|The Historical Geography of
the Slieve Aughty
talk by Dr. Pat Nugent at the Aughty People and Earth Day in Crusheen, 22nd April 2006.
Dr Patrick Nugent, B.A., B.Ed., Ph.D. is a lecturer at the Irish Studies Institute in the University of Liverpool. He has published both in the Irish and English language on subjects ranging from the clan system and territorial organisation in the late medieval period to sean nos singing. His research interests include the transformation of Gaelic society from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. His Ph.D. on 'A Historical Geography of the Transformation in the Territorial Organisation of the Gaelic Society in County Clare during the Early Modern Period' will soon be published.
Defining the Region
The Slieve Aughty Region - how do you you define it?
Well, basically there are a few different ways of defining it. One
is actually to do it by roads. So on the map I would take the southern
boundary as going from Ennis over as far as Whitegate. Then I would
take the eastern boundary as going from Whitegate up to Loughrea.
Then I would take the western boundary as going from Loughrea down
to Ennis again via Gort and Crusheen and so on.
So that would be one way of defining it.
Another way of defining it would be to look at the parishes. What
parishes are within this region what parishes are outside it?
Another way would be to simply to define it by altitude. On the
map I handed out there if you follow the five hundred foot - apologies
it isn't metric - contour, you get a picture of the area that has
a truly upland aspect to it.
The Slieve Aughty uplands is an extensive marchland - this is an
historical word used to describe a borderland between two regions.
The Slieve Aughty upland region is almost evenly split between South
East Galway and North East Clare.
The uplands originated during the Caledonian mountain building phase
of around 350 million years ago when tectonic activity resulted
in the uplifting and crenellation of Devonian Sandstone rock. Devonian
Sandstone rock is the result of millions of years of erosion of
rock particles which are then transported to the sea by rivers.
The particles are suspended in the running water and become deposited
on the ocean floor when the force of the running water is negated
by the ocean tide and current regimes. Consequently, a considerable
depth of rock particles accumulate on the continental shelves. Over
millions of years the pressure of the accumulated rock particles
results in the formation of sandstone rock.
Then you have tectonic activity and you have this uplifting. The
original height of the Slieve Aughty at the time they were uplifted
is thought to be around 5,000 metres. It has taken about 350 million
years for them to be eroded to their present height.
The Slieve Aughty mountains consists of two ridges divided by the
Owendallaigh river which flows into Lough Cooter (Cutra). The Gort/Portumna
road runs along this valley. The highest point of the Northern ridge
is Casileandrumleathan at around 1,107 feet. A wind farm has been
located to the west of this summit in the last few years. This ridge
is entirely located in County Galway. The highest point at Maghaire
(Maghera) 1,314 feet is situated just south of the Clare/Galway
county boundary on the western wing of the southern ridge. This
modest peak is separated from the remainder of the ridge by a U
shaped valley. Lough Greaney - the mythical Lough Greaney -occupies
The low Caladonian-fold mountain ridge continues eastwards to within
three kilometres of Lough Derg reaching the modest heights of 993
feet, 1,124 feet and 1,143 feet at Knockbeatha, Cappabaun and Scailp,
respectively. The county boundary meanders through this part of
Devoid of tree cover and lacking the people to cultivate the region
after the great famine - the underlying poorly draining Devonian
Sandstone assisted the then quotient of substantial blanket bog
coverage. Erosion problems are still ongoing, aided at present by
extensive plantations of coniferous trees which accelerate the rate
||Dr. Pat Nugent speaking at the
Aughty People and Earth Day in Crusheen,
22nd April 2006.
The woodland cover, before it was extensively removed in the 17th
and 18th centuries, was overwhelmingly deciduous. Up until the early
17th century, the Slieve Aughty area was heavily wooded by deciduous
trees. These trees were then cut down progressively and by the Strafford
survey of 1637/8 you will find that the tree cover has been reduced
substantially in the lower regions of Slieve Aughty. It was still
significant in the upper regions.
Population levels following the Cromwellian campaign of 1649-53
was extremely low. The influx of transplanted papists chiefly from
Limerick, Tipperary and Westmeath from 1654-6 offset this decline
to some degree. The population grew steadily throughout the 18th
century. Given this population growth, some people began to move
into the uplands. Bit by bit the woodland cover was cut down. So
by the time of the famine there are almost no forests in the Slieve
Aughty region. It was completely denuded of forest and it is actually
quite heavily populated. The parishes of Feakle and Ballinakill
are two of the worst affected parishes in Ireland during the famine.
Within five years they lost over 50% of their population. Within
ten years the population of the Slieve Aughty region drops dramatically.
In fact it is probably the 'black spot' within the west of Ireland
which suffered the greatest populations losses in Ireland both numerically
and proportionally. After the Famine, the population just dwindles
and dwindles and dwindles.
The forest cover is gone and it is only in the last 50 years that
you have this coniferous plantation coming along in its wake. And
they are, if you like, out of character with the natural vegetation
of the area. But the nature of these forests has its own dynamic.
Just to go back - how do we know that the Slieve Aughty was heavily
wooded in the past? One of our earliest references - and it's not
that far back - goes back to the epic poem called Caithréim
Thoirdhealbhaigh - which is the wars of Thomond. It was written
by a poet called McCraith - Sean Mac Ruaidhri McCraith. And this
particular poem was written around 1350 AD. And it is a type of chanson de geste, a kind of epic narrative of a memorable
event. The memorable event in question is the O'Briens' wars with
the Normans. The mid fourteenth century composition date is based
on the examination of the genealogy of the hereditary seanachaí
family, the McGrath clan. Flower - who has done most work on this
- surmised that Sean was the son of Ruaidhri, the poet mentioned
in the actual text of burying the dead after the battle of Corcomroe
Abbey in 1317 AD.
So I am going to quote a few selected passages from this publication,
which was translated in a very florid style. Standish Hayes O'Grady,
the late 19th century antiquarian, deliberately used this style
in English because he said it reflected the nature of the Irish
In the 14th century, woodlands are not perceived by the Gaelic clans
as hostile. This reflects the Gaelic ideology of the environment.
If you look at medieval Europe; if you look at the French and German
medieval period, the forests are areas of fear. It's the area where
horrible things happen, where mysterious creatures live.
But if you look at Gaelic poetry, we don't have this fear of the
forest at all. In fact we revere them. The forests are a place to
be cherished. Not only because they are places of refuge during
time of war but also because they played a special role in Druidic
tradition. The forests are where the Druids carried out their rituals,
so they have a spiritual element to them as well.
One of the first quotations is that:
... the MacNamaras retreat
with their cattle herds into Aughty
dense woods of lofty foliage pleasant and fresh
[fa dhluthcoilltib arduillecha uraibhe Echtge]
This reference notes the MacNamaras escaping from Brian Rua O'Brien's
forces. Now if you look at the War of Turlough it isn't a
straight fight between the O'Briens and the Normans at all. In fact
a lot of the poem is taken up with the O'Briens and the MacNamaras
having a fairly hostile relationship to each other. And initially
you will find that the O'Briens are fairly compatible to the Normans
and it's only later on that they become active in getting them out
of the county.
Later in the poem the Sliabh Aughty uplands are again described
... into Aughty's woodlands,
deep valleyed, white rocked,
lofty hill, paped peaked vastness.
Now this type of gross overstatement of reality was the type of
poetry that was written at that time.
"Lofty hills" - I'm not quite sure. "Papped peaked
vastness", "deep valleyed"? Well, I'm afraid the
valleys in the Slieve Aughty region aren't that deep.
Other references include the following descriptions of upland areas
of Inchicronan and Tulla, two parishes which fringe the Sliabh Aughty
Green Oaked spreading bough-ed
clear streamed Drumgranagh
and the woods of Ferbane in Tulla.
We know that Inishcealtra was wooded as well. This 14th century
poem is the first concrete reference we have to woodland. But then
when you go to the 17th century we have the Strafford survey, which
was carried out in 1637/8 and which I mentioned previously. And
the reason for the Strafford survey was basically to confiscate
the land in Clare and Galway, Roscommon and Mayo, and to have a
plantation scheme in these four counties similar to the Ulster plantation
scheme of about thirty years previously.
So the Strafford survey is an incredibly detailed survey of land.
It is remarkable. In Clare it goes into every single land denomination
(townland) as they are called, and it classifies the land into profitable
and unprofitable. And then it uses 121 different land descriptions
to actually describe the land. Twelve of those refer to woodland.
Some of these are old woodland, some of these are new timber wood,
dwarf wood, decayed wood, and many varieties in between.
So you can build up a picture of woodland cover in Clare at that
time. And the two parishes that come out with the heaviest cover
are Inishcealtra and, strangely enough, Kilraghtis, which is present
day Barefield. But the nature of woodland cover in Barefield and
Inishcealtra is quite different. Inishcealtra, over around Whitegate,
was described as having been covered by tall deciduous trees. Barefield
was covered in dwarf wood. Dwarf wood probably means bushes. This
was the woodland cover of this particular area.
So the general picture you get in the 17th century - you get other
indications - some of the older wood has been cut down and you have
new woodland taking off. The general indication is that the woodlands
in Clare had decreased significantly. The Cratloe woods that are
famed in the late 16th century are basically gone, but in the Sliabh
Aughty area there is still significant woodland.
Last week, or a few days ago, I looked at the Book of Survey and
Distribution for South Galway as well, and you get the same picture
of heavy or extensive woodland in the parishes of Ballinakill, Killenadema,
Kilthomas, Kilbeacanty and parts of Beagh. All of these five parishes
- their woodland profile is similar to the parishes of Feakle, parts
of Crusheen, northern Clooney and Tulla. Killenadema and Ballinakill
have extensive woodland areas where you get the impression that
there is no population.
Population Movements and Family Names
What happens when the Cromwellian period arrives? First of all the
Cromwellian campaign in Ireland results in around a third of the
population being lost either by disease or the military campaign
itself and of course the well known deportations to the Caribbean.
So the population of Ireland drops significantly. Now in Clare and
Galway and Roscommon this loss of population is offset by the transplantation
scheme. The plantation scheme is basically the scheme that the Cromwellian
administration devised to rid the rest of Ireland of its Catholic
population and make them go - if you like, the famous - across the
Shannon into Connacht, or 'to Hell or to Connacht' as the phrase
Now this involved a detailed analysis of who was to be transplanted
in the rest of the country and then basically these people were
required by law to travel west of the Shannon by a particular date.
When you examine the transplantation certificates you discover that
only about a third of the people who were meant to be transplanted
What happened the rest of them - the ones who stayed behind in Tipperary
and Kilkenny? Well, basically they decided that they'd opt for being
tenants of New English or Cromwellian landlords, but what you do
find in East Clare and in East Galway is a significant influx of
transplanted papists from Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick - these
are the three main counties - about 50% of transplanted papists
in South Galway and East Clare are from those three counties.
When a transplanted papist family like the Powers move in we'll
say to Clare, or the Barrys move into Clare, they don't come on
their own. Its not just the father or wife and a few children. Their
servants come as well. So you can actually have a significant influx
of people. So the drop in population after the Cromwellian campaign
is offset by the incoming transplanted papists.
Now, where were the transplanted papists put? Well, the Strafford
survey which had been carried out about fifteen years beforehand
was now used as a way of identifying lands in which to put the transplanted
papists. So, you'll find that local people are being moved sideways
to make room for the incoming transplanted papists.
In the Crusheen area you will find that the Butlers are transplanted
papists and the people who lived there before that wer being pushed
to the side. Now, sometimes this meant either staying in situ and
becoming tenants of the incoming transplanted papists but other
times it meant people moving into the marginal lands.
This probably resulted in Slieve Aughty uplands being used in a
more organised fashion. So throughout the late 17th century and
early into the 18th century the population grows steadily. The Slieve
Aughty region was an area free for population movement. So bit by
bit the dispossessed, the people who have been moved sideways are
moving into the uplands and claiming them for themselves.
So I have looked at who were the people in this region before the
transplanted papists. On the Clare side, you can identify key families
in the different parishes. At the top of the social pyramid in Clare
you have the Earl of Thomond, which is one of the O'Briens. On the
top of the social pyramid in Galway is the Earl of Clanrichard which
is one of the Burkes. Below that you have a host of other lesser
The lesser nobles in Clare would be the chieftain of the MacNamara
Reaghs who are based in Feakle and Tulla, the Earl of Cork, who
is an absentee landlord but he owns significant lands particularly
over around Mountshannon. On the Galway side you have a guy called
Sir Roger O'Shaughnessy, who is one of the O'Shaughnessys around
Kilmacdough, then you have the Earl of St Albion who I never heard
of, I just saw his name there, and the Earl of Clanmorris. Clanmorris
is a barony in Tipperary. What was he doing with land up in Galway?
I don't know. Knowing that the Earl of Cork is an absentee landlord
I am making the assumption that the Earl of St Albion and the Earl
of Clanmorris are probably absentee landlords as well.
Now below that strata - most of the poor lands were owned by local
Gaelic clans and family groups of Norman descent. Now these clans
and family groups tend to have strong local affinity. When you look
at it parish by parish the family groups change. And, of course,
the parishes in North East Clare and the Tuathas, the clan territories,
are synonymous. Tuathas and Parishes have generally a one to one
or a one to two co-relation.
On the Clare side you have the O'Gradys - these would be the major
clan in Inchicronan, the MacNamaras in the parish of Clooney, the
Moloneys in Tulla, the O'Hallorans in Feakle, the O'Grady's in Tuamgraney,
the MacSheeda MacNamaras in Mountshannon, and the Burkes in Whitegate.
Now, you have to remember from about 1574 onwards the Parishes of
Mountshannon and Whitegate are actually part of Galway. And they
remain in Galway up until the very end of the 19th century.
On the Galway side a host of minor O'Shaugnessys share the parish
of Beagh with their clan chieftain. In Kilbeacanty you have the
Fahys. The Fahys vie with the O'Devillys in Peterswell - called
Kilthomas at that stage. And then a clan that I have never come
across, MacCooge. 'MacHugo - they would be in the Derrybrien area' (Mary Coen contributes from the floor). And they're in Killenadema
which is the Derrybrien area.
The uplands of Ballinakill is home to the Burkes. The Earl of Clanrichard
is a Burke - but the Burkes that are living in Ballinakill are behaving
in a very different way - they are actually behaving very much like
a Gaelic clan. When I looked at the way they owned the land in the
uplands in Ballinakill, they seem to be practicing a type of transhumance
farming which is very much typical of the Gaelic clan approach to
land management. And they reminded me of the O'Hehirs in the Ben
Dash, Kilmaley/Connolly area of Clare. They had the same way of
organising their land. So these are the Burkes of the upper regions
of Ballinakill - even though they are of Norman descent, they were
actually behaving very much as Gaelic clans.
Then we go to the Hynes, who were a significant presence in Kilmacdough.
The Maddens are recorded in Tynagh and Licmolassa which is the parish
where Portumna is. In the parish of Kilteskill and Leitrim the MacCoogey
are prominent again. And the Donnellan family are very strong in
Galway city merchants such as the D'arcys, Lynches, Blakes and Martins
also feature on both sides of the border. So the D'arcys are significant
landowners in Tubber. The Lynches are significant land owners around
Ballyvaughan but they are also significant landowners around the
Gort region. And then Blake of course is a significant landowner
around Barefield. He is also a significant landowner around the
Gort region. You have also the Martins.
Names which occur infrequently on the Galway side are Lennon, Dolphin,
Sweeney, Daly, McMiler, Herron, O'Dolan, O 'Meony, Yelverton, McGillakelly
and Tully. 'Dolphin is in Turoe' (Kieran Jordan contributes).
'Yellverton is across the bridge in Portumna' (John Joe Conwell
contributes). O'Meaney - Meaney in the Feakle area - is also
a strong name. The O'Meaneys were related to Biddy Earley so Brian
Meaney (Green Party Councillor) told me.
Again when you are looking through names you are always struck by
unusual names - The name that just jumped out at me was this particular
individual called Brassil Mac Ferria Piontach O'Madden of Tynagh
- that just struck me - such a great name. Do the Brassils out in
Latoon have any connection?
These are the family groups that existed - that had a strong presence
in these areas before the transplantation scheme. When the transplantation
scheme is exerted these people are moved sideways. And sometimes
that involves them moving into the uplands and colonising the uplands
and turning it into farmland.
But what you do notice about these names is that they didn't go
away. They stayed put. And this is the great thing - I'm always
struck by this when you look at a geography of names - and Clare
is the county that I have worked on most - is the incredible resilience
of surnames in localities. Through thick and thin. They might lose
their land, they become tenants, they might get lands back again,
they might lose them again. They hold on. They stay.
So you will find if you go into these counties or go into these
parishes today you will probably find that the Fahys are a very
strong presence in Kilbeacanty and the O'Gradys are a great presence
I'll just move on.
During the 18th centruy, what we think happens is that the population
increases steadily. We know in the 19th century by the time of the
Famine the population of Ballinakill and Feakle is higher than it
has ever been since.
And then you have this dramatic loss of population. You will find
that in the baronies of Loughrea and Leitrim on the Galway side,
the barony of Upper Tulla register the biggest population loss in
the western region of Ireland in the aftermath of the Famine, and
of course the western area of Ireland was the hardest hit area.
So if you look at the top ten parishes of Ireland to lose people
I would say Feakle and Ballinakill are in the top ten of population
loss. The population level is only making a slight recovery at the
moment in these areas.
With that, I've hopefully have given you some idea as to the historical
geography of the Slieve Aughty region. Basically on the Clare side
- the parishes that I would identify within the region are starting
here in Crusheen, moving on to northern Clooney, Tulla, Tuamgreaney,
Mountshannon and Whitegate .
And on the northern side , I'm going to use the old Civil Parish
names - Beatha, Kilbeacanty, Kilthomas (which I know is better known
as Peterswell), Killnadeema, Ballinakill.
And then other parishes that have an association would be Kilmacdough,
Kiltartan, Ardrahan, Isertkelly (which is a very small parish),
Kilchreest, Kilmeen, Kiltesken, Leitrim, Dunira and Tynagh and Licmolassey.
So with that I'll shut up.
A 'Soft' Boundary?
The thing about the boundary going through the Aughties is that
basically it is not a big boundary in people's minds. Crossing over
and back - you're in Clare one minute, in Galway the next. The boundary
between Clare and Galway in the Slieve Aughty region is of little
consequence to the people that live there.
I know that between Tubber and Beagh there is a rivalry in relation
to hurling and all that. Unlike other boundaries in Ireland the
Clare Galway boundary isn't an acrimonious one. Unlike the boundary
between Waterford and Kilkenny or Tipperary and Kilkenny which are
furiously contested. But Clare and Galway, they don't have that
acrimonious relationship at all.
In fact being from Barefield on the borders of Crusheen myself,
I would know South Galway and Gort better than I would know parts
of West Clare. For me Beagh is a neighbouring parish whereas my
mother who's from Lisseycasey would regard Beagh as miles away.
A parish in another county, another province.
I remember doing a course in Ennis years ago with teachers and I
asked them did they feel that Clare was part of Connacht or part
of Munster, and being from here I had a strong affinity to Connacht
or to the West and I discovered that basically there was just three
of us that had that affinity. The other three people interestingly
enough were Mary Heath from Crusheen and Josie O'Connor from Tubber
and the three of us had this affinity with the west. Whereas everybody
else in the room were very much Munster people. They saw themselves
To me the boundary between Crusheen and Beagh is a friendly boundary.
It isn't like around Urlingford between Tipperary and Kilkenny.
'Is there an actual boundary across the mountains. The way boundaries
often follow roads or streams or rivers, or is it just a line across
the bog?' (Kieran Jordan asks).
I'm sure there is an official division of where exactly it is -
but the fact is it varies from one official map to the other, which
shows it's not very well known. But I'm sure if you have a farm
on the boundary of Clare and Galway you know exactly which fields
are in Clare and which are in Galway, I'm sure you do.
But as I was driving from Lough Atorick to Derrybrien, I only realised
I had crossed the boundary when I say a sign for 'Beagh Community
Alert'. Again I find that sign a greater indication of where the
boundary is than anything else.
If you go from Crusheen up to Gort you'll see the 'Beagh Community
Alert' on the left hand side of the road about a kilometre before
the actual sign for the Clare/Galway border. Of course the boundary
in that particular area runs along the road and that just happens
to be the case - that's unusual.