The Souterrains of Ireland’s Ancient Kingdom of South Munster 

Dr. Richard Caulfield. Cork antiquarian, librarian and souterrain explorer. 

Study of the archaeological monument type known in Ireland as a Souterrain is as much a matter of Irish heritage as one of European heritage; and, perhaps, to a significant extent, the heritage of the Christian Church. Furthermore, in broader terms, it is a local study of what is a small facet of the history of subterranean manmade cavities created across the globe, from ancient to modern times for a wide variety of purposes.  

There are many considerations when one begins to use archaeological records as the basis for attempting a reconstruction of social history. Michael Tierney’s essay Theory and Politics in Early Irish Archaeology (1998,190-199) contains an enlightening discussion of this. 

This website explores the subject the Souterrains of the territory of South Munster not from a secular perspective but more from the perspective of an ecclesiastical history of the territory. It seeks to provide an alternative approach to reading these ubiquitous monuments of South Munster and in so doing to try to interpret them as vestiges of its traditional religious consciousness – and resulting history, rather than seeing them solely as the outcome of  mundane secular activity, such as refuges and storage. In saying this I do not wish to detract from the viewpoint that they are all just refuge places and storage places –  to which I could add lodging places, but rather to say that there are several distinct types of architectural structures under consideration, and that in terms of numbers and associations, as well as historical information, an ecclesiastical interpretation for the predominant structural forms seems to me more plausible than a secular one. Furthermore, within the ecclesiastical forms there are also differences between what appear to be structures based upon the needs of the individual and those based upon the needs of small groups, differences between choices of construction method and materials involved, between architectural shapes for cubicles and ceilings, between community choices and perhaps influences. I’m sure that there are cellar types, be they wine cellars, root cellars, apples cellars in a Blackwater valley with an ancient tradition of vast orchards, especially as one gazes from the slopes of Barrahaurin northwards towards the Blackwater river  and southwards towards Donoughmore closeby the Martin River. Storage souterrains in the Record and that Refuge was, even if not initially, an aspect of souterrain use if not a construction consideration across the time phase in which these monuments were used. I see Dunisky’s great rock-cut souterrain as an example of this; and the Peake and Curraghcrowley souterrains as plausible examples of souterrains which were subjected to being fired to smoke out occupants. Finally, I see the possibility that some souterrains were used as lodgings for secular persons after their original construction as monastic lodgings. Perhaps the concept of creating and living in underground spaces had a pre-Christian origin in South Munster and is one that was adapted or in keeping with common practice among those who became the early christians of South Munster; perhaps this had already happened in those Celtic communities from which the Christian influences came, they in turn being influenced by practices further east, in the cradle lands of Christendom’s formation, going back to its earliest times and even to its precursors as saint replaced deities or sybils in underground grottoes? As ecclesiastical lodgings become relegated in some cases to the status of secular ones, in the progress of time, to become lodgings of the poor, the powerless, the wealth-less, the sick, the destitute, the lower enslaved classes, the down trodden, what groupings of such lodgings came to exist along cliff-faces, within enclosures, within places offset from the main communities? Should one imagine, and project back in time, social trends visible in 18th century to 19th century cities as those who are economically and socially advantaged seek better places of residence to inhabit, leaving their former places of residence to become tenements?  Was it in the nature of social improvement within a kingdom that Vital observed in the kingdom of Castille when he observed that artificial caves residences became, in a short space of time, the back-garden sheds and workshops behind a street of new residences for their occupants (Hiram Morgan pers comm)?

This book is exploratory and speculative. This book is presumptive and theoretical. It is non-conclusive, and tentative, in its search to find some understanding of this monument type as revealed beneath a portion of the Irish landscape. It seeks to begin a discussion about the tenacious heritage of an ubiquitous type of archaeological monument which survives in a three dimensional form, at times in pristine condition, beneath the landscape of South Munster in Ireland; one which resonates, to me, in form and associations, across Ireland and across significant portions of the landscape of Western Europe and beyond. 

Although this study began, for me, many years ago as an archaeological field study of a monument type frequently discovered by accident rather than design, it has become over the years a study in many academic disciplines each offering a vantage point for interpreting the archaeological evidence. I have used, to the best of my ability – as a research librarian and archaeology graduate – archaeological reports and databases, primary and secondary historical sources, dictionaries, place-name studies and resources, historical maps, recorded folk memory and local history narratives to construct the narrative I have attempted here. I do not doubt that it has its flaws and that the scholarships I have interacted with will have their doubts about my understanding and ability to draw tentative conclusions. But then, such is the nature of science, and science is not always the scholastics of knowledge; sometimes it is the wisdom of what the past speaks to us through the musicology of thought and its resonances of influence. 

This text is not comprehensive, nor does it attempt to be in any way definitive. At the beginning of that phase of thinking which led to this text eight years later, I debated doing what so many researchers have done over the past 200 years – and continue to do.   This is to gather more data myself in the field as well as through literature searches thereby adding to the existing database, the Record. The alternative, I decided, was to work with the Record as it is currently and begin to create an interpretive framework, derived from the existing record, as a footing for future studies. To do so, I believe, creates a rationale for more targeted, more strategic, more considered, investigation projects devoted to this monument type. It also provides a means of explaining why our legacy of souterrains is so valuable to understanding past human landscapes from a perspective different to that of surface level studies, including excavation projects. 

 Rather than focus, and dissipate my energies, across the Souterrain Record for the whole of the Island of Ireland, I have instead focussed on South Munster (Deas Mhumhain, anglicised as Desmond) i.e. the southern part of the Province of Munster in Ireland which encapsulates the South and South Western coastlines of Ireland. It was once a distinct kingdom drawing together many people groupings arriving at different stages in time, from many origins, from Iron Age migrants – and their antecedents, to those who came subsequently: heritages, cultures, identities, experiences and customs of peoples from many lands to create its tribes and clans: legacies of intermingling and intermarrying through the centuries.  This melting pot embedded a strong sense of self, of being and of place, of cultural expression and loyalties, upon the topographical characteristics of the native territories they created for themselves. This is something still not lost today, due to the dissimilitudes of Time’s Arrow, within the mindsets of local landscapes and their subconsciously resistant folk cultures and identities. 

The objective of this work is to try to encapsulate a specific part of the Munster landscape  i.e. South Munster, and to draw together the many strands of souterrain related information which exist within it, no matter if they are vague, poorly documented, poorly recorded, exaggerated, misunderstood or misconstrued, the subject of scholarly debates and uncertainties, to try to contextualise the souterrain heritage of this part of Munster. It is also to try to see these monuments in their local settings, to attempt to explain their role in such settings over a very long period of time and to try to understand how the memory of what they represent was lost to folk memory and why.  

To try and apply the same level of investigation and narrative to all parts of the territory of  South Munster would be a task which is beyond the scope of this author. Instead as I reviewed the study area from civil parish to civil parish, summarising the evidence for souterrains and their associations, I decided that it would be more productive to sample what exists rather than, repetitively, deal with each area to the same degree, and from the same perspective. This enabled me to summarise, not to become repetitive, but instead to draw inferences from different perspectives. In one area of the territory I deal with very specific evidence for souterrain and ogham stone locations in civil parishes to see if there is validity and usefulness to this approach, in other areas I simply summarise the available evidence for distribution patterns. In some cases I look at hagiography, in others I do not. 

I have tried to use the study process as a way of looking at what range of information can be deduced from the souterrain data itself; from its contextual information – such as surface sites and parish data, as much as from the technical details of the souterrains themselves. I have done this trying to bear in mind the differing architectural forms and designs of the individual souterrains found across specific parish land areas, as well as across contiguous parish units; bearing in mind, that the geographies of such localities were once differently oriented in their inter-relationships; as much, prior to the 12th century A.D. as in subsequent centuries before the modern era. What this means is that over the course of subsequent centuries some small parishes units were unified, specific land portions of one original parish may have been allocated to another, the mathematical boundaries of parishes as we have come to know them in recent historic times did not exist in earlier times, the relationships between groups of souterrains in a locality may have made perfect sense at one time in the workings of a differently defined surface area of settlement and associated land working than any which came to exist later. Some designs and forms may be common and specific to certain localities, others may be the outcome of varying functional needs derived from the type of activity once occurring on the surface. For example, some forms and designs, concentrated within the locality of a petty kingdom in one part of the territory may differ considerably from those concentrated in another. In some civil parish areas, town-lands – and even within town-land subdivisions, there may be a variety of forms and designs of souterrain present. 

At some sites where souterrains are found surviving local Gaelic, though anglicised, place names be they parish, town-land, sub-denomination or field names, may indicate a possible ecclesiastical association. In other cases the place name may indicate an orchard, a garden, a field, a plough-land, an out-farm, a tower or an enclosure of some kind. And in other cases again there may be nothing in the surviving place name evidence to suggest the existence of man made structures directly above or in the immediate vicinity of where the souterrain was situated. If my assumption, discussed later in this text, that some souterrains are a reflection of early medieval, and perhaps later, eremitical traditions in imitation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt’s Thebaid, of the traditions of semi-cenobitic monasticism and hermitages, of solitaries living out their lives alone in remote wilderness spaces, is correct then finding some souterrains with no associated surface structures may not be out of context and therefore a predictable outcome of the lives of hermits and recluses living alone with God in ‘green deserts’: be they forests, islands, escarpment faces, mountain slopes or deep and forbiddingly accessible glens; places remote from human settlements and everyday social life. Indeed such are the provenances of some souterrains today and such provenances may never have been any different from what they are today.

On the subject of dating the souterrains of South Munster, one of the key issues which leads to difficulties in understanding them is that of provenance i.e. to what extent is it possible to argue that objects found in a souterrain can date the original period of construction and use of that souterrain; and by extension all other manmade underground spaces classified under this broad archaeological heading. Subsequent to its original creation and use, a lot can happen to a souterrain space as centuries roll by. Visitors or occupants from different periods of time on the surface landscape will come and go; site entrances will be closed off. Soil and waste from the surrounding surface area will be used for infilling them. If surface ploughing by farmers or the construction of castles, mills, farmhouses, cabins etc cause the roofs of souterrains to collapse they will be infilled with whatever material lies to hand. Changes in social or religious customs can cause souterrains to be infilled, their purpose no longer necessary. So can anything of an evidential nature be learned, from finds made within souterrains or from their infill material, about the origins and intended purposes of these monuments?  While the range of objects and other materials which display evidence of human activity within souterrains is small in relation to the number of sites on record, it is possible to glean from such evidence, and its repetitiveness to some degree within the Record, a sense of human presence within certain sites. Though poorly recorded in most instances such evidence speaks of chimney flues, fire boxes, candle-holders, blackened, reddened or soot stained ceilings, possible remnants of fire kindling and charred wood. Unfortunately, little if any of such evidence recorded over the past 250 years or so has been preserved. Occasionally pieces of hand querns  – used to grind vegetable or cereal foodstuffs, were found. Portions of animal bones from domestic or wild sources have been found. Metal objects found range from bronze and iron pins to fasten clothing, coins from Anglo-Saxon to early modern times, to a religious hand-bell, to lumps of furnace slag – sometimes kept for further smelting. A bone comb in a wooden box…familiar to a Saxon, to a Viking perhaps. A vase, perhaps for an unction, blessed water or oil. Occasionally, intriguing finds of human skeletal material have been discovered either within the souterrains themselves lying on the floor or outside in close proximity to an entrance. Again much of this evidence is poorly recorded and lost and/or the site closed off and its location forgotten. However at Ballyanly, near Inniscarra Co. Cork, in 1976 skeletal evidence was recovered, brought to University College Cork and the remains examined by Professor G. Crawford of the Anatomy Department. He identified the remains as those of two individuals, the older about 30 years of age perhaps with a dietary deficiency, the other a younger person. Though a few pieces of pottery occur in the Cork souterrain Record none were identifiable as of the Medieval period except perhaps two floor tiles found in a creephole decorated with an impressed design of a cock. Of a later period in time at Ballycatteen pieces of glazed pottery and portion of a Bellarmine jug were found.

Looking at the reported metal and ceramic finds from Cork souterrains made over the past 250 years or so, the date range is very wide i.e. from Bronze Age material such as the Paddock townland axes to Post-Medieval objects. While this evidence, sparse, lost, un-provenanced according to archaeological criteria, though it is, at the same time it does suggest a longer association in time, between human society and manmade underground spaces – as does the mythological and folklore evidence, than what is currently established by archaeological methods.

Ogham stones discoveries – which are predominantly of South Munster origin and which is where they were first deciphered in modern times by such scholars as Rev. Matthew Horgan, John Windele, R. Rolt Brash and the South Munster Antiquarian Club – have been, to a very significant extent found in dry masonry constructed souterrains; though they are also present in clay tunnelled sites, where they make no direct structural contribution to the souterrain except to act as encasements for entrance areas or to an individual cubicle within the souterrain. Their association with surface structures such as those enclosures archaeologically classified as ringforts, or ecclesiastical enclosures sometimes surviving solely as cilleens i.e. places of burial for the unbaptised or suicides or strangers, is well noted.  Indeed, in the mid 19th century it was fashionable for antiquarian scholars to go Ogham Stone hunting in ringforts and  cilleens, to remove such stones for study and display in museum collections; a process which seems to have come to an end in the early 20th century with the removal of the Knockshanawee Ogham Stones (from a ringfort souterrain at Aglish Parish, Co. Cork), and a subsequent controversy in the newspapers of the time.

Ogham inscribed stone slabs are dated on linguistic grounds to a period from the fourth to the seventh centuries A.D.  Generally they are regarded as headstones and they record basic genealogical information about the person deceased e.g. name, father, grandfather, ancestor. Why they became used in souterrains is uncertain; though this is dealt with in more detail later in this book. All they tell us is that certain examples of souterrain forms and designs were constructed either after ogham inscribed slabs were being used i.e. after the practice had  been abandoned, or that some of the souterrains which contain them may have been created during the period in which the use for such slabs was fashionable and customary in some communities: perhaps both. Should we assume that all ogham stones imply the existence of a permanent burial place or were they intended as cenotaph monuments on a leacht platform where a single re-usable grave rather than a graveyard was normal practice. Was it something to do with the demolition of the leachts of early monastic enclosures which led to a more secretive or reliquary deposition of such stones in underground spaces? Therefore, even though they do provide a date range for the construction of some souterrain forms and designs they do not contribute significantly to the dating of when the concept of souterrain construction was introduced, or abandoned, in the South Munster landscape; at best all they do is date a phase within that timespan, not the totality of it.

Why might so many of these slabs have come to be placed underground? Was this more common in the eastern lands of South Munster than in its western lands? If it happened on the surface that appearances no longer tolerated the presence of such inscribed slabs in many, if not all, rural communities in a district, then was placement underground, in a grotto or ‘worship’ cave – beneath or beside a ringfort, or ecclesiastical enclosure, – an acceptable compromise for tensions created within a local community not willing to abandon its age old folk customs of remote origins, its patrimonies of local ‘sainthoods’, ingrained native traditions of identity, hereditary intercessions with the divine, of cures and miracles at holy wells, and loyalty to the early faith of their ancestors? Is it in enactments to prohibit such practices that answers might be found?

This research project has been very much a learning exercise and as such perhaps what this text has to say may indicate how much fieldwork, analysis, scholarship, investment and dedication is required to begin and, perhaps for others, to advance our understanding of what is a very deep, rich and often unexpected legacy of the cultural heritages, of the many and various human stories, which have come and gone through the centuries, across the many landscape forms of South Munster. The writing of this book is the result of many years of pondering, enquiring, speculating and hypothesising.

A Souterrain is an underground man-made space or cavity which archaeologists see as of the Medieval period in Ireland; while the same classificatory name-tag is used in Britain and elsewhere in Europe for subterranean man-made cavities in their landscapes though with widely varying dates. Are they all the same monument type and tradition or are they different? Only comparative studies which tackle design and potential function as well as the reason for varying dates will answer this question, if at all? The suggested dating range across Western Europe, including its islands, is massive, based on radio-carbon dating, i.e. from approximately  600 BC to 1200 AD and subsequently.

I first became aware of the existence of these monuments in the early 1970s when a student of Archaeology at University College Cork studying under Professor M.J. O’Kelly. Setting out to study for a Master’s Degree in his Department of Archaeology in 1975 he not only facilitated me with access to the Department’s Topographical Files and Map Resources, he also guided and mentored me in my task. I chose the topic Souterrains in County Cork for my Master’s thesis because they seemed to be mysterious, ubiquitous and unexplained. While there was a considerable body of information in print and manuscript sources about them, it had not been collocated for analysis and interpretation on a County basis. The outcome was a Corpus Study with little in the way of analysis and interpretation. After reflecting for many years on what the Corpus data had to say I returned to the study of these monuments some years ago to see how it might be advanced.

What I decided to do was to think about the physical and tribal landscape of Gaelic Munster as it was prior to the Norman Invasion in 1169 A.D. This, in tandem with root and branch church reform, was something which had a major and long lasting impact on the social, physical and built landscapes of Munster. But, at the same time, the impact – and its legacy, was not comprehensive, not ‘all changing’. It was a patchwork story with many elements of an earlier medieval world surviving within it. What was it that might provide a frame of enquiry about that earlier Medieval world and about the histories and identities of the peoples who lived – and worked the landscape, within it? By starting at a period close in time to that Norman Invasion, at a time when ante quem, the Kingdom of South Munster had a distinct administrative identity, I postulated that I could frame a study area, the scope of which would allow me the opportunity to investigate at local level what the stories of individual souterrains, in their individual landscape places, had to say. As I looked at the distribution of souterrains on record for the South Munster landscape, it was evident that an even distribution of these sites did not exist across it. Why and was there a rationale for the clusters and densities and for why some areas had none? Was there something to be learned from the disparities?

The part of the physical landscape of Munster which was of greatest interest to me, because I felt certain that the forms and designs of the souterrains I had classified and plotted as part of my thesis work in the 1970s revealed patterns of distribution for specific site categories that were real, was the Cork landscape area. The broader picture, as outlined above, was that by imagining the distribution of souterrain discoveries across the Munster landscape, seeing them as the outcome of social trends and activities within it, the topography of a ‘souterrain landscape’ as distinct from a physical landscape could be defined. But, at this point, it was still not possible to decide what would give a historical context to this geography. 

Having already, in 1977, drawn together the then available data for Cork County – which is the largest, the pivotal and the central county in South Munster, classifying by type the most fully reported sites, and plotting them as a distribution map, it appeared to me that what I had achieved was just a partial picture; one which could only be completed by forgetting about the concept of county boundaries and by attempting to look beneath these later post medieval geographical entities to see if an alternative, earlier geography existed. Were there, in earlier times, alternative geographical entities, physical and social, defining the land area of the territory, which better contextualised certain souterrain designs and forms which appeared to continue into adjoining counties? Was this what the distribution patterns of the souterrain types, as they have been revealed and reported across South Munster since the 18th century, would say if their individual extents within the territory could be seen, un-interrupted by concepts such as county, civil parish or town-land? To do this meant approaching the land area of South Munster as if it had none of the administrative boundaries, secular or ecclesiastical, which came in to being from the 12th century onwards; instead imagining it as a single natural landscape defined on its northern side by certain rivers (the Blackwater and the Suir) and mountains ranges, and by the Atlantic ocean on its Southern and Western sides, across which the earlier, fluctuating, tribal and clan geographies had spread a variety of forms and designs of subterranean cavities designed for a specific range of purposes according to their individual, or commonly held, customs and practices.  

For County Cork this was the task set me. I did the work required as a post-graduate student but was left, as a result of the fieldwork, with a very deep sense that these monuments could not be understood through the archaeological evidence alone. Yes, the monuments had survived but the Discipline in its then current form did not have the theoretical or cross-disciplinary frameworks required to interpret what the underground world of these monuments had to say. I also felt that there was something false about trying to read the evidence through the lens of a geography which was dictated by an administrative – and long established, geography of South Munster, which came into being after the 12th century AD, i.e. a geography of civil parish names, county names and other types of administrative, territorial, societal entities and relationships, which came to exist after that time; resulting from conquests and the superimposition of legal and economic frameworks resulting from dispossession, de-culturalisation processes, both ecclesiastical and secular, targeted economic and social ‘reforms’. The ‘Culture Shock’ of such events, over many generations, appears to have been enormous, resulting in a two tier psychology; one preserving the language, customs and traditions of the past in remote places, the other acknowledging the present and future state of identity and survival. 

The Munster landscape comprises the counties of Waterford, Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Kerry and Clare. Of these Waterford, Cork, South Kerry (Iveragh), Limerick South East, and Tipperary’s South Riding (as far as Cashel) are seen, generally, to have been the district of South Munster while the rest was known as Thomond (meaning Tuatha Mumhain i.e. North Munster). Looking at South Munster, the souterrain distributions indicate high density localities in certain places, low density or absence in others. What is the  reason for human activity of this nature in these landscapes? Why some in certain landscape ‘place name’ types and not others? Why some types of certain souterrain architectural forms in certain topographical place-name types  and not others? Why some souterrains are half in town-lands which are half in one civil parish, half in an other? Why even the Barony and manorial divisions, as known on subsequent records, confuse the situation even more? In my view this is all the result of superimposition and legal boundary disputes ‘down to the last inch’ and superimposed on an independent Gaelic early medieval society whose perspectives on land division segmentation and naming was more fluid than that which came to be after the 12th century AD when a clear transitioning to European style land management and functional division making, based on mathematical principles, began to take place as a consequence of conquest and legal apportionment, and conveyancing of land, rather than tribal allocation of naturally defined boundary types and interim spaces. 

My thinking was that were it possible to find a means of seeing beneath this subsequent geography, it might be possible to use the souterrain evidence to re-contextualise, re-picture, these early landscapes and the ecclesiastical and social geographies which lay, developed or were abandoned, within them. Regarding this perspective my thinking is that I have only begun to scratch the surface in the following text.

Bearing in mind that the distribution patterns were a product of site discovery, I decided on the basis of probability, that such densities were not improbable, that what they represent must have some degree of actuality within it. Looking at the distribution and densities for other provinces such as Ulster – as it once was, and Connaught, the pattern appeared similar i.e. major cluster centres which appeared to be coastal from which radially the densities thinned out. From this perspective the souterrains of County Clare appeared to be part of the Galway radius stretching to the river Shannon and its estuary, in North Munster. So, for this reason I initially limited the boundary of my study to Munster south and east of the river Shannon. The North Munster area had a significant distribution of souterrains in North Kerry, the lands of the Carriage people stretching down into north west Cork and an area known as Sliabh Luachra. A Viking raid in the 9th century searching for ‘caves’ is recorded for this area; for Dublin’s international Viking slave trade. Limerick, though it’s archaeological survey is incomplete, appeared to have very few discoveries apart from one locality in its south east corner close to the Galtee Mountains and Ardfinnan. This is significant from the point of view of early monastic geography rather than later post 12th century geographies. 

Tipperary’s North Riding also appeared to have produced very few discoveries. Its South Riding and south Kilkenny had a significant density which appeared to be reflective of the valley of the Suir River. Carlow and Wexford had very few examples. Kilkenny, – once the territory of the Osraige though the story if different for north Offaly where St Ciarain the first native born Irish saint placed his foundation in the northern part of his father’s tribe-land (Osraige) at Saighir, Carlow and Wexford are within the Province of Leinster. So, how might the study area be most productively framed in the context of these distribution patterns? I decided that staying with South Munster would be the most productive approach in terms of time frame, energies – and most productive outcome, even if ‘drawing in’ elucidatory references from elsewhere in the Irish souterrain record might be helpful. 

The largest territory and centre point, of this kingdom was that which in later centuries would become the county of Cork. On its western and south west boundaries of South Munster the lands of the peoples (their clans, civitates, muintirs and pobails) of the Corca Dhuibhne and the Corca Laidhe. To its north the lands of the Ciarraige people stretching east to Sliabh Luachra and its Teamhair Luachra, its Tara of the Kings. To the east the wetter lands of south Limerick and to the lands of the Erainn peoples, Teamhair Erainn, its Tara of the Kings,  at Slieve Reagh and the agriculturally rich fertile lands of the Golden Vale and the valley lands of the River Suir, to the lands of the Osraige people, then to the lands of the Deise people in what would become County Waterford, to the lands of the Kingdom of the Fir Maighe along the Blackwater River, to the lands of the Muscraige along the River Lee, to the lands of the Eoghanacht spreading down to the River Bandon, the Ui Mochaille of the Imokilly peninsula and the Corca Bascoin, or was it Gascoin, of Cork Harbour. All a dense entanglement of thinly spread historical information, of changing people group names, of genealogies, shifting territories, shifting alliances of clans and other social units across the landscape forms of the territory and across the timelines from earliest records to more recent times; an entanglement still being sifted, still being analysed, still needing to be pegged and placed to surface topographies and to the vague remnants of earthworks and masonry which were once a vibrant part of such societies and their daily lives.

 To what extent it was a landscape of nomadic customs, of settled customs, of seasons and celebrations, of highways and bye ways, of ridge and mountain top tracks and river trails knitting together the social energies and communications of pre-Norman times awaits more in-depth scholarship. The gentle coastlines of Waterford give way to the multitude of rocky coves, inlets, harbours, headlands, islands and peninsulas of West Cork and Kerry. The five great peninsulas of this area are like an open hand to the sea and the 100 isles of Carbery an archipelago of many saintly endeavours; a set of shorelines to which some geological event in the 9th century AD seemingly brought some semblance of a tsunami, as reported in the Irish annals for that time.

South West Munster’s Shorelines: A Mythographer’s Melangerie

Poetry and myth as a medium for oral transmission of cultural memory, keeping memory alive generation to generation through the melodic repetition of song-lines and poetic metaphor, are a very ancient way of remembering ancestry, a sense of place and identity as well as providing entertainment and a sense of commonality. Fact in such situations may be a liminal thing in the context of time’s progression, and the loss of awareness of paradigms for the nature of life in differing ages, to which to relate it. Fact from fiction can be a difficult process of extraction. In Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer above a sea of Mist, there is a stillness, one of not knowing what precisely there is beneath the mist but at the same time knowing that there are landscapes there unrevealed. One attempts to catch glimpses of such places and of the colours of their attributes as whitish wisps of mist momentarily dissolve. The antiquarian in the Age of Romanticism reaches for the intangible, the long forgotten, the almost forgotten, from the tangibility of the fallen monolith to the intangibility of that long ago drama which created and raised it.  An archaeology of transmission of imaginings, an archaeology of transmission of imagination. 

Perhaps the following lines from the writings of the English Romantic poet John Keats, about the song of the nightingale (Ode to a Nightingale lines 68-70), could be applied to that sense of something other, something mystic and whispered, something long forgotten, one sometimes has when one stands on the south western shorelines of South Munster, looking across the empty expanse of the sea south and eastward, thinking about origin myths and ancient local place names, strange ancient folk customs still celebrated, and old seanachai tales;

The same that oft-times hath 

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam 

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Sometimes, the language of poetry rather than that of scholarly method can contextualise more succinctly the ambience of and the blended nature of, folk memory and what may lie beneath the storytelling wrapped in veils of the fantastical. 

South West Munster’s shorelines face the open sea, the Mizen Head and Brow Head its most southerly points facing towards the shorelines of Atlantic Europe, towards the  Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea and down to the Sacrum Promontorium at Cape Vincent off southern Portugal, Greek merchant ships on the Atlantic and the Pillars of Hercules opening to the Western shores of the Mediterranean Sea, of a tempting story of the keel of Jason’s Argo curving eastward around the Mizen to avoid being pulled westward to the great waters of the Atlantic, of North West Africa and Carthage and sea routes perhaps in much  later times facilitating the infamous annual ‘pirate round’ from West Cork to Barbary’s coastline, and mytho-historical origin legends which speak of fleets of colonists, shipwrecks in violent storms, of Greece and Scythia and the eastern Mediterranean, Greek coins of Philip of Macedon – Alexander’s father – as found on Munster’s southern shores, Amirgen the poet (Amir Geni… Lord of the Scholars?) foot-pressed to shore sands, the great sea god Mananáan Mac Lir rising from the deep at Ballycroneen in East Cork and releasing three sacred cows upon the land, Notium Promontarium (resonant in name of the great Bronze Age Anatolian promontory battle) at Mizen Head, Scotia – Pharaoh’s Daughter and her mercenary warrior prince – perhaps from Tartessos, as well as thrilling legendary adventures in Scythia and the Nile Delta – at Sliabh Mish blending the Dingle peninsula into that vista of a fortress-like mountain-scape heralding entry to Iveragh and a battle for control.  

An annual festival, an aonach, to crown a goat as king at Kilorglin. Cahergal and Leacanabuile at Caherciveen, and the theatricality of teaching. Hill-walking druid priest a scholar, a convert of the new teaching, staff in hand, writes of clan topographies, follows the trail of the mountain ridge eastwards beyond Killarney to the gathering, to Anu and her Red Claw at Sliabh Luachra – perhaps of Persia, among the foothills of the Paps of Anu in the Derrynasaggart (woodland of the priests, or (Dair)hermitage of the priests) mountain range, to a tribe-land of a people of the god Anu (Tuatha De Danann) a people of magic and magical weapons, to Gaulish resonances of the Iron Age sun god Lugh, to Kinsale’s Old Head in Ptolemy’s Geographia at Alexandria’s great library, all conjuring mythological memories as liminal song-lines from a twilight world enticing attention, and intimations of a metallurgy trade to the East from its South Western copper mines.

 Spanish Castile and its princess Béara – wife of Eoghan Mor, naming the peninsula for her at Bantry Bay, in the mists of myth and of warriors overshadowed by this legendary patriarch, Eoghan Mor a Venetii merchant of Armorica whose origins  as some might say, became a palimpsest beneath the ink of scribal histories, to the hagiographical stories of Early Christian saints which speak of journeys to Rome and the lands of its Western Empire; and perhaps further to that of its Eastern Empire to other patriarchates in the cradle lands of Judeo-Christianity in the Levant; the weft and warp of Time’s loom. 

Of such nature are the palimpsests in the legendary histories of West Cork and South Kerry. Was it, ultimately, the metallurgical resource (copper) which brought them there and left this folk legend legacy – including that used for fictional storytelling of voyaging through the classical ‘known world’ as monumentalised in the Greek legend known as the Orpheus Argonautica? A knowledge of tomb building, of structural rock tunnelling, of test-pits, of Thebes and Scotia and Galatians in the Delta; skills and crafts of the miner and smelter, translated in to homes beneath the ground for artisans; miners and the ‘little people’, Agricola’s legends of spirits in the rock-faces of deep adits at a German mining camp, a leprechaun and a pot of gold vanishing to an underground space beneath a Rath – Thomas Crofton Croker and his notebook. 

So, it is within this old Kingdom of South Munster, to which I am ethnically native, that I decided to investigate a legacy of souterrains beneath the landscape of Ireland. By framing a portion of it within the Kingdom of South Munster, and in this context, seeking to understand the forms and designs of souterrains, their distribution patterns and the social histories which produced them, I could see a way of advancing and contextualising the knowledge I had gained from my initial study efforts for Cork in the 1970s. It is one approach to the study of these underground monuments. In my view, to date it has been a successful one; though by no means is it a definitive one. After eight years of study, analysis and consideration of the Cork evidence what follows in this book, is my summation of what I have learned. It is told in such a way as to try to interpret souterrains from the point of view of the social history in South Munster, rather than trying to interpret that social history from the archaeological remains. 

This is not an archaeology of souterrains in South Munster. It is an attempt at a social history to interpret the archaeology of its souterrains. The Souterrains of South Munster are part of a hidden gem. They are part of the underground perspective beneath Daniel Corkery’s seminal book called The Hidden Ireland published in 1924.  An underground perspective to that which preserves some of that Irish manuscript legacy of a fallen culture,  folk poets labouring in muddy farmlands, and their local courts of poetry, which lay within the folk traditions at the time Corkery came to occupy his professorial position at University College Cork in the 1930s. 

In the year 1118 at the Treaty of Glanmire, – which perhaps I incorrectly interpret as Glanmire in County Cork, approximately 50 years before the Norman Invasion, the ancient Kingdom of Munster was divided into two kingdoms. One was that of Thomond (Tuath Mhumhain or North Munster) and the other that of South Munster (Deas Mhumhain or anglicised to Desmond). When this happened the majority of souterrains within South Munster’s territory were encased within the boundaries of this MacCarthaigh kingdom stretching, as best I can determine at this point in time,  on the northern side of the kingdom from the Dingle Peninsula to the southern lands of what would become in later centuries County Limerick, then turning northwards from the Ballyhoura Mountains to Cashel of the Kings via the north side of the Galtee Mountains, the landscape area of Cush, Kilfinane and Ardpatrick. From Cashel, its administrative and ancient ecclesiastical centre and archbishopric, the kingdom stretched southwards again to the southern banks of the River Suir and onto the sea coast at Waterford Harbour, meeting as that river’s journey ended with the Rivers Nore and Barrow flowing from Kilkenny and Carlow in Leinster: the Three Sisters. 

The largest territory and centre point, of this kingdom was that which in later centuries would become the county of Cork. On its western boundaries were the lands of the peoples of the Corca Dhuibhne and the Corca Laidhe. To its north and east the wetter lands of south Limerick and highly rich fertile lands of the Golden Vale and the valley lands of the River Suir, to the lands of the Osraige people, then southwards to the lands of the Deise people in what would become County Waterford. The gentle coastlines of Waterford give way to the multitude of coves, inlets, harbours, headlands, islands and peninsulas of West Cork and Kerry. Southwards Munster’s shorelines face south, the Mizen Head and Brow Head its most southerly points facing towards the shorelines of Atlantic Europe and North West Africa; six days of wind in a canvas sail and from there opening vistas of vibrant maritime laneways to the economic and social splendours of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean.

From Mytho-Histories, Pseudo-Histories and Archaeological Fragments to Lyrical Imaginings: Not quite a Dindshenchas.

Of the Oestrymnides and the Cassiterides, of Cornwall’s tin deposits, and ancient mariners prospecting for new resources as armies, wars and the manufacturing of weapons in the East depleted home supplies. Of tales of the Fir Bolgs (men of bags or men of the Bolgan or Belgae) who once dwelt beneath the ground as related to mid-18th century antiquarians and medieval scribes. Of the last battle of the Tuatha De Danann (people and tribe-land of the goddess Anu or De Anu) a people of magic, mist and fire, furnaces in a crisp dawn light. Their retreat underground surrendering the land surface to invading Celtic peoples, a legacy of otherworld experiences and superstitions.  Of classical authors noting that peoples of the western islands lived  beneath the ground because of harsh winters. Of two Late Bronze Age axes, a palstave and a socketed axe found on a ledge within a Tig Faoi Talaimh (House beneath the Ground) in Paddock town-land near Skibbereen, at Aghadown by the sea, looking eastwards to Oldcourt quay and a rath souterrain with a handbell.  All a semi-mythical consciousness in the folk memory, of uses for underground places over a longer time span than currently understood from the Irish Archaeological Record.


The Paddock, Aghadown Bronze Axes. As drawn by JPMcCarthy

Though archaeological dating, at present, places Irish souterrains, as an assumed single monument form and type within the period circa 600 -1000 AD, the folk memory both in mythical story and in historical record places the use of underground spaces in the Irish landscape within a much broader framework of time from the Bronze Age to Post-Medieval times. Given the range of structural forms within the souterrain record for South Munster, it seems a fair question to ask which of these forms constituted a Tig Faoi Talaimh as distinct from the other subterranean structural forms found within the Record? If Tigh Faoi Talaimh was a form distinct from the other forms then should it be regarded as having the same date frame as those souterrains ( of which a very small sample are dated by Radio-Carbon dating) identified as belonging to the later part of the Early Medieval period? Or was it a form of subterranean structure in the Munster landscape which existed prior to, as well as parallel with, and after, other forms were introduced and subsequently abandoned? Did it continue in use for a much longer period of time; late enough for topographical historians and field archaeologists such as Rev. Patrick Canon Power in the 1920s recording Tig Faoi Talaimh field-names and Muchán (chimney) field-names as souterrain sites in Waterford and East Cork. 

Tig Faoi Talaimh (house beneath the ground) and Poll Faoi Talaimh (pit beneath the ground), folk-names as place-names spreading across the fields of local topographies in Cork, to Cape Clear Island and beyond to the West. A mysterious find of coins of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander, found on Munster’s south coast, a historical numismatist enquiring.  Waterford’s Copper Coast (Déise) to East Cork and Imokilly (Uí Mochaille),  a notebook in Charles Smith’s saddlebag on the road from Dungarvan, copper furnaces at Ballyoughtera (homeplace of the furnaces) on the Womanagh River, and by its tributary, burial mounds near Castlemartyr and a high status grave in a cave nearby.

Mr. Redmond Anthony’s cabinet of curiosities above the River Suir and correspondence with John Lindsay of Cork. Bronze spears from a south Wexford souterrain. Mount Gabriel’s ancient copper mines at the Mizen Peninsula, Cnoc Osta and a people of the Oestrymnides, timber jetties at Ptolemy’s Ivernis and a trading settlement at the Kenmare Estuary, the Old Kenmare Road to Killarney’s Ross Island and ancient metalworking. The great market at Carmun (Wexford) where Greek foreigners bring ‘gold and fine raiments’, those greek coins of the reign of Phillip of Macedon, father to Alexander, found somewhere along the south coast of Ireland; Lindsay learns of them from Anthony perhaps? Of that Greek gold traded, and over how many centuries of that annual great market’s timeframe, were gold – and ‘fine raiments’ – traded, were the native nobilities enriched with conspicuous wealth, and was such wealth worn by men on bowmen on horseback and by their womenfolk, how much went to burial mounds and rock tombs, how much might have a provenance unrecognised in the archaeological record even today? 

Of Ora Maritima, Himilco of Carthage in great voyages of exploration and a lost Periplus of the West. Of skin boats upon the seas. Of a bronze sword in the banks of the Womanagh River near its estuary by the sea, there, at one time a big harbour at Pilmore (large harbour, Welsh word pwl,), before Youghal’s time. Mooring ropes looped along a frozen wharf, shadows in a dawn twilight, a barque from the Cassiterides; bronze from tin alloyed to copper. A Bronze Age urn of local clay speaking to the banks of the Womanagh. Was it the ore which brought them and settled them, trees cleared in a forest, rock fissures opened, the woodland vista from a barren ridge, sea cliffs examined? An arc of tombs upon ridge tops once guardians of a great plain, the ‘Maige’ of cattlemen to a great harbour of marshes and sloblands, Corcach, from a great inundation to obscure the memory? Cloaked in sea mist the Cailleach Bearra speaks to Carrig Chliodhna breasted in her sea spray, a thousand of the Corca drowned, Mananaan in gigantic stature, a leviathan with a trident. Goliath rock pugilists in lumpen titanic struggles at Brandon Head. Professor Harkness walks through a drowned forest beneath the sands of Youghal to Garryvoe.

A dolmen to the water’s edge at Poulnabibe, battle goddess – the Bibe, wailing in the creek, dolmen nodding towards Castlemary’s cairn, and at the cairn, above it, the speckled cow of the Milky Way, beside it the old road of the white cow to Cloyne. The Cairn beckoning towards those of Great Island and Currabinny, Nemed’s tomb, famine and plague among the people, sails raised, ships leaving, a Caoineadh at Poulcalee, hags keening in mourning for a lost river, a lost people, Veynus channel by Ross Giallain also lost. Sheila-na-Gig taunting at a chapel door.

Art from gold castings sizzling, lost at places of great assembly, lost along Lugh’s road – Sun God of the harvest’s corn at Ballinvoher (home place of the road), beside the bent back of Crom (Carrigacrump) carrying the work of the reapers. A mitre-like gold crown in a cave at Knockane, a gold plated cloak, a necklace of amber beads, a skeleton without personhood, unable to speak of flesh and mind and knowing buried in the cave. ‘Some of the noblest bloods in Ireland’ buried near Cloyne (Cluian Uamha) said an ancient bishop. Cormac, King of Munster, wills his body to be buried at Clauin Uamha. Cluain Uamha the spiritual meadow, a hermitage of the cave to a Monastery of the Cave, a Byzantine style Laura. Colman leaps from its Round Tower, knee caps embedded in the Lurrig (Lugh the king) monolith as a Lugnasa festival shudders to a Christian dawn at Barrykilla, antiquarian gold finds lost. 

The Erinyes winds blow across the Mizen, the Argo bends it prow, Baltic amber  on a necklace, Danish rammed-earth Rath house for a Hansa council, Court of the Hundred,   

a Roman coin on a Venetii palm, coin bag at Cuskinny Bay, Britannia’s confederation of merchant seamen, naval vessels at the mouth of the Irish Channel, tax takers, fur trade, Britannia falls, Gaelic pirates upon the seas. Auction houses and museum cabinets, lost provenances resonating. Munster’s south coastline, closest to the Cassiterides, closest to the Cantabrian Sea, closest to Tartessos, closest to the Pillars of Hercules and the north west coast of Africa; Fomorian ships condensing to skeletal frames upon a rain drenched sea; Janus masks and tribal dances, Janus at Boa Island, 19th century colonist claims to hear Gaelic spoken among tribal people in North Africa, a Viking slave market.  At Youghal a Tuareg Berber in a river name, perhaps. Old placenames of no Gaelic origin are in the Déise lands, said Rev. Canon Power. Monoliths of the stone circle at Crookhaven face outwards, each murmuring to its own viewpoint, patrimony of the centre lost, half collapsed to the sea; Robert Graves and the White Goddess.  Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces a sentinel on a sea stack. 

Of pseudo-histories. Roger O’Connor writes the Chronicles of Eri (somewhat from a lost book of histories perhaps?) as Herodotus tells of Pharaoh Sesostris to Europe. Joaquin Lorenzo Villanueva writes of Phoenician Ireland; Henry O’Brien translates. Cathaginian seamen moored on a dusty bookshelf; O’Connor with Macpherson’s book publisher, burial at the MacCarthy vault at Kilcrea; imagination seekers of lost pedigrees and ancient dynasties. 

The Erinyes still in fury, the Bibe as a waif across a silent battlefield, no home coming, lost to the Western seas.

Souterrains in Ireland

The 6th century Scottish monk St. Gildas wrote of the Irish, as quoted by Charles Smith in the 1774 edition. (page 408, Vol.2) of his The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork, ‘prorepsere e cavernulis sui fusci vermiculi iberni’ which, as best I can translate it, seems to say that the Irish crawl out like larvae from their dark caves. Whether or not intended to be derogatory, it is not a very inaccurate description of persons crawling out of a souterrain. Smith also uses the phrase ‘homo speluncans’ for the inhabitant of a cave. 

The souterrains of Ireland belong to a cultural history of Gaelic Ireland which began in the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age and lasted to the end of the 16th century A.D. They are underground manmade cavities either masonry built or tunnelled in rock or clay. As tunnelled cavities they are distinct from the history of metallurgical mining over the course of this long time period. They reflect certain other societal needs, secular and religious. 

There was nothing ‘romantically pure’ about this cultural history. It was the outcome of many earlier conquests, trading arrangements, explorations, prospecting, coming from Tartessos, from Phoenician Carthage and beyond, and settlements; societal norms and influences from abroad, gradually in-culturated together in one island place, one island landscape. 

Though often perceived by post 17th century A.D scholarship as being peripheral to the World (Mundus) of Ancient Rome’s great empire and the classical civilisations it absorbed, ongoing scholarship reveals a very different story; one where peripherality to the Empire’s administrative boundaries did not mean isolation from its economic, cultural, familial and societal influences, or indeed, the ongoing consequences of its internal histories: a marine-scape of many ships in passage; the failed ambitions of potential emperors, promontory forts and the Fianna, a standing force defending the coastline. It would be interesting to consider what kind of narrative and understanding Gaelic hereditary antiquarian scholarship would have provided had it continued through the 17th century AD to become a wide spread, print based, scholarship and the basis for Irish antiquarianism in middle class urban society and subsequently Irish archaeology; a heritage of meaning, naming and understanding inherited within the Gaelic language informing the development of such disciplines; something noticeable in the fieldwork of Rev. Canon Patrick Power and Rev. Fr. Patrick Dinneen. How interesting would it be to have had a native, investigative tradition of antiquarian scholarship continuing from persons such as the Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh (1600 – 1671) of the Gaelic hereditary tradition (Ó Muraíle 2002) , for comparison that of his friend and associate Sir James Ware (1594 – 1666) and the subsequent Anglo-Irish antiquarian tradition?  

It was not a culturally ‘pure’ Gaelic history in so far as it was the receptor of many tribal and clan identities from a Late Bronze Age to a, long tailed, ‘Celtic’ Iron Age, in Western Europe and in North Africa’s kingdoms and empires. It was a receptor of outcomes and influences from these political landscapes and their social fluctuations. It was a receptor of social movements in response to Rome’s expansions both north, west and – quite likely – into the lands of the great ancient civilisations of the east as well as south across sub-Saharan Africa. Resistance to it by Gallic and Belgic tribes and their sea going/ sea trading empires of the North Atlantic; Venetii of Brittany, Menapi of the Belgae stretching eastwards along the Rhinelands, Menapii at Menervia (St David’s) in South Western Wales while directly west across the Irish Channel the Menapii of Leinster, Menapii trade with the Uí Liatháin of  the Cork Harbour region: though not as yet, geomorphologically, the daily flood of the great ‘harbour’ it would become in later times; a bag of Roman coins from a cove at Cuskinny, dove marble quarried – suitable for a villa in Brittania at Carrigacrump by Rostellan, cattle drover tracks in sunken lanes to the sea, beef and leather for an army, the Menapii sea god Manannan Mac Lir rising from the ocean at Ballycroneen unfurling a watery palm releasing three cows upon the land to increase the herds of the máighe lands (the plains lands of the cattlemen- Má Coda, Má Doige, Má Tíre), the track of the white cow by the back of Crom Dubh along Lugh’s Way as land becomes sky intermingling, milk spatters become the stars of the Milky Way, land and sky united.

  Perhaps promontory situated port locations like Drumanagh (County Dublin), one close to the great annual market at ‘Carmun’ in Wexford, one beside Kinsale’s Old Head and many others whose names and locations are long lost to memory. Garrisoned by whom? By Roman garrisons for merchant communities under the protection of Rome, by treaty with local clans and tribes anxious to engage in trade, social interaction and travel through Roman lands from Brittania eastwards? Like a Dutch bridged trading post on an offshore island of Japan in the early 17th century, segregated, for a time, from direct interaction and cultural influence. Was it in such places that the earliest missionaries of the religion of Christ found a foothold on Irish shores, that small groups of individuals familiar with Christ’s words came together in ‘house churches’ to pray and welcome at such garrisoned ports travelling preachers from abroad bringing spiritual guidance, news and the giving of the sacraments, persons longing for their own bishop to guide them and expand their communities? Was it of such persons and their places where Roman arms i.e. enforcement of the rule of Rome, rather than just protection of its merchant communities abroad, that the early church father Tertullian of Carthage wrote in 198 A.D., a period of time when the harbours and their approaches were well known to the merchants of the Roma world as recorded by Tacitus.

Ireland was the receptor of a new religion, that of Christ, with its origins, its cradle lands and its five patriarchates (Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, the city of Rome) all, excepting Rome, being within the Eastern provinces of the Empire; Byzantium in a blaze of sunlight; William Butler Yeats nodding eastwards to be Sailing to Byzantium.   

As the Western Empire dissolved after the 5th century A.D., in its aftermath Ireland flourished as a repository of craftsmanship and learning from both the Western and Byzantine worlds; a repository from which a rebirth could begin and spread; a repository from which the outcomes of scholarship, education and spirituality of its monastic church culture and its ‘universities’ could be spread eastwards – as well as westwards, to the north, to Iceland, and beyond the Western Ocean, perhaps to the Greater Ireland of the Viking Landnamabok.

As this story unfolded the Islamic conquest took place advancing to the Gates of Constantinople, through the lands of Spain to the southern lands of France and unsuccessfully to the gates of the city of Rome itself. 

But, subsequent to the splitting of the Eastern Empire (Byzantium) from the Western Empire (Rome) after 285 A.D., there was in the centuries that followed a gradual drifting apart and forgetfulness of West from East, East from West, Greek (Byzantine) world from Latin (Roman) one, a loss of oneness; a time of less trade, some migrations under persecution, less movement of people and troops, less travel, the growing influence of a western church with replications of sacred geographies, less pilgrimage, less awareness, until 476 AD and the final ending of the Western Empire: embers fanned by Justinian the Great, the Last Roman, but short lived, his death in 565 AD, Arab conquest of the Levant 634-638 AD, Synod of Whitby 664 AD as Rome predominates over Celtic christianity. 

It is out of this world view that the missions of Palladius and Patrick to the Irish, of Germanus to Britain come westward from the patriarchate of Rome, the church of the Western Empire, in the time of the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, of John Cassian, of Martin of Tours and others, a time of Laura monasteries and their cells, a time of prophets, of Syrian ‘holy men’ and hermits either alone or in hermitages, Sketes at Mount Athos, a time of the Desert Fathers in Egypt’s Thebaid, bearded Anthony and his bachall Iosa, a time of monastic Desert ‘Cities’ from Syria to Egypt, a time of bringing unity to pre-existing enclaves of Christ’s people and disparate forms of their devotions in the western islands of Europe, a place of Pelagius and his teachings said in Rome to be full of Irish ‘porridge’; a time of Patrick asking founders of earlier christian communities to join their churches to him; Kieran, Declan, Ailbe and Ibar cogitating. Conflicting thinking from earlier christianities, from an ancient testament, from the Eastern Empire, already present and established perhaps, seven Coptic monks in an Ulster desert, being brought in to the fold of Rome, six Culdees in hooded capes, a prior and his ‘canons’.  Bangor’s antiphony ‘true vine of Egypt’, ‘pueri Aegyptae’. Fionn Chú at Bangor. An anti-pater and a sun disc. An Essene in a ‘worship cave’ and a long road to Qumran, Islam’s Isa and Gaelic Iosa. Anglicised place names, perhaps fancifully, suggesting something which in a Gaelic parlance they may never have been; a pharisee at Kilfarrasy, a maccabee at Kilmacabea, searching for the Ark of the Covenant at Meath’s Tara. Illuminated manuscripts, calligraphy of the Word, lost in desert sands, a psaltery lost, or abandoned, in a wilderness of bogland, Faddan More. Lapis Lazuli inlaid to a silver crosier, an Afghan and an Indus merchant at Alexandria, liquid metals coiling in receipt of gemstones for a chalice, a reliquary box, a book cover, Fionnbarr’s father at the anvil at Rath Raithleann, a little bird of gold from Garryduff.

There was nothing romantically pure about this Gaelic Ireland. Its tribes and clans interacted and were related to British (Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, English) and Western European peoples and tribes – if not beyond to the eastern extremities of the Aegean Sea, intermarried with them, inter-cultured with them, socially and economically tied to them. Munster absorbed Saxon influences as Britain became Saxon. It absorbed Christian influences from there and in the 7th century A.D. gave way partially to Rome’s reforms after the Whitby Synod; Berihert and Saxon monks at Tullylease in North Cork, Colman and the Hibernian faction retired. As different forms of Christian living developed in Western Europe it drew influence from these. It absorbed Danish and Norwegian raiders, their merchants and merchant companies, their townspeople at port towns, and their farmers as they settled the western coastal lands and islands of Europe. It absorbed Norman Conquest about a century after its arrival in Britain and all that came after in terms of its technologies, its monastic and church reforms, its lyras, economics and settlements. But, it also, subtly resisted an overall cultural change, by these influences. For some reason or other its prevailing cultural identity, a Gaelic ‘Celtic’ identity, but also influenced by a vernacular Byzantine one, was too deeply ingrained to be subsumed and relegated to the past. It was something stubborn, not easily erased and so, it once again absorbed rather than fundamentally change itself. It remained so during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry 8th of England; surviving by stealth, perseverance, endurance and indifference to the beginning of the 17th century A.D. ;  through new religious and secular ownerships, essential buildings – dormitories refectories spittals chapels torn down, ‘of no use for the purposes of the landowner’. 

In the 17th century the cultural infrastructure of Gaelic Ireland partly disintegrated under the weight of incessant conquests, rebellions and plantation settlements, secular confiscation of hereditary kingdoms and monastic demesnes – their cahers, domhnachs and the cluains of their desert hermitages – and the redistribution of their lands; an old social architecture finally broken. It was a turbulent century of social and cultural upheaval as well as one of social migrations: a century which also saw a change of legal system, censuses, cartographic and mathematical land boundary determinations and valuations of land utility as well as the end of hereditary Gaelic manuscript scholarship and the beginnings of an ethnographic and antiquarian interest in the history of that culture and its societal legacy. Though Rev. Geoffrey Keating, The Four Masters, the printing press at Louvain and the hereditary scholarship of its intellectuals and scribes rushed to preserve their cultural inheritance and record its multi-faceted story for posterity, the overlay of the new scholarship, blossoming in the 18th century, peered from the outside inward. It interpreted what it saw according to its own societal norms  and a need to superimpose them; gradually subsuming and labelling what remained of Gaelic culture and tradition. It expressed its nascent understanding and its reasoning, its mind talk, in a different language to Gaelic and it did so through the medium of print technology. It informed its readership audience, both urban inhabitants and rural gentry, according to the literary norms of its time i.e. through the objective ‘scientific’ and debated observational reasoning of the Age of Reason and through ‘polite literature’ and the popular press; as great houses and landscaped demesnes arose across the countryside, as castles and walled towns gave way to open boundaries and the peaceful beginning of a new age; Cork as the ‘Venice’ of a new South, the sons of its merchant princes on the Grand Tour to Italy, fictional writings about an old Gaelic world of heroes and magic, brush to canvas for an artist’s theme, Ottoman delegation from Tripoli receives a ‘freedom of the city’. Demesne landscapes with ornamental follies, fanciful ruins of castle walls – ivy dressed, grottoes, pond lands and diverted rivers, circular clumps of tree clusters, crenellated hermit cell designed as out-office and temple as tea room, sculpting ancient realities to artistic motifs, the antiquities of politeness. The bibliography, reasoning and understanding it evolved paved the way during the 19th and into the early 20th century for the emergence of modern professional scholarship in the historical academic disciplines of Ireland.

It is within this complex intertwining of narratives that one begins to search for an explanation of why something in the region of 2,000 souterrains, as far as is currently known, exist beneath the landscapes of the counties of South Munster. There are, quite likely, many as yet to be discovered; more by chance than design, unless the geographies which contextualise them can be resurrected from the fragments which survive in the everyday nomenclature of rural Ireland.