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Locals delve into Drumgoon Hill's rich history

Damian McCarney

Work to uncover the secrets of an ancient graveyard and ring fort on the summit of one of Cavan's tallest hills is underway thanks to the tireless work of a local committee.

Concerned that the Drumgoon Hill Graveyard was becoming overgrown and dilapidated, the dozen strong local voluntary committee came together approximately 18 months ago in a bid to revive its fortunes and document the mountain of history contained within its ancient structure.
Having cleared back the densely overgrown weeds, last Thursday saw the voluntary group commence the slow, painstaking work on researching the three-acre site. They were rewarded for their endeavours with breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside, a drenching of sunshine, and the first glimpses into the fascinating story of Drumgoon's forefathers, uncovering some family names in danger of vanishing into the mists of time.
The site belongs to Cavan County Council, and burials are still occasionally permitted to take place on Drumgoon Hill; the latest occurred approximately four years ago.
Roseabby McGorry, secretary of the Drumgoon Hill Graveyard Maintenance and Support Committee, explains that the placename alone may indicate a richness of history in the area. Drumgoon's Irish translation is Droim Dhúin which suggests that a prominent chieftain would have been in residence there.
“We are at the start of a very exciting project which will secure the hill,†Roseabby said of the three acre site.
The community's five year plan hopes to establish the importance of the site. An ordnance survey map suggests a Catholic Church was once perched upon the hill summit. The site is thought to have been the location of the first Catholic church in the parish of Drumgoon, and local lore suggests it was established by St Patrick. They hope to explore a reference to records relating to the hill contained in the Vatican dating from 1400s, and also another possible documentary reference to the site in a university in Scotland.
Drumgoon Hill was previously identified as the site of a rath or ringfort, and may even have a much earlier significance as the site of a 'barrow' dating back to 2400BC-500BC. A sign at the cemetery gate states that burials have taken place at the site since the year 650. One fascinating aspect of the graveyard that they can definitely stand over as fact is that it contains the graves of local people of three denominations: Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian. They are also exploring the theory that different areas of the graveyard correspond to particular townlands within the parish.
“A graveyard is a museum of culture,†enthused Roseabby, “it's a museum of history, it's a museum of heritage, and it's a museum of genealogy, and it belongs to everybody. So for that reason it should be enhanced, researched and preserved - and that's what our committee feel very strongly about.â€

Inscriptions

Working in three teams over the last five days, the committee have been trying to establish firm facts from this untapped “museumâ€. One team has been carefully cleaning the headstones with simply a soft brush and water – no chemicals – to avoid damage to the headstones. A second team is gently tracing the headstone inscriptions with their fingers in order to decipher the text. They are also using mirrors to reflect sunlight back on the stones to try to make it more legible. A third team is recording the dimensions of the headstones, and photographing them.
The cemetery is home to some very unusual headstones, bearing engravings of skull and crossbones and other curious symbols. At the time of speaking to the Celt, the earliest legible headstone that the volunteers had come across, dated from 1710.

Expert

In addition to the hands-on work undertaken by the volunteers, a community grant provided by the heritage council has enabled them to enlist the expert help of archaeological geophysicist Kevin Barton of Landscape and Geophysical Services. Once all the information is compiled in a database, an analysis will be undertaken to see what further research is required.
“What we are engaged in is making a map, for the first time, of the graveyard,†explained Kevin. “That map is a topographic map, and also of the graves themselves. The graves get numbered and those numbers refer to sheets where very detailed information is copied down about each of the headstone and rock, and they are also photographed.â€
He was eager to highlight a particularly interesting aspect of the site.
“The graveyard is on top of, what the National Monuments describe as a rath – or a ringfort, so it's quite unusual – it's not unique, but it's quite unusual in Irish terms.â€
He explains that if there was a rath at the site, it's likely to have been undermined to some extent by the cemetery.
“I would say at the moment there is evidence for one ditch, I'm not so sure about a bank. That information would come out as a result of the second phase of activity where we would do geophysical surveys, remote sensing surveys, to enrich evidence of that.â€
A future phase should also see them use these non-invasive surveys to try to locate foundations of an early Catholic church.
“What often happens is when Christianity arrives on the scene, they implant on top of prehistoric, or pagan features – in other words Christianity is taking the power from the pagans by planting churches and their graveyards on top. There could be another story going on here relating to the archaeology – so what we have is history and archaeology all rolled into one in a magnificent landscape setting.â€
Exploring the rath may also include, “a section through the core to see what it's actually made of and is there another one underneath it basicallyâ€.
Kevin admits he's “excited†by the Drumgoon site.
“This site has a lot of archaeological potential, a lot - in fact the whole area does because from what I can see there are lots of hills around here, and other monuments, so what you've got here is an archaeological landscape with all sorts going on which have yet to be fully explored and explained.â€
The committee are hosting a heritage day on Saturday, August 26 from 2pm at which Kevin Barton will present a progress report. A talk will also be given on the incredibly rich biodiversity of this habitat.

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