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

Part I: Historical: Demise of Law School

Imagination, if not kept well in hand, may sometimes prove a sorry handmaid both to the
historian and the archaeologist. After all, what they are in search of are hard facts, not fancies, assumptions, and hasty generalizations. But that man is not to be envied who, knowing something of the history and associations of Cahermacnaughten, can look on this most interesting ruin unmoved and with a cold heart. A sort of pathos is undoubtedly attached to every building once occupied by human beings, but I know of no more melancholy object, or one more calculated to arouse sad thoughts, than a ruined school.

‘All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted. Thro' the open door
The harmless phantoms on their errand glide
With feet that make no sound upon the floor.’

The caher is now but a sorry simulacrum of its former self, the empty shell of what once held within it - like a human skull - a complicated living organism. If we only had the power to make them articulate, every stone in its lichen-covered wall would have a long story to tell us, of the hopes, the loves, the joys and sorrows, hates and ambitions, that swayed the lives of those who lived there. In the days of its glory the country immediately surrounding the fort was not, I think, as dreary as it is now, for it is probable that a certain amount of scrub and small trees abounded. The ring wall was then perfect and at its full height, perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet, and the massive door swung on its hinges in the porch, the whole tout-ensemble presenting a very striking, if not imposing, appearance. When school opened in the early morning, crowds of students might be seen converging towards the place from every side, not from rude huts built near by, as the late Mr. J. Frost supposed, but from the castles of the gentry and the snug thatched cottages of the smaller landholders and farmers, where the food, though plain, was plentiful and wholesome. The sons of the gentlefolk, no doubt, came thither on horseback, the poorer students on foot, and I am quite sure our quixotic friend, the ‘poor scholar,’ was also there,

‘And the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.’

But these were not all who patronised this seat of learning in the heart of hoary Burren. Ripe scholars and noted historians like the MacAogains and MacFirbisighs[28], ollamhs in poetry, law, and history, were often visitors and honoured guests of the O'Davorens. They came of course to pay their court to the head of the establishment - ‘the one that makes us jump’ - to perfect their knowledge, and also, we may be certain, to procure copies of rare manuscripts, loving, as men of their kind always do,

‘Everything that's old, old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.’

When one realises the fact that this old caher was the seat of a famous school down to a comparatively late period, and the residence for generations of a family of noted scholars and ollamhs in ancient law, together with the unexpected light cast upon the social life within it by this Irish deed - which, flimsy as it is, has survived the rack and ruin of the place itself - one can hardly avoid the conviction that it is one of the most interesting spots in Thomond, if not in Ireland, and is archaeologically unique. It was considered in its day, I have no doubt, both caher and school, as something indestructible and everlasting - ‘a forted residence ’gainst the tooth of time’- but, alas, it fell upon evil days, the school at last came to an end and the fort was abandoned. We can only speculate on what it might have become had an evil fate not crossed it; but unprotected and derelict, ‘the inaudible and noiseless foot of time’ and the desecrating hand of man have done their work on the caher, and the good men who worked within its walls are long since gathered to their fathers.


Contents of Egerton 88


O’Davoren Deed (1601)