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

Part IV: West Corcomroe; Killilagh; Oughtdarra

Visitors to Lisdoonvarna are well acquainted with the Castle of Ballinalacken. As they drive round the flank of the opposite hill, a noble view opens before them. Below, from a deep valley, rises the old, brown, peel-tower of the O’Briens, with its lofty side-turret built at the angle of the precipice. It stands on a table-like rock, the faces richly ivied in many places. To the west the more gradual slope is thickly planted round the modern villa. Behind, however, there appears a wilder district, a wilderness of entangled green valleys, fenced in by sheer cliffs, and bushy hawthorns and hazels; above these, terrace behind terrace, lie the lavender-grey crags, then the towering precipices, capped with the grassy upland, where rests Caherdoon on ‘the old rain-fretted mountains, in their robes of shadow-broken grey.’ To the right is a wide expanse of the ever changing waves, ‘the white-maned horses of Mannannan mac Lir,’ out to the peaked highlands of Connemara and the long, low isles of Aran, the farthest topped with the fort of Dun Oghil, and beaded with the white houses of Kileany. It is the district behind Ballinalacken which we first purpose to explore in this Paper, then going southward along the coast.

Killilagh (O.S. 4)
The parishes of Killonaghan and Killilagh, in which these ring-walls lie, comprised, in 1302, two other parishes - Cromglaon or Crumlin, and Wafferig (? Ooafterig) or Oughtdarra. These probably covered the coast from the foot of Crumlin to the precipices at Cregg lodge, whence the people would naturally have gone to the churches of Killonaghan and Killilagh as to their most accessible spiritual centres. Other history, even of the most vague class, there is little down to the surveys of 1655.

As to the natural features, the high, brown upland of Knockauns Hill falls into spurs and plateaux. Ballinalacken Castle is on the southern spur. Oughtdarra comprises the deepest valleys to the first terrace, and is dominated by the great, mote-like hill and fort of Croghateeaun.[1] The second terrace from near Doonaunmore, with the plateau of Cahernagrian, abounds in forts, and lies in Ballynahown. In this townland, fenced to the south and west by lofty perpendicular or overhanging precipices, also lies the upland below Knockauns Hill where lie the forts of Caheradoon and Caherduff. The latter is on the brow of the steep, northern slope, just within the bounds of Crumlin, and forms the limit of our present explorations.

Oughtdarra (O.S. 4)
One of the most complete labyrinths of valleys, cliffs, and enclosures, even in the tangled glens of the Corcomroes, lies behind the little ruined oratory of Oughtdarra. We had the advantage of being guided by two of the local residents, Messrs. Hilary and Kelleher, both well acquainted with place-names and legends, and knowing every fort-site, cave, and old enclosure. So during a long day in late May (the very day the first news reached us of the great naval battle of the far East) I was barely able, with the aid of Dr. G. U. Macnamara, to examine and take notes and measurements of the sites. I had already worked over the uplands and down to Cahernagrian; but will give my notes in order from south to north. The Ordnance Maps, both of 1839 and of the recent survey, are, I regret to say, most deficient in the marking of the natural features and antiquities of these townlands. The formal contour lines are most misleading; a dolmen and two of the most important forts (one with a wall 10 feet high and thick, and over 300 feet long) are unmarked, and one name is attached to a wrong fort. I give a diagram which, though rude and imperfect, may supplement the maps sufficiently to enable students to follow these notes.

Starting from the old road behind Ballinalacken we descend a steep hill, and find, in a pleasant recess behind the houses, a little ruined church. It is popularly attributed to Sionnach mac Dara; but little is locally known about him save that ‘he built in Connemara and lived in Aran,’ and that a curse in his name is so formidable as to be avoided even by angry persons. As the church is up to the present undescribed, we may note that the two western angles and a long fragment of the north wall are standing to their full height, and that the whole extent of the foundation is well marked. The church measures 21½ feet across the western face, and 18 feet 4 inches by 36 feet 5 inches internally; the walls are 8½ feet high; the masonry is of late type, and probably (like the cut stones) is of the fifteenth century. The south door has a bold chamfer; near it lies a block with a ‘semi-octagonal’ stoup, once projecting from the face of the wall. The jamb stones from the east light show that it was a narrow slit with a reveal and splay; an iron ‘tang’ of a glazed window frame is embedded in one block. All these features are torn down. Only children under seven years of age are buried in the little graveyard; and the dedication of the well is forgotten, the name being Toberaneenagh, translated ‘wine well.’

Near the church are traces of an extensive orchard and large mortar-built enclosures, witnessing former cultivation; traditions relate to members of the Lysaght family, and to an eccentric hermit, a retired officer named MacNamara, who lived away from his family and friends in the wilderness. The whole place must, however, have been far more populous in early times, as seventeen forts, one of unusual size, and other traces of habitation exist in Ballynahown and Oughtdarra, and some seven or eight defaced forts at a place called Shanbally in Ballyryan, towards the sea.

To the west of the church is a long ridge with craggy knolls known as Cnockaun (to south), Cnockaun gall, near the houses,[2] Cnockaunatinnagh (from its fox earths), to the north. Foxes are not unknown at present; and we were told that at night ‘one would tumble over more brocks than rocks’ on the ridge.[3] Along the edge of the latter, towards the north-west, we found in large rows of blocks clear traces of an ancient wall and a bastion-like small enclosure the highest and sharpest bend of the ridge. Thence every field opens a finer view of the sea, and the great natural pyramid of Croghateeaun.