Archaeological Journal/Volume 3/On Crannoges, and Remains discovered in them


It is well known that it was the practice of the northern chieftains of Ireland to entrust their defence rather to water than to stone walls, in other words, they ensconced themselves rather in islands than in castles; to the latter, indeed, they appear to have had a particular prejudice, witness the old, though, I fear I must add, apocryphal, story of Mac Mahon and De Courcy, in Hanmer's Chronicle of Ireland: "Courcy had builded many castles throughout Ulster," says Hanmer, "and especially in Fern, where Mac Mahon dwelt; this Mac Mahon with solemne protestations vowed to become a true and faithfull subject, &c. Whereupon Courcy gave him two castles with their demeanes to hold of him; within one moneth after this Mac Mahon brake downe the castles, and made them even with the ground. Sir John de Courcy sent unto him to know the cause; his answer was, that he promised not to hold stones of him, but the land, and that it was contrary to his nature to couch himselfe within cold stones, the woods being so nigh."

At a later period we find further and undoubted illustrations of this custom; thus, in the year 1507, one Thomas Phettiplace states in his answer to an enquiry from the lords of Queen Elizabeth's council, as to "what castles or forts O'Neil hath, and of what strength they be?" "For castles I think it be not unknown to yr honors he trusteth no point thereunto for his safety, as appeareth by the raising of the strongest castles of all his countreys, and that fortification that he only dependeth upon is in sartin ffreshwater loghe's in his country, which from the sea there come neither ship nor boat to approach them; it is thought that there, in ye said fortified inlands, lyeth all his plate, wch is much, and money, prisoners and gages; wch islands hath in wars tofore been attempted, and now of late again by the Lord Deputy there, Sir Harry Sydney, wch for want of means for safe conduct upon ye water it hath not prevailed[1]."

These fortified islands were generally artificial, and upon them were constructed wooden huts or cabins, called in Irish, Crannoges; the largest of this description in Ireland is said to have been on an island in Lough Allen, in the county of Leitrim; it was the residence of Mac Anaw, (now Forde,) one of O'Rourke's sub-chieftains: the following notices of crannoges occur, among others, in the annals of the Four Masters.

"A. D. 1246, Turlogh, son of Hugh O'Conor, escaped from the crannog of Loch Leisi, (in Roscommon,) in the harvest, having drowned the persons who were guarding him, viz., Cormac O'Muireadhaigh, (Murry,) and two of the o'Mearans.

"1436, The crannog of Loch Laoghaire, (near Clogher, in Tyrone,) was taken by the sons of Brian Oge O'Neill. O'Neill and Henry (O'Neill,) came to the lake there, and they sent for Maguire, (Thomas Oge,) and when he had arrived they commenced making vessels to carry them to the crannog, on which the sons of Brian Oge were; the sons of Brian then agreed to surrender the crannog to O'Neill, and make peace with him.

"1455, Turloch, son of Philip Mac Guire, went upon Loch Meilge, (between Fermanagh and Leitrim,) and took and plundered a crannog which Mac Flannchaidhe had upon it.

"1512, Crannag Mac Samhradhain, (Mac Gauran's crannog in Tullyhaw, co. Cavan,) was assaulted by Philip Mac Guire and his sons, assisted by the sons of Thomas Mac Magnus Mac Gauran, but they did not succeed in capturing Mac Gauran, who was in it.

"1560, Teige O'Rourke was drowned in the autumn, when going to sleep on a low secluded crannog, in Muinutir Eolais, (Mac Randall's country.)

"1601, Crannog Meic Cnaimhin," (Mac Nevin's crannog,) is mentioned this year.

The county of Monaghan, formerly Mac Mahon's country, studded as it is with small lakes in every district, contained many of these crannoges; they are particularly noticed in the early maps of the county[2] as "The Iland" with the addition generally of the name of the chief who resided in each; at Monaghan we have "The Iland, Mac Mahons house," represented as a mere hut, occupying the whole site of a small island in one of the lakes adjoining the present town. The residence of Ever Mac Cooley Mac Mahon, chief of the celebrated district of Farney, in Mac Mahon's country, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., was at Lisanisk, (close to the town of Carrickmacross,) and is marked in Jobson's map, made in 1591, as "The Hand, Ever Mac Cooley's house;" the foundations of this ancient residence were discovered in the autumn of 1843, seven feet below the present surface of the earth, in the little island at Lisanisk, and two feet below the present water level of the lake, a double row of piles were found sunk in the mud; they were formed of young trees, from six to twelve inches in diameter, with the bark on; the area inclosed by these piles, from which we may judge of the size of the house, was sixty feet in length, by forty-two in breadth; vast quantities of bones of various animals, particularly deer, were also found here, but I believe no ancient Irish weapons, or other remains, as in the instance of a neighbouring crannog discovered on the lake of Monalty, about half a mile from Carrickmacross, in the autumn of 1844. The water of this lake having been lowered a few feet for the purpose of improving the drainage of the surrounding country, a canoe or boat, formed out of one piece of oak, and measuring twenty-four feet in length, by three feet at its greatest breadth, and thirteen inches in height, was brought to light, close to a low island on the southern side of the lake; on this island, which appears decidedly to have been artificial, from the remains of piles and transverse portions of oak timber which are found there, a great variety of curious remains, though of very unequal degrees of antiquity, have been discovered. The following list comprehends not only these relics, but also another set of a similar description, which have been found on an island on the adjoining lake of Lough na Glack. The soil of this last island is mixed with stones and bones, and is evidently to a considerable depth artificial; there arc also, as in the former instance, considerable remains of large piles of timber.

The objects of greatest antiquity found on these islands, are stone celts of the common type, a rough piece of flint, apparently intended for an arrow-head, and stones with indentations on either side, evidently formed for slings.

Of bronze weapons and ornaments there are numerous specimens, viz., three bronze celts with loops on the sides,
Javelin with loop.

remains of the stick were found in one of them; a very perfect small dagger of bronze, one foot in length; two bronze arrow-heads, double pointed[3]; a bronze gouge or chisel, rarely found in Ireland; the head of a bronze hunting spear; part of a bronze sword or dagger; a bronze cap, apparently the end of a wooden hilt of some weapons; the bronze handle of a javelin or spear, with loop attached, for the purpose of a leathern thong or string being fastened to it, to recover after projection. [This thong or string is called in ancient manuscripts suaineamain, a name still preserved by the fishermen in the south of Ireland, as applied to the bolt-ropes of their nets.] The boss of a shield, of bronze; a bronze knife, which appears to have been gilt; a bronze knife or dagger, measuring ten inches and a half in length; a smaller one, seven inches in length; a bronze bolt, with loop, to which a thong is supposed to have been attached, measuring sixteen inches and a half in length; this was found sticking in the mud, close to the island on Lough na Glack; another, twelve inches in length, has been since found in the island itself. Walker, in his description of the weapons of the Irish, says that "in very early times the fiadhgha or crannuibh was used in the chase, a thong was affixed to it, by which it was recovered after having pierced the wild beast[4]."

Bronze Pin

Of bronze ornaments found on these islands there are the following. Several bronze rings of different sizes, two of them with transverse spring openings, others hollow, and probably parts of armour or horse trappings; two bronze needles, one of them with the eye entire; a bronze pin, the head hollowed like a cup, and bearing a striking resemblance to the ends of the golden ornaments often found in Ireland; several bronze pins like modern shirt pins, some of them ornamented, another with a hole in it to which a string was probably fastened; two large pins of the common type; parts of several bronze fibulæ or brooches, with fragments of several bronze instruments, rivets, &c.; a small circular bronze bell, like a sheep-bell; three harp keys of bronze of different sizes. Harp keys are often found associated with military remains in Ireland; in illustration of this subject I may mention an intercepted letter from Brian O'Rourke to Mac Mahon, in October, 1588, and preserved in the State Paper Office. Mac Mahon, it appears, had sent for a harp as well as some military weapons, O'Rourke answers, "We do assure you that we cannot send you the same, for that there is not a good harp in our country, but we will provide a good harp to you, and we will send two great spears and two skeins to you, of the best that is made in our country."

Of other ornaments found on the island on Lough na Glack, I may particularly mention several amber and blue glass beads, three bone pins, and a comb apparently of ivory. Of iron instruments, an iron dagger, measuring with the hilt fifteen inches; several iron coulters of ploughs, of very primitive form, seven inches in length; parts of iron instruments, the use of which it is impossible to determine; a long gun barrel, three feet eight inches in length, of that sort, I believe, formerly called a calliver; part of the lock of a pistol; many large bullets of lead were also found; I may add to this list a pair of quern stones, found in the Monalty Island, some burnt corn, the refuse probably of the primitive thrashing and winnowing of the ancient Irish, which consisted in merely setting fire to the corn when reaped; remains of coarse broken earthenware vessels, and bits of thick dark glass; an earthen pot, shaped like a hat; another of Dutch manufacture, with the figure of a man's head below the spout, used in Ireland during the seventeenth century, and called grey-beards; some small Dutch tobacco pipes; cut oval stones, apparently intended for pounding in mortars; several circular stones, with holes in the centres, often found with ancient remains, and considered in Ireland to belong to the ancient spinning wheels; also several stones, or hones, of different shapes and sizes, for sharpening weapons and tools; a brass token, nearly defaced, probably of the reign of Charles II.

From the great variety of these remains, extending from the remote period, when weapons of stone and bronze were used, to the fire-arms of the seventeenth century, it cannot be doubted that these Islands or Crannoges, were for many ages the resorts of petty chieftains, probably of the Mac Mahon Sept, and afterwards, perhaps, of gangs of freebooters or Tories, although the traditions of the neighbourhood have not preserved the memory of the fact. e. p. s.

  1. From an original letter in the State Paper Office, Whitehall, under date May 15, 1567.
  2. In the State Paper Office.
  3. Sir Samuel R. Meyrick, to whom a sketch of one of these bifid heads was submitted, remarks in a letter to Mr. Way, "The bronze arrow-head appears to have been formed on the same principle as those of the Boisgemans, or Boschmen, i. e. Woodlanders, in Southern Africa, part of which being poisoned, on withdrawing the arrow remained in the wound, for in this way only can I account for the division at the point, and the perforation above it."
  4. Sir Samuel Meyrick observes, "This very interesting specimen of the javelin is new to me. The javelin used by the ancient Britons, either in close encounter, or to throw and recover by means of a thong affixed, was called Aseth, and its blade appears to have been long and slender, whence the proverb Aseth ni flyco nid da, 'the Aseth that will not bend is not good.' It may be remembered tliat the javelins which the Velites in the Roman army threw, but did not recover, had their blades so flat and thin as to break in whatever they struck, that they might not be used a second time."