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A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan

Part 1: Commentary: Prehistoric and early Christian sites: Wedge-Tombs

Three wedge-tombs are known from the Barony of Bunratty Lower:-

Coolycasey, Site catalogue 1.282-6
Ballinphunta, Site catalogue1.326-9
Knocknalappa, Site catalogue1.481-4

Coolycasey was not recorded previously.

In general wedge-tombs may be defined as: “Tombs consisting of a main chamber, frequently with a short portico or ante-chamber at the front and occasionally a small end chamber at the rear… The chambers form a long relatively narrow gallery which decreases in height and width from front to rear. The front consistently faces in a general south-westerly direction…” O’Nuallain, 1979, 14-15.

Sometimes these features are covered by a cairn. If such a feature exists it is “round or perhaps short oval and sometimes D-shaped”. De Valera and O’Nuallain, 1961, 13.

Another feature of wedge-tombs relates to their siting, they tend to occur on hill slopes with a light well drained soil.

Do the Bunratty Lower examples correspond, or differ, with the above definition? Two of the sites, Coolycasey and Knocknalappa, correspond very closely to the definition. However Ballinphunta shows more variation, especially in relation to siting (only 70’ O.D., at the foot of Gallow’s Hill) and orientation (directly east-west. Site 90, De Valera and O’Nuallain, 1961, orientation diagram).

None of the Bunratty Lower wedge-tombs have been excavated. Therefore any information as to the possible date and origin of such features can only be deduced from outside excavated examples.

A total of 388 wedges are known from Ireland and these show a marked western distribution (O’Riordain, 1979, 15). However only 19 sites have been excavated, less than 5% of the number of known tombs. Eight of the excavated sites produced no primary pottery, eight more produced beaker ware, while three others yielded barbed and tanged arrowheads (O’Nuallain, 1979, 15). In spite of these poor excavation results O’Riordain still felt justified in stating:

“… the frequent occurrence of beaker pottery and the barbed-and-tanged arrowheads which are typical of beaker-using people securely assigns the type (wedge-tomb) to the early bronze age…” 1979, 128.

I would certainly question O’Riordain’s statement that these sites are unquestionably Bronze Age in date. Most of the Breton wedges (Allees couvertes), from which the Irish sites would seem to have originated, have yielded late Neolithic dates on excavation. Even from the Irish sites some sherds of Neolithic ware have been found (O’Nuallain, 1979, 15), suggesting a late-Neolithic – early bronze age date for some, at least, of these sites. With further excavation it may be found that, in fact, they are of a Neolithic origin, but continuing into the Bronze Age.

Neither is there evidence to suggest an introduction into the west or south-west and a north-easterly movement inland (O’Riordain, 1979, 11-12, 123-129). Perhaps, in fact, the idea came into the north-east and moved to the south-west, with the Clare and Kerry examples being at the end rather than the beginning of the wedge-tomb construction.

It does seem clear, however, that wedge-tomb distribution is related to pasture rather than tillage lands. This is quite well established in Co. Clare as De Valera and O’Nuallain, 1961, have shown. Presumably the settlements associated with the wedge builders were nearby, though admittedly, to date, excavation has failed to show this.