Late medieval/early post-medieval building
A research excavation, funded by the Royal Irish Academy, was conducted from 9 June to 18 July 2008 within a stone building locally known as Cabhail Tighe Breac, at Cahermacnaghten, Burren, Co. Clare. Situated in the south-west corner of Cahermacnaghten townland, the site is the focus of a settlement that extends across an area of 1600m2 incorporating the wall footings of four other rectangular buildings, a kiln, several pens and enclosures, a clochán and small plots and larger fields variously enclosed by slab walls and single walls. An outbuilding broadly contemporary in origin with Cabhail Tighe Breac, and which was the subject of excavation in 2007 (Excavations 2005, No. 150, 07E0395), lies 30m to the east. Cahermacnaghten was one of the landholdings of the brehon-line of the O’Davoren family who served the O’Loughlin chief of Burren in law and kept a school in the classical Gaelic tradition which had its golden age in the 16th century. By c. 1641 the land on which Cabhail Tighe Breac stands had become the property of Turlough O’Brien and it is recorded from that time as Kilbrack.
As early as 1900 George U. Macnamara and Thomas J. Westropp noted the singularity of Cabhail Tighe Breac in the context of Burren medieval architecture and concluded that it could not be described as either a church or a fortified residence. It was Macnamara who first made the suggestion that Cabhail Tighe Breac might be associated with the O’Davoren law school.
Cabhail Tighe Breac is 15.5m long (east–west) and 7m wide internally, with the generous proportions of a medieval hall, longhouse, or parish church. Both the long walls and gable ends are quite thick (c. 1.3m), perhaps due to the fact that the walls sit directly on the bedrock and had to stand up by virtue of their own weight. The reason might also be attributed to a familiarity with tower-house and parish church construction on the part of the builders. The outer leaves of the external walls of the building are characterised by horizontal stone emplacement with a rubble and mortar core between the faces. The corners of the building were finished with large, cut and lightly punch-dressed quoin-stones, most of which have been robbed-out. Cabhail Tighe Breac is a single-storey building with a loft area above, at least over its east and west ends. The loft floor wall-plates were supported by a series of stone corbels that project from the internal faces of the east and west gables. The gables have no extant openings, but breaches in the masonry suggest their former presence in the apex of each gable. The lofts themselves were reached not by stone stairs but probably by timber or rope ladders. The building was entered at the east end of the north wall through a handsome semi-pointed doorway decorated with a continuous half-roll and fillet moulding. A total of seven and possibly eight windows of Tudor late Gothic form lit the interior. They were originally shuttered and not glazed. Notable features of the building are four large wall cupboards, two in each gable. Two cut limestone blocks marked the remains of a large fireplace that once occupied a partition wall towards the east end of the building. Macnamara believed that a seat or alcove was situated in the north end of the east face of that partition but excavation has proven that not to be the case. The roof was probably gabled and of cruck construction, with the crucks springing from the tops of the thick walls. The building has no bawn or defensive features of any type.
Aims and methods
Four cuttings, 48.5m2 of the 105m2 area of the interior of the building, were opened and excavated with the aim of establishing the chronology and material culture of Cabhail Tighe Breac and to determine whether it was a schoolhouse associated with the late medieval Cahermacnaghten law school.
All excavation was undertaken by hand. Cutting (A) was 7m long (north–south) and 4m wide. It was positioned over the eastern partition wall and sub-divided into grid squares. A 1m-wide baulk was left unexcavated at the north end of the cutting to accommodate an east–west section running through the long axis of the building. The role of Cutting (A) was to determine whether the partition wall was a half-wall containing a hearth, as suggested by Macnamara, and to ascertain the relationship between the partition and the long walls of the building. Cutting (B) was aligned at a right angle to and adjoining the west side of Cutting (A). It was 7.5m long (east–west) and 2m wide, narrowing to 1m wide towards the west gable. The purpose of Cutting (B) was to investigate the floor deposits in the room west of the eastern partition wall and to find out whether there were any additional internal dividing walls in the building. Cutting (C), 2.5m long (north–south) and 1m wide, positioned at a right angle to and north of Cutting (B), and Cutting (D), 3m long (north–south) and 1m wide, laid out at a right angle to and south of Cutting (B), were both opened to pursue a second partition wall at the west end of the building to its junction with the north and south long walls.
The combined excavation and building survey results indicate that in its final form Cabhail Tighe had a tripartite plan – three rooms separated by two stone partitions. A large fireplace with cut-stone fireplace pillars and large corbels was uncovered in the eastern partition wall. It was probably of stone canopy type and warmed the central room, which was the largest in the building and received the most light through two three-light windows. That partition and hearth, however, do not appear to be original to the building. Excavation at the north end of the partition indicated that, unless it was once recessed at its upper levels, the partition would have partly blocked a single-light window in the north wall. The partition may have been added in the post-medieval period, possibly in the mid-17th century when Turlough O’Brien held the land at Cabhail Tighe Breac. A sill-stone, lower pivot-stone and a single jamb-stone were found in situ at the north end of the western partition wall. They belonged to what was once a narrow and probably flat-headed doorway leading into the third room of the building. The discovery of a second entrance gap at the south end of that partition, robbed out some time after the building was first abandoned, raised the possibility that the third room had once been subdivided into a small northern chamber lit by a single-light window and a larger chamber possibly entered through a moulded doorway and lit by a twin-light window. Generally, in late medieval and early post-medieval buildings the positions of windows indicate discrete division of space in the interior. However, there was no evidence of a stone or more ephemeral dividing wall to confirm such a subdivision.
The site chosen for the building was a limestone pavement with a downward incline from east to west. This required levelling stones and packing material to be used in raising the first masonry course of the walls. The floor was the natural limestone pavement, with the grykes in that floor filled with smooth, firm red clay which was also used to iron out irregularities in the karst floor. It was also ascertained that the windows were positioned approximately at waist level above the original floor surface.
The excavation confirmed that there was considerable disturbance and reuse of Cabhail Tighe Breac in the modern period, especially during the 19th century, which may account in large measure for the poor survival of occupation deposits relating to the early life of the building. Essentially, the building was picked clean and during the 19th and 20th centuries several of its architectural details, such as internal doorways, were robbed out. One sealed occupation or small refuse deposit, containing cattle bone and seashell, was found in the eastern room and produced some of the few finds from the lowest levels of the building – a corroded knife top, a heavily corroded craft tool and a tiny sherd of pre-modern glass. A small hearth deposit was also uncovered.
The material culture from the primary occupation levels of the building is poor and there was no hard evidence for educational or scribal activity in the way of inkhorns, styli, or hornbooks that are typical finds from European grammar schools. However, a tiny fragment of thin, friable slate with a single inscribed character, found in the western room in a very shallow deposit over the karst floor, is potentially diagnostic of school activity. Masters’ and scholars’ slates used for writing are a common find from medieval and Renaissance schools in Europe. There was little domestic material and no pottery at all from the primary levels of the building. Animal bone, mostly from the later period of use of the building, includes cattle, sheep, pig, horse, hare, rabbit and frog. Sherds of modern bottle glass and transfer-printed ware, stone-axe fragments reused as whetstones and fragments of a crock-pot were among the finds from the more recent occupation of the building.
Where the date of Cabhail Tighe Breac is concerned, the continuous half-roll and fillet moulding on the surviving arch-stones and jamb-stone of the main door finds its closest correspondents in the moulded doorways of the some of the late 15th- or early 16th-century parish churches of the Burren. Comparative mortar analysis and a range of potential 14C dates from faunal remains may further assist in refining the chronology and use-life of the building.
Macnamara, G.U. 1912–13 The O’Davorens of Cahermacnaghten, Burren, Co. Clare. North Munster Archaeological Society Journal 2, 63–212.
Elizabeth FitzPatrick, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI, Galway.
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