Digging on Bofin

I’ve always been attracted to working on islands. Maybe it’s something deeply buried in my fractured psychological profile, an idea that you can actually come from some place easily circumnavigable over a few hours, with strict boundaries imposed by the sea and the tides. Maybe it’s an already doomed-to-failure attempt to supplant one familiar world with another, a world enriched with limited mobile phone coverage and a proper disregard for the Intoxicating Liquor Act. Maybe it’s to do with the very first excavation I took a wage from, on a tiny island in Lough Erne, a dig which more or less set me on the indigent rutted path I’ve followed ever since. But less please of the languid inland waterways and bogs, it’s the islands off the west coast I’m particularly attracted to and the ever-changing seas that surround them in a complex holding pattern, one both nurturing and oppressive. I’ve added another island to the list this summer, directing a 12-day stint on the eastern shoreline of Inishbofin in Galway and this time around I left the tent in the shed and was superbly accommodated in Murray’s hotel on the coast at Fawnmore, about an hour’s walk away from the site at the Portíns.


The dig was funded by the University of Notre Dame. I’d worked with them last year on neighbouring Inishark and compiled a ceramics report of an assemblage remarkable for the amount of Spongewares recovered, pottery brought back to the island by seasonal tattie-howkers from the Scottish harvests. Unlike the vast bulk of the work I undertake, designed to facilitate the rich becoming richer, the Bofin dig was conceived as a community archaeology event, where the entire population of the local national school joined us for several days of excavation in their lime green tee-shirts especially designed for the occasion. This was an entirely positive experience, doubtless helped along by the glorious weather, but I think the kids got as much out of their participation as we did. They certainly contributed to the several spoil heaps ringing the site, peat-brown tumuli against the blue-grey of the surrounding stone walls, the bases of which spilled beyond the plastic sheeting carefully placed to contain their volume. The cairns of smaller stones were assembled by the archaeologists, with larger boulders rolled away from the baulks on timber fencing posts, recalling what must have happened in the past. We were joined in our endeavours by other local people and a few tourists who’d heard about the dig and were willing to enjoy a few hours at the end of a Marshalstown trowel. They were set with the task of looking for the primary floor levels of the two structures chosen for excavation, and this they did, unencumbered with the digger’s jaded ennui of finding yet another sherd of refined whiteware.


The crew comprised Ian Kuijt and his wife Meredith Chesson, along with several of their students from ND, most of whom were veterans of Ian’s previous investigations in the area as part of the CLIC (Cultural Landscapes of the Irish Coast) project. Two ND undergraduates were part of the team, along with several post-graduates who’d gone on to pursue their studies in other schools across the States. Katie Shakour gamely undertook initiating the many visitors to the complexities of the site, where the recording and drawing were managed by Meagan Conway, assisted by Lauren Couey. Lauren uncomplainingly ranged around the walls of the houses bagging the finds as they came up out of the ground with an enthusiasm well beyond the call of duty.


Unlike other of their compatriots I’ve worked with in the past, the crew melded with the local community to the extent that Ian and Meredith’s daughter Kat has spent the past few weeks attending the local two-teacher school. The rest of them have spent the past few weeks attending evening extra-murals at Murray’s bar, a place where intelligent conversations can be had covering topics as wide-ranging as Judith Butler on Hagel, problems of historical cartography, the theatre that is the League of Ireland, contemporary electronic music and the life cycle of the corncrake.

On the latter, there appear to be at least 16 on the island this summer, the most recorded since 1972. They were heard to good effect last Sunday evening as people travelled around the island to the various bonfires lit for St. John’s Eve. This was a beautiful still night, lit by the full moon and the flames leaping from three of the high points along the island. High Island (another previous haunt of mine) and the Aughris peninsula stood out on the southern horizon, the latter crowned by another, less-impressive bonfire. From the heights at Fawnmore we could see the lighthouse on Slyne Head wink back at the beacon at the mouth of Bofin harbour, with the stunted gables of Cromwell’s Barracks leaving a serrated edge to the moonlight on the sea behind. When we lit the John’s Eve bonfire on High several years ago, we counted over 40 fires extending from Slyne to the south, northwards to Achill and Inishturk. There seemed to be fewer this year, but events on Bofin kicked off a bit later than on the mainland and we possibly missed the initial mainland conflagrations ensconced as we were in Murray’s enjoying the session. As I walked through Middlequarter early in the morning with one of the visiting volunteers, our quiet conversation was silenced by the smoke still lying low in the valley west of the lake, drifting over the sleeping sheep and soundtracked by the minimalist techno of two corncrakes in the long grass behind King’s house.

The night before saw the 80th birthday of Margaret Murray, chatelaine of the Doonmore Hotel, where the post-excavation ‘lab’ – the function room at the back of the hotel – accommodated most of the islanders invited to the party, along with the ND crew and some random visitors. This went on until 6.00 and was recorded in the lens of Marie Coyne who runs the local museum at the top of the old pier. You can see her photographs of the evening here https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.482585521834835.1073741860.137473309679393&type=1

Marie has assembled some striking images with her camera over the past number of years, documenting daily life on the island and paying meticulous attention to the material culture of the houses now abandoned, structures which still hold the possessions echoing the presence of their former occupants. But what of those structures left longer abandoned on the southeastern periphery of the island, houses whose occupants are nameless and unrecorded?

Tommy Burke, a Fawnmore man studying archaeology in Galway, had previously identified the footprints of the buildings at the Portíns, an area just south of and uphill from the isthmus connecting Bofin with Inishlyon. Jumping out of the minibus at the side of the road, we walked to site each morning along the machair behind the beach at Dumhach and along a clear path carved out of the rocky shoreline to the houses by the Congested Districts Board. These presented on the landscape as large rectangular spaces, their stone boundaries peeking out of the sod along several of the small valleys dropping to the sea from Knock hill. The settlement would have been the first port of call on the island when coming in from Cleggan, and three beach-pebble coves between the low cliffs would easily have accommodated the currachs used for fishing and generally getting around the coast. The houses were more of less gone by the publication of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey in 1838, however they were depicted c. 1816 to an acceptable spatial accuracy on Bald’s map of Mayo. They don’t appear on Murdoch Mackenzie’s sea chart of 1775, but it is likely the houses were only visible from the ocean when tacking close to the rocks west of Inishlyon and you can’t blame him for keeping his ship well out to sea, given the prevailing southwesterly winds.


Ian commissioned a survey of the area from an old colleague of mine, Liam Murphy of Coastway, whose team produced an amazing image from a combination of the usual survey and terrestrial LiDAR. On a good day a few weeks ago, they flew a small drone over the site and the combination of all three techniques supplied an image sufficiently accurate to blow up to 1/20, from which we could trace on the upstanding walls and use as a base drawing for the trenches we opened across the area. I’m swooping over the unexcavated site now at my desk in a cramped untidy office on the other side of the country, a giddy seagull’s view which picks up the contours of the lazy beds in the surrounding infields and the stone boundary walls built by the Congested Districts Board quite soon after the publication of the 25” map in 1912.

I was initially taken by the proximity of St. Coleman’s monastery in the valley back to the northwest and the apparent lack of associated structures around the medieval church. The settlement at the Portíns appeared an obvious candidate to house a medieval population and became even more so as we excavated the interiors and recorded the massive boulders hewn out of the landscape to shape their foundations. They seemed to my mind similar to the large rectangular medieval structures excavated by Alan Hayden on Bray Head in Valentia Island and I’m afraid I had the crew convinced that we were about to intrude into the fourteenth century, when events would show that we were exactly where we thought we were in time and space.


The first surprise was the appearance of a spearhead from prehistory, preserved in the collapsed masonry of the upper of the two houses we investigated. This was presumably dug up with the sods that formed the superstructure of the structures and had fallen in the rubble after abandonment, to be carefully recovered years later by a recent archaeology graduate who’d volunteered a few days before taking an unpaid internship in a local authority heritage office. As we continued down through the layers and structures, we recorded how the stream running off the hill was accommodated across the site in zig-zagging drains and through the interior layout of the spaces, their upper stone courses robbed out by those paid by the yard to construct the surrounding stone boundary walls in the early twentieth century.

The recovery of some Creamware under an interior paving slab, resting on a prepared surface over the subsoil, suggested that the houses were indeed from the late eighteenth century; however it was evident that this was inconsequential and completely irrelevant to those who came around to enjoy the banter, the muck and the ever changing vistas back across the sea to Ballinakill Harbour and to the Twelve Bens defining the eastern horizon. The crack on site was good. I’d realised that when standing in my own trench linking the two houses, I had a plausible mobile signal providing an unwelcome connection to events unfolding at the other side of the country. My ‘business dealings’ were being overheard by the crew who delighted in such advice proffered as ‘softly softly catchee monkey’ and ‘tell them I’m in the fucking hospital’, giving a skewed though enjoyable insight into the life of someone trying to make a living out of this type of work in another economy…

Doing this type of archaeology has other benefits in the wider scheme of things. We had several conversations about mortair, the preparation of bedrock chippings and clay with sand and lime, used as a binding agent similar to the way the dóib bhuí is used in east Clare. We could appreciate the fundamental beauty of the place in all weathers: it wasn’t always sub-tropical and the rain, when it came, rendered my Gortex jacket about as useful as old newsprint. We understood both the attraction of living on the island and the reality of extracting something of a hard living from the place, providing perhaps a more nuanced link with an undefinable past. For cultural landscapes are understood here not as remnants of a half-forgotten past, but as something as alive today as the battered vehicles that get you from a to b when the occasion warrants, events evoked at boisterous parties for 80 year olds, discussed around mid-summer bonfires on the island’s hilltops and in hushed conversations along the roadside at one o’clock in the morning. Here the past isn’t the past at all, but an on-going present where the future is but an occasional abstraction.

Yet this is not to romanticise the place. As I watched the island minibus being lifted onto the weekly cargo ferry for mechanical attention on the mainland, it was not difficult to see something of the limitations of living in a place such as Bofin, where most of the money is made in the summer months of the tourist season. As I came back on the ferry to Cleggan I was chatting to a friend I’d made on the island, a marine biologist working on another internship with a mainland institute whose Swiss boyfriend lives beside the lake which gives the island its name. As we watched Bofin recede in the wake of the ferry around Cleggan Head, we wondered if our cars had survived the few days left on the quayside behind Oliver’s. We’d been talking about our chances of making a living on the island but framed completely in an abstract language, as a notional contribution to an already vibrant society of free-thinkers, one perhaps more welcoming and open as any of the communities I’ve worked with beyond the mountains to the east. We both reckoned we wouldn’t hack it as we got into our cars for the long trip back to our real lives. I imagine though we’ll probably talk about it again in Murray’s before the summer’s out.


One response to “Digging on Bofin

  1. Wonderful! i really enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing!

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