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

Part IV: Surveying Clare Forts

The key to the study of the ring forts is held by Ireland. Her cahers,[1] from their excellent preservation, and because the features of the earth forts have perished, tell their story with unusual clearness. Outside of Ireland it is rare to find a fort retaining its walls, terraces, gateways, huts, and souterrains, or to find any literature contemporary with, and descriptive of, the forts. Indeed, even in Ireland the most instructive cahers are in Kerry, Clare, and Galway; here stand, bare to the light of day, what rarely - save in Cork and Mayo, and some few forts in Sligo, Donegal, and Cavan - can only be revealed by troublesome and costly excavation. The central group of these forts again lies in the Burren and its borders; and the fact that they have not been restored, gives them a value even above the magnificent duns in Arran, or some of the most interesting on the slopes of Mount Eagle round Fahan, as unaltered ancient buildings. But little apology need be made for offering to the Society, that published so much of my previous notes,[2] another instalment of a survey, which with many faults may at least claim to be the first systematic record of a unique group of buildings, of which the apathy of local authorities and the vandalism of those of all classes, on whose lands the forts and graves happen to lie, may soon leave but little of value.

Such a survey grows on the writer. At first he sets out ‘like a retrospective Columbus to explore the ocean of the prehistoric past’; then he gets hampered and discouraged; then his discoveries seem nearly complete, though an unknown continent lies beyond them. Then, at last, that deep saying asserts itself – ‘If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.’ Groping onward (one’s original design almost lost), many inconsistencies call for pardon. First I omitted and then included the dolmens; this was because I gave my notes on them to the late W. Copeland Borlase for his great work. Then the plan of describing the chief forts [3] forced me to include the crowds of lesser antiquities, and numbers of these were found on later examination, and call for notice; so I must crave merciful criticism where again I have to supplement my work in districts already described.

For the present paper, let us confine ourselves to the two edges of the Burren, that along the side of Inchiquin, and that detached spur of the limestone districts in Killilagh parish, now included in the Barony of Corcomroe. Hereafter, a portion from Cahermacnaughten to Finnavarra may better be treated separately; and then the series of papers will have covered, however imperfectly, the north-western plateaux, including Burren and the parishes of Killilagh and Kilfenora, in Corcomroe, with Rath, Killinaboy, and Ruan, in the Barony of Inchiquin, bounded to the south by Bealaghaline, Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora, Lemaneagh, Inchiquin Hill, and the Fergus.

Whether a complete survey in the true sense will even then exist is, I fear, more than doubtful. Anyone who has worked over the uplands knows how hard it is to distinguish, whether in dull light or in the dazzling glare of unclouded sunshine (even at a short distance), forts and dolmens from natural ridges and boulders, and will forgive omissions. It is, however, less obvious that a feature in a fort may be excusably overlooked. After a long day, spent in climbing over rocks and dangerous walls, with ever growing weariness, pain, and lameness, one reaches a fort far from the road. The dull light, or the moss and bushes, conceal steps, or even a closed or half-buried gateway. Such omissions are, I believe, very few. The notes for these papers were taken on the spot, and rough descriptions (longer than those published) were written on the same day, or at latest on the following morning, as a precaution against slips of memory. The more important forts have been carefully planned, and many visited several times to check or supplement the descriptions – ‘nobiliora, forsan, alii - ego quod possum.’

The names of the forts are not always satisfactory. It is often hard to get a good form, or even a phonetic one, of the names in use among the people; and sometimes these names are warped by some linguistic theory, or to conform them to information derived from some ‘knowledgeable man’ -clergyman, schoolmaster, agent, or ‘sapper.’ Sometimes I have had no little trouble in getting a real form, and then with the apology, ‘The old people say so, but what do they know?’ Many names have been rejected by the Ordnance Survey which are well known on the spot, and tally with old records. Such names may be received with confidence, for such records are hardly beginning to be known in these places. The ‘educated classes’ are of little authority for local names, either taking no interest in them, or giving them most inaccurately. We have found Ballykinvarga called after neighbouring forts - Caheremon, Caherminaun, Caherflaherty, and Cahernaspekee - while in the Down Survey Books of Distribution it is called Caherloghlin; ‘Cahermakerrila’ is locally (as in the records) Cahermacnole. The nondescript names of Cahermore, Cahermoyle, and Caherlochlannach are now superseding the true names.

Excellent as are the new Ordnance Survey maps, they sometimes fail to be as helpful as those of 1839, by sometimes omitting to mark ancient enclosures as such. When I note that the great inland promontory fort of Doonaunmore, in Killilagh, with huge terraced rampart, 10 feet thick and high, and over 300 feet long, the curious, though much levelled, hill-fort of Croaghateeaun, and the interesting Moheramoylan, with souterrain, hut sites, and a perfect gateway, are not even slightly indicated on the new maps, comment is needless. I have no intention to originate theories in these papers. Researches in Irish ethnology, lists of the actual distribution of the forts, records of the implements and other objects found in them, must first be made before satisfactory theories become possible. Meanwhile ‘to be a seeker is to be of the best sect next to being a finder’; and though theories die, facts live, and remain current coin.