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

Part VI: Ballyganner Group: Ballyganner Hill; Huts; Dolmens; Cahermore; Caheraclarig; Cashlaun-Gar

Though far from certain that I have exhausted this most important group that the apathetic archaeology of the last century left to my exploration, I must endeavour to close these notes. In 1896 I had to reserve the dolmens for Mr. W. Borlase with other limitations, which must be my plea for merciful criticism. Only the two fine dolmens of Ballyganner Hill and Clooneen had been accurately sketched and described at that time, while the unique Ballykinvarga fort was almost neglected and quite mis-described. I recently found that the west opening of the first named dolmen had been closed by a slab (like the sixth dolmen at Parknabinnia);[34] so violently and injudiciously had it been forced open that the great stone door had snapped at the ground level. These doors seem to imply that some of the dolmens were ‘family vaults,’ and could be opened to admit later burial.[35] The little basins in the cover of this dolmen may imply observance of funerary offerings in later generations. In Co. Clare science came too late to explore them: probably every chamber has been violated by greedy, ignorant, unobservant treasure seekers before the dawn of the last century. Tradition alone told of finds of pottery. In our time one bronze age golden fibula of the type of the ‘Great Clare gold find’ at Moghane (circa B.C. 500-700?) was got at the dolmen of Knockalappa in eastern Co. Clare.

The nearly levelled cathair near the great dolmen stands on the most commanding part of the ridge. It is of large blocks, one 6 feet 10 inches by 20 inches by 20 inches, the wall being 6 feet thick and rather coarsely built. The more southern cathair, near the last, on the contrary is of fine large masonry, regular blocks, set to a batter of 1 in 5 to 1 in 6. The wall is 7 feet thick and over 5 feet high. The foundation of its gateway, recently uncovered, shows that the passage faced south-east, and was 4 feet wide, without posts. The foundation block of the north jamb is 6 feet 3 inches long.

Beyond the steepest slope below to the south of the forts and to the west of the laneway is a tumulus of earth and stones 56 feet across and 6 feet 6 inches high. It is intact save where some rabbiters made a hole into it on the north side: no slabs were disclosed.

The cathair [36] to the west-north-west of the dolmen at the other foot of the ridge is a fine example. Its ring is 120 feet across, but is somewhat irregular. I have already described its details and the socalled ‘cromlech’ before its gateway. It may be a grave, but again is unusual, if not unique.[37]

On the slope of the ridge, close to the west of the laneway, below the great dolmen, is a hut site; it is circular, 29 feet across, of well laid horizontal courses of blocks (like the house ring, with the souterrain, near Cahercuttine); it is now barely 3 feet high. The Co. Clare huts are practically of five types - two circular, two rectangular, the rest irregular. (Type 1) A circle of slabs set on end like the ones south from Cahernabihoonach and east from Moheraroon.[38] (2) A circular wall regularly built with blocks in courses, like the one noted above; sometimes this consists of several conjoined circular cells. In some cases it had a domed or corbelled (‘beehive’) roof, in others, probably, a thatched or wooden one. The most perfect are at Mohernaglasha, but foundations are not uncommon, as at the Cashlaun Gar, Cahercommaun, Mohernagartan,[39] Ballykinvarga, and others. There is a curious domed hut having a lintelled east door and external offsets on Bishop’s Island, once a promontory fort.[40] In eastern Co. Clare, where wooden huts probably superseded the stone ones, I have found the foundation of a two-celled hut at Carrahan near Spancel Hill. In Caherbullog are some very small circular cells (like those at Caherdorgan, Co. Kerry), some only 3 feet to 5 feet clear inside.[41] As we noted, the house site at Cahercuttine has a souterrain.

Of the third type are the rectangular enclosures, or huts, of slabs set on end near Caheraneden [42] and Cahernaspeekee and the one in Knockaun Fort;[43] the two last have souterrains. Of the fourth type it is hard to speak; it is probably late, approximates to the modern cottages. The fifth type is represented by the ‘9’ shaped plan of the hut near Teeskagh and others, like those near Horse Island promontory fort.

Borlase [44] makes an amazing mistake in speaking of the Co. Clare dolmens. ‘Blocks of the size and symmetry of those used by the dolmen builders would nowadays be far to seek.’ He cites certain ‘intelligent farmers’ as stating that ‘it was a matter of astonishment how such slabs were raised.’ In fact such slabs, of exactly the same size and regularity, abound, and at Parknabinnia, as we have noted, the blocks have been levered up and propped on small rounded boulders close to an important group of cists. I can only fancy that the ‘Farmers’ politely coincided with his expressed views, as every local person knows that such blocks could nearly always be raised near the sites of the dolmens in the north-west part of Clare.

Some apparent dolmens may have been slab huts (as long since suggested by George H. Kinahan, [45] but he carried his theory too far) however, I think the tapered cist, large or small, is always sepulchral. The ‘long grave’ type is not found in western or northern Co. Clare, and is rare in the eastern half. The finest example, at Milltown, near Tulla, was long since destroyed,[46] and we have only a brief description of it in the Ordnance Survey Letters. The dolmens seem nearly always to stand in the remains of a carn, or mound, rarely rising higher than the edge of the cover.[47] The fifth cist at Parknabinnia was, however, entirely buried in a carn, even after 1839. Several dolmens were used for residence. Dr. George U. Macnamara remembers old women living in those of Cappaghkennedy, and Cottine, his father, the late Dr. Macnamara, attended one of these. Gortlecka dolmen also formed part of a cabin. One of those at Parknabinnia was used by a fugitive from justice, and I saw the straw of his bed in it. The one at Slievenaglasha was used as a calf shed and fuel store, to the burning of its contents it owed its destruction.

Legend regards them everywhere as the Beds of Diarmuid and Grainne, the famous fugitive lovers, and told how the hero spread seaweed on the covers so that when Finn bit his prophetic thumb, to learn whither his wife had absconded, he supposed them to be drowned.[48] A visit of a married couple to them cured sterility. In Hely Dutton’s time (possibly on the same account) some sense of indecency attached, and a girl refused to guide him to those of Ballyganner in 1808, till she was assured that he was a stranger and ignorant of the local beliefs.[49] John Windele [50] in July 1855 notes of the Mount Callan Dolmen ‘fruitfulness of progeny in that.’ I learned of an indecent rite taking place about 1902 at a dolmen for the same purpose.

The confusion between dolmens and huts is not confined to Ireland, but occurs in the Pyrenees. Rev. Sabine Baring Gould notes [51] some that the French call ‘cromlechs, circles of stone supposed to be prehistoric.’ The local shepherds say ‘that precisely similar stones are planted by themselves around temporary huts of branches and turf erected by them when they have to stay in the mountains.’ These must be closely similar to the Burren circles of slabs. I myself have seen in the Corcaguiny peninsula, in Kerry, primitive looking beehive huts of recent date; one was being built so late as 1904 at Dunquin, and others were recently completed at Kilmalkedar. There also I saw ‘long graves,’ identical in design, but far less massive than the long dolmens (allées couvertes) rows of slabs set on edge, with slab covers, and buried in cairns. In Co. Limerick and Co. Clare it was courteous to bring a few stones to put on the modern cairn if you found one being made. I have also seen very primitive huts at Keel and elsewhere in Achill; while at Carna, on the north shore of Galway Bay, I have seen and photographed circular ‘booley huts,’ with dry stone walls roofed with long ‘scraws’ of sod thrown over the top like a tablecloth, and one ‘dut out’ in a sandhill, the roof resting on the surface with a low dry stone wall to the windward to prevent it being blown away. Nothing more primitive than these huts could well be imagined.[52]

The great lesson to be learned in Irish archaeology (if not in that of other lands) is the risk of extreme, or exclusive, views; where all is so primitive, caution is most necessary, as the above facts show. Field surveys and excavations are the two master keys of the subject. I have attempted to supply the first for one district; I hope that the coming of the time and the man for the second may not be much longer delayed.

Sheshy (O.S. 9). Before turning from the Burren uplands I must note two forts to the north of Lemeneagh.

Cahermore has been recently nearly entirely defaced. The outer face, in 1897, was nearly entire; now only a part to the west is 5 feet high, of fairly good slab masonry, the rest is a mere heap. The wall is 7 feet to 9 feet thick, and encloses a garth 81 feet across. There are no hut foundations, but some old looking pens and cattle enclosures adjoin the ring-wall.

This fort was a mere thicket on my former visit, it is now partly cleared. It is a ring-wall, the garth 90 feet across and grassy. The wall is 4 to 5 feet high in parts, but much gapped, and is only 6 feet thick. The gateway faces the east, and has a lintel 4 feet 6 inches by 15 inches by 8 inches. There is a hut enclosure to the south of the garth. The wall itself has two faces and but little filling of small stones. The layer of slabs set with their edges out, like books on a shelf, are to the north, in the outer face.[53] The cathair stands on a rock platform over a little glen.

This remarkable fort [54] at the end of Glencurraun has been much cleared on its platform. The destruction of hazels, probably by goats, has brought to light a terrace, previously entirely concealed. It is 28 to 30 inches wide, and forms a separate section for perhaps 3 feet down but the base of the wall seems of one piece for 6 feet 8 inches from the ground. A reach of wall 15 feet long has fallen since my former visits; it is to the north of the east gate. More of the other walls is slipping down the slopes. I am now able to give a revised plan showing the outer enclosures, which are hard to measure, being covered with bushes. The huts are so covered with grass as to be now hardly distinguishable.

The wall of the outer enclosure (or bawn) to the north and east of the rock is, as a rule, 6 feet thick, of large blocks, usually 5 to 6 feet, one 8 feet 3 inches long and 2 to 3 feet high and thick. It is 61 feet from the inner fort to the north, running to what may be an older loop to the east, which turns back to the foot of the rock in line with the south jamb of the gateway, being there 63 feet out from the citadel wall. The main wall is 6 feet 2 inches thick, the terrace 2 feet 6 inches more; the whole in parts 10 feet, and at the gate 11 feet 6 inches thick and 8 feet high. It is 3 feet higher than the terrace and 12 feet 6 inches high outside.

Cashlán Gar
Cashlán Gar