Souterrain Architecture and Functions in County Cork

Introduction and Objectives

Souterrains beneath the landscape of South Munster are not all one and the same monument type. Instead, there are several types of architectural monument present. All they have in common, ultimately, is that they are located underground i.e. they are ‘sou’ meaning ‘under’ and ‘terrain’ meaning the ‘ground’.  It is a collective term, derived from the French, which has been in use since the early 19th century. In Latin, souterrains fall in to a broader category of monuments known as Subterranea and Hypogea which includes many other forms of underground monument. Included under this heading are mines, hypogea and a wide variety of other subterranean structural entities.  In Italian the word Sotterranea is used. It also refers to a broad range of underground monument types. A global database for underground monuments is available from Joep Orbons at  In Germany and Austria the term used is Erdstall. There is a wealth of information available online when one searches under the above terms. But these are all broadly defining modern classificatory terms. What were these monuments and their forms known as when they were created? What local names did they have in the folklives and languages of the countries in which they have been found?

It is interesting to read that in Russia medieval monastery prisons were referred to as ‘earth caves’. In Scotland, a vernacular term for a souterrain is ‘erd hous’ (earth house). This term was also used for Irish souterrains in 19th century translations of a work about the 12th century Norman conquest of Ireland. In Cornwall in England the folk term for a souterrain is ‘fogou’ but its actual meaning is unclear. It does have some similarities with an early Irish word ‘foth’ meaning ‘under’ – Cornwall being a place in which remnants of the Gaelic language survived, and the English word ‘hou / hous’. In Irish there are a variety of vernacular terms some of which directly reference that fact that the monument is underground while others do not. In date, use of these terms seems to range from the Early Medieval period to recent times. There are terms like ‘tig faoi talamh’ meaning ‘house under the ground’, ‘poll faoi talamh / poll talamh’ meaning ‘pit or hole under the ground’ which emphasise the underground nature of these structures. But there are also terms which imply an underground situation such as ‘Carrig an tSeomra’ meaning the ‘rock of the room’ – if it is a souterrain that is being referred to, ‘cró’ meaning a shelter e.g. beneath a rock cleft. Other words like pruachais (from pruch or protóg) referring to a hole in the ground, a hovel or a little house are to be found as place name elements. It is interesting to note in such cases that it is the function, rather than the situation, of the monument which is being referred to in the folk term. Perhaps it is also the case that local place names such as Cill Clugh (Kilclogh) meaning ‘bell cell’ and Cill Paidir (Kilpadder) meaning ‘prayer cell’ also refer to souterrains. Perhaps it is also the case that place names such as Cloonkirgeen (Cluain Creagán) meaning meadow/hermitage of the rocky, craggy place refer to a ‘cell’, a ‘cave’ such as that four chambered clay tunnelled souterrain surveyed there in 1973 by Dermot C. Twohig.

The Irish word for a cave is uaimh or pluais. A detailed study of words and synonyms relating to hovels, holes and caves in Fr. Patrick Dineen’s Irish Dictionary may reveal much more. One surprising term there is ‘túr faoi talamh’ i.e. tower under the ground, which in terms of ascetic Christian thinking may have quite an interesting meaning. Also of interest are words from early Irish literature such as ‘fitecc’ which seems to break down in to ‘fi’ meaning ‘faoi’ for ‘under’ and ‘tecc’ meaning ‘teach’ for ‘house’; though it is not clear if this term is referring to an ‘under the ground house’ or to a space ‘under the house’ i.e. a cellar. Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin identified that in a Gaelic translation of the Travels of Marco Polo (Stokes 1897, 107) the Latin phrase ‘in cavernis subterraneis’ was translated as ‘i fidhacaibh talman’ the plural of ‘fidhacaibh’ being ‘fitecc’.

It is also of interest that the Norman chronicler Geraldus Cambrensis in his 12th century record of the Conquest of Ireland (Expugnatio Hibernica) states that the people of Connaught in 1177 AD, in advance of an invasion by Milo deCogan, burned all provisions which they could not conceal in underground vaults i.e. ’que ypogeis subterraneis abscondere non poterant’. It was not uncommon in rural Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries to come across ringforts and their souterrains being referred to locally as Dane’s forts and Dane’s caves i.e. that Viking settlers either Danish or Norwegian in origin had either built or at one time occupied such places. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to see a certain common sense in this if an existing Gaelic clan chief had been dispossessed, or through integration and a Gaelic marriage, had become the lord of a locality in which the ringfort occupied a dominant place, a symbol of status, such as a farmstead leading to local tradition subsequently associating the ringfort – and souterrains in the vicinity, with the Danes. In the Aghabulloge area, Cork, in the 10th century AD, a Viking group (settlement?) associated with the local O’Mahoney clan were attacked by the forces of King Brian Boru of North Munster. Peake, where the souterrain was discovered, is a townland within Aghabulloge. Was it a souterrain lodging which became a refuge during the attack? Was a failed attempt made to smoke out the inhabitants, leaving charred walls and burnt skeletal remains as in the Rev. Marmaduke Cox’s mid 18th century report on the discovery? Was a wooden box with a wooden comb in it, found in one of the chambers, an artefact of Scandinavian manufacture or from elsewhere in the Viking or Saxon world?

There has been was a tendency during the 19th and 20th centuries to see all souterrains across Ireland as one and the same monument type and consequently to date them all as representing a single phase of time in Irish history. During these centuries archaeological interpretations of their function tended to see them as a single monument type, regardless of architectural form. The debate about their function boiled down to their use either as storage places or as places of refuges. But there is little in the way of cumulative tangible or scientifically recorded evidence used to sustain these arguments. As a potential example of a refuge souterrain with evidence for persons at one time still present the Peake souterrain discovered in the mid 18th century near Donoughmore, Cork has never been re-located and examined. The Dunisky souterrain near Macroom, Cork has features to it and its location which might suggest a refuge intention in its construction; though parts of it also had the potential for other uses such as cellar storage. Lucas’s (1971-73) paper on the medieval literary evidence for Irish souterrains quotes a variety of functions from the literature which range from religious uses to refuges to places of concealment for valuables. Rev. Canon Patrick Power’s work in Waterford and East Cork identified places named ‘chimney field’ with the presence of souterrains and there is an intriguing modern image from Northern Spain of rural subterranean dwellings cut into sloping land surfaces with chimney stacks smoking on the land surface above.

In the early 16th century Laurent Vital arrived at Kinsale, Cork in the company of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand and made a record of some local information which included a reference to Gaelic persons in the locality residing underground. In Spain, when in the Castille region, he noted a case of villagers living in underground lodgings; but during a subsequent visit these caves had been converted to backyard sheds and stables as the villagers were then housed in buildings erected in front of the caves (pers comm Prof. Hiram Morgan). From the 1930s a school child recording local folklore at Burren a coastal townland just west of Kinsale noted a local tradition that a field there with an enclosure had ‘doors’ to underground dwellings, though it is unclear as to precisely where such doors were situated i.e. porch-like doors, free standing above ‘holes’ i.e. shafts leading down to the lodgings or were the ‘doors’ in the face of a sloping piece of land, something still evident not too distant west of Rosscarbery. In the case of free standing structures how easy it is to think of examples of references to souterrain entrances situated in clocháns, and perhaps to less tangible structures now vanished.

What is suggested to me by all of the above is that there are several types of medieval underground structure beneath the South Munster landscape, that each type has its own story, date frame and function, that some have late prehistoric origins, that others are representative of the activities of Celtic Christianity and subsequent anchorite revivals, and that, cumulatively, as the centuries rolled by these vernacular architectural forms existed in parallel with each other, some forms being abandoned and forgotten, others retained in use to be re-used and repurposed according to needs and circumstances as subsequent histories unfolded; stories of impoverishment and destitution, of wars and rebellions, of colonisation and plantation, stories of Misère, stories such as the wife and children of the Earl of Desmond being discovered hiding in a ‘cave’ in the aftermath of the Desmond Wars.

What I have written above raises many questions about what precisely the legacy of medieval underground monuments in South Munster is and why there are so many. Based on the types of information quoted above I am of the view that, in spite of local adaptations and local variations in design and form, the souterrain legacy is one of several monument types each with its own design template and each with its own originally intended function. This is my view based on the historical record and without considering what the archaeological one has to say. Had I begun my archaeological work from this historical perspective the process of interpreting the field evidence for the monuments might have been less onerous than it has been. However in 1975 the objective was to make sense of the archaeological record, as it was at that time, and therefore, even though my understanding of what is in the historical record now coincides with what is in the archaeological record, two very different and independent research pathways have been followed to arrive at the same conclusion i.e. that there are several distinct souterrain types beneath the South Munster landscape.

When I first began in 1975 AD to look at the literature of site discovery reports for Cork County I was not expecting to see the range of architectural forms presented in the site records. However by 1977 when summarising and structuring the corpus of site information I had gathered, it became very obvious that architecturally there was more than one site form and that in fact there were several design templates for these monuments; in some cases a template was repeated frequently in largely proximate localities, while in other cases less so or not at all. What did it mean? Were they all just variations on a single theme or were there multiple themes involved each with its own agenda?  Was there also a rational as to why some sites in some localities were rock or clay tunnelled while in other areas dry masonry construction was the norm? To try to make some sense of these questions and interpret what information I had I decided to devise a classification system based on making thumbnail diagrams of those souterrain reports for which plans existed and then bringing them together into a matrix of design types. Rough though the outcome was, my interpretation was that the process revealed a set of template types, and each ‘type group’ could be subdivided into three sub-categories and verbally defined. It is still a rough classification scheme awaiting further fieldwork. The quality of the information available to me in 1977 varied in standard and had been accumulating across more than two centuries of field recording, Such work was undertaken by amateur as well as professional archeologists and by antiquarians. Some of it was nothing more than quick field sketches, drawn and /or verbal, partial investigations due to site collapse; others the outcome of full scale surveying and exploration and very occasional excavation. After classifying as many sites as I could with the information available I then proceeded to plot the classified sites on to a map of County Cork.

Definition of Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is a form of architectural expression which is derived from the availability of natural resources within a particular landscape setting. The forms it can take are dictated by function and practicality as well as, to an extent, by custom and tradition. It therefore has variability to it as need is adapted to available skill levels in construction, intended use and standard of use, expectations and what the available resources are, be they stone, wood or mud. Form is adaptable according to the workability of the materials. Approximations are common and allowances are made. It is not monumental architecture and an expression of wealth or status; although using stone and using corbelling techniques may indicate some degree of status for the intended occupant or use of the structure. Some souterrains are, in their simplicity of form and workmanship, examples of excellent and experienced masonry work. Some are not. Some tunnelled souterrains are clever adaptations to rock or subsoil textures. Others attempts were not so fortunate resulting in crude, roughly hewn spaces.

The 1977 Classification System – Revelations and Flaws


The above classification matrix is not definitive or comprehensive and will need updating in the light of the Cork Archaeological Survey (see It is the best that I could extract in 1977 from the available data. Since then I have decided that subclass C2 above is more than likely a variant of subclass C3 and that some C3 sites may have elements of Ci in them. There are some A1 sites such as those with long passages leading to them which may be just territorial variations of B1. Some B2 sites may be revealed as B3 with further investigation. Some A3 may be revealed as folded versions of B1 or those A1 sites with long passages. The advantage of the matrix was that it allowed me to separate and group sites forms which appeared to re-occur in the Cork archaeological record up to 1977. Without the ability to go back into the field, rediscover all of these sites and make accurate and complete survey drawings, all one could do was work with amateur and antiquarian records or those made by professional archaeologists, sometimes complete and excellent examples of detailed field recording, sometimes not so due to site collapses and other difficulties. Plotting the classification as it was onto a map of Cork County  was a useful exercise i that it revealed some degree of territorial patterning and trends for the classes. In an ideal scenario where all of the currently known sites were comprehensively and accurately surveyed for South Munster, it would be interesting to see to what extent the 1977 patterns are indicative of alternating forms of souterrain design and functional needs across a South Munster landscape of tuathas and ploughlands rather than counties, civil parishes and townlands. The matrix was simply a research tool, a beginning, a means to an end not as yet well defined. The method of deriving the matrix was to create thumbnail sketches from all of the drawings for Cork sites available in 1977 and to then attempt to define common shapes or forms which suggested distinct design forms; though allowing for individual site variations and approximations as local vernacular architectural interpretations.


Construction templates for Cork Souterrain Classes.

Templates: Vernacular architecture has much to do with individual adaptations of a design concept according to need, as well as adaptations to local circumstances; be the requirement of the client for whom the site is made that of a cellar, a shrine, a habitation or a religious cell.  My approach in creating these templates was to take the Cork souterrain survey drawings made by researchers in the field up to 1977 and try to make a synthesised drawing to represent  each site subclass. In a sense one might ask what types of drawings would one give to a mason or tunneller if one wished to have one or all of these souterrain subclasses constructed today in an outdoor folk museum park?

The A1 Sites

A1 class souterrain. Derived from several Cork examples. This image shows a longitudinal cross section of the structure with an indication of the floor area in front linking to the slide shaft entrance. While ogham inscribed slabs are not a usual feature of A1 sites an example is reported from Cooldorragha, Cork and in Waterford the Dromlohan souterrain, a single chamber site has ten ogham stones used in its construction.  R. R. Brash described Cooldorragha as being a a long single chamber part of which turned at right angles and ended in a curved wall face. I wonder if what was described was similar to Thomas Carve’s  17th century illustration of  the Purgatory cave at St.Ptarick’s Island, Lough Derg, Donegal.
Lough Derg Purgatory cave from Thomas Carve

The A2 Sites

A2 class souterrain. Based on site at Ballyanly, Inniscarra, Co. Cork. Masonry constructed. In some examples have a slightly curved gallery end wall.

The A3 Sites

A3 class souterrain. Based on site at Rath townland, near Youghal County Cork. Masonry constructed.

The B1 Sites

B1 class souterrain i.e. corralled dome and passage way, joined by a creepway. Masonry constructed though examples of part tunnelling may also be found e.g. Coolgarrif in Cork. Specific to Fir Maige kingdom and periphery?

The B2 Sites

B2 class souterrain. 2 or 3 cells joined by creepways and with a slide shaft entrance. Masonry constructed though some examples of clay tunnelling in part or totally also exist. Specific to Fir Maige kingdom and periphery?

The B3 Sites

B3 class souterrain at Ballyhindon, Fermoy, Cork. Based on Crofton Croker drawing. Masonry constructed though some examples of clay tunnelling may also exist. Specific to Fir Maige kingdom and periphery?

The C1 Sites

Two chambers (cells, cubicles) clay-cut with their long axes parallel and joined by a creepway. Tunnelled or masonry constructed entrance passage. Sometime the second chamber can be smaller and may have a circular plan.

The C2 Sites: Class no longer applicable as amalgamated with class C3.

The C3 Sites

Multi-chambered site with anywhere from 3 to 7 chambers (cells, cubicles). Most commonly found in SW Cork. Clay-tunnelled. But, query about whether Ballycateen souterrains and Dunbeacon souterrain, both in Cork, could be masonry versions.

The Souterrain Classes identified and other forms not clearly identified in the Record

In brief the matrix classification system identified 9 souterrain subclasses within 3 major classes. The A class sites were drystone built using the ‘cut and cover’ method of construction. The B class were also drystone built but with an emphasis on their use of dome shaped chambers built using the corbelling technique. The C class was where distinct examples of rock and clay tunnelled sites were placed. Any other site forms, often not fully recorded or difficult to interpret from the record were placed in a loosely labelled D Class. In an ideal scenario where we had all of the corpus of souterrains underlying South Munster discovered and fully recorded it would be interesting to see to what extent the contents of this D class might reconfigure a future matrix of its souterrain architecture. Alternatively it might confirm and enhance what the 1977 matrix had to say.

Though the use of tunnelling in the creation of souterrains appeared to be most common in South West Cork in the lands of Muskerry and Carbery, it was also notable that the option of using tunnelling for certain parts of some drystone sites in the A and B classes was evident in the record. I wondered for a time if the matter of tunnelled versus drystone built was a cultural issue across differing tribes and their lands. I still think there is validity in this question and I still think that there may be something to do with the influences of differing ecclesiastical groups, and their origins, in the stories of these souterrain forms and their locations.

How have I arrived at deciding which template forms represent which functions?

It is often said that form follows function: therefore, intended function dictates the design of form; a variety of functional needs can therefore lead to a variety of form designs. The reverse logic of this is that form designs reflect functional intentions. Some scholars, in the past, have taken the view that the designing of souterrain forms was a modular affair i.e. that a few basic chamber shapes were chosen from a range of template forms and that these were then combined according to intended use, and local circumstances, with passages and creepways acting as linking devices. There is a degree of accuracy to this viewpoint, but it is not all encompassing. The template for a chamber (cubicle, room, cell) can have either of two design forms i.e. a ‘beehive’ dome or a rectangular box. The chamber can be constructed either as a dry masonry entity, or, as a tunnelled (rock or clay) entity. Local materials, circumstances, skills available, as well as perhaps elements of local cultural traditions, can influence how well defined the structure of the chamber will be, how approximate of the template design it will be. This in turn leads to some examples of well formed structures and to others which are less so; an intended rectangular chamber may be sub-rectangular or irregular in shape as a result. Some examples will have walls and ceilings which allow height for sitting or kneeling or even standing upright in them, others will have low curved ceilings, little of no wall elements – the arc of the ceiling curving down to floor level, allowing for crawling and ‘lying down only’ positions of movement. Intentional or otherwise such positions can imply an act of humility. The main axis line through the site may be straight or it may curve, it may stay on one level or it may slope downwards. Chambers may be grouped together in a linear fashion with their long axes following from one to another. Alternatively, some chambers may be placed in parallel or at right angles to each other or have an arc like arrangement; which may or may not relate to the depth and extent of subsoil deposits at the site’s location.

Some sites will have a small entrance chamber below ground acting as a porch or vestibule. Evidence for the use of a masonry built porch or entrance ‘box’ leading from surface level comes from Carhoovauler and Underhill, both clay tunnelled sites in Cork, both features incorporating Ogham stones in their construction. Some chambers, at a particular sites, will be smaller than others in terms of their dimensions. Some sites will have a chamber which is much larger than the others and, to me, this might represent a place of gathering for occupants of the other chambers e.g. to share a meal, talk or pray. Creepways – which depending on length I have called a creephole or creepway, can link one’s passage from one chamber to the next. They are found placed directly opposite each other at one end of a chamber, or at the centre, or alternatively at different ends of a chamber. If all chambers were occupied at one time one wonders how discommoding it might have been for such occupants if the person in the end chamber wished to exit the site by passing through each of the other chambers?


Passages are used to link chambers to the surface, as are entrance shafts and steps. Passages in the form of long creepways can be used to link chambers at different levels and/or distant from each other. Very long passages can lead from the site entrance to a single chamber. A long passage can connect several chambers which have no end walls separating them from the passage. Some passages have expanded/enlarged ends which suffice as chambers. Some passages can use a combination of masonry and tunnelled techniques. Some sites do not use passages leading from the surface to a chamber or group of them. Instead, a short entrance shaft may be have been used e.g a slide shaft or a drop hole shaft. In some cases a few entrance steps leading from the surface were created either in masonry (Drumlohan, Waterford) or carved in bedrock (Curraghcrowley, Cork). Drains are occasionally noted in positions anywhere from close to site entrances such as at Brackcloon (speckled meadow/hermitage) to end chambers such as the ‘trough’ chamber at Johnstown East in Kilmichael (Cork). Where noted, vents can be at ceiling level such as at Fassagh, Cork or Curraghcrowley. At both sites evidence for fires / fire boxes were discovered beneath suggesting that some vents also worked as chimney flues. Also at Curraghcrowley, the very long trench/trough from an opening high in a wall of the end chamber was revealed by excavation to run for over 12 metres; the excavator suggesting that it then ran for a further 30 metres to a sloping bank near a stream is intriguing. That part of the trough located near the chamber was partly capped with stones and showed evidence of scouring. Vents can be built into the masonry work of construction shafts or they can be independent shafts in the ceiling. What ventilation requirements or other logic dictated the number present, their positioning and the extent to which they were close to or distant from a chamber’s location makes for thoughtful discussion. What airflow logic would place some at floor rather than ceiling level; what airflow circulation was achieved by leaving the site entrance permanently open?

Size and Ergonomics

Size is another variable i.e. both in terms of passage and of room dimensions. The ergonomics, or logic of movement and behaviour, in such spaces is something which confuses many observers and leads to misunderstandings of  what souterrains were created for. Walking and standing movements are possible in some sites but in others, and frequently so, the logic of movement is stooping, crawling and knee-walking. In evaluating the rationale for the chosen or dictated dimensions of souterrain spaces the intended function should be considered if at all possible. Was the site or the room a place designed simply to sleep in, or to pray and meditate in, was it a space for daily activity or just sleeping, a place to read and write? Such behavioural considerations relate to human occupation, but to what extent do they relate to storage or concealment activity? For example, if some souterrains were designed for, say, the storage of small amphorae, placed horizontally to interlock, as they would be in the cargo hold of a ship, how would the dimensions of some souterrains match this requirement? I think that the use of any of the above space types as places of refuge was a matter of responding to circumstances and not a design issue, unless supported by other site factors e.g. at Dunisky. Was human stature of the time a decider of chamber height? What affect would poor diet or a very limited, controlled diet in early life have had on some people and the size they grew to be?

Some scholars in the past have suggested that there is a geographic distinction between dry masonry built souterrains and tunnelled souterrains. To some extent I agree that there is, but the logic behind it is not as clear cut as at first it might appear. It appears to be true that the use of beehive dome souterrains, largely drystone built but also with occasional clay tunnelled versions, are a distinct feature of the tribe land area of the Fir Maighe people; a place where the presence of ogham stones appears to be absent, as indeed is also the case elsewhere above the northern bank of the Blackwater River. This suggests that the ogham stones distribution in South Munster largely occupies tribal landscape areas which are south of the Blackwater valley and south of an imaginary line continuing the Blackwater eastwards from Cappoquin through Waterford (Decies lands) towards the Suir River.

There are three major people groups in this territory leaving small groups to one side and they are the Déise of Waterford and East Cork, the Muscraighe of mid Cork between the Blackwater and the Bandon River, the Corcú Laoidhe in Carbery. In these territories dry masonry as well tunnelled souterrains are to be found in abundance. However, the masonry souterrains as well as the tunnelled ones do not use the beehive domed chamber. Instead both masonry built chambers and tunnelled chambers use rectangular plan chambers. Chambers can be fully dry masonry built or they can be totally tunnelled in rock or clay; or they can use a combination of both options. Often ogham stones are built in to the structure, be it a tunnelled one or a dry masonry built one. Examples of this are souterrains such as the stepped open porch single chamber site at Drumlohan(Waterford) where the walls of the souterrain are masonry built and use ogham stones both in the roof and side walls, to Ballyknock North (East Cork) where the walls of the 3 chamber site were clay cut with the roof consisting of 15 ogham stones, to the 6 ogham stone single chamber site at Knockshanawee (Muskerry) where the walls are clay cut and the roof used ogham stones, to the three ogham stone long passage and single rectangular chamber Roovesmore (Muskerry) site, in the same civil parish, where the walls are also clay and where the roof is both double slabbed and pillar supported using ogham stones. In Muskerry dry masonry souterrains are frequently found. In Carbery while examples of dry masonry souterrains have been discovered there appears to be a heavier emphasis on tunnelled forms. However dry masonry exceptions such as at Dunbeacon, have been found and it is interesting to note that some wall elements of the Ballycateen souterrains were rock/clay cut; this ringfort being north of Kinsale’s Old Head and close to the one time eastern boundary of Corcú Loaidhe lands.

So, if form follows function, and we have looked at the question of form above, then what functional requirements led to the forms which can be observed in the souterrain record; those repeating forms which came to light as a result of creating a classification scheme?

On the one hand, as discussed earlier in this chapter, there are many examples of place names and of historical references in early Gaelic literature to the existence of subterranean spaces beneath the landscape in Ireland. But, on the other hand, how does one attempt to ‘bolt down’ what the literature and the place names have to say, to actual spots of land across the South Munster landscape and to those souterrain which have been discovered beneath?

When a ringfort, or evidence of it or a tradition of it, survives in local memory then it is possible to say that it is likely that the souterrain had an association with it; either external to it, or within its internal space or with a structure within that space. When it is an ecclesiastical enclosure that is in question, or a structure within it, then is is also possible to make the same deduction. However when nothing survives on the surface and there is no local memory on record or otherwise then can one say about its surface association? Was there a hermitage present at one time, was it enclosed, was it a ringfort, instead was there a tower or beacon to be maintained, a bridge or ferry to be minded, a mill to be tended? Does what became the townland name refer to the most distinctive aspect of that piece of land, as once used, within the civil parish area e.g. was the cell or hermitage of one of the local hermits or saints located on that land patch making it a specifically named place of importance in local folk memory and its continuity, a place where that person and his immediate successor carried out a specific administrative function on behalf of a secular community or monastic estate? Was it a place where orchards or vegetable patches were tended (gort), where fields were ploughed and crops sown and harvests reaped (garrane), a garden or horticultural patch (garraí) where a farran (farm or outfarm) was tended to by monaig ( monks in lay orders) and their families? Was it a place within the precincts of a semi – and – cenobitic monastery, or within the wider hinterland of its paruchia and demesne? Do many of the smaller civil parish units represent specific land allocations within the demesne?

There is a hierarchy of questions of this nature awaiting further research; questions which begin to open up an alternative geography of settlement, land occupancy patterns and land use, compared with that which succeeded it. What perspectives create the rationale for the positioning of specific souterrain forms within it? Across certain civil parish clusterings within South Munster various souterrain forms are found both within individual townlands and across the townlands of these parishes. What explains this? If the different forms found represent different functions then what surface associations are being implied and do some place names preserve the memory of these functions? Did the nature of the surface activity define the nature of the form, and use, of the structure beneath? Perhaps if more of our one time legacy of subdenomination and sub-unit place names had survived, could be identified on maps and precisely located on the ground, more answers to these questions would be available. As things stand, at present, how does one say that a souterrain form which might indicate a hermitage cell or a penitential cell or a shrine rather than a cellar or a secular habitation when in subsequent centuries the land surface above it came to be used as a garrane, a gort or garraí above it? Was the souterrain and its form connected with such activities or was it earlier?

So, what are the forms found? The beehive dome souterrains of the Fir Maighe (Crichad an Chaoilli) have three forms i.e. a long passage leading to beehive cell form, two or three cells form and a larger version of this which appears to have more cells though all I have for this form to date is a sketch from the early 19th century by Thomas Crofton Croker of a souterrain at Ballyhindon a townland in the Funcheon/ Blackwater locality in close proximity to single beehive chamber and passage souterrains at Manning and that excavated at Ballinacarriga. Given the clustering of these souterrain forms around the lower reaches of the Funcheon River I’m inclined to see them as part of a complex of buildings, those surviving being underground, associated with Kilcrumper (the Cell of the Presbyter, St Abbán, St. Cruimthir Fraech – cruimthir meaning presbyter or priest) and Manning townland where the King of the Fir Maighe once resided – his daughter Flanait(Flanaid) a friend of St Mochuda, and the founder of a nunnery at Clondalane (Cluain dá Lann meaning the meadow/hermitage of two chapels) townland which adjoins Kilcrumper parish on its south east side and below which lies the segment i.e. cuile, and civitates place of two chapels known as Coole Abbey.

The influence of this locality, I’m thinking, spread westwards along the small parishes adjoining the Blackwater (Castleblagh dome and passage souterrain), Ballymaclawrence (dome and passage), Littir (Castle Hyde three dome souterrain) and up along the Funcheon by means of which Finchú perhaps came to Brigown, southwards to Carn Tierna and Carrignagroghera (dome and passage) at its foothills, south also to Rathcormack and the Caher of the Desert nearby with its three dome souterrain.

It would not me if this geography was once that of the Fermoy kingdom and that it had its eastern boundaries defined by a ring of towers or beacons of some kind at one time, evidenced by the existence of an arc of civil parishes each with a townland name referencing a túr (tower); but more on this elsewhere in this website. Also, sometimes when I look photographs of a souterrain complex discovered at Roestown in County Meath I think of the Ballyhindon site and wonder if multi-cell sites like it were similar at one time i.e. if they represent the cells of a religious group, such as a skete or laura hermitage, lying in close proximity to the cell of a priest or presbyter? If not a habitation could the single beehive dome with long passage have functioned as an oratory; the simplest definition of an oratory being a private chapel or sanctum? In such a situation was the reason for the long passage that of a nartex, a place where followers could gather in line, on their knees – similar in their behaviour to accounts of Lough Derg’s Purgatory Cavern, to pray with the priest or presbyter occupying the heavenly or sanctum space of the dome? Was a growing community of worshippers the reason why an outlying version of the ‘beehive dome and passage’ souterrain form came to be in Muscraighe lands in Coolgarrif but with two passages rather than one? Did continuing growth lead to the creation of surface oratory structures?

In Muscraighe lands the souterrain forms include dry masonry single chambers as well as a few tunnelled examples. It is difficult to decide what the single chamber sites may have been intended for. Where there are ogham stones present I’m inclined to think that they represent feretory shrines, assuming that the ogham stones represent relics, and that this tradition has a distribution spread as far eastwards as the Déise lands of Waterford i.e. Drumlohan. Where there are no ogham stones present I’m wondering if single and perhaps some double chambered souterrain may represent cellars, perhaps root cellars or apple cellars? Given the number of souterrains known from Barrahaurin townland on the foothills of the Boggeragh Mountains – and located north of the great monastery and demesne of Donoughmore in Muskerry, some in ringforts, some not, were they used as apple cellars given that there is a long tradition of apple growing in this region going back to the time of St Mochuda and his meeting with Flanaid? Apple storage in cool, cellar conditions is a standard practice, a constant temperature allowing for slow ripening and preservation of the annual harvest. What other crops, root crops or fruits would also slow ripen in such conditions to offset the winter hungry season; the expertise of a market gardener? I am also conscious of the statement in St. Mathew’s gospel which advises early Christians to go pray in solitude in a store room or cellar. I am also conscious that some hermits or religious novices may have created simple burrows/lodgings, of a single chamber, for themselves when in training at a great monastery nearby. How possible might it have been that in some cases the single chambered borrow might have been remembered as that of a subsequently famous saint, the land area then becoming known as his cell e.g. Kil-Colmán in Muskerry, Kil-mac-Lenine in Orrery and Kilmore (i.e. big cell monastery or hermitage).

A ‘single chamber and passage’ type souterrain is also found in Muskerry but the chamber is rectangular in plan and some ogham stones. Are they a Muskerry version of those in Fermoy built without a knowledge of corbelling masonry techniques and resulting in rectangular rather than domed chambers? Roovesmore along with its ogham stones was an example of a site like this. Did the placing of the ogham stones in its roof construction sanctify the chamber in the same way that use of a dome might have done in Fermoy? Does the presence of ogham stones indicate a period of time when some places already had an established tradition of local saints ‘gone to heaven’, while in other cases none were available because the hermitage was a recent one? Though there is not enough field survey detail currently available I’m inclined to see the chamber and passage form being present also in West Waterford based on short descriptions in the Archaeological Survey (

If the Déise lands of West Waterford once stretched into what is now East Cork then was the ringfort souterrain at Rath townland another example of this souterrain form? However rather than construct the passage as a straight line or curved line leading to the chamber, was the strategy adopted of segmenting it into a number of sections to form a rough zigzag pattern thereby keeping the passage within a particular quadrant of a ringfort? References to this type of zigzag passage appear to be present in the West Waterford souterrain record with examples also in Muskerry and Duhallow.

Since surveying two of them in the 1970s I have been intrigued by a form of souterrain which in its ground plan has an L or T shaped form usually joined by a creepway. The ‘chambers’, being two only at such sites, are more like long passages or galleries rather than larger rectangular spaces with some degree of complimentary ratio between width and length. The gallery form is long and narrow. Why? Entertaining as it may seem when reading about the lives of ‘spiritual athletes’ in other religious traditions as well as Christian, the practicalities of spending time confined in a chamber needs consideration. If there is little or no room for movement then there are physical effects to health, the worst being problems with lactate acid in the limbs. In eastern Europe reference was made at one time to the use of a ‘four yard cell’ as a place of prayer for an anchorite. Depending on how one defines the measure of a yard, this is not too far off the lengths for some of these gallery souterrains. Were they used as places of penance, austerity, prayer and repentance? It is interesting to note that a beautiful example of this form of masonry souterrain is preserved in Kilclogh (Cill Clugh meaning Bell Cell) townland in Muskerry. When looking at my survey report for this site I am often reminded of St Adomnan’s Rule and his reference there to ringing his bell in a ‘stone cave’ while saying his daily prayers.

Was something similar done at the clay cut ringfort souterrain at Oldcourt near Skibereen, Cork, a moss wrapped handbell being found beneath a slab in the floor? Was the Oldcourt site a Carbery version of the chamber and passage souterrains, like Roovesmore in Muskerry and Ballinacarriga in Fermoy?

Finally there are drystone built souterrain, either totally so with masonry courses and /or orthostats, or partially so with bare walls, which consist of several chambers. For the present I’m inclined to see these as possibly storage chambers rather than places of habitation. However, alternatively, they may have been created for use as lodgings. I’m between two minds as to whether the Ballycateen souterrains, there being three of them in a single tri-vallate ringfort (which emphasises something in the way of protection or the status of the ringfort), were either originally built for storage or as lodgings. There are aspects to Souterran B which suggest that it had a surface level superstructure (perhaps thatched?). Was it a lodging for a keeper of cellarer and were the other souterrains used for storage? Was there a close connection between the Kilmore (Big Cell hermitage) at the foot of the inland promontory where the ringfort was strategically placed and did a sea trade connection link it and its spittal (medieval hospital) to the coastline, amphorae upon a shoreline jetty? Also at Dunbeacon, Cork being close to the seashore and a hermitage drishane, did its multi-chamber stone built souterrain once offer something for ship cargoes landed upon the shore?

Finally, though also with a strong showing in Muskerry, there are the tunnelled souterrains of the lands of Carberry, once the territory of the Corcú Laoidhe people stretching from Kinsale to the Kenmare River and at times into Iveragh. Carberry, is a landscape south of the River Lee, a landscape of the Bandon and Ilen Rivers, among many others. In my 1977 classification work I defined three forms of tunnelled souterrain.

Since that time I have come to the conclusion, after much reflection, that there are in fact only two forms of site i.e. a form (kidney shape) which consists of two rectangular or sub-rectangular chambers with their long axes aligned parallel to each other, and a form which consists of a larger number of chambers sometimes with some chambers parallel and others placed along or at differing angles to whatever might constitute a ‘through passage’ across the interior of the site. The two chamber form seems to appear occasionally in some of the larger chambered sites. Whether this was intentional or not I can’t say e.g. was the site originally a two chambered form which was then expanded as followers joined a solitary hermit?

The multi-chambered sites can have from three to seven chambers. It is interesting to observe the locations of the construction shafts i.e. anywhere from one to three chambers may have been cut out horizontally in rock or clay from the bottom of the shaft. Whereas drains, vents and vertical ceiling shafts along with construction shafts are a common and distinctive features of tunnelled souterrains, they are not a usual feature of masonry sites if at all. In the case of the two chamber site the entrance is usually a cut and cover constructed stone built passageway, or a short clay slide shaft from the surface. For the chambers only one construction shaft was needed. Finally, I’m inclined to interpret these two forms of souterrain as lodgings. In the case of the two chamber form perhaps this was for a single person, a solitary or an abba. The multi-cell form, I’m of the view, was for a small group of followers without or without the abba among them. I see such sites as lodgings associated with early hermitages. If this is correct then does the number of cells at a particular site represent the number of persons in the group e.g. from three to six? I do not as yet have enough evidence to say anything about how close, both multi-cell and two cell, forms might cluster near each other in a particular locality. I wonder at times if they represent ‘skete’ or Céile Dé groups; and if that was why at Armagh Culdee residences were not discovered during a Viking raid there while much surface level damage was done.

I’m curious about what was discovered at a souterrain complex in Roestown County Meath and I wonder if the configuration of the beehive dome cells indicates that there was a central passage from which shorter passages branched off to the dome cells, allowing for a degree of privacy for an occupant of each while praying or sleeping? Was it the case that in South Munster at the, from three to seven cell, tunnelled souterrains a similar scenario was created i.e. attempts to provide some degree of individual privacy. In the case of a seven cell clay tunnelled souterrain at Lisheen, Kilmocomoge ( Cell hermitage of Mo, meaning ‘our saint’, Comoge) at Bantry (Fahy, 1960, 142-3) was the very large chamber (IV) a gathering room while the other smaller six chambers(cubicles, cells) provided a private space for each individual. If so, were there six persons ( six heads i.e. seisúr ceann or seskin) in such a group? Why does the word six sometimes refer to six canons of the church, a absorption of Culdees in to such roles as canons regular, what at Armagh and in a folk memory at Seighir. Why does the souterrain record for the Bantry locality speak of souterrains with six cells at Garnish Island and nearby at Sherkin Island? Also, was it not Comoge who founded Kinneigh (Laravoolta) with tunnelled souterrains from Underhill in Fanlobbus to Curraghcrowley in Ballymoney (Baile na Monaig) ; connecting to Desertserges (the desert dedicated to Pope Sergius?).

How do the souterrain architectural forms fit into the surface structure architectural forms such as ecclesiastical spaces or ringforts?

As best I can judge from the information I currently have available to me, examples of all of the souterrain classes which I have noted so far for Cork, are to be found in ringforts; though this does not imply that any or all classes are found in ringforts only. They are not.  Examples of these classes are also found unassociated, but there is a caveat in saying this. Local folklore or a place name – or indeed if it survives a field name, may refer to a lios or rath or dún. Furthermore old, pre-Ordnance survey, estates maps, or modern aerial photography or Lidar imaging may reveal evidence that a ringfort, a hut or hamlet context or an ecclesiastical enclosure context may once have existed for sites otherwise, apparently, unassociated in a modern context. Were ringforts, i.e. circular enclosures, once a commonplace setting and choice of location for souterrains? Were ringforts multi-functional structures depending on who created or were given them? Did some souterrains exist before ringforts? Were some created in the context of terrace settlements rather than in ringforts? Were some souterrains built as underhouses for surface huts rectangular or circular in plan, prior to the existence of a ringfort  subsequently built to enclose the hut or hovel? Were ringforts in some tuatha territories much older (e.g in South West Munster) than elsewhere in Ireland; and thus the expansion of this form of structure to the rest of the Irish landscape was a matter of slow progress from Corcú Laoidhe lands in the late Iron Age to a floruit in the later part of the Early Medieval period? Was something of this hinted at by Carrigillihy, Cork and by the urn burial at Ringfort 5 in Cush, Limerick? Did the arrival, gradual overlay and fluctuating fortunes of early Christianity’s progress against heathendom spread the ringfort as a vernacular architectural form or was its spread independent of it and possessed of a different though somewhat overlapping time frame? To what extent did ringforts exist at one time as ecclesiastical spaces distinct from those existing as secular spaces?

Ringforts whether in their earthwork form or as drystone built cahers or cashels have essentially two elements i.e. ramparts called rath and an interior space called a lios. Souterrains are found utilising both the lios space as well as the ramparts. Where there is evidence for a structure, of rectangular (e.g. Knockdrum Cork) or circular (e.g. clochán at Lisnabrinny in Carbery or at Leacanabuile in Iveragh) plan, within the lios space, the souterrain may be entered from the side of an interior wall face of such a structure. The souterrain may occupy a dominant position in the interior space such as at Ballinacarriga Cork or at Raheennamaddra Limerick or it may be folded in one quadrant or in some situations more than one souterrain may occupy the lios space such as at Ballycateen Cork.

Spaces described as lios can vary in size from very large enclosures (lios mór), to the most common diameter range of 20-44metres (Stout 2000,15). Raths whose ramparts are in either very close proximity or conjoined occur in some places such as Cush County Limerick (O Riordáin 1940, 83-181 where the Southern Group consisted of 6 such enclosures each with a souterrain. Power (1932) refers to what may have been similar examples as at Manning townland and elsewhere in the Fir Maighe territory. One also wonders if Barrahaurin townland is a further example from Muskerry. The five ringforts excavated in the Southern Group at Cush revealed post hole and other information suggestive of associations between their souterrains and circular, rectangular or other possible surface structures. Ringfort 5 may have had a second souterrain built into its outer fosse. Souterrains running under a fosse (Carhoovauler, Cork) or in to the fosse of a ringfort (Ardgroom Outward, Cork) are on record as are examples of souterrains which utilise a rampart bank to encase a souterrain passage or provide height for a chamber ceiling. Some of this activity suggests that in some cases souterrains were intruded into ringfort spaces, and ramparts, at some point in time after a ringfort was constructed; rather than being part of the initial construction activity such as where a ringfort might have been built to enclose a souterrain already present, or a souterrain was a stipulated element of the ringfort’s construction project. In the case of ecclesiastical enclosures souterrains are noted externally in close, or immediate proximity, to the enclosure bank or within/beneath a graveyard itself. Some souterrains have been found during the removal of old graveyard walls to allow for expansion of graveyards. The original entrance to the Dunisky rock tunnelled souterrain appears to be either immediately outside, or immediately inside, a wall of the small parish church which once existed there. Depending on the intended function of a ringfort at a particular place, a mill site may be nearby, or other structures or field entities which reflect daily activity in working and administering  the surrounding landscape.

What are the geographies of the classes I have identified and what tribe lands are they specific to?


Fir Maige (Fermoy)Kingdom distribution of B class souterrains and peripheral distributions

Finally, going on the 1977 plotting of the architectural classes, in summary, I take the view that the the B class souterrains are a distinct feature of the Fir Maighe (Fermoy Kingdom) territory. There may be a version of this class in the South West in tunnelled form but establishing this requires a lot more fieldwork and revision of the existing record for that area.

Specific distribution for the B class subclasses discovered close to the Blackwater and Funcheon Rivers confluence. The number beside a site or site clusters  refers to the civil parish in which sites are situated.  The table below gives the townland names for the sites in these parishes.

I have plotted the subclasses for Class B, according to their civil parish locations, on to that part of Canon Power’s map of Crichad an Chaoilli (Fermoy Kingdom) which focuses on the territory of Eoghanacht Glendomhnach and the junction of the Rivers Funshion and Blackwater. Power suggested that the original text of Crichad was 12th century AD in date ‘at the latest’. See the Table below for details of which townlands and what souterrain subclasses are known for each civil parish known to hold B class souterrains.

The numbering system used in the above ‘maps’ refers to the civil parish names as numbered in the Table below. Red dots represent B1 sites i.e. beehive dome chamber and long passage. Green dots represent B2 sites i.e. two of three beehive dome chambers in a row. Blues dots represent B3 sites i.e. multi-cell sites of more than three beehive domed chambers; perhaps one should use the word cell or cubicle rather than chamber.

Table for Fermoy Kingdom map above of B class souterrains:

Parish Reference Number Parish Souterrain townlands per parish Souterrain Subclasses per townland Other souterrain classes in the townland or civil parish
1 Ballyhooly Ballyhooly B site but no details
Castleblagh B1 A2
2 Dunbulloge Dunbulloge graveyard B2
Knockboy B2 A1
3 Killathy Ballymaclawrence B1
Inchinpallas I B1 Inchinpallas I and II were 20 metres apart.
Inchinpallas II B2
4 Cullen Lisnaboy Upper B2 10 other unidentified sites in this civil parish
Knocknageeha West B3
5 Clondalane Lisnasallagh B class but no details
6 Kilcrumper Ballyvouskillakeen B1
Kilcrumper locality B2
Ballyhindon I B3
Ballyhindon II B2
7 Mourne Abbey Burnfort II B1 This civil parish has AI at Ballynamona and A2 at Clashmorgan as well as another at Burnfort unidentified
8 Gortroe Caherdesert III B2 A3 and another unidentified at Caherdesert plus an unidentified site at Rathaneague
9 Kilworth Ballynacarriga B1
10 Fermoy Carrignagroghera B1 An unidentified site at Coolmucky
11 Littir Castlehyde B2
12 Aghinagh Coolgarrif I B1 6 other sites for this civil parish of which 5 unidentified and an A1 at Curraghwaddra
13 Glanworth Manning I B1 Unidentified site at Rathdaggan
Manning II B1
14 Mallow Carrigoon Beg B2
15 Drishane Claraghmore I B2 A2 at Annagloor. Plus there are another 29 unidentified sites for this civil parish
Claraghmore II B1
16 Dungourney Rathcanning B1 A1 site at Sheepwalk and another unidentified at Dungourney

Note: The above table is specific to A and B classified sites. Sites which were assigned a class D have not been included in the table and are treated as unidentified along with all other site reports in each parish count. While some A class sites occur in the same civil parishes as the B class sites, it is interesting to note an absence of class C sites clearly identified in association with the B sites. Further investigation and discussion of D class sites, along with investigation of all other sites in a civil parish may change this understanding (see Cork parish souterrains data table). It is also noteworthy that Drishane and Cullen parishes which are situated together beside the Blackwater River have about 44 souterrain site reports between them, the majority being in the Drishane (stoney, thorny, rough land). Together both civil parishes are a landscape of St. Berihert, his sisters Lasair, Ingean Bhuide, Lateriaran and his brother the hermit John of Mushera Mountain nearby; be they actual relatives or a family in Christ. Cullen and Drishane may have been one of several ecclesiastical settlement, perhaps in conjunction with secular ones, situated along the course of the Blackwater River. Before circa 820/830 AD if the Blackwater entered the sea at Whiting Bay beside Ardmore, then this early and pre-Patrician hermitage/monastery of St Declán was part of its course. In the early years of the 7th century Lismore was founded beside the river by St. Mochuda (named Carthach perhaps because of the tutelage of Bishop Carthach the Elder at Cashel). A short distance west of Lismore lies the Kingdom of Fermoy with Kilcrumper and Clondalane, with Saint Abbán, Cruimthir (Crumper) Fraoch, Flanaid, Cranat and Finchú. Further west along the river lies Drishane and Cullen. It reminds one that the Blackwater River, along with its tributaries, was once a great inland highway from and to the sea; its tributaries being pathways to the lands and peoples beyond its northern and southern banks. It was after the Whitby Synod in 664 AD, some scholars hold, that Berihert and his contingent of Saxon monks came to north Cork.     

If diocesan and parish boundaries were ‘exactly deliminated’ after the Rathbreasail Synod in 1111 AD, are the civil parishes, in which these souterrain classes have been found, land areas which already had distinct identities such as Killathy (meaning the Cell of Athy or Ita),Kilcrumper (the cell of the presbyter/priest), Littir (place of the sloping land or hill and its church/cell), Clondalane (cluain enclosure or spiritual meadow of the two oratories), Ballyhooly (the river crossing place of the apples), Kilworth (Cill Uird meaning the cell of Uird). Were these, along with other cluians, shanacluains and deserts pre-existing elements of an ecclesiastical geography prior to Rathbreasail and thus of the Celtic church? Were they land areas apportioned as places to live, work and pray for monastic cell groups – or monaigs and their families, which subsequently became small parish churches, each clan land having its own cell group with all being peripheral to a principal cell i.e. the cell of the priest located beside the residence of the Fermoy king at Manning townland in Glanworth? In the 12th century did parish church structures come to be built upon the ‘cells of the founders’, those monks/religious persons delegated these land areas to occupy in earlier times? Did such local traditions of association sanctify the site of the parish church, its graveyard and perhaps a holy well nearby, for each parish group of inhabitants; their pastoral needs centred upon their local clan / family church and representing a continuity of tradition going back to early Christian times, and perhaps even before that?

The C class is a distinct form of souterrain architecture to be found in the Kingdom of the Corcú Loaidhe (Carbery) and their one time allies the Muscraighe (Muskerry). This class is the one which has produced most evidence for drains and vents as well as flues. Whereas it is often assumed that ogham stones are not connected with this class of souterrain i.e. tunnelled sites, they are found used in the construction of such features as entrance porches e.g. Underhill and Cahoovauler in Cork. Largely however ogham stones are found in connection with A class sites. I am doubtful if any were used at B class sites as ogham discoveries are not known from localities north the Blackwater River. Perhaps this was the case throughout the Fermoy kingdom? However, there is one case from Rathcannning in Dungourney parish, southeast of the Fermoy kingdom, where a beehive chamber and passage souterrain may have been the source of an ogham stone. The person reporting the find (Barry, 1897, 41-2) was uncertain. This site is not too far distant from Ballyknock North where 15 ogham stones were found in a different class of souterrain. If Rathcanning did contain an ogham stone was it because it was constructed outside of the Fermoy territory?

The A class seems to dominate in certain parts of Muskerry spreading northwards and also south towards the Bandon River. The above is a very loosely defined outline but I think after many years reflection on the matter that there is a degree of validity to it; even if that means nothing more than stressing the need for a consideration of specific architectural forms in specific studies for each tribe land – and its one time geographic identity, at a future date.  The A class have a strong association with ogham stone discoveries. Perhaps this had something to do with the great monastery of Donoughmore, its origins with Saints Senan and Eolang(Olan), its influence spreading north to Kilshannig by the Blackwater and southwards to Aglish, all being in the lands of the Muscraige people and spreading west into Inchigeelagh and Ballyvourney (Saints Abbán and Gobnait). Rivalry existed between Donoughmore and St. Finbarr’s great monastery at Cork (later the city) such that these monasteries once went to war against each other. Ogham stones are not a feature of Drishane and Cullen or Fermoy. But they are found in the Lismore area as well as at Ardmore. Why in some ecclesiastical settlement areas and not in others? Different traditions, different religious orientations, different points in time? Another, possibly large, monastic settlement may have been at Donickmore in East Cork where topographical proximities may indicate a connection with St Molana (Maol and Faidh i.e. the prophet), an easpug (bishop) Mullane, Dair Inish an island hermitage in the Blackwater River using the Byzantine hermitage/monastery name Dair, a mountain range to the north described as the domhnach of Maol, and fifteen ogham stones used to roof the clay cut trench walls of a three chambered rath souterrain at Balllyknock North in Ballynoe civil parish, a string of ‘kil’ , i.e. cell,  townlands in the vicinity as well as other familiar ecclesiastical names.  If parish churches came to be built in later medieval times on the ‘cells of the founders’ is it any wonder that in more recent centuries the word cill (Kill) was translated from the Irish to mean the English word church thereby obscuring the original meaning of cell; cell can be a confusing word as it can refer to a single individual hermit (recluse) and his residence, a small hermitage group dependent upon to a larger monastery nearby, or, architecturally, a physical structure consisting of either a single chamber or one containing several chambers (cubicles).

Distribution map of classified Cork souterrains as of 1977. This needs updating in the light of more recent discoveries and the work of the Cork Archaeological Survey (see

The contribution of artefacts and other ‘finds’ to interpreting the functions and dating of Souterrains.

As to ‘finds’ i.e. artefacts, from souterrains – including ogham inscriptions, I’m inclined to see these as reflections of the topographical contexts in which souterrains of differing architectural classes were constructed. Ogham inscribed stone slabs tell us something about persons in the locality either during or before the construction (dry masonry built or tunnelled) of the souterrain which had such stones built in to it. Other, pariatal, objects, can be more difficult to tie down ‘date wise’. The Oldcourt handbell from a Skibereen souterrain, as well as the report of a wooden comb in a wooden box from Peake near Donoughmore, the 10th century Anglo-Saxon coins from Rathbarry, Castlefreke are tempting items for which to suggest a date; but they might be better employed as circumstantial supporting evidence for further dating evidence rather than as any kind of principal dating evidence at least for the present. The other items such as metal slag, animal bones, human skeletal material, etc are all evidence of some activity of some kind at some time within souterrains but as is similarly the case with evidence of charcoal, blackened or sooty wall deposits, evidence for fire places such as at Curraghcrowley near Enniskeane or Fassagh (check) near……, a wooden block with slots for candles from……., no time phase dating can be established from such material – most of it now lost. Once built a souterrain may have been visited many times across subsequent centuries. In the record there are folk references to souterrains be found and then re-found, in later times, on a particular family’s farm. References to discoveries of coins from much later period in time also fall into this category of ‘finds’ such as a reference in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) to 16th century or 17th century [check] coins from a ringfort at Greenhills (check) near Macroom; coins from very turbulent times in Irish social history.

Further details of these ‘finds’ can be found in the Souterrain Class Reports located in the Notes and Queries section of this Website. Regarding Ogham inscribed stone slabs I will consider what they have to tell us In the Topographies Chapter as they are a useful resource in attempting to sketch the ecclesiastical contexts which encapsulated the distribution patterns of at least certain types of souterrain across the Cork landscape. I’m aware that much has yet to be learned from future classification and analysis of souterrains elsewhere in South Munster i.e. in Iveragh, Dingle, Decies, South Tipperary and South East Limerick. What I have been attempting to do here is create a baseline framework of understanding, a knowledge architecture, to help guide, structure and inform souterrain work in these places; as well as to facilitate further souterrain work relating to Cork.

Why, apparently, are there such high densities of clustering in Muskerry, Carbery, Iveragh and Dingle? Is it due to cultural issues, to religious issues, to topographical issues to do with the nature of the physical landscapes of these localities? Why would clans and families move from elsewhere in South Munster due to Norman settlement and conquest from the mid 12th century onwards? Why would resurgence subsequently come from the these lands of the South West in the 13th century? Is there something posthumously reflective in stories of population movement to the remoteness of the Slieve Luachra district of North West Cork (Duhallow) after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 AD?  Why would the word ‘teampuil’ (temple) be such an infrequent word in the deep South West, the place of great peninsulas, the place of archipelago islands, where the word Cill appears to have dominated. Was the hermitage and cell welcome when the temple was not? Was the land too rough for the temple? I’m of the view that may such questions can be investigated from a more intensive study and analysis of souterrain data and more in-depth fieldwork. But such work should be underpinned by developing and applying an architectural designs classification system as a basis for identifying cellars, lodgings, possible oratories, shrines and penitential cells; and then examining these specific class types, their distribution patterns and surface associations.


The purpose of this chapter was to answer the following questions:

What the sites forms as currently known generally look like? What structural elements do they have? What are their surface associations? Where are they distributed across the landscape. Why were they built? What were the functions of the design types? Is there any shred of folk memory to help with interpretation?

If one is to go by the number of site reports which now exist for the counties of South Munster, as referenced in the Irish Archaeological Survey database (, there is much work yet to be done in the field in terms of the rediscovery of  sites noted by antiquarians and early archaeologists, modern surveying and reporting, professional excavations and topographical reconstructions of the medieval contexts for where sites were located. The Archaeological Survey SMR database gives the following numbers for the number of site reports now on record for each of the counties i.e. Cork has over 1,000 reports, Waterford has 67, South Tipperary has 20, North Tipperary has 15, Limerick has 25 mostly on its east side, Kerry has 873. Though not in Munster but continuing the north bank of the Suir River towards Waterford harbour and once under Munster control County Kilkenny has 43 sites reported largely in proximity to the River Nore which connects to the Suir. From Waterford to Cork to Kerry is where most of Ireland’s ogham stones have been discovered; all are counties of Ireland’s south coastline. Did the practice of using ogham to inscribe memorial stones originate in these counties due to influence from abroad, or was it an adaptation by arriving Latin speakers for this purpose of a cipher already present?

In the next Chapter I will look at the Engineering aspects of the Cork souterrains i.e. how and why were particular sites chosen, how they were made, what were the technical difficulties and limitations in the project and how were they overcome, what techniques were used, what skills were involved, what construction material was acquired, where was spoil disposed of? Rewards – two cows in payment to build a souterrain (Clinton 2001).