Excavations Reveal Mysteries of Ireland’s Past

Poulnabrone dolmen, County Clare.

By Kevin P. Oldham

For many, archaeology is for the experts, but so many exciting discoveries have been made during excavations in this country in recent times that the man in the street has shown interest, realising that much of historic importance can be learned from such operations.

The success of archaeological excavations in many parts of Ireland has encouraged the Government to finance even more ambitious projects.
Antiquarians and archaeologists, now that summer has arrived, will continue massive probes into the terrain of the country, and it is confidently expected that interesting finds will be unearthed, and worthwhile results achieved.

Few countries can rival Ireland in its wealth of field antiquities, dating back to pre-history; and of these varied relics of a picturesque past, scattered in such profusion all over the face of the country. The most numerous and widely distributed class are the old habitation sites.

Known under many different names – such as fort, lios, rath, caher, caisel, dun – these have originated a mass of legend, lore and superstition, and have given their names to thousands of Irish places.

One of our leading experts on antiquities estimates the number of forts of earth and stone in Ireland to vary from about 30,000 to 40,000.
It is not possible, he says, in the absence of a complete archaeological survey, to state the exact number of these structures.

It must suffice, therefore, to say that the number of forts runs into tens of thousands and that examples of them may be found in almost every part of the country, though they are sparse or completely absent in the more inhospitable mountain areas.

Fascinating as these varied ‘forts’ prove to both layman and archaeologists, posing so many puzzles as to their origin, date and structure, the feature of the ‘forts’ which most impresses itself upon the popular imagination is the existence in or near many of them of underground chambers known by the scientific name of “souterrains”.

A “souterrain” may be comparatively simple in design or may be very complex. The usual plan of a series of chambers connected by tunnels barely large enough to allow a person to pass through them shows that ‘souterrains’ were placed of refuge with defensive features. Some of them had ‘traps’ set for the unwelcome intruder.

Characteristic of souterrains in parts of the North (Co. Down) and West (Co. Galway) is an obstruction or trap variously arranged, but always directed to the purpose of making it easy for a person in the “souterrain” to defend himself.
In its simplest form, this construction consists of a mound of stones or earth, which, in an already inadequate passage, makes access very difficult.

In “Antiquities of the Irish Countryside”, Professor Sean O’Riordan says: “More elaborate forms consist of a slab or wall which rises from the floor, inside which is a second slab or wall, built downwards from the roof, there being but a small space between the two slabs.

“To pass these a person has to wriggle uncomfortably, and would meanwhile be quite defenceless against the occupant of the inner part of the souterrain.”
“In the more labyringhine examples of the “souterrain”, blind passage may be incorporated to add to the difficulty of the intruder.

“The very small, simple “souterrain” probably served merely as storage cellars. What commodities were stored in them is a matter of speculation – perhaps milk or milk products, such as cheese, perhaps grain. In this connection we are reminded of Caesar’s statement that the Celts stored their grain in underground granaries.”

During the troubled spells of history, many centuries after the original “forts” had been abandoned or fallen into decay, the large ‘souterrains’ were sometimes used by the harassed people as places of refuge.

During the war of 1641, large parties of women and children were reported slain or otherwise put to death in caves in Antrim.

Dr. O’Riordan writes: “Since the area has no natural caves, we may accept it that refuge was taken in souterrains with which the area abounds. The number of people mentioned – 220 in two caves and 63 in another – are, if accurate, an indication of the extensive size of the “souterrains”.

Some ancient ”souterrains’ were used as hiding-places for ‘dumps’ of arms during the modern periods of fighting in Ireland, and, in fact, similar structures were constructed for the same purpose.

The most famous of the passage graves in Ireland are to be found in the area of the Boyne and the finest of these is undoubtedly at Newgrange.

In July, 1967, Dr. George Eogan, of the Department of Archaeology, U.C.D., while excavating at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley, discovered an elaborately built mound and passage grave constructed about the year 2,500 B.C. by what was undoubtedly a sophisticated and well-organised society.

The site, he said included a vast mound covering more than an acre. Approximately circular in plan, it was about 40 feet high and some 100 yards in diameter.
The work was financed by a State grant, administered through the Board of Works, and the discovery was of such importance that the Board acquired from the local landowners lands surrounding the tumulus to enable large scale excavations to be carried out. The National Monuments branch of the board of Works also co-operated in every possible way.

A small army of researchers and workmen set to work while the task of planning, recording and surveying was carried out by students from U.C.D. and T.C.D.
Their efforts were rewarded when the team discovered another prehistoric tomb, 114 feet in length. It was a major discovery and provided new information of a most valuable character about our ancestors, an expert said.

Guess work and fable have played an overextended role in the story of Ireland in olden times. Now the archaeologists can cast a searching light on the past, and enable the professional historian to deduct from the findings and enlarge his and our knowledge.
Regarding the Knowth discovery, a national newspaper said: “Dr. Eogan has achieved a never-to-be forgotten place in the history of scholarly research in Ireland”.

But further archaeological excavations besides those at Knowth went on in other parts of Ireland, yielding valuable information about our ancestors, their lives and their capabilities.

At Lurgankeel, for instance, in Co. Louth, and St. Francis’ Friary, Kilkenny, an important collection of objects, iron weapons and pottery, were discovered, which threw on the occupation of the sit at Lurgankeel, near Dundalk, from the end of the 12th century.

New “digs” are expected to start shortly in a number of counties when efforts will be made to reveal even more mysteries of Ireland’s romantic past.