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

Part III: Northern Burren: Black Head; Caherdooneerish

Black Head (O.S. 1 and 2)

Caherdooneerish (Caherdoonfergus on the O.S. map)

The almost impassable mountains near Black Head [4] were not untenanted in early times. In the misty and dark reaches of Irish prehistoric legend one of the most definite statements locates a Firbolg chief Irghus, of the clan of the sons of Huamore, at Rind Boirne (the Headland of Burren), and as we shall see, his name is still preserved in the fort on Black Head. Of other early tribes in the district we seem to catch a glimpse of a section of the far-reaching Ua Cathba and Ua Corra in the farthest point of legend, and later of the Eoghanacht clans (who gave to Aran and Burren the names of Dun Onacht and Eoghanacht Ninuis), who, along with the race of Rory, were located in the Corcomroes, at any rate before the fifth century. The name of the fort, as fixed by O’Donovan and O’Curry in 1839, is Caherdoonfergus, but the older natives of the district say positively that the name Fergus does not occur in it, and give such forms as ‘Caherdooneerish,’ ‘Caherdooneerus’ and ‘Doonirias,’ the first being the most common. The very fact that the people are utterly ignorant of the existence of such a legendary hero as Irghus (Irghuis=Eerish) favours their tradition, while O’Donovan and O’Curry were saturated in the legends of Fergus, son of Roigh, and were evidently eager to find his name and give him a local habitation in the land of his descendants, the O’Conors and O’Loughlins, thereby running the risk (that so closely besets the incautious inquirer) of supplying leading questions and extracting false legends. This treatment of genuine place-names and traditions is unfortunately on the increase, and many definite instances may be given where the Ordnance Survey and tourists have unconsciously foisted modern stories into the mouths of the too acute witnesses they cross-examined, or too enthusiastic Celtic scholars have revised the traditional name ‘out of honesty into Irish,’ i.e. such Irish as was conceived by themselves.[5]

Caherdooneerish (from the North-east)
Caherdooneerish (from the North-east)

The place in 1839 was said to be enchanted (i.e., ‘haunted’) ‘by Fergus, son of Roigh, and his companions.’ Doubtless it was, like many another fort, reputed to be haunted; but, we fear, that Fergus was projected on to the minds of the natives from too zealous inquirers, and expelled the real hero from our place names as ruthlessly as the heroes of Tara, in the older legend, expelled him from the district. The headland was also haunted, men said, by that hideous and demonic banshee, Bronach, the sorrowful, ‘who abode in the green fairy mounts of Erin, but had her dwelling in Hell,’[6] as well as by gentler and more human spirits. It was no unpoetic or ignoble belief that fancied the lost and weary spirit of the pagan chiefs - unshepherded, uncomforted, outcast - clinging to the shattered ruin of their fortress, in that solemn solitude of rock above the melancholy, wrinkled ocean, even if we cannot accept as a genuine legend that Fergus appeared through the mist wreaths as he did to Murgen in Ferguson’s weird poem of The Tain Quest: -

‘ Fergus rose, a mist ascended
With him, and a flash was seen,
As of brazen sandals blended
With a vestments wafture green.
But so thick the cloud closed o’er him
Eimena, returned at last,
Found naught on the field before him
But a mist heap grey and vast.’

and such a mist heap hides from our research the true origin of this as of other cahers.

Plan of Caherdooneerish
Plan of Caherdooneerish

The Caher stands on a lower brow of Black Head where the juniper, not daring to rise against the cruel gale, creeps upon the rocks. To the south-east rise the cliffs of Doughbranneen higher up the hill. To the south is seen nearly all the shore of Killon-aghan. On the other sides lie the broad bay of Galway, and the ever-complaining sea, boundless save for the long low grey Isles of Aran. The fort is an irregular enclosure, D-shaped in plan, forming almost a right angle at its south-west corner - an actual corner [7] such as we only see elsewhere in the presumably late rectangular forts or mohers - this, with the poor and small masonry adjoining, suggests a rebuilding of the older fort. The garth measures internally 65 feet, north and south, and 69 feet, east and west. The rampart is, indeed, for the most part of that inferior masonry found above the ‘cyclopean’ stonework in some of our forts. There is a large breach to the south-east, and another to the east, where the old gateway is still to be traced; between these gaps stands the highest piece of wall. I have failed to get an accurate measurement; but it may be 15 or 16 feet high; the masonry in the lower part, to the north and east, is better and larger than the upper part, and, perhaps, may mark a much older foundation, though it is equally probable that the larger and better stones may have been reserved for the lower, and the smaller and more portable blocks for the upper wall. The gateway was only 32 inches wide, the smallest I have measured in Clare (the next smallest being Ballyelly, 34 in., lying a few miles to the south, and Cahercommane, 36 inches). It had no corner posts, only one stone, 39 inches long, lies in the débris. A wider passage runs through the thickness of the wall and terrace from the gateway (as at Doon Aenghus, and Ballykinvarga). The outer section of the wall measures about 6 feet, and the terrace 5 feet; but the wall is often 13 feet thick. The masonry is irregular and poor, laid as headers, with no structural batter and leaning out in parts. Traces of distorted upright joints seem to remain, one to the north-west, and at least three others, for about a third of the height of the wall, along the northern segment; two of these diverge and are about 10 feet apart, as if built by a small gang; they all begin above the large stonework, and have unjointed masonry above them, as if more than one rebuilding had taken place. There is a short joint running for 4 or 5 feet up the wall to the south, and two more to the west, but wavy and distorted. I call these ‘upright joints’ with reserve; they are not as well marked as those in Dun Conor, Cahercommane, Ballykinvarga, Staigue, and other forts, and we shall see in the far better masonry of Cahercloggaun how careless the old builders were about breaking joint. Between the western joints, the stones are larger; but have been in some cases set on a steep slope, as at Cahercommane,[8] which doubtless (as there) implies a hasty rebuilding. In short, the masonry is far inferior to the usually excellent coursed and ‘cyclopean’ stonework of other forts in the limestone districts.

A terrace, 3 to 4 feet high, runs round the inside of the wall; there is some appearance of a flight of steps, rising from the left and the right, to the summit of the wall from the terrace.[9] Lord Dunraven found them to be 2 feet 6 inches long; but I found no indisputable trace. There are no old structures in the fort or on the crags near it. The approach from the north is so steep as to be practically inaccessible; indeed, it seems wonderful that anyone took such a wind-swept, waterless brow for a residence, or, having done so, took pains to strengthen almost impassable crags and grassy slopes of rock, with a wall 12 feet high, on a ridge 647 feet above a harbourless and stormy shore.