AC5 visit to the North-West of Ireland

01 June 2015
AC5 visit to the North-West of Ireland

Arts, Culture and Heritage Annual Field Trip to north-west Ireland 2015.


The much anticipated field trip to a wide range of archaeological and folklife monuments in counties Sligo and Donegal took place over a four day period, from the 13th to the 16th of April. The Arts, Culture and History class travelled by early morning train to Sligo, where they were met by coach diver, Gerard McHugh and their teacher, Paula Harvey. A drive south of Sligo town, brought the group to the first of the archaeological sites on the itinerary. Carrowmore Passage Tomb cemetery is situated on the Cuil Irra peninsula and is overlooked by Knocknarea Mountain, on top of which is the massive Maedbh’s cairn.  The learners were given a very comprehensive guided tour of Carrowmore which is in the care of the OPW. They learnt that they are now only thirty monuments out of an estimated sixty still standing in this Neolithic complex. At the centre of the cemetery is the reconstructed Listoghil and from there they got a clear view of the numerous megalithic tombs that are situated on the tops of the Bricklieve and Ox Mountains. Following the tour, the group spent time in the interpretive centre attached to Carrowmore. This exhibition places the monument in its wider archaeological context, linking it to the other main Passage Tomb cemeteries at Carrowkeel (Sligo) and Brú na Boinne and Lough Crew (Meath). Because of poor visibility, the climb to the summit of Knocknarea was abandoned on this occasion, a teaser to return to Sligo in the future. Leaving Carrowmore behind, the group headed northwards. Our next stop was Drumcliffe monastic site and the burial place of W. B. Yeat’s. One of the learner’s (Niamh Callan) gave an account of the decorated High Cross, with its biblical scenes, and pointed out that this is the only monument of its type that has a depiction of the ‘Virgin and Child’ in Ireland. The only other remains of the 6th century monastery, founded by St. Columbkille, is the remains of a Round Tower. Following a quick tea break and a visit to Yeat’s grave, we were back on the bus again going further north to the megalithic Court Tomb at Creevykeel, north of Cliffony. Another learner (Jodie Butler) spoke at  this site, pointing out the characteristic features of this monument type: long trapezoidal cairn, court and chambered gallery. This monument has been restored and is in very good condition and is easily assessable. Adjacent to the monument, one can see ‘raggedy’ trees, where bits of cloth are tied to branches by sufferers of various ailments hoping for miraculous cures! This set the scene for some of the conversations and discussions of the following days; cult beliefs, pagan rituals and customs, as well as astronomical phenomenon. Our last stop of the day was to the Neolithic/Bronze Age Wedge Tomb at Casheltown, outside Dunkineely in Donegal. This is a unique monument in that it is the only one that has three chambers side by side and is hidden away in a forest and is not signposted. The group finally arrived in Ardara about 7.00pm. This was to be their base for the rest of the trip and they were accommodated in two self-catering houses and a B&B in the town.


Day two started out wet and miserable, so the plan to go to Glencolumbkille was postponed for a day. Instead, the first site of the day was another Neolithic monument, Kilclooney Portal Tomb complex, where the group spent over an hour examining the site and recapping on what was taught in class over the year. Following a quick bowl of soup in the nearby Kilclooney Dolmen Centre, we proceeded to Narin/Portnoo. Various archaeological features were pointed out along the way. Stopping at the viewpoint overlooking Narin Strand, Paula spoke about the 6th century monastic settlement located on Inishkeel Island, founded by St. Conal. The story of his life was given, along with an account of the early Irish Christian Church and monasticism, and St. Conal’s Bell and Shrine and how they were stolen from Woodhill House (Ardara) in 1845 and are currently in the British Museum, London. She explained the plans to have these relics returned to Donegal on a temporary basis this summer, 170 years after their disappearance.  Inishkeel Island can be assessed at low tide across Narin Strand and local people still practice the ‘turas’ (pilgrimage) to the island from May to September (see day four).


Our next stop was Dawros Head and the famine village and lime kiln situated close to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. A metalled trackway leads to the ruined clachan (cluster) of vernacular houses, tucked into the lee of the hillside. Following this, we travelled the coast road through Rosbeg and stopped at the Old Rosbeg school house. From here one is looking southwards across the sea to Loughros Peninsula and the site of the shipwrecked Spanish Armada “Duguessa de Santa Ana”  which foundered in rough seas in September 1588. Learner Cliona Lombard gave an account of some of the twenty-six ships that were shipwrecked off the Irish coast after the Armada’s failed attempt to invade Elizabethan England. Paula told the story of the Armada, outlining how and why it was formed, the problems the 160 strong fleet encountered from the start, weather conditions, and inaccuracies of 16th maps of the west coast of Ireland. In addition, she told of the survivors of the Santa Ana, taking shelter in Kiltooish Castle close by, their march to Killybegs, boarding the overcrowded Armada “Girona” who ultimately was shipwrecked off the Antrim coast. A vessel with a capacity of a crew of 300, she was carrying over 1000 when she went down. Only a handful survived, a tragedy magnified by the fact that some of Spain’s nobility were on board.  On our return to Ardara, Paula pointed out Beagh school. This one roomed thatched structure dating to the 1830’s was replaced by a two-roomed school in the early 1900’s. One of the many Standing Stones of Bronze Age date, situated beside the Owenea river was explored before our stop at John Molloy’s Tweed factory.  A weaving demonstration was next on the addenda. Ardara was an important centre of weaving over many centuries, and this traditional craft is being revived through the Men’s Shed Movement in this area. Colm Sweeney, gave a great talk on the whole process, from sheep shearing, carding, dyeing, spinning and spindling. He explained how the loom was set up and showed the class how it worked. He described the social circumstances and living conditions of weavers in the 19th and early 20th century in this part of Donegal, while some of the learners tried their hand at spinning and transferring the thread onto spindles. Leaving John Molloy’s factory, we walked back to Ardara along the Wood Road, stopping at Woodhill House, which was the home of Major Nesbitt. Paula gave a detailed account of how on the night of Major Nesbitt died, St. Conal’s small 6th century iron bell and its 15th century shrine disappeared from Woodhill, along with the major’s nephew. The relics were bought by Major Nesbitt for 6d and a cow, in the 1830’s, from the hereditary keepers: the Breslin family. They are now valued at over one million euros! The group returned to Ardara and one of the pubs had organised a traditional music session for them for that evening.


On day three, in beautiful sunshine, the group travelled to the Glencolmbkille valley, through Glengesh. This U-shaped valley is one of the most spectacular geomorphological features formed at the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. The drive from here to Glencolmbkille takes one through a bleak landscape of blanket bog, before descending in the valley made famous by Fr. McDwyer. Our first stop was to the Folk Village, where the class was given a guided tour of the vernacular buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Various internal and external features were pointed out, as well as the types of objects used through the centuries. Leaving the Folk Village we travelled back across the valley to the present day Church of Ireland, which is situated on the site of St. Columbkille’s monastery. A description of the cross slabs and other features were followed by climb down into the souterrain (underground passages and chambers) that is located in the graveyard. The present access is through a padlocked trap door and down a wooden ladder (key from Oideas Ghael).  Back to prehistory, we made our way to Farranmacbride Court Tomb where Leonie Larkin gave her guided tour. This monument is over sixty metres long and comprises a central court with two-chambered galleries at either end. Paula pointed out that the landscape of the Neolithic Period was heavily forested and is completely different to what we see today. She also mentioned that the coastline would have extended much further westward than present. From Farranmacbride, the group followed part of the ‘Turas Cholumbkille’ to the saint’s holy well on the slope of Beefan Mountain. After a talk on some of the 3,000 Holy Wells found in Ireland, beliefs in the healing powers of water, demons and devils, the group descended the mountain for their journey southwards to Malinmore valley. Catriona Fogarty spoke at this Portal Tomb complex of six tombs which would once have been covered in a long mound of about 100 metres. She explained the characteristics features of Portal Tombs and placed them in their wider archaeological context. Our final stop of the day was to Cloghanmore Court Tomb at the top of Malinmore valley. Aicha Belhout showed the class around the monument which is unique in having two galleries side by side. This site also has two prehistoric decorated stones and the learners were tasked with ‘finding’ them. The group returned briefly to Ardara, before their evening at Carn House.

An early morning start on the fourth and final day and the learners were walking across the beach at Narin towards Inishkeel Island and the previously mentioned St. Conal’s monastic settlement. We had about an hour before the tide turned and cut off the island from the mainland, to explore. The typical features of monastic sites were explained: cross slabs, holy wells, leachts/cairns, in addition to the architecture of the two churches on the island. The large boulder known as St. Conal’s Bed is also believed to have healing powers and if one rolls around on it three times in a clockwise direction, one is cured!   Anti-clockwise or wittershuns and.....


Leaving the island, the group said goodbye to Ardara and travelled to Donegal Town for the final monument of the trip. Donegal Castle is in the care of OPW and a guided tour explored the original Tower House built by the O’Donnell’s which was later remodelled by the Brooke family who were granted the castle following the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the collapse of the old Gaelic Order.  The Elizabethan Manor House attached to the castle was also explored.


The group returned to Sligo and the train back to Dublin. The only site we did not get to was Doon Fort situated on an island in the middle of Loughadoon. Described as ‘the Jewel in Donegal’s Crown’ it can only be accessed by boat in calm conditions. Another reason to return to the north-west! This drystone wall fortification is one of thirty monuments known as Western Stone Forts stretching from Kerry to Donegal. Probably the most famous is Dún Aonghusa on the Aran Islands, but Doon Fort is the only one built on an island in the middle of a lake! In 2014, Paula and her small committee known as Tor Mór Cultural Tourism Committee won The Heritage Council’s National Heritage Week Event Award for their boat trip and tour of Doon Fort. In four days the learners had travelled back in time to places inhabited over 6,000 years ago, walked in the footsteps of our ancestors and got to grips with the classroom teaching of the last year.