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

Part V: French and Irish Forts

The two greatest needs of Irish archæology are certainly field surveys and excavations. When I commenced to publish my notes on the ring-forts of North-Western Clare, in 1895, my intention was only to give descriptions of the ten most important examples. I also gave my notes and plans of the dolmens to Mr. William C. Borlase for his great work, and only included such in my paper after 1897. The first design I modified before the first part of that paper went to press, and (as recast) from time to time, from 1896 to 1905, the attempted survey appeared,[1] with many corrections and unavoidable repetitions, as materials grew or fuller descriptions seemed desirable.

At present it were too much to hope to print an absolutely exhaustive survey of so rich a district; the more modest design of giving accounts of all the more instructive remains is all that I attempt. With this object I may now be allowed to give a further part of the survey long laid aside for my study of the cliff forts. These papers, in a certain sense, ‘complete’ (if such a term be not too pretentious) the description of the great majority of the dry-stone forts in Burren, Northern Corcomore, and the parish of Kilnaboy, in Inchiquin. With the papers on the forts of the Irrus,[2] and those near Milltown-Malbay, in this Journal,[3] and those on the forts of Eastern Clare in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy,[4] I believe that descriptions sufficient to enable students to realize the plans and features of the forts (whether of earth or stone, residential or otherwise) are given for all Co. Clare. The survey of such remains is not only necessary, but urgent. It is literally a race with Destruction. So little does the professed patriotism of the men of Clare bear fruit in the care for or preservation of their country’s past, that since 1895, and much more since I began my work on the county in 1878, the ruin of its remains is alarming. What may be left to Irishmen of the next century in what is probably the district of Europe richest in these early remains (that from St. Finan’s Bay to Galway Bay), I fear even to conjecture. The deadly triad (the road-maker, rabbit-catcher, and treasure-seeker) is at its malign work, tearing down and defacing gateways, terraces, and steps, as well as lofty ramparts, huts, and sepulchres, for selfish or foolish ends. No wholesome public spirit exists in this matter, so that the County Councils, which have the power, do not use it, excepting in the honourable cases of the councillors of counties Cork and Galway. The latter first conserved the remains near Tuam. This good example has had no effect on their less enlightened neighbours. It is impossible to speak of the outrages against ancient remains occurring constantly over this large tract of country, with the severity for which they call; all that can be done is to secure views, plans, and descriptions of the fast-vanishing antiquities.

As ‘the study of the forts is the study of the homes of the early Irish,’ it might be expected to excite sympathy and win workers; but how many (even among Irish antiquaries) do more that give an occasional paper on the remains? How many more encourage or help the few workers? Some who are interested in the medieval history, genealogies, and architecture of Ireland oppose studies in ‘prehistory’ as ‘heaping up prehistoric rubbish.’ Others, glorying in their country’s early legends, resent the results of more critical workers; like the poet’s hapless knight, they awake on ‘the cold hill-side’ of fact, after gorgeous visions of ‘kings and death-pale warriors,’ and they are offended. By hard work, not by ‘exaggerating things that never happened’ (as a cynic said of us), may ‘the ancient glories of Ireland’ be secured. Our ideal must be that of the ancient miner - ‘he setteth an end to the darkness and searches out the furthest bound, the stones of darkness and the gloom.’ A brilliant example of what energy can do is set to Ireland by the antiquaries of France.[5] Virtually, since the last section of this paper was read to our Society in 1905, a great work has been done in that country. Not (as in Ireland) a mere half-dozen workers with no State support or public sympathy, but a large band of well-equipped antiquaries have done that work. Yet we may get courage, for our neighbours have won European attention, and their study of Irish work has spread it farther than was ever the case before. When we add to this the value attached by foreign antiquaries to the collection of the Royal Irish Academy - largely resulting from the writings, the unsparing study, and deep insight of Mr. George Coffey - we may hope that Irish Archaeology in giving to the continent of Europe may have much given to it from those working in a wide field under brighter auspices than ourselves. So little accessible is their survey to most Irish workers that a brief outline of some of its results should interest and help our antiquaries.

Examples of French Forts
Examples of French Forts

The conclusions so far derived by the French ‘Commission d’étude des enceintes préhistoriques’ are not very dissimilar from our own, save that we Irish have a richer literature, and evidently adhered to the primitive types to a far later period than was the case in France. It is no exaggeration to say that the plan, the features, the structure, and the masonry of the walls are indistinguishable from those of Ireland. Taking the ‘Castellaras’ (ring-walls) of the Alpes Maritimes, we see the curious ‘running together’ of the layers of stones, seen so well at Caherminaun, and the careful fitting and small packing pieces in the unavoidable interstices; the wall, with two faces of large stones, and with filling sometimes thrown in, at other times more carefully packed while the faces were being raised; the almost needless clinging of the walls to the lesser projections of cliffs and rock-edges, their structure, in two or more sections, sometimes forming a terrace; and the beautifully laid, almost rectangular, natural blocks. All these might occur in Ireland or the Irish equivalents in France, without exciting any surprise or any feeling that the features were rare or exceptional. This is equally the case with the plans; a series of well-defined types both of earthen and stone forts occur, identical with those of Ireland. The fortified spur, whether a sea-headland (as most frequently in Ireland) or, more commonly in France, an inland spur; the crescent fort, abutting on a cliff or steep slope; the ring-fort, oval, circular, or D-shaped in plan, with (at times) two or three concentric walls, or a side annexe; its square equivalent; the high and low flat-topped motes, round or square, in some of which excavations have disclosed not a few Gaulish and Roman remains, while others proved to be of the later Middle Ages - all are represented in France, as in Ireland. Identical, too, with those in Ireland, are the basin-stones found in French forts and the gateways, having jambs formed by the coursed wall-facing and strong lintels. That several of the French stone forts go back to pre-Roman times is well established. There are, of course, exceptional features, like dry-stone walls embodying frameworks of beams (noted by Cæsar),[6] the round bastions of the dry-stone fortress of Constantine (B-de-Rh.), or the towers flanking the outworks of such forts as Mount Milan (C. d’or) or Neiron (Var.), which have no Irish equivalent; for our early countrymen (and even the builders of the late peel towers and courts) rarely concerned themselves to provide for flank defence. Anyone anxious to compare definite examples should study the pre-Roman Camp du Bois at Rouret (Pré-Alpes Marit.) with Dun Aengusa or Cahercommaun. The former is called a ‘Roman camp’ as loosely as some here use the term ‘Danish fort.’ It rests on a hill 1547 feet high, and is fenced by two half-rings; the inner garth is about 283 feet by 113 feet deep, the outer 16 feet to 65 feet distant from the inner wall, which has fallen in part to the south and is 7 to 8 feet thick. The inner wall is fairly perfect, some of its blocks 4 feet long and over 3 feet high, of good masonry, with small stones filling the crannies. Compare Dun Conor in Aran with the Castellaras de Mauvans. The French fort differs but little in design, save in the curious entrance of its annexe, where the ends overlap, making a short passage. It has a fine oval central ring and a nearly defaced outer one; judging from the fine photographs, upright joints (a very ‘Irish’ feature) occur. The equally fine Castellaras de La Malle (Alpes M.) has typical lintelled gates or posterns. The D-shaped plan, found at Caherdooneerish, in Clare, has a representative in another Camp du Bois, at Cœlan (C. du Nord), but it has a fosse and a slight outer ring.

The straight-fenced promontory fort, like Doonegall, county Clare, may be compared with one at Bois I’Evêque at Villey le Sec (the mound 20 feet to 26 feet thick at the base, with a fosse outside, and over 300 feet long), or with the finer Camp de Voeuil, a great earthwork with a slight curve and a sharp turn at the right (E.) end, across a bold spur like Doonaunmore in Clare. Unlike the Irish forts, the core of the earth consists of a mass of calcined (apparently not vitrified) rocks.[7] The variety so common in Ireland, having a fosse with a mound of dry-stone wall convex to the land, finds an excellent French example at Dramelay in Jura. A good example of the double wall is the ‘pear-shaped’ enclosure of Casteou-Vassou or Collet-Assout (Alpes M.). These are only a few of the examples illustrating Irish types.[8]

I emphasize the similarity not to assert a common origin for these forts (as I inclined to do in the first of the present series of papers in 1895-6), but rather the reverse, to show how the human race in Europe (and indeed in S. Africa and N. America) possessed an instinct, or rather a ‘hereditary accomplishment,’ which led them to build such ‘forts.’ So children, playing on the sands, dig miniature replicas of the rath, with concentric circles, or an annexe, and the mote, with its bailey; or the country labourers dig a fosse and a ring-mound round a plantation, or build a dry-stone ring-wall for that or some other object. On the other hand, there was evidently abundant communication in very primitive times between Ireland and the Continent, and building suggestions may have been imported from the latter, like the early forms of ornament, from the Bronze Age down. The old idea, not yet extinct, of Ireland’s complete originality and isolation from Europe, has little to commend it to scientific workers. That such structures occur in France, from possibly Neolithic to post-Roman times, and, with all such types, all across Europe, from the Ural mountains to the cliffs of western Ireland, and that the types reappear in such isolated regions as Mashonaland and the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio, gives too weighty a caution to be overlooked, and precludes the idea of any type of entrenchment belonging exclusively to any one period or race.

The types do not spring merely from the sites. We have not only crescent forts on high cliffs, but also on the low field, at Ballycar Lake, where Cahernacalla was dug.[9] Irregularities in the curves of the wall occur equally in the fortified rock platform and on open plains like certain Corcaguiny forts and Innishmurray Cashel. The ring occurs indifferently in level fields, spurs, and steep slopes. Like the whole subject, this question is at present far too unstudied and fresh for anything but diffident study and suggestion.

Another problem which is slowly coming forward I press on the attention of other workers (especially those labouring in the fields of early Irish literature); being little qualified (though compelled) to face it myself. The question is whether certain existing forts are neither residential nor sepulchral, but ceremonial.[10] The fact of either of the former uses does not, of course, prevent the last, but it is not improbable, and seems implied by several early elements in Irish literature, that some of these ring-forts were temples. Whether such were the case or not, in the vast majority of the Clare forts, other questions of like nature might be asked such as whether the human skeletons found in the ramparts of some forts (such as Dun Conor, Tara, &c.) were victims offered to the ‘dedication’ of the fort. Human victims were offered at the foundation of Emania Fort [11] in the fourth century before our era (if Cormac’s Glossary be correct), while when Dun fidhne was made by four chiefs, Cuchongeilt (Eoghan Bél’s son) asks a swine-herd for pigs ‘for this their fort’s inauguration . . . as many of the swine as shall seem sufficient.’[12] The usage has a close equivalent in the horse-skulls placed in the walls, or under the floors, of certain old houses (like Edenvale and Moyreisk, in Clare, and Attyflin, in Limerick), to my knowledge, and in other cases even living cats were immured in holes in the newly built walls.[13]

Of the forts described in this section, however, none seem to be of this character, though it is possible (if not probable) that Turlough Hill,[14] Creevagh, Cahernabihoonach,[15] and Magh Adhair may be such. The second (with its rock-cut avenue and enclosed dolmen), and the third (also surrounding a dolmen) recall a French side-light on these and the slab fences and ‘peristyles’ at other dolmens and cists, such as Iscancullin and the pillared dolmen of Ballyganner and Leanna. Such enclosures in France range from the Neolithic period down to at least Roman times [16] ; in Clare they may go back (as the dolmens probably do) to the Bronze Age; but some of these slab fences may be of the later Middle Ages. The Irish certainly had little scruple in combining burial-places, residences, and temples, or at least ceremonial forts, as is shown clearly at Tara, Usnach, and Rathcroghan.

Last year yielded to the collection of the Royal Irish Academy six urns and numerous flint implements from a cairn in Drumruagh Fort, Co. Tyrone; and the bronze ring-pin, leaf-shaped chert implement, and worked flint implement from Dun Aengusa, found by Dr. Colley March, which, with the remarkable collection from the Dunbel raths, Co. Kilkenny, belonging to this Society, show what a work has yet to be done for Irish forts.

None of the forts here studied seem in any sense ‘military.’ Caherlisaniska and Poulacarran are overlooked, and to our mind commanded by closely adjoining high crags. Only the weak little fort of Garracloon occupies a really strong position.[17] Probably except Caheridoola (in the forts other than the Lisdoonvarna group) all are late and evidently decadent structures. The latest and most decadent of all are probably the bawns or cattle-pens in Gleninshen, and the south end of Poulacarran Valley. The bawns of Gleninshen, for aught I can see to the contrary, may belong, like the park walls of Lemaneagh, to the latest seventeenth century.