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

Part IV: The Eastern Border: The Reabachan Group of Dolmens

The Reabachan Group of Dolmens
The Reabachan Group of Dolmens
The references are explained in the text

Leanna (O.S. 10, 16)
Let us once more ascend that steep road among the hazel bushes on the flank of Leanna [17] where the hills are still green, and the great grey terraces have not yet commenced. We are again among the cairn-heaped upland with early remains on every side -

‘Vastness and Age, and Memories of Eld,
Silence and Desolation, and dim Night;
These stones, alas! these grey stones - are they all
Left by corrosive hours to Fate and us?’

Had Borlase worked out this interesting group of dolmens and cists, I might have passed them by; but he has written rather confusedly, and passed over several of the remains. I described in a former Paper [18] part of this lying in Parknabinnia; but some ill-fate has attached to the townland, for the measurements in the Ordnance Survey Letters (14 B, 23, p. 66) are very inaccurate; Borlase overlooks the chief group; and despite my care three serious mistakes crept, while in press, into my description. I may here notice these errors the more emphatically. The north-west dolmen is there called ‘the north-east’; the second cist is stated to be 17 feet 10 inches long, instead of 14 feet 10 inches; and the third dolmen is called ‘a small cist 12 feet 8 inches’; the dimensions refer to its mound and circle of slabs. The cist, in fact, is of three slabs, each only a little over 5 feet long; the east slab has either been removed or its place was taken by a block in the outer ring near the end of the side slabs. One other dolmen lies in the same field with the great eastern dolmen, marked ‘carn’ on the maps, and numbered VI. in my former Paper. The seventh cist (Plan given, fig. 6, below) lies to the N.N.W. of the sixth dolmen, about 600 feet distant, and lying between it and the house there shown, and about 400 feet from the latter. It is in a low mound; the north and south blocks measure respectively 7 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 7 inches; the ends 31 inches and 28 inches; the cist tapering eastward; the axis, unlike the neighbouring cists, lying nearly due east and west. The cover rests beside it and measures 6 feet by 5 feet 3 inches; the slabs are thin (5 or 6 inches), and have the top edges hammered.

Dolmens and Cists, County Clare
Dolmens and Cists, County Clare
1, 2, 3. Leanna (e, d, a on plan p. 101) 4. Toormore
5.Teeskagh. 6. Parknabinnia (7 on plan [of Reabachan Group, above])

Entering Leanna, which lies east of the road from Kilnaboy to Castletown, and taking the remains in order as we go northward along the summit of the ridge, we find (a on plan) a cairn (not marked on O.S. 16) at the southern end of the top ridge. It is nearly levelled, and in its ruins I uncovered a little cist. (Plan given, fig. 3, above) The north and south sides measure 4 feet 8 inches and 5 feet in length; the little chamber tapering from 27 inches to 26 inches; it must have been a mere ‘bone box.’ The principal cairn (b) on the highest point of the ridge, 528 feet above the sea, lies 516 feet to the N.N.E. of the last. It is much overturned, is 50 feet in diameter, little more than 8 feet high, and retains no certain traces of a cist unless some long, flat slabs in it are such.

The maps of 1839 and 1899 mark a ‘cromlech’ to the N.N.E. of it (c) where the trace of an old wall crosses the hill about 200 feet from the great cairn; but I never remember to have seen even slabs at the spot. A small cist (d) marked ‘cromlech’ (Plan given, fig. 2, above) lies 200 feet farther to the N.N.E. of the last, and 200 feet from the old wall. It lies in a cairn now nearly removed, and its sides are complete; the north measures 5 feet 3 inches, the south 4 feet 6 inches; the west lies 2 feet from the others, and is 18 inches long. The cist is therefore 6 feet 9 inches long, and tapers eastward from 32 inches to 22 inches; the axis lying E.N.E. and W.S.W.

It is a notable fact that, except the Ballycashen dolmen and the ‘pillared dolmen’ in Ballyganner, and No. 2 in Parknabinnia, all the Burren dolmens, from the great one on Ballyganner hill to the smallest cist at Leanna or Teeskagh, are made on the same plan so far as the chamber is concerned. As to the age of such structures, while some are almost certainly of the early Bronze Age, we must remember that (according to the Leabhar na hUidhre) Fothach Airgtheach, monarch of Erin, who was killed in A.D. 285 by Caeilte,[19] was buried under a cairn ‘in a chest of stone.’ This implies that cist burial was probably practised down at least to traditional memory, when our legends were first written, and teaches us caution, for no line can be drawn, at least in Clare, between the large dolmen and the cist. Such cists in other places have contained Bronze Age pottery, but up to this I know of none found in a cist in Clare.

The view from this high ridge all round is most extensive. The whole central plain of Clare lies open to the view - out to Slieve Aughty, the Keeper, and Slieve Bernagh. The ridge on which sits Moghane fort, the largest of Irish cahers, the spires of Ennis and Corofin, lake after lake to the beautiful wooded hills and broad sheet of water at Inchiquin, lie below us. The castles of Rockvale, Fiddown, and Derryowen on the edge of county Galway; Ballyportrea, the tall warden of the grey crags to the east, and ivied Inchiquin are visible to the east. Southward we see the low, green hills with flat-topped blue Callan rising over them. Northward the long slopes from Elva to the terraced edges at Glenquin; and westward the green hills, behind which fall the perpendicular rocks of Moher, and the lofty-seated hill-fort of Doon,[20] visible here, as we have also seen it far out to sea, one of the chief landmarks of the Atlantic coast of Clare.

The larger dolmens lie down the western slopes of Leanna hill. The first (e) is that described by Borlase [21] (Plan given, fig. 1, above). It lies north-east and south-west, tapering eastward; the north side is 5 feet 4 inches; the south 8 feet long. It tapers from 5 feet to 2 feet 9 inches, and has a hole in the west end outside which is a second slab. The cover has fallen. The dolmen stands on a low earthen mound, and was covered by a cairn; it is the most conspicuous of the monuments, as seen from the road.

We may here note an almost inconceivable error in the great survey of Borlase (p. 69). ‘Blocks of the size and symmetry of those used by the dolmen-builders would nowadays be far to seek.’ This is an astonishing statement from one who had visited these hills. For acres, for miles, in these uplands, round almost every dolmen, are sheets of crag with large slabs detached from the under strata and broken along the lines of cleavage by action of the weather, only requiring to be lifted and set in place to make dolmens as large and symmetrical as any now in Burren. As for large stones, the very field in Leanna which contains the monuments has almost rectangular slabs from 40 yards down to 3 or 4 yards long and wide. In Parknabinnia we find these slabs raised and propped at one side in sandstone erratic blocks, close to the main group of cists (k). While in Leanna large slabs, exactly of the size and appearance of dolmen sides and covers, have been set upright to make fences and apparently a large cattle pen.

Yet another dolmen (f) lies farther to the north in the same field down the slope. It has fallen northwards and consists of a south side still standing, or rather leaning, against the fallen cover, which rests partly over the prostrate north side. They measure: the south 9 feet 8 inches; the cover 9 feet 8 inches by 6 feet 4 inches wide; the north 10 feet by 6 feet 6 inches; they vary from 5 inches to 7 inches thick.

The 1899 map marks also a ‘Dermot and Grania bed’ in the north-western part of the field; it is, however, a large, oblong enclosure built of well-laid slabs, only one being set on end. Inside its enclosure is an oblong foundation, the ground inside being 4 feet lower than the garth, but with no remains of a cist. The ‘Moher’ (h) has a side enclosure to the north-east. Besides these remains, we find the walls of standing slabs, already noted; and a massive caher, with portions of its slab-built wall 6 feet and 8 feet high, lies near the road at the boundary wall at the foot of the slope (i).

To the north of the field on the unenclosed crag (the ‘lake of stone,’ before described [22]) in a slight mound remain the sides of yet another dolmen (g). It has been noticed and planned by Borlase.[23] The slabs are about 6 feet apart, and measure: the fallen northern side 8 feet by 5 feet 6 inches; the southern 10 feet long, and 3 feet 6 inches high, lying north-east and south-west, and having a hole aslant through it. It is not marked on the maps. Borlase supposes that there was ‘a winding stone causeway leading across the moor to this structure,’ but it is only a modernised (if not modern) macadamised bohereen leading from the main road past (not to) the dolmen, and to the top of the ridge, where a house stood in 1839. He falls into another error in identifying the Reabachan group as described in the Ordnance Survey Letters [24] with the cists of Leanna, instead of with those in Parknabinnia, standing, as they do, upon the actual Reabachan, now Roughan, Hill. Those noted in the ‘Letters’ are apparently Nos. 1, 2 , 3 and 6, the latter one being then embedded in the cairn by the roadside, but is now open.

To complete the group, we must notice on the west side of the road the perfect dolmen of Cotteen or Commons. In 1839 it was inhabited by a certain Michael Coneen. Dr. Macnamara tells me that his father, in much later years, attended a patient in this dolmen. It has been very carefully described and planned by Borlase,[25] and consists of a cist of three large slabs, with a massive cover, 12 feet 8 inches by 8 feet 6 inches. The enclosure was from 5 feet 6 inches to 4 feet 6 inches wide; the sides 13 feet by 10 feet long, and the slabs nearly a foot thick. There was a small side annexe to the south, once adapted as a habitation for the family pig. I found that (as so often) the tops of the sides had been clipped to a straight edge.

Thus the great ‘Reabachan’ group, so far as we have examined it, consists of three dolmens and two small cists in Leanna, one dolmen in Commons, seven in Parknabinnia, one in Ballycasheen, and one below Cahermore, in Roughan, ie., fifteen monuments in all.