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

Part VI: Survey Methodology

With the present paper I close the series [1] of twelve published in these pages during twenty-three years. The field work on which they are based was begun over thirty-six years ago, in May 1878. Though no trained antiquary is likely to deny the utility of such a work, there is sore need of apology for certain imperfections in its execution, patent even to a casual reader. When it was commenced I had no exemplar to follow; I had to learn what to do as the work proceeded. Matters at first little regarded proved important and called for insertion and further research. Forts and dolmens in that wilderness of crags and thickets are sometimes undistinguishable from rock ledges and boulders; often the most definite guide to a dolmen is a square patch of dark shadow in its open end. In some cases bushes of hawthorn, sloe and hazel [2] covered features, so that two flights of steps in Cahercuttine and two in Caherminaun, gateways in Roughane and the ‘cairn-caher’ and the terrace of Cashlaun Gar, were at first concealed from me. Thus supplemental matter had constantly to be added, destroying the consistency of the survey while increasing its value.

Theory, as a by-product to be constantly fused and recast, is of less moment. I have constantly altered my views, and hope no one may suppose that the theories in this conclusion even purport to be ‘final.’ Finality is impossible in our present ignorance; scientific excavation or critical examination to fix the dates of our literary sources has scarcely begun. Still progress is getting marked; the results of European research are no longer unstudied in Ireland, and such theories as attributed all our forts to the Firbolg or the Danes are left to a few belated followers of the older school. Nevertheless, there is still a prejudice that one who does not hold to his first theories is of no authority, and that one who does not adhere to the older school of 1840 is a lonely schismatic, even when he voices the views of the majority of European antiquaries, while the value of the study of dry fact appeals little to many whom country writers call ‘great antiquarians.’

I keep for the actual conclusion my estimate of the broad results of these surveys of Co. Clare, so I need only note the lines of research. In 1892-93 two groups in eastern Co. Clare were described. From 1895 onward the papers deal with the Barony of Burren and the adjoining parishes of the Baronies of Corcomroe and Inchiquin. If we add the papers in 1908 and 1909 on the promontory forts of the Iorrus and the ring forts of Moyarta, and that in 1911 on Cahermurphy and the forts near Miltown-Malbay,[3] we get descriptions of the chief remains of this class in western Co. Clare. If we further add those in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy [4] on the eastern forts, and those in the North Munster Archaeological Society’s Journal on the forts near Kilkee,[5] and (as I do at the end of this paper) index and methodize it, the whole nearly attains to the dignity of a county survey - more I cannot claim to have done.

I never attempted to form a classification of the ring forts, but hope to do so tentatively at the end of the paper. Theories and classification in other countries do not fit Irish conditions. The English arrangement adopted by the ‘scheme for recording ancient defensive earthworks and fortified enclosures’ is absolutely unsuitable here. By its rules we should bring under one heading the widely divergent forts of Cahercommaun, Cahernakilly, Dundoillroe, and the Cashlaun Gar into Class A. We should have to classify Turlough Hill fort or Moghane differently from Cahercalla in Class B. So also the nomenclature of Great Britain and the Continent is unsuitable: ‘late Celtic’ with them means ‘very early Celtic’ here. The English assertion that while the great hill forts are prehistoric and tribal, the small ones are feudal, is contradicted here equally by our pre-Norman literature and by excavation. The English view separating promontory forts fenced all around from these only defended at the neck confuses instead of helping us; since so many of these walled headlands show fences, that we can hardly doubt that most were walled round before the edges and ends fell away.

Racial district types when sought for in Ireland are not discoverable; all the main types here are found in France, Germany, and Austria, and some also in Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, and farthest Russia, in Perm. The two oblong platforms at Bunratty and Culleen are probably Norman; the rest of the forts of Co. Clare represent no type that does not occur across Europe, from Perm to Kerry, and from the bronze age to late mediaeval times. Where the promontory forts of the Ural mountains and the Atlantic coasts are closely similar, and the great prehistoric ‘Hausberge’ of Central Europe resemble ‘feudal mote castles,’ we cannot be sufficiently cautious in laying down dates or tribal rules from external forms of earthworks. Excavation - our best means of dating - is hindered by the expense and by local jealousies, sometimes fostered by those who should know better, or by uninformed persons writing to newspapers.

At the commencement of this survey some (then recognised as ‘authorities’) said that ‘such an attempt was useless, all had been worked out by O’Donovan and Dunraven.’ The latter authorities, however, had each only described two types, while out of some 2,200 forts in Co. Clare, only five had been slightly described. So also when commencing a like work on the promontory forts I was told that ‘nothing was left to be done,’ when out of at least 106 only two had been adequately described and one inaccurately noted; of 104 no accurate plans had been made. There is a warning here to that complacent type of person who supposes all is done for any branch of Irish archaeology.

I may at least claim for these tentative notes, such as a pioneer can offer, that they are a record of what is being rapidly destroyed, and that they have led to wider studies of their field not a few who might never have surveyed it. What a noble field too it proved to be, what a museum of remarkable antiquities, and how full of beauty; ‘the pride of the height, the clear heaven with its glorious show!’ The forts lie amid the glimmering terraced crags, ‘a barren and dry land’ on the summits, but with underground rivers and silver-laced waterfalls in its glens. From some forts, like Caherdoonerish and Aghaglinny, we look across the sailess sea and seventy miles to either side from the huge domes of Nephin, in Co. Mayo, to Mount Brandon, and to the nearer mountains, the peaks of Bennabeola, in Connemara; the mote-like Kimalta; the Galtees and Slieve Mish. Nor is this all - rock-gardens of exquisite flowers, gorgeous cranesbills, creamy mountain avens, ferns and sedums adorn the nooks and shelves of the limestone. Magnificent sheets of colour carpet it, when the spring-giver ‘makes it to bloom with flowers like sapphire,’ and the loveliest of its flowers, blue gentian and violet, sheet the ground, and primrose and foam-white anemone the ledges. There the fissured grey crag, level as a pavement, sheltered in its clefts the hartstongue and maidenhair ferns. There the underground stream runs ‘down to a sunless sea.’ Amid all this varied loveliness the Corcomroe tribe and the Eoghanacht Ninussa and the forgotten races before them made their homes and monuments, often their only record. From its ‘pages’ these notes are taken, and it is still open to all who choose to revise or expand my copy from its wonderful original.