Years Ago

To divert away from yesterday’s theme I want today to try and paint a picture in words of the beautiful, rich and sometimes wild and rugged landscape that surrounds us here in Boyle and how that landscape formed the archaeological heritage we have today.  It is hard to understand how much the reader knows of the past and its timescale but if we assume that known human life in Ireland started approximately 8000BC with hunter/gatherers at the start of the Mesolithic, which lasted  to about 4000BC.   The Neolithic and farming began then and lasted until 2500BC.  The Bronze Age and the understanding of power lasted for 2000 years until 500BC and the Iron Age and mythology until about 500AD.  The Medieval period then and the start of written history lasted up until 1600AD. This inept summary should help the reader to understand the time frame to which I refer.

If we picture the map of North  Roscommon and place the Boyle River in its centre, running from left to right, or west to east or from Loch Gara to Loch Ce, 11kms of winding river starting placidly enough as it exits Loch Gara at Derrymaquirk, quickening up after the ancient ford of Tinnacarra, hurtling with force through the rapids at Assylin and quietening down again at Mockmoyne before forceably pushing down through the town to the Abbey and slowly coming to a halt in Drum to enable it to enter Loch Ce with a whisper. A fall in 11 kms of 23 metres.   At its western end Loch Gara is a shallow lake in normal times having been lowered in the 1950s by 3 metres with the blowing of the rock shelves at Cuppenagh and Tinnacarra.  The recent poor weather and floods brought the lake up to previous levels making it twice as large as it normally is and turning the Boyle River into a one km wide lake of water as opposed to its normal 20 metre width.  Loch Ce at its eastern end can be as much as 17 metre deep in its main navigation channels and this lake was risen by about 1.5 metres in 1847 with the construction of Knockvicar Lock and Weir which was done to improve the Shannon Navigation System. The Boyle River actually continues through Oakport and Eidin Loughs to meet the River Shannon one km north of Carrick town, but for the purposes of this exercise we will ignore this stretch of water interesting though it is.

The Cistercian Bridge, Abbeytown
The Boyle River and The Cistercian Bridge, Abbeytown

To the north of the river between the two lakes, the Curlew Mountains rise quickly, with Derrinoghron and Brislagh to the west and Sheegory leaning over Loch Ce to the east.  These hills are only 220-230 metres above sea level but historically have been notoriously difficult to cross, with many a fighting force coming to grief on its blanket bog covered slopes.  Not least the English forces under Sir Conyers Clifford who in 1599 marched from Athlone to put down a seige of Collooney Castle by the Donegal force under O’Neill.  The local boys led by MacDermot and O’Roarke soon put them to flight as they bunched up along the narrow path over the bog.  This Battle of the Curlews was the last time an English army was defeated in Ireland.

To the south of the river the land improves tremendously and throughout history the people who controlled this rich and fertile land controlled the area and from the 10th century onwards, Moylurg as this area was called and especially the Plains of Boyle, an upland plateau of about 50 square kilometres which offered some of the finest grazing land in Ireland was owned and kept by the MacDermot clan, but throughout the neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages this land was the place to graze cattle who were the currency of the day.

In these prehistoric times travel by land was almost non-existent, the River Shannon and its tributaries were the highways but gradually roads were formed for traveller and pilgrim going north and cattle drovers going south to the Plains and the fertile lands further beyond.  They were squeezed into a narrow channel between the two lakes because of the expanse of bog to the west and the River Shannon and the lake and river infested county of Leitrim to the east. So the north/south road Bothar an chorrain crossed the east/west road Bothar na Sliabe, the road over the Ox Mountains to the sea at Ballina, at Drumanone just 300 metres north of the Tinnacarra ford.  This crossing point and you would hardly notice it today was for over a thousand years the Spaghetti Junction of its time.  Just north of this crossing point the jewel in this areas archaeological crown, the Drumanone Portal Tomb stands. Not by coincidence has it sat there for 5500 years from the middle of the Neolithic but it was registering the ownership of the ford by some elite family group who were laying claim to this land 2000 years before the pyramids in Egypt were built. All its main megaliths are still standing with the capstone reputed to weigh 24 tonnes, however the cairn built around the megaliths has gone, taken by farmers for boundary walls.  The standing stone erected much later is a memorial to this tomb and the adjacent Bothar.

The memorial to the Drumanone Portal Tomb
The Drumanone Portal Tomb

When you look at the web site constructed by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and go onto the maps showing the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and zoom into North Roscommon, each red dot is a site found on the survey.  To the north of the river the land is virtually red dot free until you come to the Bricklieves 12kms away whilst to the south of the river you cannot see land for red dots.  So historically the south side was the best side, I wonder whether  is the same with every east/west river system?

So let us start with Loch Gara and its entrance into the Boyle river.  Certainly 2500 years ago this was a well populated place and had been for a 1000 years previously and possibly up to 1ooo years ago.  So for 3500 years this was the place to live, the D4 of its day.  Christina Fredengren in her marvelous book Crannogs published by Wordwell in 2002 which recorded her in depth survey of the area and in particular the crannogs built on this stretch of water found plenty of evidence of Neolithic life and even remnants of 20th century poteen making on the many crannogs she surveyed.

Crannogs are manmade islands on lakes and rivers formed by piling fill material into a cofferdam construction of timber piles driven into the bed of the water.  These islands rose out of the water and were protected by a timber palisade fence and were used for a variety of purposes but I suppose in the main were a place of last resort when confronted by an hostile force, surrounded as they were by water. They were not permanent homes, these being the ring forts that cover the country, but a retreat for the wealthy who could afford to build these costly structures.  They were primarily used from the end of the Neolithic until the end of the first millenium AD and in some cases into the 16th century.  So when Fredengren found 18% of the known Irish crannogs, some 180 number in just a few kilometres of river and lake, it has to be assumed that this area was a place of power, wealth and prosperity.

A Crannog on Lough Gara
A Crannog on Loch Gara

Nowadays so few people live at this end of the river, with hardly anyone living round the lake, with Monasteraden the only village, about one kilometre from the lake.  In fact there are probably more archaeological sites than people.

At the other end of the river Loch Ce, originally a volcanic site, stands beautiful and brooding, its waters ruffled only occasionally by local pike fishermen in their lake boats and cabin cruisers coming up through Knockvicar Lock to Rockingham and Boyle Harbours. It has no Neolithic or Bronze Age connections and does not spring into life until Early Medieval times just as Loch Gara was fading into a backwater.  What caused this sudden shift in fortunes?  Well I suppose you could say Christianity.  St. Patrick came to Boyle twice, so the Annals tell us, but really Columcille, who is considered by many to be the saviour of the western Christian Church, came here in the 550s AD prior to his leaving for Scotland and founded the Culdean monastery of Eastmacniere on Church Island on the west side of the lake and the church at Drum about one kilometre up the Boyle River.  These Culdee monks lived for 650 years in these foundations before being replaced by the missionary orders sent by the Pope, to reform the laxity of the Irish Church in the 12th century.  The Augustinians made their home at Inchmacniere, the Premonstratensionists built their abbey on Trinity Island, the Cistercians in Boyle and the Franciscans at Knockvicar.  With these foundations came the people and the lake side and country round it was soon cluttered with ringforts (the house of choice for many for a thousand years from 500AD onwards.

These monks ruled the roost along with the Gaelic chieftains until Elizabethan times when the Reformation and Plantation families came over from England to change things around. The local plantationer was the King family and Loch Ce became its playground as they speckled it with follies, hunting lodges and houses and managed the land round the lake admirably and much of what they did can be seen to this day.

So having jumped from one end of the river to the other, a quick trawl downstream between the two expanses of water,  reveals older treasures. We have mentioned the crannogs and their long historical use and the portal tomb at Drumanone all of which would be missed by all but the intrepid traveller. In fact in this whole litany of archaeological sites there is not a sign or a notice of their existence. The Irish Authorities faced with this absolute plethora of sites tend to be rather blase and like water allow the sites to find their own level.  You could live round Boyle for years and know nothing of its riches.  Further downriver on its southern side are a chain of trivallate ringforts all along the northern approaches to the plains. These trivallate forts were the homes of royalty for it is only those people that could call on the vasselage or the markers that would bring in the labour to construct these massive structures and today they lie in farmers fields slowly being flattened by cattle, only preserved this long because the poor country folk thought them the homes of fairies.  To the north of the river, at Ballylugnagon is a large ringfort with a commanding view over the river and Assylin, the ancient ecclesiastical centre where St. Patrick was supposed to have stopped on his journey to see St. Attracta at her hostel in Killaraght.

Castle Island, Loch Key
Castle Island, Loch Key

To the south of the river at this point is possibly the most important collection of barrows in the country. Barrows are Iron Age earth structures in different configurations which are supposed to be the burial places of important people, but so little work has been done on them archaeologists cannot be sure. The chain starts at Lugnamuddagh and runs in a southwesterly directio through Knockadoobrusna, where two have been destroyed by the Golf Club, and on through the Plains, through Corbally to Killaraght.  With possibly the most important one at Knockmeeliagh at the north east end of this chain, about 100 metres north of the N4 Trunk Road.  This is a bowl barrow on a hill overlooking Loch Ce and standing as a sentinel on the northern edge of the Plains.  It contains some 3000 cubic metres of earth and must have been the burial plot of a very important contemporary of Christ.  The river then flows through the town to the the obvious treasures of the 12th century Abbey and attendant bridge before flowing out through the townland of Drum and into Loch Ce.  Incidentally the main bridge in the town is in its third creation since 1750AD, the previous two fell foul of the waters, whilst the Cistercian bridge at Abbeytown is exactly the same structure as when it was commissioned in 1220AD both taking HGV wagons on a daily basis and both sorely tested by the volume of water they let through last week in the floods.

So with over 2000 words in today’s blog, I now need a rest. Adieu

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