A South Down Miscellany 2008

This is one of the many archaeological tours organised by Belfast Naturalists Field club

At 10.30 a.m. about 20 members and guests from Bessbrook Heritage Goup gathered at the lay-by beside Narrow Water Castle (J127193). This castle was built in the 1560s for an English garrison. Its main purpose was to control the ford at Narrow Water. The coastal strip of Louth and Down was an easy access route into Ulster from Leinster which avoided the garrison at Newry. The ford at Narrow Water was the furtherest point south of Newry where the Clanrye River could be crossed.

John Sancky is recorded as being warder in October 1568, when there was a garrison of four foot-soldiers. By July of the following year the garrison had risen to 12 foot-soldiers and 6 horsemen. By 1580 Hugh Magennis was resident at Narrow water and in 1608 it was held by Sir Arthur Magennis. After James II's defeat in 1691 it was confiscated and granted to the Halls. It is a tower 11.2m x 10.1m. The entrance in the west wall is protected by a machicolation and a murder-hole. A straight stairway rises in the west and north walls to roof level. The tower is three storeys high plus attic. It is vaulted above the first floor. It was extensively renovated in the 1960s when the roof was restored. The tower stands within a rectangular bawn, about 36m square with walls 0.6m thick & 2m high internally, but more on the outside where is rises from the shore. Most of the bawn wall may be original but the gateway dates from the 19th century when the large house on the opposite side of the road was built. The second site visited was Kilbroney Graveyard (J188195), on the outskirts of Rostrevor, where there is the ruin of a small nave-and-chancel church covered with ivy. It was probably built in the 15th or 16th century with the chancel being a later addition.

In the graveyard is a monolithic granite cross. The W face is flat and the E face is convex. At the angles of the arms with the shaft and the head are three-quarter circular hollows 5cm deep. The W face is covered with panels of fret-pattern enrichment with a diamond-shaped panel at the intersection. The carving is greatly weathered. About 10km WNW of Kilbroney, in Clonlea Graveyard (J118222), there are two 19th century replicas of this cross. One of them is placed in an ancient croos base decorated with curvilinear ornamentation. At Kilbroney, a short distance to the west of the tall cross, is a small cross almost 1m high and 30cm wide. It is shaped somewhat like a human figure with a round head, short stumpy out-stretched arms and a wedge-shaped body. The figure is outlined by a groove and there is a cross carved in front of the body. The carving is very shallow and difficult to see. The graveyard has many fine 18th and 19th century memorials including several slate stones carved by James Connolly of Burren, with fine figure carving and excellent lettering .St Bronagh founded a monastery at Kilbroney but nothing is known of its history. St Bronagh’s Well, in the middle of the graveyard, is said to cure eye ailments. The monastery bell was lost for many years after a Viking raid. It was believed that St Bronagh would ring her bell on stormy nights to warn sailors of the approaching shore. Many people heard it ring. During one very violent storm a large tree fell and the bell was found in its branches. It had been placed there for safe-keeping many centuries before. It is now on display in the local Catholic church. Our next site was Kilfeaghan Portal Tomb (J232154). This monument is well-signposted and is very easy to find. However car-parking close to the tomb is severely restricted. The Field Club is noted for its discipline and organisational skills. We were able to temporarily reduce the number of cars by half and drive up a narrow road for the short walk across the fields to the monument.

This portal tomb has a massive capstone estimated to weigh over 30 tonnes. It is supported by five uprights and is set near the N end of a long cairn, some of which may be modern field clearance. The true height of the uprights is masked by the cairn material which has been piled up against them. Partial clearance has shown that the portal stones are about 2.5m high and the side stones are about 1.5m high. Excavations in the early 20th century uncovered bones, pottery and flint scrapers.

All this activity tends to give one an appetite. We took a welcome break at a picnic site along the road to our next monument. Unfortunately the drizzle which had been threatening for most of the morning decided to arrive at the picnic site at the same time as ourselves. It is well known that when Field Club members are presented with a picnic table it is a matter of honour that it be used no matter what the weather. Most of us lunched al fresco. After lunch we visited Greencastle (J247119). This is a royal castle built in the 13th century. It was attacked and taken by Edward Bruce in 1316, attacked at least twice by the Irish in the later 14th century but still maintained as a garrison for Elizabeth in the 1590s. It is approached across a rock-cut ditch, which excavations revealed to be 7m wide at the top, 3m wide at the base and 3.5m deep.

There is a large rectangular keep with three vaulted chambers at the ground floor. It measures 18m by 8.5m internally. It dates mainly from the 13th century with substantial 15th and 16th century alterations. It was originally entered by a first-floor door on the south, protected by a forebuilding. The ground floor doorway in the west wall is a 15th century alteration. At the first floor level was the great hall with a latrine in the north east corner. The upper levels contain many mural passages and small chambers. There are small roof turrets at the four corners. The keep was surrounded by a strong wall with corner flankers. Only the bases of two of these flankers remain. Closer to the shore is an old church, contemporary with the castle, and a motte. These were not closely inspected. Greencastle also has a very fine coastguard row which was designed by Enoch Trevor Owen, possibly in the 1860s. About 4km NE of Greencastle is Dunnaman Court Tomb (J289151).This monument is classified as a court tomb although there is no evidence of a court.

The burial gallery is about 12m long and the jamb stones suggest that there are four chambers. There are no sill stones visible but these may be discovered by excavation. The side stones overlap in a manner seen in some Scottish court tombs. Apart from the large stones there is no surviving cairn material. It had been our intention to visit the small dolmen at Kilkeel, known as the Crwatree Stone (J307149). However time was pressing and we decided to give it a miss and go directly to Hanna’s Close (J313164). This group of buildings, in Aughnahoory townland, is a very fne example of a clachan. A clachan is usually taken to mean a small group of houses with tenants probably having a family connection. It is not large enough to sustain a public house or a shop, so cannot be thought of as a small hamlet. Nor does it have a church and so cannot be considered to be a small village.

The Hanna Family came from Galloway in the 1640s and settled on a small plot high above the west bank of the Kilkeel River in Aughnahoory townland. Of the nine buildings which make up the clachan some may date from the 17th century but most of them seem to be from the 18th and 19th century. The Hannas came from Scotland to escape religious persecution but arrived in a land that was troubled by rebellion. The houses of the close were erected with the front doors faced the central triangular green and with only small windows in the outer walls. This was an obvious defensive arrangement. The gaps between the houses would have been closed by strong fences or gates. Modern iron gates, based on 19th century designs now fulfil this function. There was a ford across the river at this point and a fine set of stepping stones which still exist, along with modern footbridges. About 2km N at Ballinran there is another fine ford and stepping stones. Ballinran is the site of a busy flax scutching mill which would have been used by the inhabitants of the clachan, since the growing of flax provided part of their income. Gradually the families began to move out of the close and the buildings were bought up by one member whose descendents still own the Close today. During the 20th century some of the buildings fell out of use and were allowed to decay. Renovation began in the 1990s and eventually all the buildings were restored. One of the buildings is now used as an office and one is a communal building used for education and as a ceili house. The others are holiday homes.