Going underground

Eileen Battersby gets to grips with the spirits and beasts within Ireland's most numerous and under-appreciated field sites - …

Eileen Battersby gets to grips with the spirits and beasts within Ireland's most numerous and under-appreciated field sites - the souterrain

Anyone given to investigating the Irish landscape is well used to routinely thanking St Patrick for banishing snakes. Seldom is that whispered gratitude more heartfelt than when exploring the undergrowth feathering old churchyards and ruined castles, or most particularly, when easing one's way down into one of Ireland's most numerous, dark and under-appreciated of field sites, the souterrain.

Lacking the often romantic or eerie mythology and folklore of the ringfort, while also denied the dignity of burial sites, souterrains are perceived as merely underground structures, consisting of a passage, or passages, leading to one, or more, chambers. Archaeological research and speculation has seen them emerge as an intriguing combination of defensive measure and subtle housekeeping device - as a secure larder or cellar. Writing in 1789, William Beauford described the souterrain at Killshee, Co Kildare, as: "These caves, with others of a similar nature found in several parts of Ireland, were the granaries or magazines of the ancient inhabitants, in which they deposited their corn and provisions, and into which they also retreated in time of danger." Although proven to have survived long beyond the ringfort, they continue to be associated with the raths scattered above ground across the countryside.

Yet, souterrains are known to have not only survived or outlived the earlier ringfort, they also achieved an identity independent of the ringfort. Some scholars have suggested most were built between c.500AD and c.1200 AD. Mark Clinton challenges these dates in an important book, published this week. In The Souterrains of Ireland, he places the building period slightly later - between c.750 AD and c.1200AD, "with some further examples, mostly in the south, and possibly some later survivals in more remote areas".


The practice of building souterrains may well have been introduced to Ireland by monks returning from Europe. But these early Christian, man-made subterranean places, marked as "caves" on Ordnance Survey maps and known by the Irish word, uaimh, manage to adroitly straddle early Irish history and possess a historical continuity of their own. They also feature in the great Neolithic passage graves of Knowth, Dowth and Loughcrew.

The majestic mound of Knowth, with its long history of human settlement extending from the Stone Age through to early medieval times and the Norman period, is flanked by a number of satellite mounds. A series of nine souterrains from the early Christian period honeycomb that Royal site.

Knowth today, following 40 years of excavation under George Eogan, reads as a vital map of Ireland's early history. So vivid are the clues, it now appears a busy place, a settlement Eogan has described as an unenclosed village that flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries.

The souterrains of Co Meath are significant as part of the great passage tomb complexes. Areas of north Antrim, north Louth, south Galway, west Cork and parts of Co Kerry are also particularly rich in such structures. Current estimates suggest there are between 3,000 and 3,500 in existence throughout Ireland but the distribution is notably uneven. Counties Limerick and Carlow, for instance, have very few.

As with any ancient monument, the individual site possesses an element of mystery. Yet the overwhelming sensation created by them is respect for the practicality that created them. Believed to have been constructed as places of refuge and - with the development of settlement and its greater food demands - storage, they are intriguingly unobtrusive. Excavations confirm such structures were never intended as formal burial sites and there have been very few instances where of human remains being found within. The scattered bones located from time to time are, therefore, most likely to have belonged to unfortunates who entered the souterrain in hope of safety.

CLIMBING into one of these hiding places or medieval larders makes one feel more adventurer than intruder. Far more pressing that fears of disturbing a spirit is the possibility of encountering an animal who may not welcome human company. Clinton, whose book is the first such complete study of these sites, records his former professor, Ruaidhrí de Valera, advising him "beware the badger!" More than once while entering the darkness of a souterrain, thoughts have crossed my mind of exactly who or what may be residing within. Intending investigators may feel more comfortable on such explorations with the support of their dog should negotiations with the resident wildlife arise.

As Clinton's excellent work points out, there is a diversity of design and construction material used. While simple or complex in construction, there appears to have been two basic types, tunnelled or drystone built in prepared trenches. Sometimes a combination of techniques was used. However diverse they are, they tend to share at least two structural aspects, an entrance and a chamber. Also common is the use of linking passages.

It is true they are like burrows and may well have been inspired by the builders having observed the habits of natural architects, animals. Having sat in a good many over the years, the strongest sensation I've experienced aside from the initial claustrophobia, is the smell of damp earth, as well as the, at times, powerful aroma of habitation. And as Prof de Valera, to whom Clinton dedicates his book, knew well, badgers and, perhaps, foxes, like souterrains. While I think I may have smelt them, I have yet to disturb one in its souterrain home.

Should it be raining outside, the souterrain seems all the more comfortable. And whereas not even the most stabbing hunger could justify the consumption of even a modest lunch in a tomb or passage grave, on occasion I have eaten chocolate or an apple while sitting in a souterrain watching rabbits hurry by.

Although the depths, as well as the styles vary, it is wrong to assume the souterrain is a particularly predictable form. Some are much deeper than others and far more complex. At times, the changes of ground level once inside are surprising, even dramatic. It can happen that having crawled in and achieved a sitting position, there is a chance of further working your way down a passage that will eventually open on to an area in which it is possible to stand. This is where the theory of the souterrain as a defensive measure during small raids is best illustrated; an incoming attacker would be at an obvious disadvantage. In a more long term, siege-like situation, the problems are obvious - the refugee could be burnt out or with escape impossible, simply starve to death, which may explain the random discovery of human remains.

Stone and earth dominate but some structures were made from timber and evidence of a few partly surviving wooden examples have been found. The late Laurence Flanagan wrote of one discovered at Coolcran, Co Fermanagh. Clinton elaborates on the site, which was revealed as a result of a farm improvement scheme in the early 1980s, that had resulted in the excavation of a ringfort. "Owing to the level of the water-table, the lower reaches of a wood-built souterrain were uncovered in a long and narrow earth-cut trench." Many souterrains were detected during ploughing. It seems obvious that their builders were aware the rock-cut versions would have been more secure than the earth-tunnelled ones, which would have been vulnerable to roof collapse.

As Clinton concludes, "the overwhelming majority of souterrains in Ireland were drystone-built structures. Tunnelled souterrains constituted a distinct minority, confined in general to the extreme north and the extreme south".

The Souterrainsof Ireland is yet another example of current outstanding Irish scholarship in the area of archaeology and historical geography. Even now at a time when most archaeological excavation work is development or "rescue" led, and there are fears about delays in the publishing of excavation reports, substantial scholarly and informative books such as this are being published by Irish publishers. Clinton's book emulates that of Matthew Stout's detailed study, The Irish Ringfort (Four Courts Press, 1997). The uneven national distribution of souterrains is clearly explained and recorded, as are the variety of design and range of construction features. He backs up his findings by referring to his own research, which has been extensive, as well as acknowledging the work of others.

While Clinton's text is lucid, deliberate and carefully argued, invariably deferring to sources, many readers, the amateur field enthusiast, as well as professional archaeologist will be fascinated by the bibliography and extensive appendix, including county-by-county site inventories and detailed profiles of Ireland's surviving, indexed souterrains. There is also valuable information on the use of Ogham-inscribed stones as lintels in the construction of these hiding places.

As is true of the best academic archaeological texts, this well-presented book, having informed and excited, will draw the reader out into the field. There are fascinating asides, such as: "probably the most enigmatic find in a souterrain, to date, came from Cahercommaun, Co Clare (Hencken, 1938), where a human skull, practically complete except for the lower jaw, was uncovered towards the inner terminal... it rested on a small slab of limestone... on its left side, facing south. It had been placed in a carefully arranged setting of small flat stones. Immediately beneath the skull was a large iron hook".

PRESENT-DAY research is well represented by Clinton. Yet he acknowledges the great antiquarians of the past, as well as the archaeologists of the early to mid-20th century who studied these subtle field monuments. The work of Thomas Westropp is mentioned, as is that of Sir William Wilde and Robert Lloyd Praeger. Naturally, Seán Ó Ríordáin's pioneering Antiquities of the Irish Countryside (1942) is included, the fifth edition of which was revised by Ruaidhrí de Valera in 1978, shortly before his death.

It was Ó Ríordáin who wrote a separate chapter on souterrains in Antiquities of the Irsh Countryside, noting the connection with forts. "In many forts," he wrote, "it is possible to surmise that a souterrain exists because subsidence indicates its position and may even show the approximate outline of the structure."

He also conceded the potential complexity of such monuments and referred to other European examples. Clinton follows this European aspect up in far greater detail.

Among my own books is a first edition of The Archaeology of Ireland, by the first professor of archaeology at University College, Dublin, R.A.S. Macalister. It was published in 1928. Macalister was prolific and hyperactive in the field, and equally lively on the page. Facing page 164 of that book is a wonderful plate, a black and white photograph of a souterrain of an earthen fort near Killarney. In describing a souterrain, he allows that the exploration of such a monument is "often very difficult, owing to the amount of mud, earth, and stones that have accumulated since the abandonment of the fort - not to speak of the dead sheep and other unpleasant things, which are often cast into these receptacles to get them out of the way".

Macalister's blend of brisk enthusiasm, scholarship and practicality are in character with the spirit of the present generation of archaeologists who explore the landscape and the traces of our ancient past that, in spite of neglect and development, continue to survive.

The Souterrains of Ireland by Mark Clinton is published by Wordwell. £25.