Clonmel town and environs
21748 12134; 22026 12237; 22209 12255
Pre-construction testing was undertaken of the proposed Suir River drainage scheme. Archaeological investigations were undertaken along the length of the scheme, close to and parallel to the River Suir. The investigations were sited in areas of archaeological interest: a mill (TI083–016), a medieval town (TI083–019) and an archaeological complex (TI083–021). In total seventeen trenches were opened along the scheme.
Although cut within relatively close proximity to the surviving wall of a mill, the first opening did not reveal any evidence of mill activity, with the only feature a modern cut extending through the topsoil and down into the natural. Local information indicates that this particular plot was, up until recently, utilised as a cattle pen prior to transportation to slaughter, hence the high organic content in the subsoil.
Several trenches were opened within or close to the medieval town of Clonmel. Two of the openings were positioned within an existing dry bridge, which is located to the south of Old Bridge, a medieval structure. Nothing within these two trenches could be dated earlier than the early to mid-19th century. The series of modern features aligned north–south across the trench appear to be a form of ground consolidation within this area to add structural stability to the soil strata – possibly an anti-erosion programme. It was noticeable the watercourse immediately to the west of the bridge had been regularly cleaned at least until the early years of the 19th century, reflected by the difference in date of the artefacts found at the eastern end when compared to those further west, as well as the fact the trench had a far greater depth at its eastern end. Furthermore, the style of the bridge ties in with the date of the earlier artefacts discovered, offering an early to mid-19th-century date of construction, implying the dry watercourse is in fact a relatively modern cut, an earlier Victorian attempt to alleviate seasonal flooding.
Cut on the eastern side of the dry bridge, a second opening revealed a totally different morphology, reflecting an area deliberately filled to facilitate a landscaped parkland amenity. Copious amounts of bottle glass underlay the brought-in topsoil, which, according to local information, was dumped at this location by a brewery that used to operate in the area. Evidence gained from a trench opened nearby confirmed the landscaping/parkland evolution of this area, comprising purely brought-in materials and soils to bulk up this side of the riverbank and offer some flood protection to the road immediately to the south.
A trench was located on Grubb Island, an area just to the south of the walled town. It proved negative regarding archaeological activity. Natural was revealed in this trench, although immediately beneath modern infill. It is believed the original ground surface at this location (if any) was removed as part of the road-widening scheme of the late 20th century.
Three trenches were opened on Suir Island, a large island in the River Suir, south of the walled town, and the location for several mills during the 18th and 19th centuries. The scale and importance of the milling activity on Suir Island should not be underestimated, with 22 mills of various sizes working in Clonmel during the 19th century, and several centred on the island.
One of the trenches was cut inside the remains of a large mill. A large number of features were discovered during testing comprising flagstone floors, watercourses with associated features and part of the subterranean aspects of the front mill wall. Interestingly, although the location of the head and tail-races has been plotted on to various maps, nothing regarding the interior water management has been recorded. These interior watercourses were sealed below ground level under the flagstone floor, as proved by the recent testing programme. Furthermore, it is evident they comprise a highly complex and elaborately engineered system of sluices and races. Previously it was believed the water flowed into the headrace, turned the wheel and exited via the tail-race. This is simply not accurate, as proved with the alignment of the watercourses recently discovered. In fact, considering the description of the mill at the 1880 sale, this should never have been assumed due to the basic fact that enough hydro energy needed to be created to work fourteen pairs of purpose-built millstones. It is therefore likely that a labyrinthine complex of subterranean channels, created to maximise the water energy and drive the wheels, awaits discovery within the confines of the mill.
Documentary research has also revealed an earlier rape mill on the site, dating to 18th century at the latest, and it is highly possible evidence of this structure is present on the site, as is the potential for discovering some of the millstones. It is also possible the rape mill was not the first mill at this location, but that it just continued the tradition. Therefore it is possible that an earlier mill, with its origins in the medieval period, may have been present on the site.
A second trench was opened on Suir Island, in what would probably have been a garden area to the east of Phelan’s mill, which was reflected in the stratigraphy. As mentioned above, the only features of note were modern, linear, rubble-filled cuts. Interestingly there was no evidence of silting within this trench, strongly suggesting this area was not prone to flooding.
Cut to the east of Malcomson’s mill (now demolished) on the northern side of the island, another trench revealed a large linear feature. The cut was discovered 2.8m below present ground level, and, although the earlier ground surface was found, it is still very deep. Of considerable dimension and with the fill containing lime-rich mortar, it is considered this feature is of high archaeological potential and probably associated with one of the mills within the area.
Three trenches were cut along the quays, which are just south of the line of the medieval wall. Due to the massiveness of the recent drainage schemes in conjunction with other service works, there was very little room to manoeuvre. All of these trenches were cut on previously disturbed and made-up ground associated with the main drainage scheme and proved negative from the archaeological perspective. This was also the case regarding a trench opened in Burke Park, a municipal park on the south bank of the River Suir. The findings in this trench revealed that all the original soil above the natural deposits had been removed and replaced with infill.
A cremation was discovered in a trench opened on a shoulder overlooking the River Suir. Located to the west of the archaeological complex (TI083–021), which is to the east of Clonmel town and south of the river, it is considered most likely to be of Bronze Age date. A large upright stone (not a recorded monument) is located c. 50m due south of the cremation, in close proximity to the boundary hedge, locally considered to be a scratching stone. With the discovery of the cremation, this stone may be of more archaeological significance than previously realised. Furthermore, the immediate environs of the cremation site offer almost ideal settlement conditions for early populations. A flat terrace extends to the west, with a drop to the north of c. 3m, and the river offered a good source of food in both fish and fowl. To the south the ground rises onto a large flat expanse with extensive views to the north, west and east, with the hills further to the north. It should also be noted that this site offers panoramic views of Slievenamon, which may well have held religious and ritual connotations for the early settlers. Based on this interpretation it is considered there is a very high possibility of discovering a substantial settlement within this vicinity.
Features found in an opening located just to the east of the archaeological complex (TI083–021) are, at present, undiagnostic. It should be noted the boundary immediately to the west of the trench appears to be curvilinear and may be part of a large enclosing bank. It is possible this may be the remains of a large earthwork, the vestige of earlier human activity within this area, with the features found in the trench also associated with it. Having stated that, these features may in some way be associated with a man-made lake located to the east of the archaeological complex and present on the first-edition OS map. This would place them firmly in the post-medieval period when the organised, ordered landscaped parklands associated with large country residences were commissioned.
Mary Henry, Mary Henry Archaeological Services Ltd, 17 Staunton Row, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
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