Drumholm's Monastic Mystery

Image of a man kneeling by an excavated area with tools littered around
Micheál Ó Droma

In August of 2013, a field beside a churchyard in Drumholm became the site of a major Irish archaeological discovery.  The remains of a 1300 year old monastery and its surrounding settlement were found.  So significant was the find that it was immediately put on par with the more famous settlements, such as Clonmacnoise or Inishmurray.

Brothers Micheál and Conor Ó Droma of Wolfhound Archaeology are natives of County Cavan and graduates of UCD.  Micheál has been working in Archaeology since graduating in 1999 and is Director of Wolfhound Archaeology, a Wexford based firm providing nationwide Archaeology, Heritage and Planning Consultancy services.  Conor works part time in archaeology and is currently also studying Irish in Belfast.  Micheál who has worked on a wide range of sites across the island of Ireland describes the find in Drumhome as “one of those once in a career sites."

The Ó Dromas were commissioned by the parishioners to survey the one-acre plot as part of a planning application for a car park and cemetery extension.  "This site beside the old church and graveyard dates back 1,300 years and we know from previous discoveries in the area that there has been human activity going back to at least 5800 BC," he said

"It’s rare to dig so little and for a site to reveal its story so clearly.  The quality of the geophysical survey provided by Earthsound Ltd as well as the range of finds from the test trenching at the site means that we are able to reconstruct the original layout of the monastic enclosure and have a pretty good understanding of how it developed over several centuries.  The enclosure and the structures inside it have strong parallels with a number of other Early Medieval monastic enclosures".  Five trenches were dug in the area outside the enclosure, where the survey had identified a smaller number of fainter anomalies. This revealed the foundations of several dry stone structures, pits and ditches containing medieval pottery (both Gaelic and Norman), as well as other refuse that shed light on various aspects of life in the monastic community.

Large amounts of butchered animal bone and marine mollusc shells indicate that their meals contained a lot of beef and shellfish, while a large pit filled with metalworking slag, and a deposit of discarded cut red deer antler tines point towards industrial activities taking place on the site.  The evidence suggests that domestic and industrial activities were taking place outside a core ecclesiastical zone defined by the enclosure ditch.

"It’s been a privilege to work on such an important site.  It has the potential to add so much to our understanding of life in Early Medieval Ireland and Donegal.  It’s a beautiful part of the country to work in too.  Post-excavation works are underway and the results promise to be very exciting.  It is hoped that the site will now be reclassified as a National Monument in accordance with its importance."

Micheál adds, “The support of Drumholm Select Vestry (who funded the archaeological investigations) should be acknowledged, particularly in light of the fact that unfortunately they will not be able to proceed with the development due to the extent and nature of the remains identified”.  The details of the story behind the people who lived here have yet to be put together.  So until all the pieces have been carefully analyzed the mystery will remain....