Dunrioga, a royal fort standing on Cennrig a royal headland

Geophysical survey reveals Dunree Hill is a monastic site

John Hegarty WIHHS

John Hegarty says Geophysical survey reveals Dunree Hill is a monastic site.

John Hegarty's intuition was 100% correct. He was eventually proved right.

Since boyhood, the Buncrana archaeologist and chair of the West Inishowen History and Heritage Society was convinced Dunree Hill had once been home to Cill Ard, a medieval monastery.

The society recently moved one exciting step closer to uncovering Inishowen's rich medieval history. Thanks to funding provided by the Creative Ireland Donegal Initiative, it welcomed Earthsound Geophysics from Mayo to Dunree Hill to carry out a non-invasive archaeological geophysical survey of the site. This was facilitated by the landowner, Mr Brian Bradley.

The results of Earthsound's field assessment were extremely positive.

Speaking to Donegal Live, John Hegarty smiled as he said he had been looking at the field in question for a “long, long time”.

John said: “The Lands of Eoghain, a group of local heritage enthusiasts, which hopes to raise awareness of the significance of Inishowen in a European historical context, has been researching the monastic sights in East Inishowen for the last five or six years with the Bernician Studies Group and its research director, Max Adams.

“The Bernician Studies Group landed in Inishowen six years ago. They had come from Northumbria, which was the home of Lindisfarne Monastery. One of them was an archaeologist, Colm O'Brien, who was also a research director. Colm set up a study group consisting of mainly retired people and we started by looking at Lindisfarne.

“We knew Lindisfarne had developed from Iona, so we looked at Iona. We knew that Iona had developed from Derry and Cholmcille and Inishowen. Derry is after all part of Inishowen. We were looking around Inishowen as part of our studies into monastic settlements.

“We learned from Culdaff's Neil McGrory that Inishowen had a network of monastic sites, including Clonca and Carrowmore in Culdaff, which both had High Crosses, marking them out as monastic sites. Malin Head had the well of St Muirdhealach, and right up to Uisce Chaoin (Iskaheen). The group had contacted John Cronin's office in Buncrana to see if there would be anybody in his office who would be interested in helping this study group and they suggested me,” said John.

John was involved in some of the digs in Carrowmore and Cooley in Moville.

“Cooley was a big operation,” said John, “They mapped the graveyard.”

Going back to his primary school days, John said he had always heard from the local man who owned the field in Dunree back in the day that their had once been a church on the site.

He added: “We would have been coming home from school to Dunree and he would be telling us, 'Do you see that field, there was a church on that field one time and the Vikings came and raided it and burnt it and then the people went up to Greenhill Chapel, to get away from the Vikings'.

“I had always been looking up at that field and wondering what it was like but I never got a chance because people are reluctant to allow you into their fields to poke about.

“Anyway, I looked round it and I discovered that there was a Holy Well in it, up at one side of it like a small grotto. There is a ditch built around it now and it was well overgrown. There is also a Mass Rock in it, which was written about in the Dúchas Collection, in the school compositions.

“A local woman, Mary McCullagh, had the story about her mother, Mrs McCullagh who talked about Cill Ard and the church site and the Mass Rock. Mary McCullagh then became the mother of the Brett's. Her son, Dessie Brett, drove an ambulance for a while. Jack Brett was a soldier in Dunree along with my father. They lived in the house beside Cill Ard beside Mrs McCullagh,” said John.

The Hollar and Parsons Map drawn up in 1611 and published in 1661 was a record for Arthur Chichester to show what he had accomplished by taking over the whole of Inishowen.

According to John, Chichester had taken over church land and everything.

He added: “On the Hollar and Parsons Map there is a headland which would represent Dunree and on that headland there is there is a small cross, the mark of a church, there is also one at Greenhill and one at Fahan. That map was made in 1611 and it was produced in 1661 because of a court case. The Church of Ireland wanted to claim the church lands that Chichester had taken over, especially in Fahan. This was church land and it reckoned it should belong to the Church.

“I came across a map then of all the Church lands of Inishowen, of Fahan, of Clonmany, Carndonagh and places like that and Dunree was a church land. All of this evidence proved to me that there was a church on Dunree Hill. However, what shape it was we did not know.

“It was well overgrown. It had been covered up with sand. The sand blew up from Port Ban bay over the years. There was a small cloghan there, a small village, just below Cill Ard that was destroyed on the night of the Big Wind, Oíche na Gaoithe Móire of 1839.

“The houses got burnt down in the storm. It was so fierce it blew the coals up into the roofs and the people had to abandon it. They went up into hillside. The McLaughlin's, what we call the the Big James' are the descendants of those people that lived in that cloghan. That village was there. Nobody knew about that. I was looking at all of this evidence and I knew there was enough evidence to support a church having been there,” said John.

John was aggrieved the Dunree's monastic history was being “ignored”.

He said: “Nobody had ever written it down or mentioned it, except for those few locals that lived around Cill Ard and knew the name of the field.

“This is when I thought, West Inishowen History and Heritage Society, which researches, records and promotes local history for future generations, should make it known about. If it was down in Kerry it would be a tourist attraction, another Glendalough.

“Churches in those days were always built beside a fort. Fahan had a huge Iron Age fort, up on top of Fahan Hill, looking down on the Marina, the foundation stones are still there. It is 100m by 60m. When Mura built his Church in Fahan, he built it first of all up on the Golan Hill. At that time, we were not all saints and scholars, there was the odd boy skulking about who would have liked to get his hands on the riches of these churches.

“Cill Ard was built on Dunree hill and on the rock facing it, where you go across the bridge, there was a cashel, that was the original Dun Rí (Fort of the Kings), according to the Dúchas composition letters. Harry Swan concurred in his book 'Twixt Foyle and Swilly' (1949). It was the fort of the McLaughlin's who were the dominant clan of Inishowen. If there was a monastery built beside that fort, that monastery would have been a very important monastery because the McLaughlin's would have had to have had the best monastery in the place,” said John.

John also believes the name Díseart Einigh (Desertegney) holds a further clue.

He said: “'Díseart' is a word which is associated with the Coptic monks that came to Ireland from Egypt. They were the first Christians to come to Ireland, 100 years before St Patrick got here. There are some of them buried up in Antrim. Might Cill Ard have been founded by a Coptic monk?

“The word 'Díseart' is very important. There are 'Dísearts' all over Ireland. Those Coptic monks were Anchorites, they went out into the desert or up the mountains or onto an island and away from people and riches. They lived very simple lives and had very simple churches too. That church might be connected to the Coptic because of the word Desertegney Díseart Einigh.

“West Inishowen History and Heritage Society got Earthsound to carry out a geophysical survey. The most important thing Earthsound discovered was the semi circle to the left hand side. They describe that as a 'double ditch'. A double ditch in archaeology means a trench. double ditched monasteries were written about in the Confessio of St Patrick. Monasteries always had a double ditch which set them aside from being a farmyard.

“A double ditch is a very significant find. That is what the Lands of Eoghain and the Bernicians were looking for, the double ditches of Cooley and Carrowmore. They actually test dug down into them. I was on two of them. At Carrowmore they sent away organic material from the bottom of the trench and sent it to Queen's University, Belfast and they were dated to around 600AD,” said John.

John said once he saw Earthsound had found evidence of a double ditch, he knew it was the ditch surrounding the monastery.

Monasteries of the time would have had a ditch and a bank and a wooden palisade on top of the bank.

John said: “The existence of a double ditch was the conclusive proof I needed. If there were three ditches, that meant the site was even more important. It is like stripes on a soldier, the more stripes, the more important.

“The site probably dates from Coptic times. It could go back to the 400s AD. There was a bit of a trouble between St Patrick who was of the Roman Church and the Coptics, who lived simpler lives. For them, their most important thing was their devotion to God. It is very likely the enclosure would have been a complete circle at one time.

“This is a very important move forward in proving there was a Church there at one time. However, it is over to the field's owner and the National Monuments Service, I think.

“There is a cemetery down below on the right hand side, halfway down marked as National Monument Cemetery. Dr Brian Lacey was here with the Survey of Donegal and he marked a cemetery, based on local knowledge. At the top of the field there is also a child's graveyard. I came across it when I was hunting rabbits when I was young,” said John.

John remembered finding small “oval shaped pebbles” on a platform near the Mass Rock.

Poignantly, he said: “I asked an older women about it and she told me that is where unbaptised children were buried, right up until the 1950s. Imagine, local people must have known that it was consecrated ground. It was wonderful that they carried on burying their children there. I would like to put up a plaque there to say they were not forgotten.”

According to John, Vikings once traded in Port Ban, where they had a longphort, a Viking ship enclosure or shore fortress.

He added: “There is a headland there which we called 'Dunaudrey'. That is a Scandinavian name. That is were the Vikings brought their boats into. They had attacked monastery. Aed Findliatha, a predecessor of McLaughlin's, then attacked the Vikings because they had burned the Monastery and killed the monks.

“He drove them out of the North Coast of Ireland, even over as far as Antrim. This is referenced in Darren McGettigan's book, 'The Kings of Aileach and the Vikings'. Apparently Aed Findliatha attacked the Vikings and took 200 heads of the foreigners, at Dunree. There is supposed to be mass Viking grave near shore, where human bones have been found by rabbits.

“Cennrig, which means Royal Headland on which sits Dunrioga, the Royal Fort,” concluded John.

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