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

Part IV: The Eastern Border: Cahersavaun; Tullycommaun

Cahersavaun [29], the lake fort, measures 139 feet east and west across the garth, and 66 feet north and south. The wall forms a revetment to a rocky island, and is of good, large masonry 12 feet thick, and 10 to 13 feet high for most of the circuit to the west and south. It is more gapped and lower to the north. The garth is very rough, and there are no traces of huts or gateway. The latter probably stood at the end of the remains of the causeway; but it must be remembered that some lake forts had no gateway.

An old road leads up the ridge from near Cahersavaun to the low mound called ‘Giant’s Grave’ on the maps. This is shown as a small cist-like oblong on the 1839 map; it is a long, low, pear-shaped earth-work, full of blocks of stone, and measuring 33 feet east and west, and 14 feet north and south, near the west end; it tapers to a point at the east end. A slab set north and south appears near the west side; but if this be the remains of a cist, there is no other trace of one.

On the summit of the green ridge, 48 paces to the east of the last, is a low, defaced mound of earth and stones. It is 35 ft. across, and has on the summit a well-marked ring of stones round a circular hollow 15 ft. in diameter. It possibly represents that form of burial-mound mentioned in Irish literature from early times to the seventeenth century as belonging to pre-Christian and very early Christian days. The Tripartite Life records: ‘Fecerunt fossam rotundam in similitudinem fertæ quia sic faciebant Scottici homines.’

The ‘Third Life of St. Patrick’ alludes to those ring-mounds and walls: ‘Stat autem in loco ubi omnes steterunt quedam fossa rotunda et erat homo fossus.’[30] So does a poem of Cormacan Eigeas, which among the monuments of the great pagan cemetery of Brugh-na-Boinn notes that:[31] ‘The three sons of Eochy Fedlech Finn are in their ‘mur,’ their lovely ‘mur.’’ Keating, in the ‘Three Bitter Shafts of Death,’ describes, among other early methods of burial, that in the small raths, or ring-mounds: first a grave, or fert, the size of the body was dug, and a small rath made, and a cairn or leacht was piled inside. Or else a small rath was dug, without any leacht or cairn, which had one opening for a man of science, two for a woman, and none for a boy. ‘Ferta’ seems to have been used even in the eleventh century for a residential rath, for, according to the Tripartie Life,[32] when St. Patrick measured a rath with the ‘Bachall Isu,’ the ferta was seven score feet in enclosure. In the ‘Colloquy’ in the Book of Lismore [33] Caoilte shows St. Patrick the tulach of Airnealach, son of the King of Leinster; ‘the green-surfaced tulach closed over him, and his sepulchral stone was set up.’ On a neighbouring tulach was the ‘fert’ of Saelbhuidhe (son of Feilachan, the King of Munster), who, with thirty comrades and thirty hounds, was slain with elf darts by the fairies, and was there buried with his weapons and jewels, ‘and the tulach was walled up on them.’ As might be expected, superstition gathered around the mounds. They were haunted by those ‘elohim’[34] of the old Irish, the Tuatha De Dannan. Aenghus, son of the Dagda, haunts a tulach;[35] and the horrible banshee ‘Bronach’ said that her ‘abode was in the green fairy mounts of Erin.’[36]

The Tullycommaun mound probably gave the townland its name, ‘Tulach Chumann,’ as in 1599.[37] It is a recognised ‘sidh’ or fairy mount, for I was told in 1895 that ‘it had more fairies than all the forts on the hill.’ An interesting allusion in the ‘Wars of Torlough’ (in 1311) may refer to this mound. Donchad, son of Torlough, and Prince of Thomond, fled to these hills, and camped in East Corcomroe, near Slieve Carne; his rival Dermot camped before him at Crichmaill, or Crughwell, in the valley beyond Cahersavaun; and De Clare behind Dermot on the great hill of Dloghan, possibly this very ridge. On the grey uplands that night Donchad’s followers were beset by supernatural warnings, ‘mysterious sounds, and phantasms of delusive dreams’; ‘lights of all the fairy forts revealing themselves’; groans ‘making deep reverberation of their plaint to fill fair Erin’s woods and roll adown her stony rivers.’ That night, moreover, the soldiers saw shades, and ‘heard three feeble, long-drawn wails, lamentably low and sadly sweet.’ Thus in 1311 the belief was in full vigour on these very uplands, and the Tullycommaun mound was in full sight of the camps of Dermot and Donchad across the swamp. The latter ill-fated prince marched the following morning past the end of the lake by the steep descent to our right down into Glencolumbcille and Glenquin, where he fell by the hand of a treacherous companion ere he reached the plain.[38]

Beyond the green ridge we once more meet with crags jutting from under the shale. Of these, at some distance to the east, lies a circular caher. The wall is very neatly built of slabs; it has a slight batter, and is 10 feet thick, being rarely 5 feet high, and sometimes levelled to within a couple of feet of the crag. The garth measures 75 feet east and west. There are in it a semi-circular hut foundation adjoining the wall to the south, and another curved foundation near it. The gateway is hardly traceable; it faces the E.S.E. We finally reach Knockaun fort, close to whose western side, on a knoll, we find a very defaced dolmen.[39] It consists of a chamber 10 feet by 4 feet. The north side (its east end showing signs of hammer-dressing) and the east end, with the cover and an outer row of slabs, remain. The side slabs are from 33 inches to 42 inches from the main cist. The cover is broken across, and lies beside the cist; it measures 7 feet 6 inches long, and from 7 feet 8 inches to 6 feet wide, and 10 inches or 11 inches thick. Borlase was told that the labba was called ‘Carrikaglasha.’[40] I did hear the name locally, but the ‘Glas’ cow has left her name and reputed hoof-prints over the whole plateau.[41] On my first visit to the spot the dolmen seemed more perfect, and the cover-slab rested over the side. Knockaun fort has already been described [42] by me. I need only add that the wall is thin, and rarely 5 feet high, with straight sides, having the south-west corner perfect and rounded. The garth is 170 feet across east and west, and it contains the curious house foundation and souterrain of which I here give the plan.

Tullycommaun – Huts
Tullycommaun – Huts

Borlase has published the plan of some other cist as that of ‘Carrick-aglasha,’ in Tullycommaun. This arises from some error, as the plan is of a different dolmen. It is of the typical kind, a box of three slabs tapering eastward; the north 8 feet long, the south 10 feet long, and from 48 inches to 30 inches apart, with two covering slabs. I am unable to identify it, but it is certainly not the dolmen there named. He found another one small and defaced to the south-east of Knockaun fort, between it and the dolmen of Slievenaglasha, but the description does not agree with the plan. Such little cists probably exist in numbers as yet undescribed; for even the most careful examination in this land of slabs and ‘natural buildings’ sometimes passes them by unrecognised, while others get disclosed on the removal of cairns and mounds, or even of modern walls, in which they have been embodied.