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

Part II: Burren Barony

Ancient Burren

Burren Barony, a great upland of limestone capped in some places by shale, forms the north-western corner of Clare. On three sides it falls into those steeply terraced ridges which show so far across the bay and plains of Galway; on the south it sinks into the low green hills and heathy bog-land of Brentir and Corcomroe.

It lacks the towering height and noble outlines of the Kerry and Connaught mountains, but its weird grey ridges and valleys are very impressive in their suggestiveness of age-long loneliness and long vanished tribes. Some of its glens are even beautiful - hemmed in by cliffs, whose walls are varied by strange domes and buttresses, by clefts and caves. Its rocks are wreathed with ivy, ferns, and exquisite flowers, brightened by the gauzy sheets of little runnels and waterfalls: at their feet lie here and there a blue pool or deep thicket. We often get glimpses of the lowlands and the Atlantic from their summits. Wonderfully beautiful, too, are the lights and cloud shadows and the effects of the sunsets and slowly gathering gloom on the long ridges and valleys.

Over all these solitary places of old Thomond abound an amazing number of forts and cromlechs.[1] Some 400 cahers appear on the maps, though many are omitted or marked as ‘sheepfolds’. Dozens are levelled to the ground, dozens are rebuilt and hopelessly modernized. Apart from human violence, natural causes combine to overthrow them: the filling bulges out the facing till it bursts the wall and pours out like meal from a torn sack; the ash and hazel tear the walls asunder, and waving in the breeze throw down the masonry; nevertheless numerous examples remain. Whence came the population that built and needed so many cahers? Even if their construction spread over many centuries, and if we consider the slighter ones to be mere cattle pens, enough remain to form an enigma. Burren is never named as very populous, and one may now walk for several miles across the crags and meet at most some solitary herdsman, but we sometimes find a caher in every few fields, or several very massive ones lying together.[2] Why did not fewer forts suffice? Were the older ones deserted for some superstitious reason, and, if so, did the ‘tabu’ extend even to their material? If not, did each townland possess several important men? So many ‘strongholds’ were scarcely needed, for, as we know that several [3] were the centres of villages, so they would evidently be available to the surrounding country as places of refuge in cases of sudden alarm. Indeed we seem to have a case of this in The battle of Ventry, where three duns destroyed by the King of Spain were crowded with people, horses, and dogs.[4] The time has not come for elaborate theories, still less for positive statements; we must for many years collect and arrange facts, a less brilliant but more useful task than theorizing on insufficient data. The present Paper is therefore only a survey (and not even a very complete one) of a district hitherto undescribed.

Ancient Burren
A noteworthy fact is apparent in all our records: the Burren is practically unaltered from Pre-Christian times, the same families predominate, and we find the same rich pasturages and lonely crags. All this is much in favour of the survival of ancient customs and modes of building.

The history and early legends are of little consequence. The name Burren (‘the great rock’) is apparently of obvious origin, but the Dind Senchas finds the word ‘not difficult’ to derive from the name of an ancient hero. ‘Boirenn, son of Bolcan, son of Ban, out of Spain, he came to Boirenn Corcomruad.’[5]

Then we hear of the settlement of the sons of Huamore - Bera at Finnvara, Irgus at Black Head, Daelach in Dael - and of invasions by the High-kings Fiacha and Cormac Mac Airt, but beyond the verge of written history the families which claimed descent from Rory, son of Maeve by the great Fergus mac Roigh, and which were named in later days the O’Conors and O’Loughlins, held these hills. The Dalcassians obtained at the most a cattle tribute, and there was probably a servile race of Firbolgic descent; the rest is vague and unreliable, or mere names of chiefs and dates of battles.

The later O’Briens invaded Burren in 1267 and 1317. John, son of Rory Mac Grath, the historian of these wars, gives us a picture true to nature after six centuries.

‘ The white-stoned hills,’ ‘the caher begirt tracks,’ ‘the close border paths and rugged margins of Dubhglen,’ ‘the long glen and widespread crags,’ ‘Burren’s hilly grey expanse of jagged points and slippery grey steeps, nevertheless flowing with milk and yielding luscious grass,’ and ‘the dorsal ridge of the rough plain that showed its bleached face, varied with dark irregular seams,’ are all named, and we recognize the (so to say) photographic accuracy of this ancient picture.

War, revenge, and the sea form the background of most of these records. When we recall the story of Liamuin ‘fair robe’ and her sisters with their ill-starred lovers, or the weird tale of Maelduin, son of Ailill, a native of these hills, going out into the ‘great endless deep,’ [6] we feel how much the life in strongholds and the perpetual presence of the mystery of the unexplored ocean affected the men of the Corcomroes. Indeed we probably owe a great chapter in the world’s development to the attempts of our western boatmen to ‘pluck out the heart of the mystery’ of the unknown sea; for the Sagas of Brendan, Bran, and Maelduin went out into the world, and fostered a belief which no theological prejudice could destroy, that glorious islands lay beyond the untracked sea. These legends from Clare and Kerry never rested till they sent Columbus and his successors across the outer ocean to find islands and wonders such as the mind of monk or bard had never conceived.[7]

It is therefore far from improbable that this feeling and the kindred love of nature so deeply rooted in the Irish, led to the selection of sites, sacrificing commanding neighbouring positions for those with a distant glimpse of the sea or of some notable mountain.[8]

Whether the Clan Rory or the Eoghanachts or some earlier race built the forts of Burren is now impossible to decide. The finds are most equivocal, flint weapons, bronze ornaments, moulds for a bronze spear, iron coins of the Plantagenets and Tudors. The absence of kitchen middens and entire clochauns deprive us of other possible sources of knowledge.

Querns, so far as can be learned, have not been found in these forts; bullauns occur, and some consider these an older form of ‘mill,’ but, as these basins appear on upright or steeply slanting stones, we cannot be too sure of their use. In most cases the cahers rest on nearly bare crag, and in the case of the alleged finds of deer bones, nothing is proved. Venison must have been a staple food from the earliest times, and the Burren abounded in deer from the time when the ‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ [9] told how, in the bitter winter, ‘the stag of Slieve Carn lays not his side to the ground, and no less than he - the stag of frigid Echtge’s summit - catches the chorus of the wolves.’ It is evident that these forts have been built and patched and rebuilt at very various dates.[10] The nature of materials, not the race or age of the builders, determined the style, while the names, though in many cases at least mediæval, give us no reliable aid to the actual builders or earliest owners of these noteworthy structures.[11]