Digging into the past on Bray Head
Reporter David Medcalf spent some time with the volunteers exploring the past with trowel in hand at the Raithín na Chluig site which is the focus of attention for the Medieval Bray Project
Shells and bones. The volunteers who worked over the ground beside the old church on Bray Head found shells and bones in the trench they dug recently under the supervision of archaeologist David McIlreavy.
'We've had a successful year,' said David after the Heritage Week dig organised by the Medieval Bray Project exploring what appears to have been a settlement beside the western wall of the church at Raithín (or Raheen) na Chluig.
At least 20 people took part uncovering items across the age spectrum from 9th century bones to 21st century bottle tops over the five days on the hillside in parkland overlooking the town of Bray.
The man in charge promised a full report on the findings will be produced before the end of the year and precise dating will be carried out on some of the older finds. The items discovered will also be recorded in the form of drawings created by a specialist archaeological illustrator.
'That's us done for the year in terms of field work,' concluded the archaeologist. 'Though we may get to look at the motte in Powerscourt, we won't be digging there.'
He explained that the aim of the Medieval Project is to build up an appreciation of mediaeval sites in the area, with an emphasis on practical work rather than highbrow study.
Looking down from Bray Head, the town with its Promenade, its busy streets and its vast areas of houses is relentlessly modern and urban in its appearance.
However, the church which was the focus of activity this summer is a reminder of a time when the population was much smaller and farming was to the fore.
The records show that the land around here was granted to the Anglo-Norman soldier Walter de Ridelsford in 1173.
The bold Walter was in the good books of Henry the Second for his military contribution to the invasion of Ireland and he also held land at Castledermot in County Kildare.
The Bray property remained in Ridelsford hands for a little more than a century before reverting to ownership of the king of England. It eventually ended up in the vast holding of the Brabazons family of Kilruddery in 1666 having been in religious hands for most of the intervening four centuries.
The church is largely of 14th century construction, erected for the friary of the Augustinian Hermits of Dublin at the heart of their lucrative grain growing business. The building includes a stone-framed window which appears to be of an earlier style, an indication that the Augustinians may not have been the first to build here.
The name Raithín na Chluig seems to mean 'small enclosure or enclave of the bell' and limerick's Hunt Museum has a 9th century bronze bell with Bray connections in its collection. Nevertheless, academics suspect that the name may actually be a corruption of an Irish phrase meaning 'small enclosure or enclave of the little rounded hill' which tallies with the lie of the land.
The decision to focus attention the Raheen was taken after a geophysical examination of the terrain suggested that items of interest might be waiting below the surface. Geophysics involves passing an electric current through the ground, without any need to disturb the soil before the hard work begins.
This summer was the second time that the earth around the church was explored by the supervised volunteers from the Medieval Bray Project. In 2017, they concentrated their efforts on a patch of ground on the north side of the church.
It was here that they found evidence that people used to ramble on the open country around Bray Head in Victorian times and stop for picnics.
The excavations there uncovered various bits and pieces associated with the medieval era too, a haul which included pieces of pottery, roof tiles and a variety of metal nails. The team also recovered three clay pipe bowls, all discarded or abandoned by smokers who puffed their tobacco in the 17th century.
The Heritage Week activity is supported by Wicklow County Council and by a grant from Creative Ireland. The volunteers who rolled up their sleeves in 2018 to spend time at Raithín na Chluig realised that this is not a location likely to yield riches on the scale of Tutankhamun's tomb.
'We did get some 18th century pottery yesterday but no huge discoveries as yet,' said Alan Edge from Shankill, taking a brief break from his digging.
'It is a slow process but enjoyable none the less. David McIlreavy is a very knowledgeable guy.'
Quite correct - the director of operations holds a master's degree in archaeology from Queen's University in Belfast
A few metres away, Medieval Project treasurer Therese Hicks had the pleasure of turning up a coin bearing the date 1916 which she pulled from a heap of soil.
'This is my first time using a metal detector,' said Therese, a native of Philadelphia in the United States who has been resident in Bray since 1998. 'I have been interested in archaeology and history since I was in high school. Community archaeology is great. It's people taking ownership of their heritage and being aware of their history and of who they are.'
Fellow volunteer Gerry Morgan pointed to a pile of golf balls which had come to light during the early stages of the excavations. The old Maxflis and Dunlops were a reminder of the par three course which used to bring people to this field not so long ago.
Gerry described himself as foot soldier rather than a general, drawn to add his muscle power to the dig by his interest in local history. He noted how periwinkle shells, discarded during Victorian era picnics, had come to light as well as the golf balls. He was realistic about what could be achieved: 'Special finds are rare but the ordinary things tell the story too.'
David McIlreavy suggested that the church, located well away from the main town surely never functioned as a centre of parish worship. Though it had an altar where prayers were said, it most likely it provided accommodation for a priest who was as much an estate manager as a minister of religion.
He directed the work of the families who laboured on the farm and who almost certainly lived in the area excavated this year close by the church walls. David was very favourable impressed by the effort put in by the volunteers who shifted considerable quantities of earth in order to delve into the past.
'It is a lot of blood, sweat and tears getting down to those levels,' he commented.
As a professional archaeologist - an Ulster native resident in Kilcoole - he spends much of his working life on building sites in Dublin. However, he is happy to devote his vacation to a busman's holiday with trowel and spade in Bray, soaking up the enthusiasm of his once-a-year assistants.
'The more the community knows about these things, the more they will protect them,' he commented at the end of the exercise. 'Community archaeology is picking up in Ireland.'
He stressed that the dig was properly licensed by the authorities as required by the law which also insists that any excavation is professionally supervised. Most of the work in this case was carried out with trowels, spades and what he called mattocks, which look to the lay eye very much like pick-axes.
The team worked their way through the bracken, brambles and dirt to a depth of no more than 40 centimetres to find what was left behind by the medieval inhabitants of the area.
The landmark roofless church with its walls of rough-hewn stones is a reminder to those who are in the know of times long past.
Medieval Bray Project intends to ensure that more people realise the wealth of heritage at the site, not only with the annual invitation to pick up a spade. The members of the organisation established in 2015 believe that signs explaining the significance of the ruins on the hillside above the town should be installed.
The project usually convenes once a month throughout the year to discuss their approach to research as well as plotting fieldwork and visits to sites of interest.
The medieval era came to an end in the mid-1500s when the population settled in Bray must have been sparse by current standards.
Raithín na Chluig is one obvious reminder of the bygone but there are others. The town has an old medieval tower house, a fortified family castle, which is in private ownership. The route followed by the modern Dublin road is believed to match that taken when the Augustinians grew their corn on Bray Head. And 13th century wooden struts came to light during the recent Dargle drainage works.
All of this suggests that the Medieval Bray Project will have scope for plenty more excavation and research into the future.