Introduction and Welcome

Thank you for making the journey this far, and I hope you will enjoy the rest of the online presentation. 

Last year I looked at the arrival of the first settlers to Oughterard, and these were the Mesolithic people who foraged and fished along the banks of the Owenriff river and along the edges of Lough Corrib.

This year I am looking at the next stage which is the Neolithic period (4,000 – 2,500 BC). This was the first global revolution and saw the migration from foraging and fishing to the domestication of animals, the growing of cereal crops, the emergence of pottery ware and leading on to the building of the megalithic tombs.

The Neolithic in Ireland

The Neolithic settlers who came to Ireland around 3,500 BC were descended from the old Ice Age stocks of Western Europe. This was at a time when the Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer) phase was coming to an end. They have left to the Irish of today the physical heritage of paler skins and a higher number of light – coloured eyes than the people of any other area in the world. Recent genome evidence seems to show that the Mesolithic people quite possibly had darker skin and blue eyes.

At this time, on the mainland of what we know call Europe, people were beginning to explore new territories in a search for the best possible growing climate. Ireland would have had much to offer the prospective pioneers in the way of landing beaches, rivers leading to the interior of the country, lakes full of abundant fish stocks, woods full of game with no dangerous animals, with a fertile soil and a mild climate. In Archaeology, we call this the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

There are two theories in relation to the origins of Agriculture in Ireland. The first of these suggests that members of the Hunter-Gatherer (Mesolithic) people made journeys out to Europe where sheep, goats and cattle had been domesticated since around 4,000 BC. They then would have ferried young cattle, sheep and goats as well as varieties of wheat and barley to this country. 

The second theory sees a large amount of people who journey from Europe across to Ireland. Whole families would have moved together with the domestic animals and crop seeds between August and November, after the crops had been harvested and when food stocks would have been plentiful. Which of these theories is the true one will possibly never be known, but I have always favoured the first theory – a movement of ideas and not of people. Overall, this would have led to a fair degree of colonization and population increase.

Upon arriving, the animals would have had to be securely penned in order to protect them from wolves and foxes, who would never have seen such slow moving animals before. During this period, the pollen record shows a sharp decline in elm species and an increase in the traditional farming weeds of ribwort plantain, dock and nettles.

This shows that the forests were being cleared for tillage by ring-barking the trees and also by burning the ground scrub, which would give a much more fertile soil. After a while, they would have begun to collect manure and change the tillage patch every four to five years.

The Neolithic people used pottery vessels and implements of stone and flint, such as polished stone axes, digging mattocks, awls, scrapers and javelin heads.

The previous Hunter- Gatherer people would have been restricted to small families because of the movement involved, but the Neolithic folk could afford to have larger families as they had little or no movement and had more food supplies to go around. For the first time ever, they were able to create a food surplus which is always a driver of great civilizations and population. Agriculture and pastoralism were established in Ireland by 3,500 BC, the humble beginnings of our most important industry today.

After the Neolithic people began to organize themselves, settle into a farming lifestyle and increase in numbers, there came into Ireland one of the most remarkable occurrences in the history of Irish culture. During a period of many centuries, magnificent tombs, large pillars and impressive stone circles were erected in all parts of the island. These features are called megalithic (large stone) monuments. They were built so solidly that over 1500 of them survive in Ireland today, and where they are still looked upon with fascination and reverence.

The houses of the monument builders were poorly fabricated structures of timber and thatch, but much more work went into the construction of the monuments to make sure they were solidly built and dry. The magnificent passage tomb of Newgrange in Co. Meath is one of the earliest buildings in the world, even constructed before the Pyramids in Egypt. Building these impressive monuments required enormous amounts of materials, manpower and also some scientific and technical knowledge. The task was all the more remarkable when one considers that neither the wheel (late Neolithic) nor iron tools were in use during this period.

The Neolithic in Oughterard

During numerous walks with our dog Alfie down the Magheramore road some years ago it struck me that as the road went on it was moving straight and almost intersecting the hills in the distance.  I figured that this must be an ancient pathway linking the Cloosh Hills across the upland and fertile plains of Maghera and across to Aughnanure/Gortrevagh beside Lough Corrib. A few years later, in 2018, I started to assemble some evidence for this. The double breast shaped mountains were extremely relevant and important to our prehistoric ancestors across the world in many civilizations. In Ireland they were particularly associated with the fertility Goddess, Danu, as she looked over and protected her people as a mother figure.

When you come to the ‘Replica Material’ section later on in this presentation you will see we have replicated a bit of a musical section with a drum, bullroarer and bone flute. I can imagine the men, women and children walking along the ancient road on their way up to the Cloosh Hills from Aughnanure and the Glann Road to celebrate some important events.  What must it have been like  as darkness approached on a gorgeous summer’s evening to smell the numerous barbecues and the sounds of the instruments echoing across the landscape.

In last year’s presentation we looked at the evidence for the Mesolithic period (8,000 – 4,000 BC) in Oughterard where the Owenriff river enters Lough Corrib (red marker on map).The yellow coloured markings are the ones we are particularly interested in for this project as they denote Neolithic activity. You can visually see a wave of Neolithic and Bronze Age activity running across from the Cloosh Hills to Maghera and on to Gortrevagh and Aughnanure. Gortrevagh is currently occupied by the Oughterard Golf Club. As you can see on the map we are represented here right across the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age/ Early Christian as well as the subsequent historical periods up to the present day. We have a continuity of settlement here in and around Oughterard for the past 8,000 years.

It is interesting also that the Drimneen river and Aughnanure are linked to each other geographically. If we assume that the Neolithic people arrived by the lakeside near Aughnanure at first, their sense of curiosity would have forced them to follow the Drimneen river up the mountains as it passed through Buffy Lough, Bunnagippaun Lough and on to its source within striking distance of the Cloosh Hills. Once up here they possibly found a shorter way to get home by starting to walk down the current Magheramore road at the base of Seanapheistin and then across the N59 (not there then) to Aughnanure. 

The Archaeological Evidence

I have endeavoured to present the largest segments of the following evidence in a storyful content and to hopefully make it a little easier and more interesting for you, our valued readers. As a Heritage Group we must provide solid evidence to categorically say that we have a Neolithic landscape in Oughterard, and the following is what has been uncovered so far.

The Aughnanure Logboat

‘In this Bay was lately discovered a long single-piece oaken canoe, of great antiquity, which Dr.R. Willis, of Oughterard, has presented to the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy’ – Sir William Wilde (1815-1876) extract from’Wilde’s Lough Corrib’ (published in 1867).

I came across the above footnote in Wilde’s book during 2018 when I was researching the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC). I parked it for a while and revisited it again in 2019 when I was working on the Neolithic period (4000-2500 BC).It was to be my first encounter with Dr. Robert Willis, Dispensary Doctor of Oughterard in the 1860’s, and it turned out to be a very interesting one indeed. Before we go any further, let me explain what a logboat is. They were usually made from oak, a single tree, and could be up to fifty feet in length. The felled tree was hollowed out with stone axes, then a controlled fire was lit inside the boat, the embers cleared out, and this was followed by more axe work until the desired shape had been achieved.

I started off by contacting the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in Dublin, and they confirmed to me that they did indeed have a letter from Dr. Willis to Sir William Wilde in relation to a boat. They wouldn’t tell me what was in the letter until I agreed to give them €12, which I did, and then they sent me on a scanned image of the letter by E- Mail. Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar) was an internationally famous eye and ear surgeon based in Dublin, he had written a renowned medical book as well as some acclaimed European travel guides. The Wildes also had a summer house in Moytura, on the far side of Lough Corrib near Cong. He also performed some incredible work on Statistics by extrapolating the data from the Census  Reports. Wilde was also an Antiquarian, the forerunner of modern day Archaeology, and undertook some enormous work in the RIA where he classified artefacts by type for the very first time. Dr. Willis and Wilde were also very close friends.

The letter itself gives us some important and relevant information. The boat was found in early July 1865 in the Bay where the River Drimneen enters Lough Corrib beside Aughnanure Castle. It measured 30 feet in length, 4 feet in width, and was made from a single length of oak tree. Dr. Willis  also referenced other boats being at the bottom of Lough Corrib, which was remarkable as they were not in a position to avail of the technology we have at our disposal today. The boat was delivered to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin during 1867, and we do not have any information as to how this happened. I imagine they would possibly have tied three carts together, used four horses to pull it to Galway, and then put it on the train to Dublin. Not the easiest of logistical projects when you are dealing with a thirty foot boat! My friend and expert craftsman, Brendan Hodgers from Ballymacoda Co. Cork, produced a replica model for us to display which appears with this article.

My next task was to approach the National Museum and pick up the story from there. I also knew that the Royal Irish Academy had moved all of their archaeological artefacts to the Dublin Art and Science Museum in 1890, and this would later become the National Museum of Ireland after 1922. I then E-Mailed my contact in the National Museum and attached the letter from Dr. Willis. As I awaited the response, I was looking forward to a trip to Dublin and possibly getting the Logboat back to Oughterard if it was only in storage and not on display in the Museum. I waited for a couple of weeks and then decided to ring them. They informed me that they didn’t have the boat, and the last trace they had of it was when it was included in Wakeman’s Catalogue Volume 3 in 1893. The catalogue had registered the boat at 24 feet, and this was 6 feet shorter than when it was found in 1865. They also told me that all of the boats that were registered around this period were no longer around.

This was a big disappointment for me, but certainly not a total surprise as I knew that removing ancient objects from a bog or the bottom of a lake would disturb the anaerobic conditions. The anaerobic environment and the presence of tannic acids within bogs and lakes can result in the remarkable preservation of organic material. The moment they are exposed to the air, bacteria start to work on them, and they can degrade pretty quickly if the oxygen is not excluded. However, we do have the letter to prove that the boat was found in Aughnanure and the critical dimensions thereof. In this particular area also there have been finds of stone axes, polished stone axes, arrowheads and a copper axe head lending credence to the theory that Aughnanure was occupied over 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period.

We are eternally grateful to Dr. Robert Willis for his great work in bringing this to our attention all those years ago. As well as being the local Doctor, he was also an Antiquarian, Painter and he made many drawings, sketches and stone rubbings in and around Oughterard. Robert died rather suddenly in 1868 at the very young age of 34, leaving a distraught wife and five young children. I will finish this piece by including a few lines from his obituary in The Galway Express on Saturday July 18th 1868 –

“On yesterday evening at nine o’clock, the above named gentleman breathed his last in Galway after an illness of only a few days. He leaves an amiable wife and five young children, to mourn their bereavement. 

He was one of those gentle beings whose soul was actuated by all the purest impulses of nature; the poor man’s friend – a friend wherever he beheld suffering humanity.

He knew none of the formal grades in the social status which men are ever aping after; he always, no matter what his position might be, respected man as man. 

To the people of Oughterard he was attached by a thousand fond memories, and they reciprocated that love and mutual intensity.  The West with all its natural scenery drew out all the finest feelings of his nature, but now he has left forever the people and the land he loved so dearly and so well.

People of Oughterard, long, long until ye meet his like again.  Many fond reminiscences shall remain ever entwined round the name and memory of one whom the people felt was entirely and exclusively their own – their own by his choice and their selection, their own by his sweet bewitching manner and native homeliness; their own by all the fondest chords that can unite a sterling friend and a grateful people’’. 

Killannin Axe and Scrapers

This polished stone axe was found in Killannin, a few miles outside Oughterard in 1971.

In the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC) flint was used as the sharpest material. In the Neolithic (4000 – 2500 BC) another piece of new technology was introduced to Ireland by the Neolithic settlers called porcellanite. This rock is tougher than flint and more effective for making axes and digging tools.

Flint and porcellanite is only mined in Northern Ireland but it has been found all over Ireland and Britain, showing the extent of the export trade and connections during this period.

The axe now has a new handle, probably the first one in over 4,000 years, courtesy of Brendan Hodgers!

Martin Lee and the Cloosh Axehead

As the Oughterard Supporters Bus headed to Castlebar for the Intermediate Football Final on Saturday 16th November 2019, Mary Kyne, of the Oughterard Culture & Heritage Group  and local neighbour Martin Lee had a brief chat. In the course of this conversation Martin happened to mention that he had come across what looked like a few old objects over the years. Mary then said that the replica archaeological material would be on display in The Courthouse on the following Wednesday, in preparation for a film shoot by the Museum Of Country Life in Castlebar. Martin agreed to come along.

True to his word, Martin arrived in the door on the Wednesday morning, carrying a bag. The first object he showed us was a large molten limestone rock with an impregnated shell fossil. I had a couple of similar ones on display already and told Martin that this fossil was approximately 350 million years old. I also explained that when that particular fossil was formed, Oughterard and indeed all of Ireland, was submerged under a warm tropical and coral sea close to where Australia is now situated.  Martin then said he had something else to show us, and as he reached into the bag again, the day would take an unexpected but very exciting turn!

In the earlier part of that year I had been researching the Neolithic period (4000 – 2500 BC). This was the phase that heralded the beginnings of settled agriculture and the building of the megalithic monuments. I was convinced , during my research, that the origins of the Neolithic in Oughterard was roughly in a line from the Peaks of Rusheeney (the Cloosh hills), along the fertile uplands of Maghera and onwards towards Lough Corrib in the area around Gortrevagh and Aughnanure Castle. As the research progressed, I was able to find solid evidence for a Neolithic presence around Aughnanure, and have already unearthed some potential monuments in Maghera/Raha that I also believe to be of Neolithic origin also. However, I was a bit light on evidence around the Peaks of Rusheeney/Cloosh, even though I knew it had to be there. I wondered would this evidence ever come to light to substantiate my original theory. I wasn’t too hopeful, possibly not in my lifetime anyway!

Back to Martin’s story, and as he reached into his bag for the second artefact, and slowly drew it forward, the hairs literally stood upright on the back of my neck. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In his hand, Martin was now holding a most beautiful polished stone axe from the Neolithic period, and I finally had the evidence I was looking for! Martin told me he has found it when he was building his house, many years ago, and had kept it all this time. This unexpected find is of major significance and importance to the Oughterard Heritage Group, and finally gives us hard evidence for a Neolithic presence in and around the Cloosh Hills.

The axe itself (see accompanying image) measures 11cm x 5cm, potentially 4000 to 5000 years old , and the polish and smoothness of its surface is as good as the day it was made all those millennia ago. It has a brownish colour after being soaked and buried in the brackish bog water for many thousands of years. The material used in the axe manufacture is a very sharp stone called porcellanite. However, this material is only found in the North-East of the country, in and around Antrim, and this demonstrates that there was extensive trading going on across the island of Ireland all those years ago. We are deeply indebted to Martin for preserving this beautiful artefact for so many years, and for also recognising its inherent archaeological value to our local landscape.

The Canrawer West Axe Hoard

In the 1860’s three axes were found together under the root of a large deal tree in a shallow bog in the townland of Canrawer West. The bog is still here if you turn left after Connelly’s Cafe on to the Station Road and it is on the right hand side as you proceed upwards and like many of the finds that have been encountered so far, they are closely watched by the Cloosh Hills. These axes were given to Sir William Wilde, who we will meet again in the next story, and are now in the National Museum. All three axes, manufactured from porcellanite, are well shaped and finished with high levels of polish and with a brown colour from being immersed in bog water over many millennia.

In the Neolithic period, when the axes were manufactured, much of the land was under a thick canopy of forestry, especially in the West of Ireland, and the majority of areas were free from the deep mountain blanket bog that is so familiar to us today. Polished stone axes made from the sharp and durable porcellanite were especially important for land clearance, and the felling of timber for house construction and fuel for the fire.

The Riddle of the Stones

Sometimes, when you are involved in a bit of research and you come across something that you know should be left alone, it is better to just leave it alone. Otherwise, the genie is likely to jump out of the bottle and will be almost impossible to put back in again. In the following little story, the genie well and truly jumped out of the bottle and I’m not sure if I will ever be able to put her back again! It all started a few years ago when I came across a footnote in Sir William Wilde’s book –Wilde’s Lough Corrib. I went back to take a look at it again last year and it is a wonderful description by a 19th century Travel Writer as to what she perceived on the old road overlooking Aughnanure Castle in the late 1830’s. The following is the extract….

‘Leaving Galway town, the tourist will proceed to Outerard en route to Connemara. Outerard is small, but an exceedingly neat town. When within a few miles of this pretty town, our astonishment was excited by perceiving a prodigious collection of cromlechs, of the existence of which, we believe, no traveller has taken note, but which certainly demands extensive and minute investigation. These huge circles of stone were so numerous, that at first we imagined them to be merely accidental occurrences in the rocky soil; but repeated examinations convinced us that they were as much artificial erections as any of the monuments, of which we have encountered so many in various parts of the country. Mr. Fairholt made drawings of several; we do not consider it necessary to engrave them, for they differ in no respect from the examples we have already given. This great city of the Druids – for such it undoubtedly is – lies between Galway and Outerard, but much nearer the latter town, upon the old road; yet the road is not so old but that searchers after antiquities must have often traversed it. It occupies the whole of an extended plain, on a height of a steep hill, and in the valley beneath is seen the old castle of Aughnanure. The space literally covered by these Druidic stones of all shapes and sizes, extends for about two miles, and we imagine it would not be difficult to count a thousand of them. We found it easy to trace out the circles in nearly every instance in which we tried to do so; that one had been built into the hedge, or into the gable of a house, or had sunk into the ground until nearly imperceptible, or had left some fragments, to show where it had been. The circles were of varied sizes, some very small, in others so large as apparently to be half a mile in circumference, and although in most instances the props which supported the huge rock had crumbled under its weight, sufficient proofs of their former existence were left in nearly every case. Our leisure did not permit us to make a very minute scrutiny of this truly wonderful place, but our brief note of it may, and no doubt will, induce such an examination as it undoubtedly demands. We earnestly recommend it to the attention of Mr. Windele.’(Vol 3 Page 466)

This extract is from a monumental work called ‘Ireland’s Scenery and Character by Anna Marie Fielding (1800-1881) and written under the name Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall. Published in three volumes between 1841 and 1843 it runs to over 1,600 pages and 560 illustrations. It documents a journey to every County in Ireland, over five trips between 1825 and 1840, and it carries an incredible amount of detail. The work was commissioned under the patronage of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and the first volume was dedicated and presented to him in 1841. Galway makes an appearance in volume three, and I was able to download all three volumes for free courtesy of Google Books.

However, we must read Sir William Wilde’s comments also, and the resultant pouring of cold water on the above extract. Here is what Sir William Wilde had to say…

‘It would be a great injustice to Ireland, and to the tourist or reader who has accompanied us thus far round the shores of Lough Corrib, if we omitted to direct attention to, and. If is existed, to describe this wonderful place, but there are no cromlechs. The only remains of stone circles in this district are those at Laghtgannon, referred to at page 286. In one of these there are still seven standing stones, and the site of ten others is visible in the vicinity. There was also one formerly on the Glebe, but an agricultural incumbent had it removed. All these forts are marked on the 6 inch Ordnance Map’. (Page 293)

Sir William Wilde (1815-1876), Oscar’s father, was a very famous Eye & Ear surgeon based in Dublin. He built a house which he named ‘Moytura’ on the banks of Lough Corrib near Cong. Apart from his work as an eminent Surgeon he was also a renowned Antiquarian/Archaeologist, and in his capacity as Head of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), he was the first person to catalogue artefacts  by type rather than date. His book ‘Wilde’s Lough Corrib’, published in 1867 and republished in 2002 is a classic and a wonderful account of a journey on a Steamer along the inner circumference of Lough Corrib.

I now had the ultimate research horror story, two conflicting accounts of the events and everybody that was involved now being dead. I had to stand back and look at the evidence, or lack of it, in greater detail, and these were my observations when I analysed Mrs. Hall’s account almost word for word.

Sir William Wilde told us ‘there are no cromlechs’, and by this he may be referring to full monuments like we have in the landscape today. A ‘cromlech’ (derived from the Breton language) is not a term used in Archaeology anymore and back in the 19th century it would blanket cover what we know now as megalithic tombs, stone circles and stone alignments. Mrs. Hall and her company were passing a rocky landscape near Aughnanure and as Galway appeared in Volume 3, they had become accustomed to looking at the landscape of Ireland and had developed a keen eye to pick out stuff. Mrs. Hall’s husband, Samuel Carter Hall who had accompanied her on all of the trips was also an expert on History and Topography (the arrangement of natural and artificial physical features of an area), and he may have spotted it first. 

What they were essentially looking at were components of once intact structures that had now been taken apart over time but had left their imprint on the landscape. They were able to ‘trace the circles’, some had been ‘built into a hedge, others into the ‘gable of a house’ while some others were almost ‘buried underground’.

We must also remember that thirty years had elapsed between Mrs. Hall’s observation and the writing of Sir William Wilde’s book. In this intervening time we had the Famine and the subsequent Outdoor Relief Projects where large rocks would have been quarried for road projects. 

There are a lot of old roads in Oughterard. There is an old road in Magheramore called Poll Buidhe and it was made at the time of the Famine. Men and women worked on it and they got 4d a day and they wore no shoes. The Factory Road leads to Ceann Reamhar and to the Factory and it was made at the time of the Famine’ – School’s Folklore Project (1938) Oughterard.

The construction of the Galway-Clifden Railway in the 1890’s may have taken the remaining stones, and that may be why they are not visible to us anymore.

Why would Mr. Fairholt have made sketches if there was nothing to draw? Frederick Fairholt (1814-1866) apart from being a very well respected Artist and Illustrator was also an Antiquarian. The ‘Mr. Windele’ that Mrs. Hall refers to is John Windele (1801-1865) who was a very famous Antiquarian in Munster circles, and I can see he also accompanied her and made some sketches for Volume One. We are unfortunate that it is a time just before the advent of photography where Artists/Illustrators accompanied the Travel Writers. Afterwards the Publishers/Authors would decide what would migrate from sketch to engraving, and as this was both time consuming and costly they would not engrave a similar object/cromlech for a second time. The only way we are going to solve this mystery is to somehow get access to Mr. Fairholt’s sketches or to John Windele’s archaeological notes to see if he did indeed pursue Mrs. Hall’s request of him.  This may seem like a task beyond our reach at the moment, but you never know what the future may reveal to us! I know where John Windele’s papers are housed and I intend to make a start with these over the next few years.

Since 2018 I have been endeavouring to research and map the prehistoric interconnectivity between the Cloosh Hills, the fertile Maghera uplands and across to the plains and Lake positioning of Aughnanure. This is progressing nicely at the moment and we hope to be in a position to continue with the Presentations, Exhibitions and Field-Trips at some stage during 2022. During this research, many items have been located in the National Museum that were deposited there in the 19th century. On the accompanying graphic you will see a sample of what has been found at Gortrevagh (now Oughterard Golf Club) and around Aughnanure Castle. The polished stone axe and the barbed and tanged arrowhead are from the Neolithic period (4,000 – 2,500 BC) and, interestingly, the stone axes are quite possibly from the Mesolithic (8,000 – 4,000 BC). The prehistoric culture in Aughnanure that used the polished stone axe and chert arrowhead were also the builders of the megalithic monuments. Was Mrs Hall correct in her assumption? The story has barely begun.

The following Neolithic artefacts were found in Gortrevagh/Aughnanure in the 1860’s and presented to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. They are currently housed in the National Museum on Kildare Street. The three axes made of shale cobbles could possibly be of Mesolithic origin but we have no way of proving it at the moment. It reinforces, once again, that Aughnanure has a very special place in our prehistory as well as the wonderful O’Flahertie castle in our historical time. The polished stone axe is quite similar in design to the one you may have already seen at Killannin, and both of them may have been manufactured at a local axe factory.

Replica material from the Neolithic

Pottery

Musical/Ceremonial Instruments

Tools

Models

Sláinte agus Beannachtai

Thank you for making the journey through the online Heritage Project, and I hope you were able to find something of interest along the way. It will remain on the Oughterard Courthouse website indefinitely so you can go back to it any time you want. Hopefully, we will return to face to face contact in 2022 to present the findings on Bronze Age Oughterard as well as being able to exhibit all of our wonderful replica material.

Please feel free to contact me at any stage on 087 9239194 or [email protected] if you would like to give some input or get involved in any way.

 

 

Bill Daly, on behalf of the Oughterard Culture and Heritage Group.