Digging up the past
Since 1991, Achill archaeologist, Teresa McDonald, has been uncovering interesting aspects of the island’s secret past
ALL some people know about history is that it relates to the past – and as far as they are concerned that’s where it should be left. They have no interest in it, no desire to learn from it or assess how it has shaped who we are today.
For others, however, the possibility of making new discoveries that change the way we view our history is what fascinates them.
One person who has always been fascinated by history is Achill archaeologist, Teresa McDonald, who has been running the Achill Archaeological Field School since 1991. Regarded as the foremost expert on the archaeology and history of the island, she has written two books and several papers on the archaeology, history and folklore of Achill Island.
Exploring Achill’s ancient and recent past has been an interest of Teresa’s for a number of years and that love of history came to her at an early age from listening to folklore and tales from her uncle in her home village of Dooagh. She had no real interest in archaeology, however, until she took up the subject by accident when she was studying for an Arts Degree in NUI Galway.
“My uncle was involved in local history and I grew up with it without really realising it. When I went to Galway university [NUIG], I had to do four subjects and I was going to do Commerce but it was through Irish and having being schooled in England, that was a no-no. The other option was archaeology and I was fascinated from the first minute the professor threw a stone axe on the desk in class and asked ‘what is that?’
“I went to England from where I was actually going to emigrate to South Africa but I met my husband and went to the Institute of Archaeology in the University of London. I did a BSc in Environmental Archaeology and came back to Ireland and did my Masters in Galway. I always had an insatiable curiosity about the world in general and what makes it tick. Curiosity is what really attracted me to archaeology because there is so much we don’t know and you don’t know for certain what is under the ground until you start digging,” she said.
This summer that adage came true when the Field School started to excavate a stone structure under the bog near the Deserted Village at the foot of Slievemore. What appeared to be just another Neolithic circular stone structure on Slievemore turned out to be much more significant. The structure stunned the archaeologists at the Field School who had never seen a structure of its kind before and felt it was unique to Achill.
“This structure is significant because it appeared to be just a circular stone structure and there are several of them. When we started to excavate at the Deserted Village in 1991 we knew of these structures on the mountain and various archaeologists came down from all over the country. They had a look at them and there was an immediate dispute over what they were. Some said they were early Christian round houses and others said there were Bronze Age round houses.
“The first year we began excavation was in 2006 and we got a radio carbon date of what we thought was the floor which dated it to the middle Bronze Age. We thought that was that, but while it seems to be Neolithic, the artefacts are sparse and it doesn’t conform to the known Neolithic tombs. The structure is a massive stone structure which we didn’t expect and is very unusual. We still have not got an answer but it is one of the most significant archaeological structures found in the west of Ireland in recent times,” she explained.
Teresa takes pride in the fact that the Achill Field School is the oldest in Ireland and the idea has been copied by universities such as UCD. It has formed links with NUI Galway which provides academic accreditation for overseas students who come from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, America and various European countries to study during the summer months.
Teresa had worked as a lecturer in archaeology at the VEC in Tullamore and founded the Tullamore and District Archaeological Society. She explained that while students were getting a sound academic grounding in archaeology, they were being let down by the lack of practical studies and she felt there was a need to set up the Field School.
“I set up the Field School because I felt my own training was insufficient. While the academic aspect was fine, you were basically taught how to survey by being brought out for the day and told to look into a machine. I felt there was a niche in the market and it is the same in the US. Where else would you get the wealth of history we have on Slievemore? You wouldn’t even get that on the continent.
“A lot of students have done theses on Achill; they really do become attached to the island and they come back again and again. We have helped to put Achill on the map in terms of tourism because 90 nine per cent of the students would have a good time here, and they would tell their parents about it and they would also come over,” explained Teresa.
Despite the success and the acclaim they achieve, the lack of support and funding from different agencies leaves them frustrated.
“We started with one week and we have now extended it for four months of the year. We got no help, apart from Mayo County Council and a small grant from Leader, to extend the premises and get equipment. The students’ fees keep the place going. We don’t qualify for Gaeltacht grants because we are not in the Gaeltacht but Údarás na Gaeltachta did say that if we were they would be throwing money at us. We have been described as a flagship project on Achill, but maybe it is our own fault; I don’t know,” she said.
The history of Achill has always been a topic of interest for Teresa but it was the lack of knowledge about Achill’s past among the natives which really surprised her. She said that there is great interest among local people about the history which had not been passed on through the generations. She said that, while researching, she discovered that a village had been abandoned near Keem Bay after the Great Famine and nobody had an idea it was there.
“I was amazed by the first lecture I gave here for Scoil Acla in 1989 because over 400 people turned up. I was doubly amazed that they didn’t know anything about the archaeology of Achill Island and they were amazed there was so much to know. I think they didn’t pass on the history because, as my uncle once put it, ‘they did not have the time’, which I found very sad. There seems to be a sort of amnesia among the local people about the Deserted Village because of the Famine and people wanted to forget. There should have been a lot more folklore about it because it is fairly recent but obviously it is very emotive.”
Two years ago, Teresa and her team made a discovery, while recording a graveyard survey in Slievemore cemetery, which she says is one of the reasons why she still finds archaeology so intriguing. While recording the positions of the graves and taking notes on the inscriptions, they found something which gave an insight into the Famine and emigration.
“This man must have gone to America, come back and erected a slab to his father who had died in ‘Black ‘47’. His father’s name and his name are on it – they were Mangans – and right across the centre of the stone in capital letters was ‘American citizen’. He must have taken great pride in the fact that he went to America, made money, came back and erected this stone for his father. The stone was completely covered in moss and it took a couple of days to decipher the inscription. It is those type of discoveries which continue to surprise you and make archaeology fascinating.”
The Deserted Village
The story of the Deserted Village in Slievemore, and how it came to be deserted in the first place, has fascinated historians for years. Consisting of 80-100 stone cottages, they have been referred to as a ‘booley’ settlement which refers to the practice of living in different locations during the summer and winter periods, primarily to allow cattle to graze in summer pasture.
The Achill Field School have been involved in the study of the Deserted Village since 1991 and Teresa admitted that the school evolved around the village because there was so little known about it.
“There were various folklore tales about it but nobody knew when it was built or when it was deserted, even though it was occupied 150 years ago. People say it was used as a booley village, it was but only after it was deserted. The last memory of it was as a booley village and so that idea stuck and people did not go further than the Famine,” she said.
A number of the cottages have been excavated and studied and, from evidence of ceramics found in them, Teresa explained that the earliest the village would have dated back to was 1750. They also found out that none of the houses are of the same size and there is evidence that some of the houses were abandoned and reoccupied. She explained that the village was abandoned after the Famine when the people could not afford the rent and moved to the village of Dooagh.
“The island of Achill would have been owned by Sir Richard O’Donnell and, during the Famine, he – like other landlords – went bankrupt because the people could not pay the rent. The Burrishoole estate, of which Achill was part, was sold in the encumber estates’ court in 1851 and two-thirds of Achill was bought by the Achill Mission. They would have owned Slievemore and, seemingly, increased the rent and the people came to Dooagh which might possibly have been used as a booley village at the time.”