Exploring the Medieval literature and related archaeology of Connacht

Research Rathcroghan Aerial Photo (cropped)

The Connacht Project is an interdisciplinary research initiative under the direction of Professor Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, School of Humanities, investigating aspects of the early Irish literary evidence relating to the ancient province of Connacht. This extraordinarily rich body of material includes extensive tales such as Acallam na Senórach, the ‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ (dealing with the exploits of the legendary Fionn mac Cumaill and others) and the Táin Bó Cuailgne, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ (that great epic of the Ulster Cycle), as well as Patrician texts and Bardic poetry.

The archaeological component of this project addresses a number of sites and monuments where myth, history and archaeology converge. These include the study of the ringfort and mound at Rathbrennan, near Roscommon, where according to Acallam na Senórach, Patrick, met the warrior Caílte and the king of Connacht, the study of elements of the archaeology of the royal site of Crúachain (Rathcroghan), Co. Roscommon, where the Táin Bó Cuailgne began, and the archaeology of Cloonfree, a moated site near Strokestown, celebrated as a royal settlement of the 14th century in Bardic poetry.

 Research Connacht Project Rathbrennan mound

The mound in the fort of Rathbrennan where Patrick is said to have met the king of Connacht and Cailte, the nephew of Fionn mac Cumaill.

Research Connacht Project Rathbrennan

Computer-generated topographical map of Rathbrennan conjoined earthworks, Co. Roscommon.

Rathbrennan consists of a pair of imposing conjoined ringforts near the summit of a hill just east of Roscommon town and has a circular mound in the interior and near the rampart of the easternmost example. It is the subject of a programme of detailed topographical survey. A preliminary plan clearly shows the location of the mound near the rampart and the puzzling fore-works that mark the entrance to this monument (Professor John Waddell and Joseph Fenwick).

Research Connacht Project Mucklaghs

According to legend, the Mucklaghs in Rathcroghan were named because they were believed to be the result of the rootings of a magical boar.

The area of the great ceremonial earthworks known as the Mucklaghs in Rathcroghan is being geophysically surveyed to see if there are traces of other archaeological monuments in the immediate vicinity of these enigmatic monuments. These are two very large linear earthworks each formed by a curving set of parallel banks varying in length from about 100m to 285m (Professor John Waddell, Dr Roseanne Schot and Dr Gerard Dowling).

A continued programme of Archaeological investigations were conducted in the vicinity of Rathcroghan Mound and at Cashelmanannan in 2012 ( Waddell, Schot & Fenwick, 2012).

In addition, two ArchaeoGeophysical Field Schools, part of a collaborative initiative between Archaeology, School of Geography and Archaeology, and the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, NUI Galway, were conducted in July of 2013 and 2014.

Research Rathcroghan Mound Aerial Photo Research Rathcroghan Mound UAV topographical image Research Rathcroghan Northern Enclosure magnetometry 

Rathcroghan Mound viewed from the east
(kite aerial photograph: Joe Fenwick - 2016)

3D topographical model of Rathcroghan Mound and environs
(UAV survey by Dr Paul Naessens, Western Aerial Surveys - 2016)

 Detailed magnetometer survey of 
Rathcroghan's 'northern enclosure' - c. 26m in diameter (Joe Fenwick 2014).

Rathcroghan Reconstruction Drawing 2015 large
Copyright: Roscommon County Council and JG O'Donoghue

A conjectural reconstruction of Rathcroghan Mound, by J.G. O’Donoghue (Archaeological Illustrator) in collaboration with Joe Fenwick (Archaeological Field Officer, NUI Galway), as it might have looked during the Later Iron Age, some 2000 years ago.
This visualisation is based on an interpretation of the archaeological and geophysical surveys undertaken by the ArchaeoGeophysical Imaging Project and the School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway.
(©J.G. O’Donoghue / Roscommon County Council 2015)

Thanks to Howard Goldbaum, a virtual tour of some of the monuments at Rathcroghan is available at: http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/rathcroghan/

Research Connacht Project Cloonfree
The moated site at Cloonfree near Strokestown is heavily obscured by trees today.

The royal settlement at Cloonfree is the subject of several Bardic praise-poems. It is a large sub-rectangular enclosure, a Gaelic version of an Anglo-Norman fortification. According to the literary evidence it was a royal residence around 1300 AD with an impressive feasting hall. The remains of this ‘shapely fort with burnished doors’ have been surveyed by the Discovery Programme and more extensive investigation of the Cloonfree landscape is proposed (Dr Kieran O’Conor).


Kieran O'Conor 2002 (with T. Finan), The moated site at Cloonfree, Co. Roscommon, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 54, 72-87.

Kieran O'Conor 2008 (with M. Murphy) Roscommon Castle - A Visitor's Guide. Roscommon.

John Waddell 2009 (with J. Fenwick and K. Barton), Rathcroghan Co. Roscommon: Archaeological and Geophysical Survey in a Ritual Landscape. 249 pp. Wordwell, Dublin. 

John Waddell 2009 Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon - where the Táin Bó Cúailnge began.  Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 44, Wordwell, Dublin.

John Waddell 2011 Continuity, cult and contest. In R. Schot, C. Newman and E. Bhreathnach (eds), Landscapes of Cult and Kingship, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 192-212.  A proof copy of this article is available on-line through the National University of Ireland Galway's library web site (in ARAN).

Kieran O'Conor 2013 (with B. Shanahan) Roscommon Abbey - A Visitor's Guide. Roscommon.

John Waddell 2014 The cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld. In J. Borsje, A. Dooley, S. Mac Mathúna and G. Toner (eds), Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld, 77-92. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto 2014. A proof copy of this article is available on-line through the National University of Ireland Galway's library web site (in ARAN).

John Waddell 2014  Archaeology and Celtic Myth. 203pp. Four Courts Press, Dublin.

Schot, R., Waddell, J. & Fenwick, J. 2016 Geophysical survey at Rathcroghan 2010-2012, Emania 23, 51-59.

Fenwick, J. (forthcoming) The Late Prehistoric ‘royal site’ of Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon; an enduring paradigm of enclosed sacred space. Emania 24 (2017).