aileach, 450. Moghane inner fort. 350; second wall, 560. Cahershaughnessy, 567. Dun Enghus, 1100 x 650. Tlachtgha, 450. Rath Laoghaire (Tara), 300. Rath Graine (Tara), 260. Rathcroghan, 300. Grianan of Aileach, 450. Dun Conor, 240. Grianan of Lachtna, 130. Staig, 90. Balboru (Kilfenora), 150.

6. Caherkine (recte Caherkime, as appears by Thomas de Clare’s “Inquisition,” 1287, “Cathyrnachym”) has now no “caher” on its lands. Perhaps this was really the ancient name of Moghane Fort (Moghane = Marsh), from which it is not half a mile distant, as in County Clare parts of many townlands have been renamed, so that a building may stand on quite a different denomination to that of the lands whose name it bears. This is well shown by Ballyhannon, Balintlea and Ballymulcassel Castles, the part round each building having been renamed respectively Castle Fergus, Castlequarter and Mountcashel. Moghane does not appear in the “Inquisition” of 1287, nor, as far as I know, till Elizabeth’s reign.

7. The Royal Irish Academy’s “Catalogue of Gold Ornaments,” by Sir. W. Wilde, pp. 31-3, gives a very full statement of the great “Clare find” of gold ornaments on lands of Moghane, near the lake of that name, on March 1834 when no less than £3000 worth of gold was discovered. Dr. Todd brought the matter before a special meeting of the Academy on the 26th of July following, when he displayed 5 gorgets, 2 torques, 2 unwrought ingots, and 137 rings and armillae, being 174 oz. 11 dwt. 7 grs. In weight. They were laid together, in a small stone chamber under a little mound, the rings and torques twisted together, and the gorgets on top, being procured for the Academy by Dr. Todd, Charles Haliday and Dr. Fleming, at a cost of £500. Mr. J. Frost informs me that many were exchanged for meal, &c., by the workmen. The residue can be inspected in our National Museum. It certainly seems the great forts close to the scene of the find may have been wrecked in Brian Boru’s war of extermination against the Danes in Tradree, but perhaps the builders of De Clare’s Castle, and the later Abbey at Quin, and those of Moghane Castle are answerable for much of the destruction wrought on Moghane Fort. The exhibition of the gold ornaments is recorded in the Proceedings, R.I.A., vol. vi., p. 113, but the details and Paper are not given. Rev. Mr. Graves laid the facts of the finding before our Society, 20th September, 1854 (see vol. iii., Part 1, 1854-5, p. 181).

8. I here take the opportunity of thanking Mr. Westropp and Mr. Creagh for their assistance to me in the compilation of these notes.

9. It is strange that the country people, while having a superstitious regard for the earthen raths, and fearing to level them, cherish no such feeling towards the stone forts – probably a persistent racial tradition.