Caher Drinny

Ballyhoura Hills Project

The Ballyhoura Hills area, includes parts of counties Limerick, Tipperary and Cork


About the project

The Ballyhoura Hills Project monograph was published in 2008 after many years of fieldwork and research by Martin Doody and his team at the Discovery Programme. The Ballyhoura Hills area, includes parts of counties Limerick, Tipperary and Cork and the landscape varies from the extensive tillage areas of the Blackwater Valley, the mountains landscape of the Ballyhoura Hills and the relatively undisturbed pastureland to the north. The aim of the project was to identify new archaeological sites of Bronze and Iron Age date (4500 to 2400 years ago).

BHRP 3d Graphic

The project also set out to test a number of new survey methods in Irish archaeology and to determine how they could best be used together. Aerial survey of the area had already been completed and the resulting photographs were examined to identify which sites would be targeted for more detailed examination. Historic sources, as well cartographic sources were also consulted during this phase of the project. Many of the sites identified were only visible as ‘crop-marks’ patterns created in fields where the crops are grown above long vanished structures. Archaeologists selected those sites which they thought were most like to cast light on the study period, Bronze Age and Iron Age, for further investigation. Detailed investigations of these crop marks mapped the surface of the ground (topographical survey) as well as the archaeology below the surface (geophysical survey).  Archaeological excavation was carried out on a small number of sites, with the aim of identifying their function and date.

Excavations in Ballyhoura

Archaeological excavations at Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary allowed Martin Doody and his team to gain an insight into how people lived during the Bronze Age. Chancellorsland Site A was a habitation site, dating to the Middle Bronze Age (1600-1300BC).

Bally Houra Geo physics
Bally Houra Geo physics

A farming family

The people living there, probably an extended family group, were farmers, keeping cattle, sheep and pigs and growing crops. The site itself is oval in plan, measuring 60m by 50m and is enclosed by a double ditch which appears to have been dug in three stages. The enclosure would have offered some protection from wild animals to the people and animals housed within it but it was designed to define the farmstead rather than act as a defensive structure.

Traces of at least ten structures came to light, some rectangular, others circular, and not all in use at the same time. The finds came mainly from the ditches and consisted largely of pottery, although other artefacts in the form of struck flint and chert (a hard stone) were also found. The inhabitants of the site used wood to make a variety of objects and these were found in large quantities in the inner ditch where they had presumably been discarded. The wet conditions on the site, particularly in the waterlogged ditch meant that these wooden objects were preserved.

Later settlement at Chancellorsland

A circular earthwork (site C) 40 m in diameter and enclosed by a ditch was also excavated at Chancellorsland. It was more difficult to interpret with nine recorded phases of at this site, from the Middle Bronze Age to later Medieval times. The indications are that Site C filled a largely ritual function throughout most of its life, perhaps with short-term periods of occupation over a number of seasons.

Reconstruction drawing of Site A, Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary. Part of the Ballyhoura Hills Project.
Reconstruction drawing of Site A, Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary. Part of the Ballyhoura Hills Project.

Marking a frontier: Earthworks and hillforts

Frontier Earthworks: The Claidh Dubh

A Sunday Times article in 1998 described this feature as the Irish Hadrian’s wall and while this may be over stating the evidence it does help to convey the scale and likely function of the earthwork. The Claidh Dubh is a linear earthwork running for a distance of 22 kilometres (14 miles) across the Blackwater Valley in North Cork. The entire earthwork was surveyed, 800m in close detail. Limited excavation was also carried out on a section in the Nagles Mountains.


Excavations of the Cliadh Dubh

The purpose of the excavation was to examine the construction of the earthwork and to attempt to retrieve dating evidence. This work has shown that the earthwork varies considerably along its length. Parallel to the bank, on the eastern side and seemingly contemporary with it, was a surfaced trackway. Dates are uncertain, but the one Carbon 14 date retrieved indicates that a growth of peat had formed over the trackway by 100 A.D. It may well be, therefore, that both earthwork and track date from Iron Age times. Similar earthworks are known from other parts of Ireland, such as the Dorsey in Co. Armagh and the Black Pig’s Dyke, which runs across much of Ulster. These seem to date from much the same period as the Claidh Dubh and appear to have acted as frontier defences of emerging or established northern kingdoms. The Claidh Dubh may be another such frontier boundary.

Hillforts: a network of control

Three hillforts, Castlegale, Caherdrinny and Carn Tigherna are strategically placed in this part of the valley of the river Blackwater. These forts can each be seen one from the other and together may have worked to control access and communication along the valley. All three were survey in detail to reveal features which were often hidden beneath overgrowth.

Castle Gale fort is built on an inland promontory, and is somewhat triangular in plan. A detailed three-dimensional survey revealed that the site consisted of two banks with the entrance at the southern side. Steep slopes provide natural defence especially on the north side.

Caherdrinney situated at the western end of the Kilworth mountain range is the largest of the three Blackwater Valley hillforts. The fort is defined by a single rampart of dumped stone enclosing 13 hectares (31 acres) and detailed survey of the best-preserved sections revealed previously unrecorded entranceways and structural details.

Carn Tigherna hillfort is built on a steep-sided hill at the eastern end of the Nagles mountain range to the south of Fermoy, Co. Cork. The fort consists of a single rampart of dumped sandstone, irregularly oval in plan, enclosing an area of 3 hectares (8 acres). A survey of the site revealed complex external earthworks and entrances which were previously unrecorded. The summit of the hill is dominated by a Bronze-Age burial cairn, which when opened in the 1830s, was found to contain two burials.