By William F. Wakeman.
[From Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vol. III, No. 13, July 1861]
That within the limits of the United Kingdom a single specimen of what may be considered a kind of Irish Herculaneum should have been recently brought to light, is a fact that may surprise many of our readers. Yet since the year 1839 or '40, the period of the discovery of the long-submerged island at Lagore, county Meath, no fewer than one hundred and sixty ancient stockaded homes of the old Gaelic population of Ireland have been found, and more or less examined.
Though within the last hundred years so much has been written upon the subject of Celtic antiquities, the very existence of the "Crannogues," or wooden dwellings of the ancient Irish, had not been even supposed. Similar discoveries have recently been made in several of the lakes in Switzerland, and in almost every instance a quantity of antiquities of stone, bone, bronze or iron have been found. As from the dawn of the historic period a great intercourse existed between Erin and Alba, and as the language and habits of the ancestors of the great majority of the Scottish people were identical with those of the Scoti or Irish, it is far from improbable that many an ancient Celtic home may be unnoticed beneath the waters of not a few of the Scottish or even English lakes.
Before touching on the subject of the Irish Crannogues, and of the wonderful collection of antiquities they usually contain, we shall slightly glance at the more known and perhaps earlier habitations of stone, and of which some hundreds of examples still remain in Ireland.
Up to a very recent period it was an opinion generally received amongst archaeologists that the only relics of ancient domestic architecture remaining in Ireland, were to be found in the so-called bee-hive houses, or Cloughawns, some, at least, of which are of a prehistoric age; and in structures of a somewhat similar character, which were certainly the dwellings of the early Irish saints. The cloughawns of the ante-Christian period are usually found in groups, and are very generally encompassed by a cashel, or wall, of great strength, pierced for one or two doorways formed of immense stones, and displaying the flat lintel and inclined sides so characteristic of the earliest known structures of Greece or Egypt. In external appearance they differ but slightly from the cells or dwelling-houses of the early Irish ecclesiastics, and may be described as a circular or oval wall constructed without cement, and vaulted by a kind of dome, formed by the overlapping of large stones. Windows there are none. The doorway is similar in character to that at the cashel already referred to, but is invariably small, seldom measuring four feet in height, sometimes even less. It is rarely that any opening by which smoke could escape can be found, though from the frequent discovery of charcoal and of stones marked by fire when the floors have been disturbed, it is evident that fires had sometimes been used within their enclosure. It is likely, however, that in a rude age the simple culinary operations then practised were generally carried on in the open air. The cloughawns which, from their evident connection with monastic buildings of early date, must be regarded as the habitations of the communities to which the sacred edifices belonged, differ from those of an earlier period, inasmuch as their internal form is almost invariably quadrangular. Greater care also seems to have been expended on the construction of the masonry, more particularly upon the interior, as in many examples the stones are so nicely adjusted to each other, that it would be difficult to insert the point of an ordinary knife between the joinings of any two of them, although in the great majority of instances no mortar appears to have been used. In point of dimensions the cloughawns, whether Pagan or early Christian, do not vary materially. They are generally closed in at a distance of from twelve to sixteen feet from the floor, and their diameter internally rarely exceeds eighteen feet.
Intimately connected with the cloughawn is the subterraneous house or cave, constructed precisely in the same manner, but differing from the former, inasmuch as that it is rarely if ever found unconnected by means of passages, lined and roofed in with stone, with other structures of a similar kind. The subterrane is usually approached by a gallery of considerable length, wider at the bottom than the top, and exhibiting masonry similar to that which is found in the oldest architectural works of which we have any knowledge. From the first chamber passages of a kind identical with that of the leading gallery, and varying in length from six or eight to twenty feet, conduct to other circular or oval rooms. In a sandhill immediately adjoining the old church of Clady, near Bective, county Meath, a very singular cluster of these subterranean bee-hive houses may still be seen; but they are so commonly found in almost every part of the country which affords a sufficient depth of soil for their construction, that further reference to ordinary examples may perhaps be considered unnecessary. In 1848, during the formation of the railway between Drogheda and Navan, the workmen discovered a portion of a very large and important work of the kind, which was soon visited by hundreds of the inhabitants of the latter town. It consisted of a chamber of quadrangular form, measuring about thirty feet by fourteen, vaulted in the usual way, and about twelve feet in height. The quadrangular form is extremely rare, but no doubt other examples lie undiscovered beneath the soil. Upon disturbing the earth of the Navan chamber, a considerable number of bones belonging to sheep, oxen, and deer, were discovered; and what is important as proving the domestic character of the work, many of the bones bore the marks of a rough saw. Excepting the bones and a quantity of charcoal, the remains of ancient fires, nothing in this instance was found to indicate that the place had ever been devoted to the purpose of a human habitation; but it is a curious fact, as illustrating a popular tradition very generally current, that these caverns had anciently been used as granaries; that upon being newly reopened, the handmill or quern stone, immemorially used in Ireland for the grinding of corn, is not unfrequently found. A very fine specimen from a chambered rath, situated upon the river Blackwater, near Rathaldron, county Meath, may be seen in the Antiquarian Collection in the Royal Irish Academy.-See page 112 in the Catalogue of the Stone Antiquities, so ably edited by Dr. Wilde. With respect to the uses to which the subterranean chambers had been applied, various opinions have been offered. Before the nature and character of our early national antiquities had begun to be investigated by careful and conscientious writers, they were most peaceably confounded with a class of monument now known to have been sepulchral-as the caverned tumuli of Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. By others they were looked upon as granaries, or simply as places of concealment. From the fact of their very frequent occurrence within the area of a dun or caher, works known to have been constructed during the earliest times as fortified dwellings, we have no hesitation in classing them with the primitive cloughawn, which, it should be remembered, is rarely if ever found where excavations could be practised, except through solid limestone rock; that the chambers discovered in a plain field, unconnected with or unenclosed by a rampart or ditch, were formerly equally unprotected, does not by any means appear certain, as during the agricultural operations of ages even formidable works might have been obliterated, or their defences might have been composed of timber, it being a matter of history that fortifications of that material were frequently used by the ancient Scotic nations.
It may be asked what evidence have we for referring these plain, simply-constructed works to a period lost in the obscurity of history. Documentary evidence there is certainly little; but by a comparison of their architectural peculiarities with those of monuments of unquestionable prehistoric age, the eye of a practised antiquary will detect a similarity of style which could not be accounted for by accident. Again, their frequent occurrence either as subterranes or cloughawns within the enclosure of raths or cahers, would connect them in many instances with a species of fortification, which is known to have been used in Ireland at least as early as the first century of the Christian era.
It has sometimes been asserted by writers of authority (in their time), that the Scoti or ancient Irish people were in the habit of building in timber only. Their opinions appear to have been grounded upon a few passages found in the writings of Bede the historian, and upon the authority of several MSS. of various periods from the seventh to the twelfth century. The writers of these venerable documents were almost invariably ecclesiastics, and their remarks refer to the construction of buildings devoted to religion, as churches, monasteries, etc. That the practice of building in stone was known in Ireland during a period long antecedent to the arrival of Saint Patrick, is sufficiently attested by monuments universally allowed by the highest archaeological authorities of this and other countries to belong to a period older than any authentic annals of the British islands, witness the "giant's chambers," the cromlechs, and the magnificent cairns upon the Boyne.
If the ancient stone habitations of the Irish should ever be regularly classified, the following is probably the order in which the varieties should be described:- Firstly, the subterraneous chambers of a circular or oval form, connected together by passages, and found within the inclosure of a dun or caher; secondly, a similar building found unenclosed, but round which defences of wood, earth, or stone may formerly have existed; thirdly, the cloughawn or bee-hive house, found in the fort or in the plain field; fourthly, the "Saint's house" or cloughawn, of early Christian times; of the latter class a few specimens of the highest interest remain. These had evidently been ancient at a time when it was found necessary to remodel their roofs, and generally to reconstruct the upper portion, and in their alterations, evidently comparatively modern, we find the architectural peculiarities of the twelfth century, a period during which the Irish are described as having first learned the art of building in stone and mortar!-Our limits have not allowed us more than a glance at the curious habitations of stone which Ireland so abundantly possesses. We now come to buildings of timber, perhaps equally ancient, but to which more interest naturally attaches from the immense number of antiquities usually found within and around them.
We allude to the crannogues, or artificially-constructed islands, which the drainage operations recently carried on in various parts of the country have laid bare.
A popular tradition exists, that many Irish lakes contain the remains of submerged cities and towers. Moore has woven the idea into one of his most exquisite melodies.
On Lough Neagh's banks as the fisherman strays,
When the clear cold eve's declining,
He sees the round towers of other days,
In the wave beneath him shining," &c.
If the lakes, upon being partially drained, have not given us the "round towers," they have in more than one county presented the every-day dwelling-houses of a people who, at an extremely ancient, though as yet undefined age, adopted or constructed these island homes. Before going further it will be proper to describe what the crannogues are. They are artificial islands, usually constructed upon what was probably a shoal in an ancient lake. The engineers of the Board of Works thus describe their general formation: "They are surrounded by stockades driven in a circle from sixty to eighty feet in diameter, but in some cases the enclosure is larger, and oval in shape. The stakes of these are generally of oak, mostly young trees, from four to nine inches broad, usually in a single row, but sometimes in double, and sometimes in treble. The portions of the stakes remaining in the ground bear the marks of the hatchet by which they were felled. Several feet of these piles must have originally projected above the water, and were probably interlaced with horizontal branches, so as to form a screen or breastwork. The surface within the staked enclosure is sometimes covered over with a layer of round logs, cut into lengths of from four to six feet, over which was placed more or less stones, clay, or gravel. In some instances this platform is confined to a portion of the island. Besides these, pieces of oak framing, with mortices and cheeks cut into them, have been found within the circle of the outer work."
About one mile and a half from the village of Dunshaughlin, in the county of Meath, the first great discovery of a little Irish Herculaneum was made about twenty years ago. In cutting a drain for the purpose of reclaiming a considerable portion of bog land which seems sunk in a basin of about two miles in circumference, and which is still popularly styled "The Lake," the diggers came upon an immense quantity of animal remains, consisting of the bones of oxen, sheep, swine, deer, dogs, foxes, etc. A traffic in the bones was carried on for a considerable time in Dublin without exciting any extraordinary notice, but after a while some articles manufactured of iron and some of bronze found their way, along with the bones, to the "marine stores" of the metropolis, and soon excited the attention of collectors of antiquities. Doctors Petrie and Wilde, with, we believe, a mutual friend or two, were the first to visit the scene of the " find," and it is greatly to be regretted that we have no detailed report of their joint observations, though Dr. Wilde has given a most interesting and valuable description of the animal remains.
For some years after the formation of the original drain, little appears to have been done at Lagore beyond the usual operations of turf cutting, during which, however, the bones still turned up, and amongst them, from time to time, a considerable number of antiquities of a kind which we shall presently notice. In 1848 one of the proprietors of a portion of the "Island" opened the ground anew, and during a period of about a month the writer of this article visited the place almost daily, and was afforded every facility for making observations. As far as could be calculated from the small portion of the work uncovered, the circumference of the crannogue might be about six hundred feet. The south-western portion alone appears to have been opened. On this side, and probably upon the others, a double and in some places a triple set of oaken stakes had been driven into the bed of the lake. Within the enclosure, which formed a kind of low mound, a number of huts were discovered very similar in character to the log-house found in Drumkelia bog, county Donegal, and thus described in the twenty-sixth volume of the Archaeologia, by Captain W. Mudge, R.N.: "As shown in the plan, the house consisted of a square structure, twelve feet wide and nine feet high, formed of rough blocks and planks of oak timber, apparently split with wedges. The framework was composed of upright posts and horizontal sleepers, mortised at the angles, the end of each upright post being inserted into the lower sleeper of the frame, and fastened by a large block of wood or forelock. The mortices were very roughly cut, as if they had been made with a kind of blunt instrument, the wood being more bruised than cut, and it may be inferred that a stone chisel (celt), which was found lying upon the floor of the house, was the identical tool with which the mortices were cut. By comparing the chisel with the cuts and marks, I found it," adds Captain Mudge, "to correspond exactly with them, even to the slight curved surface of the chisel; but the logs have evidently been hewn with a larger instrument in the shape of an axe, which, I have no doubt, was also of stone, as the marks, though larger than those the chisel would have made, are of the same character, being rather hollow and small cuts, and not presenting the smooth flat surface produced by our common iron axe."
The house described by Captain Mudge is probably the oldest work of the kind hitherto noticed. The timbers of which it was formed had evidently been shaped by stone implements. The huts of the Lagore or Dunshaughlin crannogue may be many centuries later, as all the woodwork had been fashioned by instruments of metal, many of which were found within and around the island. The ordinary crannogue hut may be described from several at Lagore. It should be remarked that in about one hundred and sixty lake homes discovered in Ireland, only a very few tolerably perfect huts were found. The building was of a quadrangular form, constructed upon a framework, as in Captain Mudge's example, of upright posts mortised into sleepers. The posts were grooved generally to a depth of from one and a half to two inches, and into the hollows pannels of oak of about three inches in thickness were inserted. Of the roof we have no remains; it was probably elevated, and closed in with timbers similar to those of the sides, which were most likely guarded by an overcoating of clay against fire thrown by an assailant. From the length of the upright the edifice appears to have had an elevation of about eight or nine feet internally to the spring of the roof. The floor was always of stone, and it would appear that where the surface of the crannogue was not completely covered by habitations, there were several hearths for the purpose of open-air cooking. With respect to the age of these extraordinary buildings we cannot produce any documentary evidence. Allusions to the crannogues occur for the first time in the Irish Annals in the tenth century; but as "celts" of stone, and bronze weapons have been discovered in connection with several, it is probable that a period of about two thousand years may be assigned as an approximate date of some of the earliest.
We may generally class the objects discovered in the crannogues hitherto examined as follows:
Firstly-Weapons and instruments of bronze, or of a kind of bronze often much lighter in colour than found in the weapons, tools, etc., and called Celts, and in the swords, spear-heads, and so forth, of the earliest metallic period.
Secondly-Weapons and instruments composed of iron, the nature of which is particularly soft, and which in many specimens appears to corrode into a black stringy mass. In some instances, owing probably to the nature of the soil immediately in contact with them, the antiquities of iron appear in almost perfect preservation, exhibiting only a slightly black or bluish crust, which may be rubbed off with a little pressure, leaving the metal as bright as when, first forged.
Thirdly-Objects of glass and enamel work, and a few of pottery. Much of the enamel work, and some of the glass, might perhaps be described under the head of iron or bronze remains, as they are usually found encrusted upon one or other of those metals.
Fourthly-Articles of bone, of which some thousands of specimens occur.
Fifthly-Articles of stone.
Sixthly-Animal remains which have not been manufactured; and
Seventhly-Miscellaneous objects such as portions of dress, wooden drinking vessels, boats, etc.
Weapons or instruments of the true antique bronze are rarely found; but many hundreds of objects of brass or of a later kind of bronze have been collected. Pins occur in an almost incredible quantity. The greater number consist of a plain bar of bronze-like metal, ornamented chiefly about the head, but many are furnished with moveable rings at their upper extremity, and in several instances the rings are enriched by enamel, generally a combination of red and yellow, arranged in an interlaced pattern. Beads of blue glass, semi-opaque, have been found upon the ring, or have been overlapped by the pinhead, so as to constitute a ring in themselves. Brooches of exquisite workmanship and of most chaste and elegant design are found in connection with the rudest skewer-like pins of bone and even of wood. From the latter rude substitute for buttons the magnificent enamelled brooch may be traced step by step. The head has been fashioned into the form of an ornament, often of a ring pattern; next comes the plain moveable ring. Then the ring is divided and expanded at the ends to receive ornamentation frequently of enamel, and so to the fully-developed brooch, with its exquisitely interlaced patterns, and settings of glass, enamel or amber. In one instance the brooch was discovered carefully deposited in a box of yew, evidently formed for its safe keeping.
Tweezers, richly decorated and admirably adapted for the purpose of the removal of superfluous hairs, indicate that the islanders were not unmindful of their personal appearance.
Articles as diminutive as a small needle have been found so well preserved, that they might be still available for the manufacture of woollen garments. Shears or scissors of various sizes, bodkins and beautifully formed little knives, appear to have belonged to the fairer portion of the inhabitants. A fondness for personal decoration probably amongst the ladies is further indicated by the discovery of bracelets of bronze, jet, and strange to say, of glass, usually blue, semi-opaque, and ornamented with white interlacing patterns in the same material. Nor are necklaces wanting. In most of the crannogues, beads of enamelled glass, exhibiting in various colours spiral or herringbone ornamentation of jet and of amber, have been abundantly found. The beads of glass and enamel are amongst the most beautiful specimens of ancient manufacturing art hitherto discovered in the British islands. The enamel work, as found upon many of the brooches and pins, is extremely curious. The art was not known to the classical nations of antiquity during a period corresponding with the Roman occupation of Britain. Many of the pins and smaller objects, it should be observed, are exquisitely decorated in a style called "Niello work."
Of weapons or instruments devoted to war or the chase, many specimens have been discovered amongst the timbers of the huts, or in the adjoining soil. They consist chiefly of axe-heads of iron exactly similar to those represented upon the supposed Pictish monuments remaining in Scotland; swords, spear-heads, and daggers, the veritable "scian dubh" of the Highlanders. The swords are rarely more than twenty-four inches in length, and are often much shorter, and may be described as of two kinds: 1st, A straight-sided, double-edged blade, terminating somewhat abruptly in a triangular point. 2ndly, A blade also double-edged, but increasing in breadth from the handle towards the point, which, as in the other kind is usually of a triangular form. The handles, which are invariably so small as to excite surprise, were formed of bone, or horn, or of wood, and in many cases are ornamented with mountings of bronze. There were no guards, unless the slight projection of the hilt, overlapping the blade, can be so styled. The knives are of different kinds, and vary in size, from that of the modern office-knife, to about two feet. They are sharp only on one side, are finely pointed, and in the smaller examples had been socketed in little handles of wood or bone. The larger "scians," which may probably have been at times used as swords, have handles not differing from the true sword-hilt of bone or wood. The spear-heads are of various sizes; some are so diminutive that they might have been arrow points, while others measure nearly two feet. They are fashioned and ornamented exactly like the lance-heads usually found in Anglo-Saxon tumuli of about the sixth century. The base of the weapon seems also to have been armed with an iron point, as very frequently, where the heads have been discovered, a number of hollow, conical pieces of horn have accompanied them. The great majority of the swords, spearheads, and axes, are curiously small. One of the axe-heads scarcely measures an inch and a half in extreme length, and was probably a child's toy. Many of the ornaments also could only have been used by children.
Amongst the iron antiquities the occurrence of a few bridle-bits of iron tempt us to picture an ancient Celtic chief armed with his spear, sword, and axe, prancing along on his little steed, probably a kind of sheltie, for the bits are so small, that a horse of moderate size for our days could almost swallow them, side rings and all.
Many other portions of horse furniture may have been turned up, but hitherto none have been identified as such. That the islanders were in the habit of preying upon their neighbours, the fish, is shewn by the finding in several of the crannogues very well manufactured eel-spears. The sickles with which they cut their corn, the little saws with which they shaped their timber, the gouges with which they hollowed their boats or smoothed their lance shafts, their pots and skillets, are all represented by specimens more or less preserved in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, or in private collections. We should far exceed our limits were we to describe at greater length the fund of iron treasures which the lake islands have yielded to modern inquiry. We must pass to the objects of bone, a material which appears to have been very generally used amongst our forefathers in the manufacture of small ornamental articles, as well as in that of warlike weapons. It would appear, from the number of combs found in the crannogues, that great attention had been paid by the islanders to the cultivation of their hair. The combs, though rather coarse for the ideas of a modern belle, are often beautifully formed, and exhibit a variety of fanciful ornamentation. That they were considered precious many hundreds of years ago is evinced by the care with which ancient cracks, in several specimens, had been mended or secured by bronze wire. The combs are identical in form and decoration with many found in Roman stations in England, and which are supposed to have been in use not later than the fourth century a.d. But by far the most numerous articles of bone are the pins, bodkins, and needles, many of which exhibit great taste on the part of their manufacturers. Circular discs of bone, pierced in the centre and variously ornamented, are supposed to have been used in the process of spinning, and many pieces of tolerably fine woollen cloth are preserved amongst the other antiquities from Dunshaughlin and elsewhere. From the finding of a vast number of objects of metal, evidently in an unfinished state, and the occurrence of well-made crucibles in several of the more important crannogues, there can be little doubt that a manufactory of some kind anciently existed in several of the islands. At Dunshaughlin and at Strokestown large bones, such as might have belonged to the fore-leg of a cow, have been found nicely smoothed, and on the polished surface are engraved a variety of devices such as decorate the sides of many of the earliest stone crosses of Ireland. Some of the patterns are wonders of design and execution, and have evidently been finished with great care; while others have been apparently abandoned, and some are simple beginnings, consisting of mere scratches, in which, however, a regular plan can be distinctly traced. The designs are identical in character with many works known to be not later than the eighth century, and are, no doubt, "studies" made upon a small scale and in a soft material, to be afterwards enlarged and wrought out in stone or perhaps in bronze, as many of the brooches and other antiquities are decorated with similar patterns.
Strange as it may seem, when in all the crannogues a greater or less number of exquisitely-finished works in metal or other material have been found, objects of the rudest description very frequently accompany them. There may have been rich and poor among the islanders, or the articles must have been cast at times far apart; else it is strange to find savage-looking daggers, spear, and even axe heads of bone, lying within perhaps a few feet of graceful, highly-finished, and often well-steeled weapons.
The stone antiquities, though numerous, do not present any great variety. They consist chiefly of quern stones, the lamh-bro of the Irish, whetstones in great numbers, small perforated discs, usually called "whorls," supposed, like similar articles of bone, already described to have been used at the end of the distaff; besides a number of minor objects of less obvious character. Nearly every whetstone is pierced at one end, and some we have seen were furnished with a neat little loop or ring of bronze, as if for the purpose of suspending them.
It is not to be supposed that our islanders were without the means of visiting the main land. In the neighbourhood of every crannogue hitherto discovered a boat or boats have been found. They are invariably formed in canoe fashion, of a single piece of oak, and must be considered as very rude specimens of naval architecture. Boats of the kind, though extremely narrow and shallow, from their great length, (one we have seen measures twenty-two feet,) might safely carry a considerable number of passengers. A very fine specimen of the ancient Celtic boat was left high and dry upon the partial drainage of Strokestown crannogue, but as nobody claimed it the country-people had it soon chopped up for firewood!
We have said that the earliest notice of a crannogue in the Irish Annals occurs in the tenth century. The Four Masters state that in a.d 848, "Oinadeth, (Kennedy,) son of Conaing, lord of Cinachta-Breagh, in Meath, went with a strong force of foreigners, and plundered the Ui-Neill from the Sionainu (the river Shannon) to the sea; and he plundered the island of Loch Gabor, and afterwards burned it, so that it was level with the ground." Loch Gabor is the Lagore or Dunshaughlin of this article; but numerous references to crannogues, of various dates from the ninth to the sixteenth century, occur in the Annals above quoted.
With reference to the antiquities which we have little more than mentioned, and of which we could not hope to give a tolerably correct idea without the assistance of draughtsman and engraver, we may state that they have been examined by Kemble, Petrie, Wilde, Worsaae, Franks, and others, who have made the study of antiquities rank in its proper place as a science, and not as a harmless weakness peculiar to old gentlemen of the Dryasdust school. According to these authorities nine-tenths of the crannogue antiquities bear in their form, style of ornamentation, and in other respects, evidence of extreme antiquity. They are usually the work of a people who trod the lands we now call our own, at a time when the older civilization of the period of bronze had been decaying, perhaps, for many centuries, and ere yet a new style of art and manufacture for which Ireland especially, amongst the nations of western Europe, was famous, had become fully developed. The Opus Hibernicum was celebrated through Europe from a period about as early as the sixth century.
How the islands became submerged may be easily accounted for without recurring to the notices of burning and plundering, with which early authorities furnish us. It is well known that anciently the greater portion of Ireland was covered with a dense forest. As in the course of ages of neglect the water courses by which the greater rivers were fed became choked up, the forests became swamps, and eventually peat bogs. In like manner the outlets of the lochs ceased to carry off the water which winter storms would cause to invade the low-lying crannogues, in several of which there is evidence to prove that they had been gradually submerged.
Thanks to the engineers of the Board of Works, and to many private individuals, we now possess in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, much more than the nucleus of a collection, which, if properly studied, will throw more light upon the state, social and intellectual, of our ancestors, during, perhaps, the darkest period of their history, than all the books that have been written upon the subject.