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The O'Davorens of Cahermacnaughten, Burren, Co. Clare by Dr. George U. Macnamara

Part I: Historical: Cahermacnaughten

One of the last, perhaps the very last, of the schools formed on the ancient model flourished at Cahermacnaughten, in Burren, and continued to exist down to the occupation of Clare by the soldiers of ‘raging Cromwell,’ when the old landed gentry were ruthlessly evicted and all things Irish were cast into the melting pot. What makes this school of exceeding interest to the archaeologist is the fact that it was held in one of the ancient stone forts or cathairs, so numerous in northern Clare. It seems to have been first established in Cahermacnaughten by Giollananaomh mór (son of Aodh, son of Maghnus) O'Davoren, about AD 1500, and while it lasted had a great reputation all over Ireland as a school of fénechas or ancient Irish law.

Townland Plan of Cahermacnaughten
Townland Plan of Cahermacnaughten

The caher in which the school was held still exists in fair preservation. It is on the left hand side, quite close to the public road leading from Noughaval to Ballyvaugan, and some one and a half miles north of the former place. The situation is not very prepossessing, as the country immediately surrounding is now treeless and drear, but some fine views may be obtained in clear weather of the distant Dunagore mountains to the west, and of Slieve Elva, famed in legend, to the north. Not far away, however, toward the south is the beautiful and silent valley of Kilcorney hewn out of the living rock by the titanic force of some primeval glacier, with its enchanted caves, from which, it is said, came a breed of fairy horses once owned by the O'Briens of Glancolumcille. If the possession of an incurably bad temper, invincible obstinacy and phenomenal endurance, be any proof of celestial origin, they certainly were divine, for they possessed all these qualities to the full, as the writer can testify from experience. The visitor has only to drive a mile or so north of the fort to the well-known Corkscrew Hill [1], when, if the day is favourable, one of the loveliest views in Burren meets his eye. The pretty, valley of Glenarriga [2] lies right under his feet, bounded on either side by the grey and massive limestone hills seamed with many a streak of russet heath and greenest verdure,

‘On whose awful face
Time's iron feet can print no ruin trace.’

The restless waters of Galway Bay (Loch lurgan), with many a cosy creek and wrack-strown headland, spreads out in majesty before him, all bringing irresistibly to mind the poet's mystic words:

‘Two voices are there: one of the sea,
One of the mountains, - each a mighty voice.’

Further on he clearly sees the Galway coast, and catches a glimpse perhaps of the white walls of the City of the Tribes, until at last his vision is completely lost among the blue hills and misty plains of Connaught.

[Owing to the great dilapidation, the inner lining of ring-wall cannot now be accurately defined, but the débris of rampart, as shown in plan, can be distinctly felt under the sodding for several feet inwards.]

The fort of Cahermacnaughten is almost a perfect circle, measuring outside 132 by 130 feet in its diameters. The ring-wall on the south is fully 9 feet high in parts, and well built with massive limestone blocks, as seen in cathairs of the best period. A late mediaeval porch, now 10 feet high, with corbels showing some sort of upper story and part of the stone ring in which the door swung, was added probably during the occupation of the fort by the O'Davorens, and looks east-south-east. It is impossible now to tell with accuracy the thickness of the ring wall owing to the accumulation inside, but it is probably 8 feet thick. The northern part of the wall is much dilapidated, as the stones being good, were taken, no doubt, to build the herd's house close by and for other purposes. The interior is practically level with the top of the wall, and consequently is a good deal higher than the surrounding land this being due in a great measure, but perhaps not altogether, to a large accumulation of debris, which shows a long and continuous occupation, and offers interesting results if the place was carefully excavated. The foundations of at least five houses, moss-grown and indistinct, can still be traced inside the caher, and are of extreme interest in the light of the O'Davoren deed of partition, which mentions some of them and will be dealt with later on. The original occupier and possible builder of the fort, Mac Neachtain [3] is quite unknown to history, and, although it is fairly certain that the building belongs to a comparatively late period of fort construction, I think it wiser not to give any opinion as to its probable date of foundation, or that of any other caher, until at least the exhaustive and valuable survey of our Munster and Connaught forts, now in process of making by Mr Thomas J. Westropp, is more or less complete.



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