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

Part IV: West Corcomroe: Ballynahown; Cahernagrian

Ballynahown (O.S. 4)
It is usually called Ballynahooan, understood as named from the caves; others take the map-name, and derive it from the water-flows in the lower valleys. Ascending a steep pass, we reach the level of the upper terrace again. There we find an overthrown stone fort, wrongly called Cahernagrian on the map (A). It is nearly 100 feet across the garth, and the wall is too broken to measure the actual thickness (probably from 6 to 8 feet). It was of fairly large blocks and good masonry. It rarely rises 3 or 4 feet above the ground, and has traces of several hut-enclosures and other walls inside.

The Ballynahown Group of Forts
The Ballynahown Group of Forts

The actual fort of the name, though small, was evidently the citadel of the settlement. It rests on a low, rounded knoll, sheeted with hazels, and strewn with huge boulders in situ, and well deserves its name from its sunny, sheltered position, near the foot of the giant wall of rock which rises directly to the north (B on plan).

Cahernagrian – Rampart to North
Cahernagrian – Rampart to North

The fort is slightly oval in plan; the longer axis from north-west to south-east is 63 feet long inside, the cross measurement 57 feet. The wall is very well built with two faces of large, well-set blocks, each over a foot thick, but with small, rounded filling. It is altogether 6 feet 8 inches thick, is very neatly fitted, curved, and battered (the batter being 1 in 9). Where most perfect, to the north-west and north, it is still 9 feet high; but is only 5 feet high to the south-east. Inside are five well-marked but very irregular hut-enclosures, gardens of woodruff and orchis.

At the foot of the knoll, to the south-east, is another ring-wall (C), about 100 feet across and quite overthrown; it was probably a bawn. Further south, a fourth ring-wall (E), about 60 feet across, and much gapped, though still nearly 5 feet high; a ruined cottage stands in the garth. The largest of the forts is about 150 feet in diameter, and lies to the east of the last; it is crossed by a long boundary wall, and is so entirely overthrown as to be indescribable (D). It is remarkable that the smaller forts in north-western Clare should have been so systematically demolished. Balliny, Feenagh, Lismacsheedy, Caherdooneerish, Caherdoon, Cahercloggaun, Doonaunroe, and the Caherbullogs have escaped reasonably well, while nearly all the small forts, though often as massive and of as large blocks, are levelled almost to the ground.

Three hundred yards to the south of the ‘house caher,’ on a low knoll, are two (F, G) nearly-levelled cahers. They are closely similar. The walls of good, slab masonry, about 7 feet thick, and only rarely a few courses high; the garths 99 feet to 102 feet across, and nearly circular. The gate of the western fort faced the S.S.W. South from it, in the same field, is a curious hut like that at Cahercuttine, near Noughaval. It consists of a circular wall of large blocks, 3 feet 10 inches thick, with a gateway 3 feet 4 inches wide facing the fort, northwards. The enclosure is 19 feet 3 inches across, and at the wall, to the east, is the nearly-closed mouth of a souterrain. A defaced and partly rebuilt cairn caps the corner of the knoll on which these forts and hut stand.

There is another caher, its walls only 3 or 4 feet high, on a bold crag 3000 yards to the east of the hut. Traces of other old walling lie round it in the broken rocks. On the border, next Oughtdarra, a ring of small, mossed filling marks another fort, and near it is an irregular bawn, with two low ‘posts’ of about 5 feet apart. I am told that another bold mass of crag is also capped with a much-levelled fort, making, with Caherdoon, at least eleven ring-walls in Ballinahown to the west of the hill road. To the east of it the townland extends far up Knockaun’s Mountain, and for nearly a mile and a half to the Owen Callikeen brook on the borders of Kilmoon; but, so far as the map and my informants could show, not a single fort exists in it, or the great mass of some 3200 acres on Knockauns, Blake’s Mountain, and Elva, ‘for it was all woods,’ added one. This was very probably true, as roots of trees are found; so we see the forts were crowded together, on the crag lands, on the slopes of the valleys near the sea, and on the high plateau. Northern Clare appears to have scarcely altered since the Book of Survey was compiled in 1655. Eastern Burren is still as it was written in the Wars of Torlough, in 1311 and 1317, but various place-names and facts show that trees once were found on its uplands.

Let us now return to Cahernagrian, whence a goat-path along the great talus at the foot of the cliffs gives us a series of fine views of the forts and pleasant green valleys, some stocked with cattle, and with pools, and even, at times, streams; for Ballinahown means a place of ‘rivers,’ if the natives say truly. The distant tower of Ballinalacken, dominating these townlands, the grey sea and the rocks, level and shining like it, but fixed and lifeless, open up to our view. Carpets of the mountain aven, creamy flowers on rich green mats of foliage, cover the crags in parts; maidenhair and harstongue spring up in the crevices, and the brilliant blue gentian, the primrose, violet, and woodruff, hide everywhere among the rocks, as we pass round the slope.

Round the angle we reach a most steep ascent, showing from the distance, as a conspicuous landmark, a brown smear, up the grey cliffs; it is a cattle pass to the upland. We scale it and cross the crags, losing sight of all else but the higher hills and the horizon seaward, till we note a wall rising over the crags and reach another fort, the loneliest of the group.