Archaeologist finds 200-year-old Galway ‘refugee camp’

‘Ultachs’ sold poor land after being forced south in sectarian linen industry war

Traces of a “refugee camp” dating back some 220 years have been identified by an archaeologist on the slopes of south-east Galway’s Slieve Aughty mountains.

Community archaeologist Dr Christy Cunniffe believes he has found the location of temporary camps set up by "Ultachs" or Catholics who fled from the north in the 1790s to avoid persecution by bands of Protestant agitators known as the "Peep-O-Boys" or "Peep O'Day Boys".

Dr Cunniffe believes the site is a “physical manifestation of what has existed in local folk memory for years” and “evidence of one the largest internal migrations” in recent Irish history.

The first clues – a series of circular ditches dug around hut foundations on land owned by Woodford farmer Patrick McGann – were initially thought to date to the Bronze Age, or to settlements for summer pasture, Dr Cunniffe explains.


Further consultation with archaeologists about the cluster of features then pointed to the existence of an extensive refugee camp, he says.

Up to 7,000 Catholics are believed to have been displaced from the Armagh county area, after competition within the linen industry culminated in the Battle of the Diamond on September 21st, 1795 near Loughgall.

An estimated 30 “Catholic Defenders” were killed, and many of their neighbours were burned out of their homes and fled to areas such as the Slieve Aughty mountains. The Peep-O-Boys, who claimed victory, were precursors of the Orange Order.

Unfortunately, the south Galway-bound migrants may have been taken advantage of before they left Ulster, Dr Cunniffe says.

‘Raw mountain’

The then landlord Thomas Burke of Marble Hill had pre-sold "farm land" to them which turned out to be "raw mountain" in the Slieve Aughty range.

Burke’s “cynical sale” caused tensions between the Ultach settlers and the existing tenants who resented the resulting lack of access to their grazing lands on commonage, he explains.

The migrants cleared the slopes, then dug a mixture of lime and sand or gravel into the ground and allowed it to interact with the soil to form a compost which sustained cultivation of potatoes and oats, he says.

They also burned the lime from limestone taken from the river beds below, while stones taken from the land were used for houses.

“They built roads, and grew flax, built limekilns and corn-drying kilns, and we have also found two sweathouses which were used for curing illnesses,” he says.

Dr Cunniffe has identified up to four major clusters in and around the Woodford parish area, which were the original footholds for “ladder farming” – a type of land management system which was a step up from “rundale” or sub-divided separate plots around “clachan” (small hamlet) settlements.

In the area, many Ulster surnames, such as McGann, Reilly, McCabe, Murray and McGuire, still survive, he says.

Burial ground

He adds that an unrecorded children’s burial ground in Toorleitra townland has proven to be a former burial ground associated with Ultachs, while the site of a former pre-Emancipation Catholic chapel in the townland of Loughatorick appears to have been erected by the settlers.

An examination of the modern graveyard in Woodford village also shows that they began burying their dead there in the 1850s, shortly after the graveyard opened, he says. Their burial places stand out as “high-status monuments”, he adds.

"These were people whose ancestors could have witnessed the plantation of Ulster, and who were regarded as outsiders in the west of Ireland until their descendants got involved in the land wars of the 1880s," Dr Cunniffe says.

He is not convinced that detailed excavation of the area is merited. He says the discovery presents cultural opportunities in the Slieve Aughtys, where there are “layers of archaeology” dating back to the Bronze Age, including fulachta fiadh or cooking pits.

He has paid tribute to Mr McGann for allowing him access to his land, and to the Heritage Council, NUI Galway and the local community.

Woodford Heritage Centre is one of a plethora of locations hosting events for National Heritage Week, from Saturday, August 19th, and a full programme is on

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times