Clare Island’s Monuments

Abbey Clare Island
https://www.megalithicireland.com/Clare%20Island%20Abbey,%20Mayo.html

Clare Island is situated in Clew Bay.  A ridge runs east to west; it reaches a height of four hundred & sixty – five metres at Croughmore or Knockmore Mountain.  The island comprises four, thousand & fifty – three acres.  It is circa six km from the mainland harbour at Roonagh plus thirty km from Westport.  It is believed that habitation existed on the island from 3,500 BC.  Prior to Ireland’s Great Famine the population reached one thousand & seven hundred residents.  Possibly just one hundred & fifty inhabit the island in this century. [i]

The Island is approximately three miles from the mainland. It covers an area of one thousand & six hundred hectares.  It is an entirely cliff – bordered island.  Most of the cultivated lands lie towards the eastern end.  Croaghmore Mountain is situated on the Western side.  The island displays five major rock groupings with several minor intrusions. (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [ii]

Surveys

During 1909 / 1911 a Survey was carried out by the Royal Irish Academy under the direction of Robert Lloyd Praeger.  A further survey was carried out this century by the R I A who explained that ‘In this period of environmental change, there is a critical need for baseline surveys in unpolluted environments against which future changes can be measured….In many ways, this beautiful island is a microcosm of all that is the West of Ireland: unpolluted yet sensitive to fundamental global changes.’  The first volume concerned the history & cultural landscape, the second concentrated on the island’s geology plus the third was of the marine intertidal ecology.  It is proposed that future surveys will concern the island’s flora, fauna also the bird life. (page 48) (Edel Hackett) [iii]

The Clare Island Survey of 1909 was the first geological survey of a special area in the world by Engineer Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865 -1953).  The funding was provided by the Royal Irish Academy at a cost of £1,000 during 1915.  Several Frescos were discovered by Antiquarian Thomas Westropp during the original survey.  A century later the RIA returned to the island to undertake a further survey.  To date twenty – six individual studies on a range of subjects have been completed.  An examination of the island’s folklife, an essay on the importance of the Congested District Board of 1895 plus an analysis of place names were included.  According to this article there was to be a Launch of Volume 2 of ‘The New Survey of Clare Island: Geology’ by Mary Robinson in Westport.  It was proposed that a new survey be undertaken that would focus on botany, zoology, plus archaeological aspects.  Praeger recalled his island experiences in his ‘In The Way That I Went’ 1937.  According to John Graham ‘Prior to the Mesozoic Tertiary opening of the Atlantic this area would have been adjacent to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland as part of the major Appalachian / Caledonian Fold belt extending from Northern Norway & Greenland through to South – Eastern U.S.’  The eighteenth-century traveller Rev. Richard Pococke once mused on that bank that ‘It is supposed that it is part of that bank that extends to Newfoundland.’ (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [iv]

Court Tombs were one of four main types of Megalithic Tombs in Ireland that dated possibly from the Neolithic settlements.  Excavations suggested they were collective burial sites plus remains were accompanied by pottery vessels, simple ornaments also stone implements.  These court tombs were also community focal points for an assembly to pass laws, play games or enact rituals according to the seasons. The existence of the Megalithic Tomb was identified by Dr. Peter Gill of the Centre for Island Studies of Clare Island.  It was surveyed by Paul Walsh, Megalithic Survey of Ireland during 1993, (fig. 18) it was confirmed by Archaeologist Paul Gosling during 1989.  The study dated it to mid third Millennium BC.  The study confirmed definite Neolithic activity on the island.  The monument occupied a saddle between two hillocks amidst the stark hummocky moraine topography to the east of Glan Hill Knockaveen on the OS Map.  Immediately to the east of the tomb is a small peat basin known locally as ‘Poirtin Fuinch.’  The Court Tomb was a court type that comprised one long & slightly wedge – shaped chamber: length 5.6 cm with 2 m max aligned ENE – WSW.  Just four set slabs survive of the court amid a mass of loose stones on the eastern side.  Possibly the tomb was contained within a large Cairn that survives as a low oval Cairn approximately 19.25 m in length by 12.3 m in width.  There are several massive corbel slabs visible along the SSE side of the chamber.  None of the capstones appear too have survived. [v]

Clare Island’s Abbey

This Abbey on Clare Island located in Clew Bay was established by the O Malley / Ó Máille Lords of Umhaill. During c. thirteenth century the rectangular nave was built by Diarmuid Bacach Ó Máille.  He may have added the two – story Tower to the east of the nave during the fifteenth century.  The doorway in the east wall of the nave possibly was erected at the same time.  From 1536 to 1541 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry 111 the Abbey was a Cell of the Knockboy Cistercian AbbeyThe walls & ceilings of the vaulted chancel were decorated with Medieval paintings: among the usual bestiary ie. Griffins / dragons were scenes that depicted hunts or cattle raids.  Several Conservation efforts have repaired those famous frescos.  The church on the ground floor of the Tower were used as a burial place for the 0 ‘Malley Chiefs.  The O ‘Malley Tomb (reported to have been the official burial site of Graine Uaile) is in the centre of the north wall among the paintings, it had a canopied tomb with superb stone tracery.  To the west of the tomb canopy is a wall Plaque of the O ‘Malley Coat of Arms.  Longitude 95921W, Latitude 534736N.  There are images on this site by Jim Dempsey. [vi]

Clare Island’s Abbey Kill dated to the mid thirteen centuries, it was re – built during 1460.  It was a Cell of the Cirstercian Abbey in Abbeyknockmoy in Co. Galway.  The Abbey consisted of a Nave & Chancel divided by an arch.  The Chancel was spanned by a fine barrel vault with a staircase in the south wall that in turn led to a domestic chamber above the Vault.  The Church was lit by two slender ogeeheaded windows (with an arch over a window formed with reverse curves that gives an onion – shaped head.)  Ceilings & walls are among the finest examples of medieval constructions within Ireland.  These have been the subject of an extensive conservation programme by experienced European Conservators.  The theme of the paintings is mostly secular, they included a cattle raid, a knight dressed in chain – mail on horse – back (page 54), wolves attacking stags, musicians, dragons also griffins.  A stone Plague within the Abbey bears the O ‘Malley Coat of Arms that features a stallion surmounting a helmet that is above a boar.  This boar is surrounded by three bows with arrows pointing at it.  Below the boar is an Inscription with the O ‘Máille’s Latin Motto ‘Terra Marique Patens’ ie. People of the land & the sea.  The Abbey has been restored by the Office of Public Works. (page 53 /54.)  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [vii]

Cistercians from Knockmoy in Co. Galway are believed to have established a cell on the island during 1220.  The existing nave & chancel church were divided by an arch dated circa 1500.  Its modest exterior did not bear a hint of the complex interior that had a fine barrel vault with a staircase that led to the domestic room overhead.  The range & style of the Frescos were more secular than religious with wolves attacking stags, hares, griffons & dragons, harp & lyre players, cattle raiders also wrestlers.  The most particular painting is the Medieval Knight in chain mail, spear aloft on horseback.  Beneath the paintings is a canopied tomb believed to have been the burial place of Grace O ‘Malley.  There is a stone wall Plaque with an O ‘Malley Coat of Arms, it has an inscription ‘Terra Marique Patens.’ (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [viii]

This unique Medieval Church may be dated from the 12th century, is known as The Abbey: it was rebuilt during 1460.  The Abbey is a National Monument, it underwent a major Conservation project during the 1990’s that revealed several new images.  The building contains supposedly the grave of Gráinne O ‘Malley.  According to this article the paintings were undertaken during two separate O ‘Malley chieftains reigns.  The images depicted mythical, human & animal figurers that included dragons, a cockerel, stags, men on foot plus on horseback, a cattle raid, a harper also scenes of birds & trees. [ix]

This Abbey was a cell of the Cistercian Abbey at Abbeyknockmoy in Co. Galway.  It dated from the mid – thirteenth century then was rebuilt during 1460.  The nave & chancel church was divided by an arch. The chancel is spanned by a fine barrel vault & a staircase in the south wall led to the domestic chamber above.  The chancel was lit by two slender ogee – headed windows (arch over the window formed with reverse curves that provided an onion shaped head.)  The paintings on the ceilings & walls are among the finest examples of medieval paintings in Ireland.  They have been the subject of extensive conservation programmes that involved Conservators from Europe.  The themes of the painting are mostly secular that provided a glimpse of Medieval life.  They included a cattle raid, a knight dressed in chain – mail on horse – back, wolves attacking stags, dragons, griffins & musicians.  The Abbey has a Plaque with the O ‘Malley Coat of Arms.  There is a canopied tomb that is reputed to be the burial site of Graine Uaile. [x]

Among the important cultural heritage of Clare Island are the ruins of the small Abbey founded by the Cistercians during 1224, it was rebuilt during 1460.  The Abbey contained a gray, canopied tomb which had originally been painted red, white & black, it is reputed to be the burial place of Grainne O’ Malley.  There is the O ‘Malley Coat of Arms inside the Abbey that features the Motto of the Clan: ‘Terra Marique Patens.’  The Abbey consisted of a Nave & Chancel divided by an arch.  It is known for its famous paintings on walls & ceiling that provided a glimpse of Medieval life.  They depicted a cattle raid, wolves attacking stags, musicians, a knight dressed in chain – mail on horseback, dragons also griffins. [xi]

Clare Island’s Tower House

Tower Houses were constructed as castles during the fifteenth / sixteenth centuries in Ireland more as a fortified residence rather than a self – sufficient castle.  They were rectangular, three stories in height with a vault over the ground floor.  Those were topped by a pitched slate or thatched roof.  The roof was protected by a battlement parapet also in several cases they featured an overhanging above the entrance to enable objects to be dropped on intruders or attackers.  Within the thickness of the walls were staircases passages or garderholes.  The main living – room was at first floor level, it was possibly to accommodate the bartizons (roofed, floor turrets & ganderobres.)  This Castle connects the main harbour built by O ‘Malley’s in the sixteenth century.  It was constructed during 1826 as to that eras building style.  Purple flashing was added to the two bartizons that projected opposite angles of the tower.  To the left of the main entrance at present in the castle is a passage with stone stairs that begin at first floor level.  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [xii]

Overlooking the Harbour is a three – story Castle with side passages on the third floor.  It was believed to have been built by Grace O ‘Malley.  Now in ruins it had been altered during the nineteenth century. (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [xiii]

The Tower House is a fine example built by an O ‘Malley clan, designed to a standard plan of rectangular three – story building with a vault over the ground floor, topped by a battlement over the entrance to enable the inhabitants to drop objects onto their attackers.  Within the thickness of the walls were passages & other features.  To the left of the main entrance was a mural passage with stone stairs that began at first floor level.  Access to these stairs may have been via a wooden staircase from ground level.  On the first floor the main living room had access to bartizans (roofed, floorless turrets also garderobes.)  During 1826 purple slate flashing was added to the two bartizans when the building was converted to a police barracks. [xiv]

Tower Houses were erected by ruling Irish Chieftains as a fortified residence.  They were rectangular shaped with three storeys over the ground floor.  They had a pitched slate or thatched roof.  Clare Island’s Tower House dominates the Harbour.  The Tower House was built by the O ‘Malley’s during the 16th century as a strategic fortress.  Inside to the left of the main entrance are stone steps beginning at the first-floor level while wooden steps led up from the ground floor.  The main living room at first – floor level had within the thick walls passages & lavatories.  During 1826 the building was renovated into a police barracks. [xv]

Court Tomb Porteen Finoish

This Megalithic Tomb is located on the east side of the Island, between a lake or lochán.  It was built by Neolithic farmers as a burial site for their elite ancestors.  It was called a Court Tomb because of the arrangement of stones that formed an open – air entrance to the interior.  The existence of those tombs established that a farming community circa 5,500 years ago dwelt there.  The walls & traces of an ancient forest may be seen in the cutaway bog north of this tomb.  The ancient wall runs down to the nearby ground then disappears under the lake; it reappears on the opposite side: this indicated that the walls existed prior to the sediment of the lake. (page 57 plus an image.)  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [xvi]

The tombs discovery suggested that a Neolithic Farming community may have inhabited the island by the middle of the 3rd Millennium BC. (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [xvii]

Court Tombs may be found near a small lake, so called because the arrangement of stones that formed an open – air entrance to the interior.  They had an open – air court in front of the entrance where rituals or ceremonies were held.  This Megalithic Tomb at Porteen Finoish was inhabited by a farming community 5,500 years ago.  There are excellent traces of the tomb on the East side of the Island.  Early traces of field walls plus traces of an ancient forest may be viewed in the nearby cutaway bog.  The Famine landscape with the raised potatoes drills may also be viewed in the area. [xviii]

Bronze Age Promontory Fort, Lecarrow

This Fort was in use from the late Bronze Age up to Medieval times as a defensive living area.  They were built on top of cliffs or high land.  A bank of earth or stone were built on the landward side that made attacks difficult.  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [xix]

Promontory Forts were in use from the Bronze Age up to the Medieval era.  There are at least five forts on Clare Island.  They were defensive living areas built atop cliffs or headlands.  Those strategic locations protected the inhabitants from sea invasions due to the steepness of the cliffs.  A bank of earth or stones on the landward side made attacks difficult. [xx]

Signal Tower Tuar Mór

This tower is one of a line of towers along the West coast.  It is located at the most Western point of Clare Island at Toormore.  It was built during 1804 in direct response to landings by the French during 1798 also as a defence against the threat of further landings. (page 56.)  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [xxi]

Signal Towers were built in Ireland in response to the French landings.  They played a central role during the Napoleonic Wars as stations of communication or alert systems along the coast.  Built in remote locations with each station visible to its neighbouring tower.  They were square shaped building with two storeys, a flat roof also fireplaces.  The main door at first floor level was reached by a wooden ladder.  The signals included a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant also four black balls in various combinations.  These towers were abandoned following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo during 1815.  This Signal Tower now in ruins is located on the most Western part of Clare Island at Toomore.  It was linked to a tower on the North side in Achill Island plus on the South side at Inishturk. [xxii]

Signal Towers such as the building on Clare Island (erected in 1804) were a direct response to the French landings of 1798 plus a defensive measure against future threats of landings.  This Signal Tower is one of a line of towers interlinked along the coast.  There are two towers nearby: Inishturk to the South with Achill Island to the North. [xxiii]

Fulagha Fiadh

There are fifty – three identified fulagha fiadh on this Island.  Site 21 has a three-row horse – shoe shaped mounds with burnt stones adjacent to a small spring.  Bronze – Age open – air cooking sites were used by inhabitants 2,500 years ago.  A hole in the ground was filled with water, stones were heated on a fire, then dropped into the hole to bring it to boiling point.  Meat was wrapped in straw then lowered into the boiled water.  Heated stones were added continuously until the meat was cooked.  This site has an image included. (Edel Hackett) [xxiv]

There are fifty -three fulagha fiadh on Clare Island.  These were bronze age cooking sites in use by Islanders over 5,500 years ago.  They consisted of a hole in the ground filled with water.  Stones were heated on a fire then dropped into the water to bring it up to boiling point.  Then the meat (usually wrapped in straw) was lowered into the water.  Hot stones were continually added to the water until the meat was cooked.  The sites were identified as grass – covered horseshoe – shaped mounds that were located adjacent to a small spring.  Often burnt stones were discovered nearby. [xxv]

There are numerous fulagha fiadh or horseshoe – shaped mounds of burnt stones on the island.  Archaeologist Paul Gosling confirmed the existence of forty – nine with the possibility of four more mounds.  Christiaan Corlett suggested a higher number perhaps one hundred & fifty. (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 23rd March 2002) [xxvi]

Footnotes

The 1914 Survey ‘The Geology of Clare Island’ may be viewed at this link: http://www.geologicalmaps.net/IrishHistMapsDownload/B02137.pdf

An article of the Clare Island Archaeology is featured in the ‘Archaeological Ireland Journal’ Vol 4 No 1 pages 7 – 12 by Gosling Paul 1990 Wordwell Ltd. [xxvii]

This site has several images plus a map of the area. [xxviii]

The Abbey on Clare Island is mentioned in the ‘National Monuments in State Care Ownership & Guardianship’ (in Mayo) on this PDF dated 4th March 2009. [xxix]

The ‘New Survey of Clare Island: Vol 5: Archaeology’ by Conleth Manning, Paul Gosling & John Waddell was published by the Royal Irish Academy January 2007. [xxx]

Bibliography

[i] ‘Clew Bay Archaeological Trail: exploring 6,000 years of Mayo’s Heritage’. [assessed 15th January 2021]

[ii] Clare Island Revisited (https://www.irishtimes.com/news/clare-island-revisited-1.1054873) [assessed 14th January 2021]

[iii] ‘Clew Bay Archaeological Trail: exploring 6,000 years of Mayo’s Heritage’. [assessed 15th January 2021]

[iv] Clare Island Revisited (https://www.irishtimes.com/news/clare-island-revisited-1.1054873) [assessed 14th January 2021]

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[xxiv] ‘Clew Bay Archaeological Trail: exploring 6,000 years of Mayo’s Heritage’. [assessed 15th January 2021]

[xxv] Clew Bay Archaeological trail (http://www.clewbaytrail.com/show.php?SitesID=17) [assessed 14th January 2021]

[xxvi] Clew Bay trail (http://www.clewbaytrail.com/show.php?SitesID=22) [assessed 15th January 2021]

[xxvii] Archaeology of Clare Island (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20562027?seq=1) [assessed 15th January 2021]

[xxviii] Archaeological Trail (https://www.westportheritage.com/archaeolgical-trail.html) [assessed 15th January 2021]

[xxix] Mayo (https://www.archaeology.ie/sites/default/files/media/pdf/monuments-in-state-care-mayo.pdf) [assessed 15th January 2021]

[xxx] New Survey (https://www.ria.ie/new-survey-clare-island-v5-archaeology) [assessed 15th January 2021]

 

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