Farm Ireland

Saturday 18 November 2017

Ann Fitzgerald: The bare bones of history reveal some ancient secrets

Some of the 1903 team outside the Alice and Gwendoline cave in Co Clare. Image courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
Some of the 1903 team outside the Alice and Gwendoline cave in Co Clare. Image courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
The Alice and Gwendoline cave where the bone was discovered. Photo: Terry Casserly and Tim O’Connell
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I was stunned to hear that the starting date of Ireland's settlement history is being pushed back 2,500 years.

There was I thinking that humans have only been running around the country since 8,000BC, but it now seems that a butchered bear bone found in a cave in Clare over a century ago dates back to 10,500BC.

That's 8,000 years before the pyramids in Egypt were built and 7,500 years earlier than the first Stonehenge monuments.

In a flash, more time has been added to the front end of our history than the entire length of time that has elapsed in the current era, since 1AD.

We tend today to measure time in hours, days and download speeds but this highlights how our lives are scarcely blinks on a scale of centuries and millennia.

What also struck me was the fairytale-ish name of the cave in which the bone was discovered, the Alice and Gwendoline.

Caves are often simply named after the place in which they are located and, indeed, this cave was itself known as the Bull Paddock Cave up to the late 18th century.

It was renamed in 1902/03 after the two Stacpoole sisters who lived in Edenvale House, the demesne on which the cave is located, when excavations led to the discovery of two fine Viking armrings.

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The excavation was undertaken by notable scientists Robert F Scharff, Richard J Ussher and Thomas Johnson Westropp, who was an uncle and mentor of Gwendoline.

Her full name was actually Gwendoline Clare Surprise Stacpoole which I surmise may have been due to the considerable gap between her birth in 1884 and that of her siblings - Mary Eve Louisa (1869), Richard John (1870), Alice Jane (1871) and George William Robert (1872) - who were all born a year apart after her parents Richard and Alice Julia Westropp married in 1868.

The Stacpooles were a Catholic family from Limerick and Clement Stacpoole was transplanted to Clare in 1651. His grandson William became a Protestant and the family bought Edenvale, close to Ennis, in 1777.

The last member of the family to live there was Richard John. The house was sold in 1926 to Clare Co Council for use as a TB sanatorium and, in 1986, was sold into private ownership.


It's quite popular these days to trumpet the role of women in the 1916 rebellion. Around the same time that Countess Markievicz et al were flying the flag high in Irish politics, Gwendoline Stacpoole was beavering away in the world of archaeology, and continued to do so right up to her death in 1966.

There is a fascinating article about 'Gwenny' on the National Museum of Ireland website entitled "An unsung heroine of Irish archaeology."

A woman of spirit and wit who never married, she had a romantic but realistic perception of the lives of past peoples.

She spent much of her time walking the sand hills and ploughed fields of the east coast and amassed a collection of thousands of pieces of lithics (tiny segments of rock), as well as pottery, iron, bronze, glass beads and coins.

She only published one article relating to her work, "The Larnians of County Dublin", (1962) for which she was awarded the Gold Medal by the Old Dublin Society.

Stacpoole said the Larnians were the earliest inhabitants of the area. These hunter-fisher people are believed to have come from northern England or Scotland around 6000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

The channel between Britain and Ireland was much shallower than today and easily navigated in dugout canoes or maybe even on foot.

They landed in Antrim where they found an abundant supply of flint from which to make tools. One of the main sources of flint was at Larne which gave rise to the name "Larnian."

The descendants of these first Larnians made their way down the east coast, at least as far as Dalkey Island. Who knows, their genes may still be exerting an influence to this day.

'Aaargh' to all and sundry

Whatever about Larnians running around county Dublin 6,000 years ago, there are certainly lots of tourists, native and overseas, rambling around Dublin city at present, soaking up the atmosphere surrounding the 1916 commemorations.

On a visit there last week, we took the Viking Splash sightseeing tour. This covers many of the major sights and includes a spin on the water at the Grand Canal dock on a World War II amphibious vehicle called a DUKW (colloquially Duck).

Our driver/guide had quite a colourful take on the city's history. For example, how the Vikings coated their coins in honey and stuck them into their armpits for safe carriage.

But the best aspect of the tour was the one I first thought was the silliest.

Before the off, we were invited to don a plastic version of the classic though historically inaccurate horned Viking helmet.

Then we were urged to adopt a fist-clenched battle stance whilst shouting a battle-cry of "Aaargh" as we passed unsuspecting pedestrians. At the start I felt this wasn't me but by the end I was joining in as good as any tourist. Not one person we tried it on, even the most serious, failed to crack a smile. Such innocent fun!

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