Antiquities Near Miltown Malbay

Thomas Johnson Westropp
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Clare County Library

Mount Callan (O.S. Map 31)

One of the most curious problems in Clare (if not in Irish) archæology is bound up in this conspicuous mountain. The place certainly figures in early Irish legend, for we find in the Dind Senchas [6] that Eochy Garbh, son of Dua, king of Erin, made proclamation to his subjects to cut down the wood of Cuan with spears, in honour of the king’s wife, Tailtin; the clearing being called Oenach Tailtinn. Three famous rath builders had, however, neglected the summons, their names were Nas, Ronc and Alestair, and indignant at the slight, the angry queen had them arrested and condemned to death. The king, however, intervened, entreating that they might be spared, and gained them their lives on the condition of their building certain forts Nas built the great mote of Naas in Kildare, and a fort in the heritage of Gan (Connaught); Ronc made others in Dalaradia and in the heritage of Genann (Connaught), while Alestar made his fort on Slieve Collain, then Sliabh Leitrech in Sengann’s heritage, and named it Cluain Alestair. The names have perished from Callan [7] perhaps the rath, stone-faced and with an artificial cave, which lay on the flank of the hill is intended.

Callan, however, enjoyed a little ancient fame till 1778; John Lloyd, a schoolmaster, then published a little shilling guide book, “An Impartial Tour in Clare,” in it he mentions the discovery of a monument with an ogmic inscription—“Beneath this stone lies Conan the fierce and long-legged,” and describes Conan quaintly—“This gentleman was a very uncouth officer and voracious eater.” Theophilus Flanagain brought the matter into full notoriety by publishing the inscription in “Archælogia,” and in the first volume of the “Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy.” The paper was read in 1785 and published three years later. It is a most brilliant specimen of the perverted ingenuity which the name “antiquary” a by-word, and helped Scott to create his delightful “Sir Arthur and Oldbuck.” Flanagan and the exponents of the famous BELI DIUOCE [8] inscription mark the low water of Irish archæology. The Callan ogham was tortured till it said all its tormentors desired and what it never meant to say. Flanagan read it forward and backward and upside down, and then he varied the F and N signs, and thereby extracted five readings—(a) “Beneath this stone lies Conan (Conaf) the fierce and swift-footed;” (b) “Obscure not the remains of Conan the fierce and swift-footed;” (c) “Long may he lie at ease on the brink of this lake that never saw his faithful clan depressed;” (d) “Long may he lie at rest beneath this ? darling of the sacred;” (e) “Hail with reverend sorrow the drooping heath around his lamentable tomb.” [9]

Then came the antiquaries from the four winds of heaven, and they contended with Theophilus O’Flanagan, and prevailed not. One side lauded him and his discovery, the other cried “forger” and “forgery.” No one thought of looking at the matter from a common sense standpoint of asking, why the one rational reading gave the name Conaf or Collas instead of “Conan” if it was the work of a forger. One forgery certainly existed?the passage interpolated in copies of “The Battle of Gabhra,” alluding to Conan’s assassination and burial on Callan. The slab was certainly a late scholastic inscription by some mediæval antiquary proud of his rare knowledge of ogham. It differs from all known inscriptions in the character and by its border, by its vowels, straight strokes crossing the stem line. Strange to say this was probably once correct, as the slope lines presuppose straight lines, and not short “dots” for the vowels. The monument is probably genuine as far as honest intention goes, but it commemorates no known person, and is certainly many centuries later than the introduction of Christianity into Ireland. O’Donovan and O’Curry dealt hardly with the literary forgery, but did not commit themselves on the question of the inscription, in 1839 [10]. Sir Samuel Ferguson practically set the question at rest in a paper published in the “Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy” in 1872, and we think, after careful examination of the slab in 1888, that his conclusions are most sound. He reads “Fan lia do lica conas [collas] colgac cos obad.” Flanagan reads “Fan li da fica conaf colgac cos obmda.” There were also some wild readings-Vallancey [11] publishes Flanagan’s sketch, but it reads “Fan licsi ta conan * colgac cos fada;” and a certain Mr. Kennedy sent John Windell a sketch, reading “Fol lita feca terulgac cos obmda.” Professor Brian O’Looney reads, “Fan lia do lica conaf colgac cos obada[c];” my sketch, “Fan lia do liqa col(l?)as colgac cos obata(?).” It is hard to say whether some of the scores are not natural cracks, making lica into liqua and obadac into obata. Clare is not an ogham district, lying blank, so far as undoubted inscriptions are concerned, between Kerry and Connaught. The oghams so-called at Bohneill are idle scorings, that at Scattery has three scores and looks old, the Knockastoolery pillar has meaningless scores, and a bead with an ogmic inscription was found at Ennis. Lewis mentions three dolmens on Callan, two remained in later days. One has been described by Professor O’Looney [12]. It was a boxlike cist of four slabs with a heavy cover, and at each end were two pillars rising about a foot above the cover, like a dolmen in Ballyganner. This has been long demolished. Another still exists, and is well known from its proximity to the road from Miltown to Ennis. It has been planned and illustrated by the late Mr. W. Chambers Borlase [13]. It is a very regular and characteristic cist, tapering eastward with two remaining side blocks and a large cover.

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