Friday, August 20th, 1982
1,000 Years Old Cavern Unearthed At Burt
An underground cavern with walls of stone and slabs for a roof was re-discovered in Burt, Co. Donegal, last Friday by labourers excavating a stony field for an extension to the local graveyard. Experts from the Irish Board of Works in Mullingar confirmed this week that the secret chamber was an ancient souterrain, dating back to between the sixth and 12th centuries.
Souterrains were used to store foodstuffs and perhaps valuables by farmers who constructed them underneath their homes. Occasionally, souterrains were used as a hiding place when households came under attack, more recently they were used to store arms during the disturbances in the 1920s.
The surveyors from the Board of Works began taking measurements and drawing up a detailed plan of the souterrain on Wednesday before they allowed the excavators to continue work on the cemetery extension and destroy the souterrain. They said they would try to preserve the souterrain usually, but this was not possible because it would interfere with the plans for the cemetery.
The souterrain survey took two days to complete – a short time when compared with the two or three weeks usually spent on such a project. But the surveyors at Burt were very conscious of the wishes of Burt curate Father John Doherty to allow the cemetery excavation to continue as soon as possible.
The surveyors said it would have been impossible to move the souterrain to another site. Describing the souterrain they said it was about six metres in length overall with two chambers, one big and one small, connected by a tunnel. From their observations they had established that there was a little doorway leading into one of the chambers and when it was in use there would have been a trap-door entrance. Nobody but the householder who built the souterrain underneath his home would have known about it. Souterrains were usually used to store foodstuffs – the cool atmosphere preserving perishable commodities. Some animal bones have been found in other similar constructions in Ireland.
Sometimes Stored Arms
Souterrains have been adapted by people through the ages to serve different purposes. In medieval times around the 16th century they were used as indeed they were in the 1920s when arms and ammunition were sometimes hidden in them. And right up until the present day it is suspected that they are being used by illegal poteen makers.
The records made by the surveyors on the souterrain in Burt will be passed on to the National Museum file keepers, the Donegal County Council and the archaeological survey in Donegal recently.
In the opening paragraph you may have noticed that the word “re-discovered” was used when referring to last Friday’s unearthing of the souterrain. That’s because in 1954, twelve-year-old Patrick Campbell with the help of some friends also discovered the souterrain after his father Mr. John Campbell struck the stone with his plough when he was planting potatoes in the field.
Patrick Campbell now farms the land near the souterrain and when he heard that it had been unearthed again last Friday he made an interesting return visit to the site to retrieve an old whiskey bottle he placed in the cavern 28 years ago.
Message in Bottle
In fact he went to find a message in the bottle which he was still able to make out in spite of the fact the bottle cork had long since rotted away. The message left there all those years ago said: “This cave was opened by Lily Gallagher, Paddy Campbell, Mary Ellen Doherty, Theresa Campbell, and Bridie Campbell, helped by Anne Gallagher.”
Mr. Campbell recalled this week how the first discovery of the souterrain in 1954 attracted lots of people who came and walked over his father’s potato crop. Farmer John Campbell was eventually forced to cover the cavern with clay again and it was forgotten until last Friday.
Mr. Patrick Campbell said another souterrain was discovered less than half-a-mile away from the cemetery.
The “Journal” also contacted archaeology professor Brian Lacey, who said that as many as twenty souterrains had been discovered in the Burt area.
Back To Christ’s Time
He said that the stone Fort at Grianan was a more recent addition to a much larger earthen enclosure which dated back to the time of Christ. He said there was another earthen mound on the site and an ancient roadway which had since disappeared. But a holy well still survived there.
Mr. Lacey said that the Grianan was used as a home for the kings of the local tribes. Ordinary people meanwhile lived outside in a settlement. The Fort was built by people known as the Northern Ui Neill who once ruled most of West Ulster. They also occasionally supplied the High King of Tara from their number.
From Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, Brian Lacey, 1983, p. 237
OS 47:6:1 (280 435) OD 50-100
In August, 1982, after the completion of the survey, a souterrain was discovered here and investigated by the staff of the OPW. The souterrain consists of two chambers at right angles to one another and connected by a creepway. Chamber I running roughly N-S was 4.3m long x c. 1m wide x c. 1.4m maximum height. A creepway, c. 1.4m long x .47m wide and c. 0.5m high, led from the SW corner of chamber I into the second chamber. Chamber II was 3m long and from .4mto1m in width. It ran in a rough E-W direction. A fragment of a quernstone was found wedged in the wall near the W end of the W chamber. The souterrain came to light in the course of construction work at a modern graveyard (without any ancient associations) and was considerably disturbed.