What Lay Beneath
The archaeological finds uncovered in Society Street during the course of monitoring of works for Ballinasloe Water Services Upgrade and Town Enhancement Scheme were the subject of a fascinating talk by Creagh native Fiona Maguire, Member of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland, before a capacity audience in Ballinasloe Library last November.
As part of the team from Atlantic Archaeology, a Sligo-based company, Fiona had been working on the project since July 2018, when in May 2020 portion of a Late Medieval/Post-Medieval cemetery was uncovered at the foot of Church Hill, under the pavement and roadway outside Supermac’s and McGorisk’s Pharmacy. This discovery cannot have been altogether surprising, for in 1968 a human skeleton was found at the same location during the erection of an ESB public lighting standard. Duly noted by Professor Rynne of UCG, the remains had been left in situ.
A total of 10 articulated bodies and a large quantity of disarticulated bones were discovered, approximately 12 centimetres down from the pavement and road surface, amounting to 18 burials of individuals all under 45 years of age at the time of death. Interments had taken place between the years 1477 and 1638. There was no evidence of the use of coffins, which would not have been unusual during the period in question. To judge by the arrangement of the limbs, the bodies had been wrapped in winding sheets. A curious feature of some of the burials is that light-coloured stones had been placed where supposedly the individual had a pain or injury while alive, a mortuary practice reflective of the belief that in this way the body could be healed of its afflictions after death. Of special interest were 65 barrel-shaped beads, probably animal bone, discovered about the feet of a female aged between 35 and 44 years. When strung together they formed a six-decade rosary.
Also recorded was a circular drystone well constructed from angular limestone blocks built in courses. It had been backfilled with layers of post-medieval building material. A well in a cemetery seems counterintuitive. It may, however, have existed prior to the graveyard, and afterwards functioned in a ritual context, not as a source of potable water. At present its location is marked by an arrangement of contrasting paving stones on the new footpath.
The real significance of the Society Street excavations consists in the corroborative evidence they offer of the development of the town west of the Suck earlier than the 18th century. Petty’s Atlas of 1683 shows a church on a hill near a street of houses. Surely this must be what we now know as Church Hill, once the location of a possible Bronze Age hillfort. (Whether this or the structure that occupied the site of St. Michael’s Church was the legendary Dún Leodha remains a matter of speculation.) The 1837 Ordnance Survey map shows the 1818 St. John’s Church of Ireland surrounded by a ditch or bank which has since disappeared from the grounds of the present building, though a segment of it can be seen extending across the upper end of the grassy, enclosed area at the back of the Town Hall. An old name for Church Hill was Knockadoon (Cnoc an Dúin: Fort Hill), while later it became known as Cnoc an Teampaill, translated as Temple or Churchyard Hill. The Canons Regular of St. Augustine once owned the site of the Society Street graveyard, and in pre-Reformation times the Canons, who were secular priests, not monks, served the parish of Kilclooney from the Priory of St. Mary in Clontuskert. It would hardly be too fanciful to suggest that the foregoing points to the existence of a pre-Reformation church on the summit of the hill associated and contemporaneous with the Society Street cemetery.
Fiona’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer session, after which she was presented with a framed replica of the rosary beads referred to in her lecture.
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