Presentation to Bishop Martin Hayes at Drumlane survey site. Suzanne Gunn secretary of Drumlane History and Heritage Group pictured in the front row (4th from left) presented Bishop Martin Hayes (3rd from left in front row) with a memento to mark his visit to they site. Also in front row is Kevin Barton, the Archaeological Geophysicist who is leading the exploration on the historical site

Journey to reveal Drumlane’s hidden gem begins

The latest archaeological techniques are being employed to unearth the true historic significance of Drumlane. While the majestic round tower and church building overlooking Lough Derrybrick stand testament to the monastic settlement’s past, the local heritage group are exploring wider site, opening the possibility that it held a greater significance than previously thought.

“Hidden gem” was a phrase repeated in hopeful tones at the picturesque location as Drumlane History and Heritage Group invited guests along to see first hand the exciting work underway, and meet with the expert leading the technical side of the project.

“Potentially there is a hidden gem here waiting to be discovered,” archaeological geophysicist Kevin Barton told the Celt. “While the overall site including the Round Tower and Abbey is not particularly well known nationally; this site is even less well known.”

The site Kevin has earmarked for exploration is located in a field about 100 yards down the laneway. Even to the amateur eye, with elevated position and stone wall ruin, it suggests it formed part of the wider settlement.

The impetus for Drumlane History and Heritage Group to embark on this project stemmed from a visit in 2019 by members of Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne. Suzanne Gunn gave an illuminating talk on the history of Drumlane, drawing on information she gained researching alongside the late Fr. Hugh O’Reilly.

“When the talk concluded,” recalled chairman of the Drumlane group, Micheál McCabe, “Cumann Seanchais Breifne members commented that you have a hidden gem here on your doorstep and encouraged us to research, and add to the information that already existed.

“We formed a committee and we made an application to the Heritage Council. We met with AnneMarie Ward, Heritage Officer and looked at opportunities for grants in Spring 2021 and applied.”

Chris Kirk, has brought his experience of working on the Rath Church in Killeshandra to help his Drumlane neighbours. He was also eager to emphasise the role of the landowner in granting permission to help make the project a reality.

“The local landowner, John Lunney cut the grass and made this field available to us. It will return back to being a field for cattle in two weeks time. We appreciate his support since we started our journey.”

With John opening the field, and the Heritage Council opening the purse strings, geophysicist Kevin, aided by an eager team of volunteers got to work.

“What we are looking at here is a large complex which seems to be getting bigger and makes major statements about the impact on the community that would have been established here. I draw maybe some similarities to the Chancellery College on the top of the Hill of Slane, where priests were trained and lived. Look how well known it is,” enthused Kevin.

The better known Slane site dates from the same medieval period as Drumlane Abbey and, as Kevin says: “There may well be similarities, yet to be discovered and confirmed. Maybe as result of this work that is currently taking place and some more work that will take place, we will provide the evidence on which to base that statement.”

The significance of Drumlane complex has at least been appreciated enough for its recognition as a national monument.

Kevin Barton explained that what he can say with a degree of confidence is that they have found a continuation of the wall, and it is about 60 feet long.

“Then at ninety degrees to it, there is another buried wall, which is also 60 feet in length, so there is a large structure there. It features very fine stonework and there are a number of architectural fragments.”

The survey area measuring 40 metres by 40 metres has been divided into 16 areas, marked out by pegs and string.

“At the moment we have not found any evidence of domestic activity, which would have been associated with habitation, but we have not yet finished the 16 pieces of the jigsaw. When we have completed all 16, it is my job to put the pieces together utilising all the different survey techniques, to ascertain if I can come out with some type of coherent story or basis to make a suggestion about what it might be and what it was used for.”

While holding back on drawing conclusions, Kevin is clearly excited.

“It is the scale of it and also the fact we have glimpses of these little architectural fragments showing up. It illustrates that there was money around. Because money was required to pay masons to carve those features and they are just the last vestiges of what might have been here. People have taken away the rest of them over time.”

The researchers are further examining the entire field on a “larger archaeological scale”.

“The early indications of this field are that it is criss-crossed with a lot of ditches, which are now no longer visible and are either filled in or silted up. What we are doing is building up a picture of the context of this wall and what it may represent in the larger field and maybe we can make some conclusions as to how it might be connected to the round tower and church that is up above,” said Kevin.

One of those who was eager to hear about the work on-site was Bishop Martin Hayes. The bishop was Drumlane History and Heritage Group’s guest of honour last week.

“Really what it is all about is making connections with the past,” Bishop Hayes told those assembled.

“I know the concrete idea is to make the connection between this site and the tower and church, but you are also making connections now between all the different generations.

“I wish you all well and in time I look forward to the results of the survey.”

He’s not alone in eagerly anticipating the findings, which could be disclosed to the authorities and the local heritage group as early as October.

“This is only the beginning of our enlightening journey to unearth the historical hidden gems from hundreds of years ago, and one day, we hope it will be put Drumlane on the map,” said Suzanne Gunn.

“I know I can speak for all the people of Drumlane, the tower, church and the monastic site is very close to the heart of all Drumlane people everywhere, both at home and abroad. They have a huge interest and a great pride in this place.”