General History, Pre-Historic Ireland

The first known people in Ireland

The first known people in Ireland

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

This article searches for the outline of Irish prehistory and the elusive first known people to live in Ireland.

First evidence of people in Ireland

Ancient Irish history, that it, for history before 750 BC, is divided into four chief periods of human habitation. These four periods are: Palaeolithic (meaning Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age) and the Bronze Age. The earliest period is the Palaeolithic which in Irish history is anything before 8000 BC. In European history the Palaeolithic is time before 12,500 BC.

The difference in time zones between Europe and Ireland has to do with the progress of technology across the Continent and the lack of progress in archaeological investigation within Ireland. Much of the archaeology done in Ireland over the past twenty years has been rescue archaeology in the face of new road construction or building projects. Only a small minority of these archaeological digs published reports and so our access to new knowledge is further restricted. Few archaeologists get to go out and explore the landscape and investigate the ancient sites with new technology.

Palaeolithic period (before 8000 BC)

It is said that a substantial part of southern Ireland was ice free towards the end of the last Ice Age. The existence of humans in this part of Ireland was therefore possible but up until the year 2016 the presence of humans was restricted to a few flint tools without the human touch. Indeed many commentators dismissed these flint tools as not reliable evidence that people had settled in Ireland.[1] The problem with the flint tools was that many were found along by the sea shore and so they were out of context as regard proper dating. It was shown by further investigation that some of these flints were not found in situ and had instead arrived at their discovery location by glacial movement (Mell quarry near Drogheda) and misinterpretation while others were just naturally shaped stones (Rosses’s Point, Co. Sligo).[2]

Searches in caves in the south of Ireland seemed to find promise. This region was ice free in the last ice age and so humans could have lived there. A human skull found in 1928 at Kilgreany Cave, 5 miles from Dungarvan, was interpreted as Palaeolithic man owing to its location near animal remains from the ice age. But further investigation in 1934 found that the skull was buried in a pit dug down into the Palaeolithic layer. Later radiocarbon dating found the skull to be Neolithic, sometime between 3000 to 2500 BC.[3]

Thus the search went on for evidence of that elusive human touch. In the meantime plenty of evidence was found to show that reindeer, bear, fox, wolf, Irish hare and the giant Irish deer (the so-called Irish elk) lived amongst the open tundra areas and the birch trees. By about 9000 BC, it is assumed, that the Irish deer had become extinct. There was a partial advance of the ice sheets in the period 9000 to 8500 BC and land bridges connecting Ireland to Britain and Britain to Europe increased in area or were re-established.[4] The cold and competition from more favourable areas across these land-bridges could have contributed to the deer’s extinct.

The Clare bear and the first humans

Yet in this climate more akin to modern Greenland humans did indeed walk the land of Ireland. In 2016 a kneecap of a bear, that was found in 1903 in a cave in Co. Clare and which rested in a cardboard box in the Natural History department of the National Museum of Ireland, was examined by Dr Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at IT Sligo, and Dr Ruth Carden, a research associate with the National Museum of Ireland. The bone displayed cut marks that were not natural and radiocarbon analysis gave it a date of 12,500 years ago (c.10400 BC). The bone was sent to a three different experts to examine but they were not told that the radiocarbon date. Each expert in turn returned to say the cut marks were made by a Palaeolithic flint knife.[5] Ireland’s earliest humans were found and in the southern part of the country. Further research into caves may turn up even more exciting discoveries.

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Dr. Marion Dowd with the bear bone

Up until the discovery in Co. Clare the early humans in Ireland were said to be Mesolithic people beginning about 8000 BC.[6] Even a recent academic paper, published in 2016, that discussed the Palaeolithic period in North-West Europe which included countries like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany but excludes Ireland from the study.[7] The importance of the County Clare discovery is therefore of national and international importance. It simply puts Ireland on the Palaeolithic map.

Yet there may be other places besides caves to search for early humans.

Ice Age and sea level rise

The last Ice Age began to end about 11000 BC with the start of the Holocene warm period. The retreat of the ice and snow was aided by temperatures which were 1 or 2 degrees higher than today. In this warm period the Irish giant deer made his presence.[8] In most of Europe this period saw the start of the Mesolithic while the Near East was moving into the Neolithic.[9]

In about 9000 BC a short-lived but cold period occurred in which the deer failed to survive. In about 8000 BC temperatures again increased in what is called the Littletonian period and this period is still with us.[10]

The snakes and the end of the land bridges

In these centuries it appears that Ireland was still connected by one or more land bridges with Britain. In those times it was possible to walk from south Kerry to Brittany. The melting ice caps released much stored up water and began a process of a rise in sea levels. The last of the land bridges disappeared sometime before 6000 BC when Ireland became a true island.[11] It was at about 6000 BC Britain also lost its land connections with Europe and also became an island. Leaving out the story of St. Patrick ridding the country of snakes, the evidence of the snakes in Britain and not in Ireland would suggest that Ireland became an island before Britain.

The ending of the land bridges was caused by Lake Agassiz in North America. By 6000 BC this lake was at its greatest size, created by ice sheet meltwater. The lake was held back by an ice sheet dam which slowly gave way. A great flood came out through Hudson Bay and spread across the Northern Hemisphere. It covered Dogger Land and separated Britain from Europe and Ireland from Britain.[12] After 6000 BC sea levels continued to rise until about 3000 BC when they reached present-day levels.[13]

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Map of Ireland in the time of the Ice Age

The Mesolithic settlement at Mount Sandel in County Derry was dated from c.7010 BC to c.6490 BC and so existed before the land connections were lost.[14] By 7000 BC Ireland was free of ice. Today many archaeologists and historians date early Mesolithic Ireland from 7500 BC to 6000 BC and later Mesolithic from 6000 BC to 3200 BC.[15]

Much of the North Sea was dry land and low marshy ground before 6000 BC. It is out in the Dogger Bank, under the sea, that fishermen are bringing up many Palaeolithic remains.[16] The search for Ireland’s early Palaeolithic evidence may not just be in caves but also be found under the Irish Sea or the waters off the south coast.

Earliest human activity found

Having found evidence of activity of Palaeolithic humans in Ireland is a major achievement but the search continues for other remains and to understand the evidence so far gathered. In this regard, any evidence that we find may only be partial evidence. We could find more bones or flint tools but the timber bowls, bird traps and eel traps of Palaeolithic humans will have long disappeared. Their clothes and shelter will also be long returned to nature. Of course the Clare bear is only evidence for the earliest humans in Ireland – actually finding a Palaeolithic person is something still to be achieved and hopefully not in the too distant future.

Unanswered questions

Knowing that humans lived in Ireland in about 10400 BC is one thing – trying to answer the many questions they left behind is another. What language did they speak, were the caves they used religious or secular in function and were they the same people who we find in the Mesolithic period or did they leave the country during the cold period of c.9000 BC?

 

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[1] Flanagan, L., Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Dublin, 2000), p. 16

[2] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 57; Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), pp. 17, 18

[3] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), pp. 17, 18

[4] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), pp. 54, 55

[5] Dowd, M., ‘A remarkable cave discovery’, in Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 2016), pp. 21-25 https://www.academia.edu/30818511/A_remarkable_cave_discovery_first_evidence_for_a_late_Upper_Palaeolithic_human_presence_in_Ireland (accessed on 15th January 2017)

[6] Flanagan, L., Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Dublin, 2000), p. 16

[7] Herisson, D., and others, ‘The emergence of the Middle Palaeolithic in north-western Europe and its southern fringes’, in Quaternary International (2016), pp. 1-40, at pp. 2, 4  = https://www.academia.edu/31788596/The_emergence_of_the_Middle_Palaeolithic_in_north-western_Europe_and_its_southern_fringes accessed on 19th March 2017

[8] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene accessed on 27th February 2017

[10] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[11] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[12] Television programme, Time Team Special 51 (2013) Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EPNZWBk7i8&t=865s accessed on 27th February 2017

[13] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 55

[14] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[15] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), pp. 55, 65

[16]Television programme, Time Team Special 26 (2007) Britain’s Drowned World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P9wQj6qX2I&t=2780s accessed 16th March 2017

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Pre-Historic Ireland, Waterford history

In search of a cromlech near Mocollop, Co. Waterford, part one

In search of a cromlech near Mocollop,

Co. Waterford, part one

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

 

In the 1830s a group of soldiers and academics travelled the length and breadth of Ireland. Their mission was not of conquest but to record the nation in a great geographical survey. They were the team from the Ordnance Survey with the soldiers mapping the landscape and the academics recording the place-names and the archaeological features within.

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Map of Labbanacallee area

First notice of the Labbanacallee cromlech

One of these academics was John O’Donovan from south Kilkenny. In one of the letters he received from Co. Waterford was a reference to a cromlech in the townland of Labbanacallee in the civil parish of Lismore and Mocollop. This cromlech gave the townland its name.[1]

Unfortunately the soldiers who mapped the north-western end of the parish in which Labbanacallee is situated did not mark down on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1840 the exact location of the cromlech – they didn’t even place an X to mark a general location.

Canon Patrick Power said that Labbanacallee, written in Irish as Leaba na Caillige, means “The Hag’s Bed” and that the Hag alluded to at Labbanacallee and similar places was the legendary “Caille Beara”. Canon Power also noted that the cromlech was not marked down on any old Ordnance Survey map.[2]

The Labbanacallee of Mocollop civil parish is not the only place of that name in the region of east Cork and west Waterford north of the River Blackwater. The most noted place of that name is Labbacallee (spelt with no ‘na’) south of Glanworth where there is a wedge tomb of Neolithic times. The Labbacallee wedge tomb is one of the largest of its type in the country. Excavations in 1934 found a number of inhumation burials with fragments of late Neolithic pottery and a few fragments of bone and stone.[3]

Another “Caille Beara” site in County Waterford is at Ballynamona Lower in the area of Old Parish/Ardmore. This Caille Beara was described by Canon Patrick Power as a dolmen and by archaeologists as a court tomb.[4]

The most common megalithic tomb type in the east Cork/west Waterford area is the wedge tomb. The cromlech at Labbanacallee could be a wedge tomb but Ballynamona Lower is the only court tomb example within 100kms and so the cromlech could be any other the four main types of megalithic tomb.[5]

Labbanacallee townland

The townland of Labbanacallee sits on the high ridge which divides the Araglen river valley to the north and the Blackwater river valley to the south. The ridge line runs along the height marks of 969, 1026 and 1066 feet in an east/west orientation. The land of Labbanacallee on the north side of the ridge falls steeply away down into the Araglen valley.

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View north down into the Araglen valley

The land of Labbanacallee on the south side of the ridge falls gently down the hill side.

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Looking south from the earth bank which divides

Labbanacallee from Barranafaddock

The chief stone type on Labbanacallee is old red sandstone but there is also a scattering of quartz which is sometimes mixed in with the old red sandstone.

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Labbanacallee 1850-1911

In 1850 the townland of Labbanacallee was owned by Captain James Barry of Mocollop castle. Of the 273 acres in the townland 158 acres was described as mountain land. Daniel Guinevan rented 48 acres of farm land and had a house and outbuildings. Francis Brien rented 51 acres of farm land with a house and outbuildings. David Condon rented 14 acres of farm land without any buildings. In 1850 there were two vacant houses in Labbanacallee.[6] In 1901 there were three inhabited dwelling houses with a population of 19 people. Ten years later, in 1911, there were just two inhabited dwelling houses and a population of 9 people. In 2016 there is just one dwelling house in Labbanacallee townland.

Search for the cromlech 2013

In the spring of 2013 I first went up to the townland of Labbanacallee on the road between Mocollop and Araglen in search of this mystery cromlech. On the way up to the townland I met a local resident on the road and told him of my mission. He had heard rumours of the cromlech but didn’t know where it was supposed to be. The same man also reported that it was suggested by unknown people that the cromlech was not in the townland of Labbanacallee at all but was further down the road, heading south, and on the right hand side of the road, somewhere in the townlands of Black, Lyrenaglogh or Knocknalooricaun – plenty of options there.

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The wind tower blade rests on distant hill, alternative site for cromlech

With this variable knowledge I went on my way to Labbanacallee townland and to the north-west corner where the townland boundary meets the public road. From that point a farmer’s roadway travels eastwards along the northern boundary of Labbanacallee. I followed the roadway to its end and then proceeded onto the mountain land of stones, bog and gorse. The going was difficult as the ground was wet. On the top of the ridge from height point 1026 to 1066 the going was doubly difficult with the wet bog and thick gorse. After a few hours rambling through the wet ground I gave up the search without any sign of a cromlech or any other early human structure apart from the stone and earth bank which forms the boundary between Labbanacallee and Barranafaddock.

On the way home I met another local resident who said there was no cromlech in Labbanacallee and that the idea of a cromlech was one of confusion with the more famous place near Glanworth. After such a fruitless search the local man may have some merit in his comment.

Not the only cromlech to disappear

The mystery cromlech at Labbanacallee is not the only one to seemingly disappear. In about 1840 John O’Donovan was told of another cromlech in the townland of Rath in the Barony of Upperthird. This was described as having a large flat stone supported on three upright stones with another broken upright stone to one side. Canon Patrick Power suggested that this cromlech existed in 1907 but by 1989 all trace of it has since disappeared.[7] Could the cromlech at Labbanacallee have been removed since 1840?

There is another possibly that the cromlech at Labbanacallee was removed before 1840. The Rath cromlech is marked on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map but the Labbanacallee cromlech is not so marked on the map. The Ordnance Survey soldiers went up to Labbanacallee and marked a height point at 969 to use as a triangle elevation measuring point. The surveyors marked houses and roads that existed in later times and still can be seen today. But they marked no cromlech. This absence may be because the cromlech was removed before 1840 yet the memory of it remained to give the townland its name.

Barranafaddock wind farm

Since 2013 a wind farm was constructed in the townland of Labbanacallee and Barranafaddock and other adjunct townlands on the west side of the public road. Twelve wind towers were built with a number of access roadways. A team of archaeologists were present during construction but they found only an undated house site and an undated cooking site. In June 2016 a local resident told me that when digging the foundations for wind tower number 32, they engineers had to go down nearly 20 feet through the bog before they found solid rock. Could the Labbanacallee cromlech be buried under the bog like the Neolithic stone walls of the Céide Fields in north Co. Mayo?

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2013 and June 2016 survey areas

Search for the cromlech 2016

In June 2016 I returned to Labbanacallee for another search. In this search I returned to the mountain land area of the townland. The going was good on this visit with the dry weather of the previous few weeks making the bog hard under foot. The gorse was not as extensive as in the previous visit and good travelling was possible. Unfortunately after surveying a larger area in June 2016 as in 2013 not sign of a cromlech of any type, be it wedge-tomb, portal-tomb or court-tomb.

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Quarry feature under furze looking south towards tower 21

Two possible sites for further investigation were found. A small quarry type feature was found along the south side of the high ridge on top of the mountain land part of Labbanacallee as marked on the accompanying map. This quarry type feature is not common elsewhere on the hilltop.

The other feature found were two small mounds about five foot high and five foot in circumference. They are located just to the west of the earthen bank which runs north-south and separates Labbanacallee from Barranafaddock.

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The two mounds – umbrella and coat – earth bank to right

These two features do not suggest cromlech site but they are usual features in the landscape.

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Sketch map of the two features – quarry and red dots 

Future survey areas

There are presently (2016) two areas of forestry in Labbanacallee townland which are worth investigating. Unfortunately both forests have young trees and a person needs to bend down to get through them. In a few years’ time the trees will have grown up to allow a person to walk between the trees and see if any features exist. The southern forestry area has had previous crops of trees and any archaeological features within may have been removed to make way for the first crop of trees on the site. The farm land area needs surveying and the 18 acres of marsh land in the south-east corner of Labbanacallee. After that the area down the road to the south is worth investigating as suggested by the local resident. Much more work to be done.

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Farm land and two areas of forestry at Labbanacallee

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[1] John O’Donovan (edited by M. O’Flanagan), Letters containing information relative to the antiquities of the County of Waterford collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1841 (Bray, 1929), pp. 70, 71, no. 147

[2] Canon Patrick Power, Place names of Decies (Cork University Press, 1952), p. 50

[3] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992), pp. 81, 82

[4] Michael Moore (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford (Stationery Office, Dublin, 1999), p. 4, no. 18; http://www.ardmorewaterford.com/placenames-of-ardmore-waterford/ accessed 7 June 2016;

[5] Michael Moore (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford, p. 1

[6] Griffith’s Valuation, Labbanacallee, Lismore and Mocollop parish, Coshmore and Coshbride barony

[7] Michael Moore (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford, p. 4, no. 18

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Carlow History, Pre-Historic Ireland

Browneshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow

Browneshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

Browneshill dolmen

Browneshill dolmen is located a few miles outside Carlow town on R726, also known as Pollerton Road. The dolmen is located on the right side of the road when heading eastwards out of Carlow town and towards Killerrig and Hacketstown. The townland name is Kernanstown and the Browneshill name comes from the fact that the dolmen was located in the Browneshill estate.

The dolmen is situated on a north facing slope under the ridge line. It consists of a massive capstone sloping to the south and resting, in 2016, on a flat stone. In former times the capstone was embedded into the earth. A sloping capstone is a feature of dolmens in which the capstone slopes towards the back of the monument.

This capstone is estimated to weight about 100 tons (the information board beside the dolmen claims 150 tons) and is claimed to be the heaviest in Europe. The north end of the capstone is held up by three standing stones, with a fourth stone standing free nearby.[1] It is not clear if the capstone was sourced locally or was brought from a distance.

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Megalithic monument

The Browneshill dolmen is an example of the numerous megalithic monuments which dot the landscape. The word ‘megalithic’ comes from two Greek words mega and lithos which mean large stones. The 100 ton capstone at Browneshill certainly keeps to that meaning.[2]

About 40,000 megalithic monuments exist across Northern and Western Europe. Many are situated in imposing landscapes and a good number have a cult following on the tourist map. These megalithic monuments are the most visible relics of the prehistoric past in Northern Europe.[3]

There are about 1,200 megalithic monuments in Ireland of which the best known is Newgrange. The Irish megaliths, like there Northern Europe cousins, are grouped into four main types: court-cairns (329 examples), portal-tomb (161), wedge-tomb (387) and passage-tomb (300).[4]

Megalithic tomb

The megalithic monuments of Northern Europe have attracted the interest of antiquarians since the seventeenth century but it is only since the 1960s that a proper scientific study of the monuments has occurred.[5] In the past the megalithic monuments have been generally described as megalithic tombs but so few have been excavated that a blanket term of ‘tombs’ may not be accurate in every case. Of the small percentage of Irish megalithic tombs that were excavated only a certain number contained human bones.[6] But the soil type may have erased any previous remains over the centuries.

Dating the monuments

Because so few monuments have been excavated, and the structures are made from un-dateable stone, it is difficult to put a precise date on the monuments. They are generally dated by radiocarbon analysis to the middle to late Neolithic period.[7] The Neolithic period is dated to about 4,000 to 2,000 BC. This period saw the large scale introduction of agriculture across Northern Europe and the decline in the hunter/gathering culture of the Mesolithic. Wheat and barley were the new crops and Browneshill portal-tomb continues that heritage as it sits in a field of barley or wheat in most years.

From about 3800 BC the Neolithic people started to build megalithic monuments of stone. Why they started to build these grand monuments when all around them were timber structures is difficult to answer. Because cremations and human remains lie within the monuments it is presumed they were tombs to honour the Neolithic dead or maybe they were built as a combination of religious centre for the living and home for the dead.[8]

Medieval churches were religious buildings that were occasionally used as burial places within for important local people. When the churches went into ruins after the Reformation with the change over from the Roman Catholic religion to the Protestant religion, increasing numbers of locals were buried within the abandoned churches.

Portal-tomb

In the past, these megalithic monuments have been called variously druid’s altar, dolmens, cromlechs, giant’s graves or Diarmuid and Grainne beds.[9] The Browneshill monument is usually called a dolmen and in the first Ordnance Survey map of 1840 was called a cromlech.[10] To avoid confusion with other megalithic tombs the dolmen is now usually referred to as a portal-tomb.[11]

Most portal-tombs in Ireland are found in Mid-Ulster in Counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Cavan. Another group lie in north County Clare and south Galway while in Leinster there is a chain of portal-tombs from south County Dublin through Carlow, Kilkenny and into east Waterford. Munster south of a line from Limerick city to Dungarvan in Co. Waterford has no known portal-tombs. Another empty area for portal-tombs is in the great central plain of Leinster and the centre of Connacht.[12] On the other hand Munster just loves wedge tombs and an arc from Dublin through Meath and Westmeath onto Sligo loves passage tombs. This regional preference is not totally understood – could it be different races of Neolithic people or just changing fashion?

Scholars disagree on where portal-tombs originated. Some says that they started in Mid-Ulster and spread to Clare and Leinster before crossing the Irish Sea to Wales and Cornwall with further examples in the Cotswold/Severn area. Other scholars say portal-tombs started in Cornwall and spread into Wales and onto Ireland.[13]

The portal-tomb is generally seen as an early example of megalithic monuments. It is generally agreed among some scholars that portal-tombs are derived from court-tombs and that court-tombs are the earliest example of the megalithic tomb.[14] But other scholars question this theory and that portal-tombs because of their very simplicity may predate the other types of megalithic tombs.[15] Over time the tombs became more elaborate, complex and larger.[16] But a good portal-tomb such as that at Poulnabrone in Co. Clare or at Kilclooney in Co. Donegal can be the most dramatic of megalithic monuments when viewed against the skyline. The Browneshill portal-tomb is set into the hillside and doesn’t display the same dramatic image of its cousins.

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A portal-tomb is an above-ground burial chamber, consisting of between three and seven standing stones holding up one or two capstones with the capstone sloping downwards to the rear of the monument. Usually a closing slab was placed between the front portal stones. The Browneshill portal-tomb has two portal stones, one closing stone and a spare free standing stone to the side.[17]

In former times there could have been other free standing stones surrounding the portal-tomb but were remove. An proper archaeological excavation would establish if any large stones are missing from the site. If stones were removed, they could have been reused on early church buildings to continue a religious attachment to the Browneshill portal-tomb.

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The word ‘dolmen’, which was formerly used to describe these monuments, comes from two Breton words which mean ‘stone table’ and portal-tombs look like giant tables.[18] Portal-tombs usually have only one chamber but two chamber examples exist as at Ballyrenan, Co. Tyrone.[19]

Although a full examination of every portal-tomb is needed to establish beyond doubt, it is generally believed that portal-tombs were not covered by earthen mounds even if some portal-tombs are near mounds such as at Malin More in Co. Donegal. The Browneshill portal-tomb did have cairn around it up to the nineteenth century and a subsidiary chamber which stood at some distance to the rear of the tomb. What we see therefore in portal-tombs is what is left for us to see. What kind of portal-tomb the Neolithic people saw at Browneshill and elsewhere is difficult to say for certain.[20]

Within the portal-tomb, based on the few excavated examples, was discovered cremated bone or a combination of cremation and inhumation bone.[21] Also in the tombs were grave goods such as Neolithic pottery, flint leaf-shaped arrow-heads, and stone beads.[22]

Wider landscape

The Browneshill portal-tomb is no isolated monument in the Carlow countryside. Across the wider landscape are other monuments to the Neolithic people. At Haroldstown there is a well preserved portal-tomb consisting of two slightly tiled capstones supported by ten standing stones.[23]

Away from the grand monuments of port-tombs Carlow is noted for a distinct group of Neolithic single burials known as the Linkardstown type, after the excavations of Joseph Raftery there in 1944. The burials in a massive stone cist consist of a single adult with occasionally a small child and occasion animal bones. Pottery is also sometimes found as a Baunogenasraid, Co. Carlow.[24]

Of more uncertain date is a large flat stone at Aghade. This once upright stone has a hole six inches wide at one end. It was possibly a ‘port-hole’ stone to close the chamber of a megalithic tomb. Legend says it was this stone which was used by Niall of the Nine Hostages to tie up Eochaidh, son of Enna Cinnselach. But Eochaidh broke free and killed the nine men sent by Niall to kill him.[25]

Beyond the Carlow landscape

Some scholars see the megalithic tombs as territorial markers to show the centre of a district or the boundary of same. But the Neolithic landscape of those far off days has changed so much from there to here that such ideas are difficult to prove. It would be too parochial to see each megalithic tomb in isolation or a group of such tombs. The transfer of information across great parts of Northern Europe on the building and functionality of these tombs should be seen as not difficult.[26] Many tombs are within a short distance to rivers or the coast and water travel was the easiest and fastest form of communication. The River Barrow near to Browneshill portal-tomb connected the area with the outside world and allowed the tomb to be no isolated monument in a field of barley.

 

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The photos below were taken in May 2016.

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[1] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992), p. 50

[2] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (Guild Publishing, London, 1988), p. 42

[3] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region (Vorda, Highworth, 1982), p. 1

[4] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[5] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 1

[6] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[7] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 28

[8] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 89

[9] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[10] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 50

[11] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[12] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 43

[13] M.J. O’Kelly, ‘Neolithic Ireland’, in A New History of Ireland: Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinin (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 81

[14] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998), pp. 44, 55

[15] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 54

[16] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, pp. 28, 29

[17] M.J. O’Kelly, ‘Neolithic Ireland’, in A New History of Ireland: Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinin, p. 81

[18] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 53

[19] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, p. 55

[20] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 54; Michael Herity & George Eogan, Ireland in Prehistory (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1977), p. 89

[21] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 53

[22] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, pp. 56, 57

[23] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 51

[24] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, pp. 85, 86

[25] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 49

[26] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, pp. 82, 91

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