Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Excavations at a newly discovered sixteenth- / seventeenth-century fort at Ballycarry, Co Antrim: Review

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Preface: I am very pleased to introduce Duncan Berryman, our latest guest contributor to the blog. Duncan is a post-graduate student at QUB, and is currently working on his PhD: ‘A documentary and archaeological investigation of the buildings of manorial curiae.’ He is currently the editor of the Ulster Archaeological Society’s Newsletter. You may also follow him on Twitter.
Robert M Chapple

Excavation in progress
The February lecture of the Ulster Archaeological Society was given by Dr. Emily Murray.  Emily has worked for the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork (CAF) at Queen’s University, Belfast for a number of yeas and has been involved in a large range of excavations.  She has specialised in zooarchaeology and has a wide range of publications.  Recently, she has presented history programmes for BBC and UTV, most notably, the BBC series Blueprint.

Ballycarry lies a few miles north of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, and occupies an elevated position, overlooking Larne Lough to the east.  There are many archaeological sites around the village, the largest being a scheduled enclosure fossilised in field boundaries to the west.  A 1970s aerial photograph indicated that the semicircular enclosure may have once been a complete circle, indicative of an early Christian monastic enclosure.  This was supported by the presence of Templecorran church to the north of the site, which was recorded in the papal taxation of 1306-7; the present remains are mainly sixteenth-century and it fell out of use in the seventeenth century.

Geophysics carried out to the east of the church in the 1980s proved inconclusive, suggesting there might be a bank or a change in the underlying bedrock.  A bank and ditch were uncovered by excavations in advance of housing construction, but there was little dating evidence and a medieval wall was found to overlay the bank.  The only pottery found was late medieval and there was no evidence of early medieval occupation.  The excavator believed this was a Neolithic bank and ditch.

In 2008, the owner of the land within the scheduled enclosure wished to develop the area for housing.  Dearne Valley Archaeological Services Ltd. (DVAS) was contracted to carry out geophysicical surveys across the enclosure.  This survey showed up a number of features within the fields, but the most interesting was a large square feature with projections from two of the corners.  DVAS suggested in their report that this feature may have been a tower house.  However, as the feature measures 33m by 37m, the dimensions are simply too great to have been one.  It is much closer in style to a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century artillery fort, such as those illustrated by Richard Bartlett.  They were probably constructed from earth and sod and some were later replaced with stone and lime.

Ditch visible in Trench 6
There were no documentary references to a fort in this area and there was no field evidence for this structure.  CAF were tasked by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to investigate the site and ascertain the nature of this feature.  A more detailed geophysical survey was carried out over part of the site and a number of small trenches were opened up over the anomalies revealed by the survey.  The geophysics supported the findings of the previous survey and the trenches revealed how shallow the soil was in this area.  Six trenches were opened in total, but trenches 1 and 3 contained no archaeology.  Trench 4 contained a rock cut ditch, 3m wide and 1.5m deep.  There were very few finds in the fill of the ditch, indicating that the associated structure was built of earth and sod, but the trench did not extend into the interior to find the bank.  Trench 6 revealed the join to the square ditch and the corner bastion.  There was possible evidence of slighting of the fort, but again the ditch fill was sterile – there were only a few fragments of clay pipes in the upper layers of the trench.  There was also a number of prehistoric flints found, suggesting a prehistoric presence in the area.

This leaves the question of who built the fort.

Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. NPG
The earliest likely period of construction was during the Nine Years War (1594-1603).  This was the same time as Bartlett was drawing his maps of Ulster.  The Ballycarry fort is similar to many of Bartlett’s drawings.  It is not known what an Irish fort from this period looked like.  Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, was known to be based at Carrickfergus and Ballycarry would have been a good site for the defence or attack of Carrickfergus.

The second possible phase was the Plantation period.  There are no documents relating to the plantation of Ballycarry, as it was planted by Scottish settlers.  But the dimensions of the fort are approximately right for a Plantation bawn.  The land was granted by the O’Neils to John Dalway and was regranted to Dalway, by the King, in 1609.  Dalway then granted the land to William Edmundstone.  The Edmundstones took up residence at Red Hall, north of Ballycarry, which contains the remains of a tower house.  Part of the grant of land stated that Edmundstone was to build a bawn in the area of Ballycarry.  It is possible that William’s brother, James, may have taken up residence at Ballycarry, while his brother rebuilt the house at Red Hall.  The other possible resident of a bawn at Ballycarry is Rev Edward Brice, the first Presbyterian minister in Ireland, who came to Ulster with the Edmundstones and set up a church in the area.  The townland names within the Templecorran area were changed at the time the Edmundstones acquired the land around Ballycarry and the townland boundaries may have remained quite fluid until the nineteenth century.

The third possibility that it was built a fort during the Confederate Wars of 1641 to 1653.  An example of a fort from this period is Hillsborough Fort.  However, most of the activity in these wars was in southern Ulster and the area around Carrickfergus was little affected by events in this period.

The Williamite Wars of the 1680s is the last period that was likely to have seen the construction of the Ballycarry fort.  It is recorded that Colonel Archibald Edmundstone of Red Hall was involved in the creation of the ‘Council of Five’.  The sizable army that Edmundstone and the Council raised besieged Carrickfergus.  Later, they lost a battle known as the ‘Break of Dromore.’  The fort at Ballycarry is very similar in plan to that at Fortwilliam in Belfast; although, it is possible that this is from a different period.

Of these possible construction dates, the most likely are during the plantation of the area by the Edmundstones or during the Williamite Wars.  However, it would only be possible to have a clearer idea of the date of the structure through further excavation.

The Data Structure Report (DSR) for the site is available as a downloadable PDF: here.

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