Prehistoric Inishowen

Taken from Romantic Inishowen by Harry Percival Swan

Published in 1947  by Hodges Figgis & Co., Ltd.,
Dawson Street, Dublin

Malin Head


Ice Age in Inishowen

"We inherit the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth."
- Arthur O'Shaughnessy

During the Ice Age, Inishowen, like the rest of North-West Europe, was completely buried beneath an ice-sheet. The ice, probably about 3,000 feet thick, swept over Inishowen from the Donegal Hills, where lay its source, and proceeded across hill and dale parallel roughly with the Foyle and Swilly. On the north of the peninsula, it flowed off the coast and gave rise doubtless to icebergs in the Atlantic.

The ice, shod with boulders and other debris, scratched the rocks over which it passed and scored them in the direction of its own flow. It also moulded the hills into the beautifully rounded forms which are everywhere apparent.

Good examples of these scratches are readily seen on Inch Top, Inch Island.

The ice also brought with it materials from the west, including the rounded granite boulders, derived from the Barnesmore Mountains in County Donegal, which careful search fill find in all parts of the peninsula. It laid down the sands and gravels and clays which floor the valleys and lower parts of the country.

Among the glacial erratics is “Mell-yore”, a block weighing many tons at Cashel Hill above the village of Burnfoot.

With the passing away of glacial conditions, the ice gradually diminished in thickness. It was no longer able to surmount the highest peaks, such as Slieve Snacht and Bulbin. These, therefore, emerged above the ice-surfaces, and the once-continuous ice broke up into powerful glaciers which streamed from the south-west along Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle, and along the Glentogher and Mintiaghs valleys.

These glaciers shrank southwards. They withdrew from the Glentogther and Mintiaghs valleys, and only glaciers in Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly remained. The Swilly Glacier ponded a lake in the broad valley of the Owenkillew River, north-east of Buncrana. The lake overflowed by the valley which begins just north of the Mintiaghs Lough and falls northward into the valley of the Clonmany River.

After the retiral of the main mass of Donegal ice, an occasional corrie glacier nestled in a hollow where the ice and snow were protected from the sun. One such small glacier lingered on the west side of the Gap of Mamore, where its frontal moraine of large stones is clearly to be seen.

Subsequent to the release of Inishowen from its icy cover, the peninsula has risen about 20 feet. The raised sea-beach which marks the ancient shore and is no longer washed by the waves may now be seen as flat shelves, now in rock, now as gravel beach, at intervals along the Lough Foyle shore (as south-east of Muff), flooring the depression between Culdaff and Carndonagh, extending west of the road from Carndonagh to Malin, and north of the Carndonagh-Ballyliffin Road.

The great shingle accumulation, on the southern side of Malin Head, which contains pebbles and boulders of all kinds of rock brought by the ice from the south-west, is doubtless such a raised beach, but probably also contains much storm material, hurled up in the past by great waves on this exposed coast.

The most magnificent example of this raised sea-floor, however, is that which forms Magilligan Strand, which stretches out into Lough Foyle opposite Greencastle. Its flatness provided an admirable baseline for the primary triangulation of the British Isles by the Ordinance Survey in 1827.

At this period when the sea covered the raised beaches the sea entered the depression which runs from Londonderry to Fahan from either end, and the middle part which was probably not submerged was rendered marshy. Inishowen was at this time an island.

Professor J. Kaye Charlesworth, D.Sc.


Chronological Setting

"We, the heirs of all the ages,
In the foremost files of time."
- Tennyson

The question of chronology, on which I am asked to say a few words, is one of much difficulty. When we pass in time back to a period before the introduction of any form of writing, we are deprived of the powerful aid of datable documents.

The problem is not, however, hopeless, although the final establishment of a complete scheme has not yet been attained. It is best, in such a study, to proceed backwards from the known to the unknown, and to see what fixed points we have to give us a framework.

We pause at the date of the beginning of the Anglo-Norman occupation, the central year of which is 1172 A.D. This inaugurated the late mediaeval period of Irish Art; though possibly the foundation of the first Cistercian Monastery at Mellifont, Co. Louth (1142 A. D.) would be a better landmark.

The next stage is inaugurated by the beginning of Scandinavian aggression, in the 8th and 9th century. This made a complete revolution in the life, manners, morals and art of the country – much more complete than appears at first sight; and it certainly makes an epoch of great importance.

Perhaps we may name as our next date, the departure of the Colum Cille for Scotland in 563 A.D., which inaugurated the remarkable outburst of missionary activity among the ecclesiastics of Ireland during the 7th and 8th centuries. This period is sometimes called “The Golden Age” with, perhaps, undue optimism. But it was altogether to the benefit of the country that its emissaries came in contact with the architectural and other cultural attainments of the Continent and the Near East. Undoubtedly it was to these foreign connections that the development of mortared stone building, and of the Romanesque style in Ireland, was primarily due.

The arrival of St. Patrick as a missionary, 432 A.D., is the next point. He found the country predominantly pagan, though undoubtedly there were Christians in it before his time. He left it well on the way to becoming predominantly Christian.

We next come to the arrival of the Iron culture, which seems to be datable, to judge from the few relics which it has left, to late in the second La Tène period, say sometime shortly before 100 B.C. This is the time of the beginning of the sagas of Cuchulain and his contemporaries.

Before that, we are in the Bronze Age, beginning somewhere about 2000 B.C. It is specially marked by the erection of great “Megalithic” monuments – chambered tumuli such as Dowth horned cairns, and the so-called “dolmeni”, and at a later period stone circles.

In the early part of this period, the country’s wealth in gold and copper enabled it almost to command the markets of Northern Europe. This time of prosperity was brought to an end by the destructive invasion of the “Beaker People” somewhere about 1200 B.C., which, like the Scandinavians 2,000 years later, effected a complete revolution in the country’s life and culture. But the Scandinavians imported their arts. The “Cross of Cong”, for example, would never have come into existence, in the form in which we know it, had it not been for Scandinavian influence. The “Beaker People” brought nothing but a set-back into barbarism.

Earlier still, in the Neolithic and Mesolithic ages, the chronology becomes much less definite. The Larne flint workings have been assigned to dates as diverse as 4000 and 7000 B.C. That is the farthest back to which we can go at present; no certain evidence of a Palaeolithic Period in Ireland has ever come to light.

No correlation whatever can be established between these phases of civilisation or waves of migration, and the strange peoples, Fomorians, Partholonians, Nemidians, Fir Bold and the rest, of which the legendary histories tell us much. These belong to the dreamland of folklore and nowhere else. The stories about them may incorporate vague reminiscences of immigrations, but they are so completely overlaid with fable that they have no real value for the pure historian. They have an interest, but it lies elsewhere – in the history of religion, ritual, and culture, for which they provide the earliest material available in the non-classical literature of Europe.

R. A. S. MacAlister, Litt. D.


The Ages of Stone and Bronze in Inishowen

“In the glimmer of the dawn they stand the solemn silent witnesses of ancient days."
- Archaelogical Journal


The bronze age in Ireland is taken to begin about 2000 B.C. Stone Age peoples lived in portion[s] of the country for almost 5,000 years before this, but the main part of this period does not concern us. In dealing with Inishowen we have to consider only the last portion of the Stone Age, known as the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) which precedes the beginning of the Bronze Age by a comparatively short interval and forms an important introduction to it.

Its importance lies in the fact that the Neolithic Period saw the beginning of the arts of agriculture and the keeping of domestic animals – arts on which all subsequent human progress is based. This new knowledge, from an ultimate origin in the Near and Middle East, spread to Ireland from the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Subsidiary arts which were introduced at this period were the making of pottery and of textiles. From the type of pottery distinctive of the Neolithic, archaeologists are able to identify the habitations and burial sites of this period. Pottery of this type is not known to have been found in Inishowen, but a class of tomb which had beginnings in Neolithic times is well represented; and though these tombs may date in large part from the Bronze Age, they give evidence of the earliest colonisation of the area.

These tombs, built of great stones and hence known as “megalithic” tombs, were usually intended for “collective burial”, that is they held the remains of several persons, acting probably as the family vaults of their builders. Generally, there now remain only very dilapidated structures – the cairn of stones which formerly protected them and some of the uprights and capstones that formed the chambers having, in the course of thousands of years, been robbed for building, for fence-making, road-metalling and other purposes. It is, therefore, frequently difficult to be sure of the types of tomb represented by the few stones that remain to us.

From the published accounts one can enumerate a total of about eighteen tombs in Inishowen, but because of lack of detail some of them are rather doubtful, and only about half the number are sufficiently well described and preserved to enable us to decide to which sub-classes they belong. From the information at our disposal it is possible to say that types of tombs well represented in other parts of the country have also examples in Inishowen.

The well-preserved tomb at Laraghirril (or Deen) is related to the “horned cairn” group. These monuments are so called because the front of the tomb is marked by a curved façade of uprights, through which the gallery containing the burial is approached. Horned cairns extend from Carlingford Lough, where a focus of the group points to their entry into Ireland, across central and southern Ulster and to Sligo in the West. The Laraghirril example – an outlier of the type – gives evidence that their builders lived also in Inishowen.

The tomb at Upper Gransha, near Buncrana, is a representative of another class – the wedge-shaped gallery graves generally known as Dolmens which, in different forms, are found very widely distributed in Ireland, and have connections further afield in France and South-Western Europe.

At Carnagh on Inch Island is an interesting monument, locally known as the “King’s Grave”, which may be part of a larger structure. Part of the cairn remains, and this as well as a growth of briars and bushes, obscures its features. It appears to consist of two parts – an imposing chamber, built of three uprights, two of them forming great front portals about 9 feet in height and, behind this, a smaller rectangular grave covered by a massive capstone. Megalithic tombs characterised by portal stones are well represented throughout Ireland. In the Carnaghan monument was found a pot of the type known as a “food vessel”, now in Derry Museum.

Food-vessels are so called because they are frequently found in graves with skeletons, and are thought to have contained an offering of food to help the departed on the journey to the next life. They are also used as urns to contain the cremated bones of the dead. Another food-vessel from Inishowen, also in Derry Museum, came from the townland of Craig. It was found in a grave of Bronze Age type – a rectangular stone cist, about 3 feet in length, and 2 feet wide, and with it a crouched skeleton lying on its side. From a burial mound at Glenagannon, near Carndonagh, came two other food-vessels, while other pottery vessels,  vaguely described as “urns”, were found at Culoort, near Malin Head. We have no adequate description of these vessels but urns properly so called are bigger than the food-vessels already mentioned, and are the type of sepulchral pottery characteristic of the Late Bronze Age.

Another class of monument ascribed to the Bronze Age is the stone circle, and it is exemplified in Inishowen by one on Bocan Hill, near Culdaff. Unlike the megalithic tombs and burial mounds, stone circles are not intended for burial, but are places of prehistoric ritual, and examples excavated elsewhere in Ireland show that the custom of erecting them began very early in the Bronze Age. Other monuments which are superficially similar to stone circles should not be confused with them, and in some cases publications have mentioned stone circles in Inishowen which do not seem to be true examples of the type. They may be enclosures around habitations, hut-sites or the kerbs of burial cairns remaining after the stones of the cairn itself have been removed.

The simplest type of monument with which we deal is the standing stone, or pillar stone, and being simple, it has many purposes, and a long range of date. Standing stones sometimes mark burial places, were sometimes boundary or landmarks, but without excavation it is not possible to say what purpose was served by an individual specimen. Their erection was begun by the megalithic builders, but they continue until much later times, even after the coming of Christianity, some of these later examples having crosses inscribed on them. Standing stones are numerous in Inishowen as elsewhere in Ireland. A particularly fine example is that at Ardmore, near Muff, and this is of special interest, because it is inscribed with cup and circle markings – a type of Bronze Age carving which gives evidence of inspiration in Ireland from ornament found on rock surfaces in the Iberian Peninsula.

Prehistoric man was, of course, concerned with other things than death and ritual, and we must consider what evidence for these other activities we can find in Inishowen. It is difficult to say anything about the types of habitations occupied in the area during prehistoric times. On the sandhills near Buncrana and on the Isle of Doagh numerous flints were found; among these are flint lozenge-shaped arrowheads which are the earliest type (Neolithic or Early Bronze Age), and tanged-and-barbed flint arrowheads of Bronze Age date. These give evidence of habitation, probably seasonal, on coastal sites.

Stone axe-hammers, with perforations to take a wooden handle, a type ascribed to the Bronze Age, have been found at Muff, Magheralahan, Carrowmore and Ludden. In addition, a large number of stone axes, which however cannot be clearly dated, have been found in Inishowen.

Flat bronze axes, some beautifully decorated (e.g., one from Carrowen) and some other finds give evidence of Early Bronze Age activity. The Middle Bronze Age is represented by daggers (including one with a horn handle found in a bog at Glack), axes and a bronze spearhead. A leaf-shaped sword, a spearhead and a few other finds continue the story to the Late Bronze Age.

Of the greatest interest is the collection of soap-stone moulds from Ballyliffin, intended for casting bronze palstaves (a type of axe with flanges and stop ridge). These moulds give important evidence of industrial activities of the Bronze Age craftsmen. Since some of the moulds are unfinished it is clear that they were being manufactured on the spot, and from a type of stone which is known to be available in Donegal.

The most spectacular Bronze Age find from Inishowen is one discovered early in the 19th century, but of which the precise locality is not recorded. The find consisted of a collection of gold ornaments known as torques, made of twisted gold ribbon, and dating from the first half of the Bronze Age. Fourteen complete torques of various sizes were found as well as some broken fragments, and they give clear evidence of the wealth of their prehistoric possessor. A gold ornament of a different type, a small dress fastener, was found at Glengad, parish of Clonca, in 1863. It belongs to the Late Bronze Age.

It is said that a bronze axe was discovered at Drumfin Rath, on Inch Island. Since we know from excavations elsewhere in Ireland that raths can be as early as Late Bronze Age time, it is possible that some of the numerous examples in Inishowen were occupied during this period, but since this type of habitation continued to be constructed until a much later date, we must assume that the majority are later than the period with which we deal. Though we may certainly suppose that some were occupied during the Early Iron Age, no find of Early Iron Age date is found in Inishowen.

Prof. Sean P. O’Riordan, M.A., D.Litt., M.R.I.A.

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