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

Part V: Bell Harbour Group: Ballyvelaghan; Finnavarra; Mortyclough; Mortyclough Liss

Bell Harbour Group (O.S.3)
The extreme north-eastern corner of Burren ends in two valleys, the more southern, in which the ‘Abbey of the Fertile Rock,’ Corcomroe, and the three very early churches of Oughtmama stand, between Turlough Hill and Behagh Hill; the northern, between Behagh and Finnevara hills, opening from the well-known oyster creek of Pouldoody to the creek of Finnavarra running back to Corranroo, just over the border, in county Galway. Two of the forts were very accurately described in these pages (vol. i, p. 294) by Mr. Thomas Cooke, in 1851, but one has since then been entirely defaced. They are chiefly remarkable for their souterrains, which are, in plan and complexity, far more like those of Galway,[20] Meath, and elsewhere than those of the rest of Clare, which are as a rule extremely simple, straight at Kilmaley, Ruan, Cahermacnole and elsewhere, or curved, as at Ballyganner (S.W. Cathair), the hut site, near Horse Island, Rinbaun, and Cahercashlaun; L-shaped, as at Cahernagree and Ruan Hill fort. They have very rarely got side cells, as at Lisnaleagaun near Kilkee, Caherdoon above Crumlin and Caherglasha; still more rarely have they got traps in the passage, to hinder and imperil an intruder, as at Mortyclough.

Ballyvelaghan or Parkmore is on the shore below Pouldoody creek, and passing the low mound with a pillar of cut-stone blocks, ‘the Monument of Donoughmore O’Daly,’ as it is called, we ascend the gently sloping fields by a lane, and reach the low liss of Parkmore. It consists of an unusually thick, flat outer ring, 30 feet wide, with a fosse 12 feet to 15 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet deep; over this the main earthwork only rises 7 to 8 feet and a few feet over the garth. The inner fort is 111 feet to 116 feet over all (Cooke differs but little, giving it 120 feet), and the whole earthwork is 204 feet over all, or, as Cooke gives it, 220 feet. This plain low rath is of little interest but for its souterrain. Like most, if not all, of the Clare earthworks, it was once probably faced with dry stonework, but all trace had vanished by 1851, probably (as usual in grass land) for road-metal or lime.

The ‘cave’ opens in a bramble brake in the outer face of the main mound and was evidently closed by a slab of stone 4 feet square lying just below the ope in the fosse. The axis lies E.N.E. and W.S.W. The eastern chamber is 26 feet long, and 4 feet to 6 feet 4 inches high; the sides are as usual of very small stonework, with a slightly concave curve, so that the upper space may be as narrow as possible under the lintels: these roof slabs are of limestone, 5 to 9 inches thick, and about 6 feet wide. At the west end of the outer chamber is a low lintelled ‘creep,’ in the roof of which a manhole leads to small cell overhead; from it another ope leads down to the western chamber. The first cell is 26 feet long by 5 feet 8 inches wide, the inner 14 feet by 9 feet 6 inches wide and 6 feet high, the latter opening into the fosse.

The situation, on a low green ridge partly in tillage, overlooks the long tidal creek called Bell Harbour and Pouldoody famed for its oysters; to the east it commands the hamlet of Burren or Mortyclough standing on the edge of its Turlough, a swamp or shallow pool, according to the weather, full of bog-bean and golden iris, with a causeway through the middle. The violet and grey terraced hills half encircle in to the south and the wooded upland of Finnavarra to the north.

If this is not a ‘sea name’ like Kinvarra,[21] we may take mac Liac’s legend 900 years ago deriving its name from Bir, or Beara, the Firbolg, brother of the builder of Dun Aengusa in Aran. About a mile west from New Quay lies a souterrain, probably a rath cave, but its fort is levelled; I did not find it, so give briefly Cooke’s account. It has three cells, the outer 21 feet by 5 feet wide and about 5 feet high; thence a passage 5 feet long 3 feet high and 2 feet wide leads through a trap-door on to an elevated platform at the end of the middle chamber; the latter 25 feet long by 7 feet wide and 6 feet high, and is at right angles to the outer cell. Thence an ope 2 feet wide and 3 feet high leads to a sloping passage down to the inner cell parallel to the middle one, but 5 feet lower. At its inmost end stood a small slab cist, the cover resting on four uprights; bones were found under it, but no full account could be recovered by Cooke. It will be remembered that some such arrangement was found by Thomas Molyneux at Warington, county Down, in 1684; and similar small bone boxes are recorded in Sweden.

The cathair of Mortyclough closely resembles Ooan-knocknagroagh, partly reduced to the very foundations and standing on a low rise near the road, south-west from the village, to which it has given its name, Mothair tighe cloice, the enclosure of the stone house. Some have derived the name from a supposed monument of Mortough garbh O’Brien, who fell in the battle of Corcomroe, in 1317. Having settled that, they localize the battle here, and even call it the battle of Mortyclough. The Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh leaves us in no doubt as to the army in which Mortough fought coming by Bealaclugga to attack its rival at the Abbey of Corcomroe, and as to Mortough’s burial in the chancel of the Abbey. The ‘Stone House’ is probably the house foundation in the ring-wall. The fort was of the usual type, about 160 feet over all, of good limestone masonry. Little of the facing remains, enough to show that the wall varied from 15 to 18 feet thick to the east, and 21 feet to the south, apparently of one section with two faces with small filling. It is rarely 4 feet high, save to the south-east, where a short reach is about 6 feet high.

The souterrain lies in the southern part of the garth. I found it filled up to less than a foot from the roof slabs; one could barely see under them in the south-east chamber. It is so thoroughly defaced and choked that I could not check Cooke’s account. The entrance was to the south-east, but another ope had been broken in at the north-east side of the caher. The south-east cell was oval, 32 feet by 6 feet, and 6 feet high. A low passage opened to the left at the inner end for 9 feet, being 2 feet 4 inches wide, and under 3 feet high. In its roof was a manhole over 2 feet square to an inner cell opening on to a raised platform 3 feet high, as at Finnavarra. The inner chamber was at right angles to the first, 27 feet long and 6 feet high and wide. The upper inner chamber had the farther end rounded. The house foundation in the middle of the fort is 54 feet long by 30 feet wide.

Mortyclough Liss
This earthwork lies south-west from the caher beyond the Killeen graveyard, and near the creek. It has no outer ring, only a fosse 9 feet wide and 3 feet deep, over which the inner ring of gravelly earth rises 7 feet, or 5 feet over the garth; it is 18 feet thick at the base, and 3 feet thick on top, with an entrance-gap to the south. There are no foundations in the garth, which is 189 feet to 190 feet across, and nearly circular - the fort is 244 feet over all. The ope of the souterrain lies to the north-west of the garth, at 30 feet from the mound, under which it runs, being 34 feet 6 inches long, 4 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 5 inches wide inside, and 2 feet 10 inches at the entrance, and 6 feet inside. It has (like the south-west cathair of Ballyganner) a projection cornice and 12 lintels from 8 inches to 1 foot thick, and from 21 to 39 inches wide. At the left of the inner end it has a shallow side recess 1 foot 4 inches deep and 4 feet 6 inches long; a space 2 feet 6 inches deep opens at that end under the roof, but does not seem to be a passage.

There are dilapidated ring-walls, one at Behagh, and one cut through by the old road to the Abbey; a much-levelled fort on Scanlan’s Island; another called Gortagreenaun in Rine near Finnavarra point (O.S. 2), and an earth fort, Lissavorneen, at Finnavarra.[22] The first is possibly the ‘Caher-idon’ (Caheradoon) in that position on a map of 1580, unless the latter represents Mortyclough Caher. The only other fort in that neighbourhood is the very remarkable one with its ten gateways (possibly more) on the ridge of Turlough Hill above Oughtmama.