Subterranean Chambers at Carrigtohill

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter IV-2 | Start of chapter

The village of Carrigtohill has little to recommend it to the notice of the tourist, except the subterranean chambers and circular entrenchments, of which no less than fifteen or sixteen have been discovered at different times in this neighbourhood. The subterranean chambers at Carrigtohill are situated within one of those circular forts or raths. The descent to them is by a narrow sloping passage, which leads into a small excavated chamber, of about seven feet in diameter, formed without any masonry. Four of these chambers, connected by narrow and difficult passages, have been examined; but one or more remain still unexplored, in consequence of the passage conducting to the fifth chamber being built up with large stones. Similar underground works have been discovered within the boundaries of several of the ancient forts, some being regular sets of chambers, as is the case at Carrigtohill, others are simply long galleries, with an entrance in the centre of the intrenchment; while in many instances, no trace can be found of any passage to the inside.

Various conjectures have been advanced as to the uses of these raths and chambers; by the best informed they are supposed to have been the sites of the dwellings of the ancient inhabitants, before they exchanged their rude habitations for castles of stone and walled towns. The vestiges of buildings still found on some of the more extensive raths, and the decayed bones (chiefly those of the ox) and charcoal, which are often discovered in large quantities on turning up the ground, are strong corroborative evidences that these places once formed the defensible places of abode or retreat for the old Irish chieftains and their dependents. The proximity to each other in which these mounds are usually found, as if for the purpose of ready communication in time of need, shows that though divided into chieftainries, each under the command of its particular head, the septs united upon great occasions, to repel a common enemy or resent a common insult. This form of government, by which every petty chief, although ruling his own vassals with arbitrary power, was obliged to render certain service to the great head of the state, is so generally known as the principal of the feudal system, that it is unnecessary for me to explain it further here.

If, as it has been conjectured, these intrenchments were the rude defences of the habitations of the native Irish, it is extremely probable that the subterranean chambers might have been used as storehouses for the provisions of the little community; and the fact that the entrances to these underground chambers have, in most instances, been discovered by accident, is only a further proof that they were intended as places adapted for concealment in time of danger. The popular tradition amongst the peasantry is, that after the Danes had been conquered at the battle of Clontarf, they constructed these forts and secret chambers to escape the pursuit of the Irish; but such a supposition is too absurd to obtain a moment's belief, as it is evident such works could not have been effected by a scattered force, flying before an active and victorious enemy. If the Danes did take refuge within these intrenchments, it must be concluded that they were in existence for ages before their time.

These raths have time out of mind been an object of superstitious veneration to the Irish peasantry, who believe that the mysterious inclosures are the abodes of the fairies, or "good people;" hence it is that few of the country folks will approach one of them after nightfall without trembling, lest they should incur the anger of the irascible pigmy gentry by intruding on their revels, or disturbing their moonlight festivities. And to the same feeling of superstitious awe may be attributed their reluctance to disturb, by the operation of the spade or axe, these interesting relics of antiquity, which may be frequently seen overgrown with aged trees and underwood in nature's wild simplicity. Numerous are the tales related by the peasantry of daring individuals who have watched the midnight revels of the fairies in these places, which for long ages have been the favourite haunts of the tiny race. Children of mortals, who have been stolen by the "good people," are, it is believed, conveyed by them into these raths, on which it has been remarked the verdure is always greener and brighter than on any of the neighbouring fields.