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

Part IV: The Eastern Border: Turlough Hill

Turlough Hill (O.S. 3)
There is a high ridge between Oughtmama and the Gortaclare valley, lying within the edge of the former townland. There, only some 300 yards from the border of County Galway, is all that is left of one of the largest and most puzzling of the ring-walls of Ireland.[45] The ridge is well seen from Corcomroe Abbey, and there many years ago I first was told of this fort, which was not marked on the map. An elderly herdsman described it as ‘a tumbled circle of stones on that hill’; the younger men then present did not know of its existence.[46] The ridge is steep, bare, and fenced with continuous high terraces of rock and enormous boundary walls. Even the Gortaclare people ‘did not know of any caher upon the hills’; so I did not at the time try to visit so inaccessible and equivocal a ruin. Finding, however, that a fort was shown on the map of 1899, I was led to visit, and, with the aid of Dr. George U. Macnamara, examined, planned, and noted this great fort, though in stormy and bitter weather - hailstorms alternating with blazes of fierce sunshine.

Turlough Hill Fort – The Northern Gate
Turlough Hill Fort – The Northern Gate

The fort may have been known to Bishop Pococke in 1752. He writes [47] : ‘I observed several large entrenchments on the mountains of Burren . . . one of them, they say, was the residence of O’Laughlin, King of Burren.’ The bishop then describes Corcomroe Abbey, from which the fort is visible against the sky-line. The only other legend I could learn was from a local herdsman who passed over the ridge as I was making the plan. ‘It might be as old,’ he said, ‘as the time of the Irish militia.’ He, of course, meant the warriors of Finn, not their doughty successors. A cairn called Seefin, on Black Head, marks a legend of the great son of Cumhal, as existing in north Burren. We were fortunate, after a weary climb up a steep slope of earth and rocks, in finding a way from Gortaclare valley to the foot of the chief terrace, and thence found a pass up the rampart and got on to the plateau. The view was noble, and with the strong light and shade and the clear air, gave one an exceptional sense of its extent. The ridge, though the fort stands 800 feet above the sea, is higher to the west, where, fenced by a higher terrace, sits the fine cairn of Turlough, 925 feet above the sea. The cobalt blue bay of Galway lay out to the bold peaks of Connemara, and ended at our feet in the landlocked creek of Pouldoody, guarded by the dark specks that were the two peal-towers of Muckinish and the Martello tower of Finnavarra.[48] The huge terraced hills shut out the view of the sea westward and to the north, where the hill of Behagh, over the clearly-seen ‘Abbey of the fertile rock’ and the abrupt steeps overhanging the Corker pass shut out the end of Galway bay and its creeks, save the end of the bays at Kinvarra [49] and Taman Point. But to the east of them lay open the unbounded plains of Galway, and the lake studded central tract of Clare. To the south, beyond the level-terraced sides of Gortaclare valley, rose Slieve Carran with its conspicuous cairn; and to the north, seen almost from overhead, lay the three little churches of Oughtmama.

‘The footprints of an elder race are here,
And memories of an old heroic time,
And shadows of the old mysterious faith;
So that the place seems haunted, and strange sounds
Float on the wind.’

On a platform, if possible more bare and weather-blasted than the other summits in the Burren, we find a low wall, with gaps at fairly regular intervals. It proves to be a large enclosure measuring 675 feet north and south, 735 feet east and west, or from 700 feet to nearly 760 feet over the wall. It is of irregular plan, with a re-entrant ‘angle’ to the north-west. The irregularity, as is usually the case, springs from the builders having selected a ridge, 7 feet to 12 feet high to the north, 20 feet to 30 feet along the east. A natural gully, 25 feet to 30 feet wide, makes a rising ascent up to the table of the plateau (‘a’ on plan, below). It faces E.S.E., is 207 feet long, and was used for the main entrance to the fort. Traces of the wall cling to the slopes at the mouth of the cleft, which is there about 30 feet deep; but the gateway has been destroyed to the foundation. Within the gate the sides are steep, and at one point precipitous.

The wall is from 9 to 12 feet thick. The builders first laid small thin slabs on the crag till a fairly level surface was obtained, and then built the entire thickness of the wall with large slabs. It is rarely more than 4 feet or 5 feet high, often barely 3 feet, and parts to the south are almost levelled. The sides of the gateways are faced with slabs set on end.

Going round the wall ‘sunward’ from the gully, we find 145 feet from the latter, at the abrupt south-east turn, two hut sites (‘b1’ on plan, below) adjoining, mere semi-circular rings abutting on the wall. This is common in Clare and Kerry forts, and the fact is even noted in the ancient Clare legend of the ‘Voyage of Maelduin,’[50] written before 1100: ‘Round the rampart were great snow-white houses.’ Examples occur at Ballykinvarga and Mohernacartan in Clare, and not a few other forts in Ireland and Great Britain. Along the very slightly-curved south face are five gateways well marked by their great lining slabs. Between the second and third we find a hut site, and the third gate (‘c4’ on plan, below) faces Carnbower on the summit of Slieve Carran. The wall then curves in a semi-circle along the western face. At 82 feet from the fifth gate, which faces S.S.W., is a hut-ring (a garden-bed of close-growing, blue gentian when we saw it), and at the same distance from the ring is a similar hut-site, lined with set slabs like the gateways.

Turlough Hill – Plan of Ring Wall
Turlough Hill – Plan of Ring Wall

There are three gaps farther north, and a gap facing W.N.W., and looking straight at the castle, or, perhaps, rather the neck of Muckinish peninsula. There are no facing slabs to any of the western gaps; they may be accidental. The north-west gap is very probably a gateway, (c7 on plan, above) as an evident path leads down from it along the slope at the ‘dip’ already mentioned. East of it, at the bend, is a hut-site, and inside it, in the plateau, is an evidently artificial oblong cutting, or hut-hollow, some 5 feet deep, and full of heather, which only grows in sheltered spots, within the west segment of the wall. The re-entrant dip measures 77 feet over all.

When the wall resumes its regular curve along the north face, we find several gaps and gateways, one of which latter is illustrated. The three gateways marked by their largest slabs face almost due north. The second (c9 on plan, above) faces the edge of a prominent precipice of the Corker Hill. A featureless gap is at the north-east turn of the wall, which is as abrupt as that to the south-west, and nothing save a trace of an oval chamber (d on plan, above) is found in the reach of nearly 160 feet back to the gully. The wall is about 2,300 feet long. The garth platform is of bare, wasted, and often loose crag, like half-melted ice-sheets in snow; no traces of foundations are found upon it.

Clare is, as all know, exceptionally rich in huge forts. We have the triple Moghane, 1,500 feet by 1,100 feet, with walls 7,850 feet long; Langough, 600 feet by 300 feet; Cahershaughnessy, 567 feet, and Cahercommaun, 320 feet by 245 feet; but this Turlough Hill fort not only is second in size in Clare, but stands high upon the list of the larger forts in Ireland. The structure, as we see, is most exceptional. The maximum number of gates in the actual cahers is rarely more than four. This fort had at least nine, probably a dozen. Inismurray cashel has five. Moghane, in its huge outer wall, has seven gaps; but few can even be provisionally taken as gates. Irish literature names four gateways in certain cases - for example, the murderers of St. Cellach [51] ‘dwelt at Dunfidhne, where they have newly made a dun, with four doors in it,’ which, by the way, they inaugurated by killing a swine.[52] The usual Clare fort has never more than one gateway.

The object of this enclosure is difficult to see. Who built so vast a wall on a ridge so storm-swept and difficult of access? If it was built to dominate all its surroundings, why was it not placed on the head of the hill at Turlough cairn? If for a meeting-place, whether religious or tribal, why was so inconvenient a spot selected? If a fortress, or walled village, why were there so many gates? If a temple, were there no inner buildings? It is improbable, to a degree hardly short of impossibility, that the monastic community of Oughtmama, who ‘went aside into this desert place,’ built such an enclosure on the brow, above their unwalled and clustered monastery, nestling in its sheltered green recess 500 feet below. Even where the monks used an early fort, it was rarely one more than 150 feet or 200 feet in diameter. This great stone problem lies, so massive, yet so indefensible - so inaccessible - yet overlooked by a greater height - so unsuited for pasturage or for gatherings, and, to modern ideas, scarcely fit for habitation. We turn to the few available legends and records. The former only tell us of early tribes - Irghus, Taman, Bera, and Cutra [53] in that part of Ireland. Even if we could accept the legend, none of these clans was of even legendary importance; they were soon expelled or exterminated, and are not even named in history. The great enclosure does not figure in the fort list (ante 900) in the Book of Rights, unless it be Tuam nheidin, with its brow to the land, for the Ui Eidhin, or O’Heynes, dwelt at its foot in the plains to the east. Moghane fort is marked on more than one Elizabethan map; Turlough Hill fort does not appear. In an elaborate inquisition of 1607 [54] no such landmark is named as on the border of Clare. ‘Up the mountain of Funchamore, and holding the very top of the mountain, butteth forward to Slieve Carne and to Tobberlyhe, thence to Curraghmore, and so it falleth into the bay of Galway,’ says the Inquisition. It was probably defaced before 1839, or it could hardly have been passed over by the surveyors. Built for the most part on the bare rock, there is but little hope that excavation might help us. It only remains for me to describe and illustrate it, and to leave the solution (if any) to later antiquaries.