Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Diggin' Round the Rock: Q&A With Archaeologist Richard O’Brien

Would you like to bring out your inner archaeologist? To further the world’s knowledge while working at a site where such Irish legends as Brian Boru once trod! You can!

Volunteers will soon be needed for an excavation at Rathnadrinna Fort, Cashel, County Tipperary, from June 11 to August 3. 
The Wild Geese Preservation Editor Belinda Evangelista directed some questions about it to archaeologist Richard O’Brien, the excavation’s field director.

The Rock of Cashel
O’Brien is a Cashel native and professional archaeologist working for the National Roads Authority. In his spare time, he regularly walks the lands around Cashel, identifying new archaeological sites. He contributes to local and national archaeological and historical journals and is chairman of the County Tipperary Historical Society. He is taking leave from his work for the authority to direct excavations on Rathnadrinna.

The Wild Geese: Tell me about the history and folklore of Cashel.

Richard O’Brien (left): There are many legends associated with the founding of the Rock of Cashel --  one of the more glamorous has the Devil taking an enormous bite out of a nearby mountain and then spitting it out where it landed in Cashel –- the Rock was formed! Another legend has St. Patrick baptizing King Aengus on the Rock, and during the ceremony Patrick inadvertently stabbed his crozier in the king’s foot. Aengus, believing this was part of the baptismal rite, said nothing; Christianity had arrived in Cashel and was adopted by all. There are also many great stories of the kings who ruled Cashel and sometimes all of Ireland itself.

We find kings of Cashel reigning from the sixth century A.D. onwards. This was the beginning of Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars, and Cashel or (Caisil) was one of the five provincial capitals, the ‘five fifths’ in ancient Ireland, along with Cruachan (Connacht), Dún Ailinne (Leinster), Tara (Meath) and Navan (Ulster). Why Cashel was chosen as a royal center is easy to understand: it is located in north Munster on the fringes of the great tracts of bog which separate the provincial regions of Munster and Leinster. The River Suir, gateway to the sea via Waterford, ambles 7 km (4 miles) west of Cashel, while to the south lie the Galtee Mountains and the Slieveardagh Mountains to the east. The rich soils over limestone bedrock around Cashel allow some of the best agricultural lands in the country to prosper, ideally suited to raising crops and animals, particularly horses -- the world famous Ballydoyle Stud Farm is only down the road. Commanding the ancient fertile Plains of Cashel, the Rock was both a citadel and, a beacon, announcing, once you saw it, that you were now entering royal territory.

Rathnadrinna from the air
We know that Cashel was ruled by the powerful Eóganacht tribe for centuries, a number of whose kings also served as bishops from the ninth century A.D. By the late 10th century A.D., the Dál gCais tribe ruled over Cashel. In its heyday, around the 9th to 11th centuries A.D. Cashel frequently served as a regional and, at times, national capital of Ireland, a pre-eminence best reflected during the long reign of the great King Brian Boruma (Boru) circa A.D. 976-1014, destroyer of the Vikings. In AD 995, Brian Boru improved the defenses of Cashel, and we must assume that it was not just the Rock citadel that was strengthened; perhaps the nearby forts such as Rathnadrinna itself were also improved. This is one of the questions this year’s excavation will try to prove, by excavating the ramparts of the fort and getting and dating evidence of their construction and use. 

The Wild Geese:  Rathnadrinna is a ringfort.  Please define this term.

O’Brien: Rathnadrinna is officially classed as a ringfort monument, one of 70 that surround Cashel. A ringfort or rath is a traditional form of dispersed Irish settlement used in the Late Iron Age and Early Christian period, circa A.D. 400 onwards.  There are more than 45,000 known examples distributed across Ireland -- the majority of scientifically dated ringforts was occupied and probably constructed between A.D. 600 and 900. Ringforts are very common in the Irish landscape and in the public consciousness; they are sometimes known to the general public as ‘fairy forts’ and folklore often associates them with fairies and leprechauns. Inadvertently, this has helped to preserve many sites from destruction.

A typical ringfort settlement would contain structures, located within a living space, about 40 m (132 feet) in diameter, enclosed by usually a single (uni-vallate) circular earthen bank and fosse (or a rampart of stone). The Críth Gablach, an eighth century A.D. Irish law tract, tells us that the internal diameter of a tribal king’s ringfort is 42.56 m (140 feet): The internal diameter of Rathnadrinna is approximately 90 meters (295 feet), making it truly monumental.  Field survey and geophysics have shown that Rathnadrinna is a quadrivallate fort, surrounded by four earth-cut ditches with intervening earthen banks, a type of fort very rare in Ireland. Rathnadrinna (seen through the trees, below) is one of the largest and most complex of the forts around Cashel so its investigation will open a window into Cashel’s royal past.

The Wild Geese:  What finds have resulted from similar digs at royal sites around Ireland?

O’Brien: At royal sites in Ireland, high-class objects have been found, such as weaponry, jewelry and foreign exotic items from across Europe, reflecting the many and varied contacts Irish kings had. In the interior of many of these sites is found the remains of the houses the inhabitants lived in, with evidence of their daily activities, what food they ate and what animals they kept. Sometimes, there will be evidence found of when the sites had been attacked, by whom and what was the outcome. One of the more famous royal sites excavated was Lagore crannog (artificial island, located between the villages of Ratoath and Dunshaughlin in County Meath), where fantasic remains of the lives of the people were discovered. Many of these finds can now be seen in the National Museum of Ireland.

The Wild Geese:  What are the requirements for the volunteers?

O’Brien: The excavation is open to anyone over 18 years of age with a willingless to dig and get their hands dirty. No payment is required, but the project does not provide accommodation, meals or transport. It is not an archaeological field school and no credits are given -- but training in archaeological techniques will be given by the expert team of supervisors. Places are filling up fast so visit for all the excavation details!

The Wild Geese: Can you tell us about what the volunteers might experience on site and in the surrounding area?

The volunteers will be digging in the beautiful surrounds of ancient Cashel, an idylic rural landscape. The fort is located on a farm so there will be a chance to witness the daily life of a farming family hard at work. The dig itself is designed to reveal the secrets of Rathnadrinna fort, but will allow the volunteers to gain valuable experience in Irish archaeological practice -- and also to have some fun! We cannot guarantee sunny weather everyday, but the experience we hope will be one to remember.

The Wild Geese:  Is there anything you would like to add?

O’Brien: In tandem with the dig there will be free events taking place in Cashel town itself. Tuesday nights will see lectures in the local library on topics of archaeological and historical interest. Each Thursday a different pub in Cashel will host ‘The Dig Gig’ -- a chance for the volunteers to sample the craic in a local pub, and hear some good tunes! As the dig is only 3 km (1.8 miles) from Cashel town, there will be lots of free time to visit the many other attractions Cashel has to offer.

Cashel website


Anonymous said...

What is required to qualify? Age limits, degrees, etc.?

Richard O'Brien said...


The age limit is 18. No previous digging experience is required for volunteers but we ask for one weeks minimum commitment. Training in excavation methods will be provided by the experienced supervisory staff, however, the excavation is not an Archaeological Field School and is not affiliated with a university. So far we have had a lot of interest worldwide with volunteers signing up from USA, Brazil and the UK. For more information check


Toni Maguire said...

Hi Richard,

I'd love to visit the dig if that's ok and I may bring another archaeologist with me.


Toni Maguire (Milltown Project)

richard o'brien said...

Hi Toni,

Let me know when you both want to visit and that should not be a problem. As the site is located on a busy dairy farm we need all visits arranged in advance. Follow us on the facebook link for all updates on the site.