Discovery of a Souterrain in Athenry – Christmas 1998

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Earlier this year, on the 16th of June, a new antiquity was added to Athenry’s links with the past: a souterrain.  On that day I received a telephone call from Mr. Thomas Cleary, 4 Abbey Row, Athenry, to inform me that when burying a dog in the field immediately outside the shed behind his house, a stone-built tunnel had been found.  Abbey Row is built along the site of the western side of the former cloister (destroyed about 1750) of the adjacent Dominican Priory of SS.  Peter and Paul; the gardens behind Abbey Row are on the site of the cloister garth and the sheds are built along the site of the former eastern cloistral buildings.  The souterrain therefore ran under these latter buildings. I inspected the discovery that evening and examined it on the following morning.

The discovery was made when two large stones were encountered at about 40cm. below the present ground surface, at a point 1.15in. east of the back of the shed wall and 15.70m. south of the wall of a shed against the southern wall of the Priory (this shed adjoins and is in line with the 16th century sacristy).  The find spot can be marked on the O.S 6-inch scale sheet 84 for Co. Galway, at a point 43.8cm. from the western margin and 17. 1 cm. from the southern margin.

The two stones encountered covered a small gap between two much larger slabs, and when removed the resultant opening measured only 40cm.  N – S and 22cm.  E – W, which was unfortunately too small to allow entrance.  However, it was possible to look into the souterrain, though not easily, by which means it could be seen that it was built with walls of small well-set-stones, apparently with the top stones corbelled and was roofed by large transversely – laid lintels.  It could also be seen that the portion discovered was the end of a straight passage or gallery running East-West, terminating at a distance of 70cm. from the eastern edge of the opening, and blocked by earthen fill about 2.00m. west of the opening this fill may well be the result of the probable discovery of the souterrain when either the cloistral buildings or the sheds were being built.

The souterrain as revealed measured almost 3.00m. in length, averaged 1.00m. in width, and was at least 90cm. in height (the earthen fill prevented a more accurate measurement being made).  Three large stone lintels could he seen, one to the east of the opening, covering the end of the souterrain, and two to the west, the second one being lower than that at the opening.  All the stones seem to be of limestone.

Souterrains’ or ‘caves’ as they are often referred to by local farmers and others, are underground tunnels consisting of galleries / passages, or chambers, or a combination of both, and which may include ‘creeps’, recesses, cubbyholes, air-vents and other features, There are some 3,500 known in Ireland, being particularly common in the North-East, in Louth and Meath, in Connacht and Clare, and in West and South Munster; some similar monuments are known in Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany, but they tend to be earlier than the Irish ones and any relationship remains doubtful.

Some of the souterrains in the South-West of Ireland were made wholly or in part by tunnelling in the hard subsoil or rock, but the vast majority of Irish souterrains were constructed by first digging the desired passages and chambers in the earth, lining the resultant excavation with drystone walling and then roofing it with large transversely-laid stone lintels.  Though wide – ranging dates, have been suggested for Irish souterrains, a recent in-depth study by Dr. Mark Clinton (and as yet unpublished doctoral thesis for the National University of Ireland, Galway) indicates that their floruit was between about 750 and 1250 A.D., those in the South, and perhaps also in West.

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About this record

Written by Etienne Rynne

Published here 18 Apr 2023 and originally published Christmas 1998

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