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Laurence Dunne Archaeology,
3, Lios na Lohart, Ballyvelly,
Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland

Sep 27, 2014

Monitoring of works at Dunbeg Coastal Promontory Fort, Dingle Peninsula - September 2014

Monitoring of works at Dunbeg Coastal Promontory Fort, Dingle Peninsula - September 2014

Dunbeg fort was reopened to the public yesterday afternoon seven months after a large section of it collapsed into the sea during very severe storms this past winter. Since at least 1841 when the first mapping was undertaken, Dunbeg has been gradually destroyed by the sea. However last winter’s storms were the worst on record resulting in a massive collapse that has necessitated the permanent closing of the original entranceway through the stone rampart. Visitors are now redirected by a new fence to the left or southeast on approach to gain access to the interior.

Dunbeg, Dún Beag, is an iconic coastal promontory fort situated in a dramatic sea-girt location on the cliffs Chorca Dhuibhne on the south side of the Dingle Peninsula. It is one of around twenty on the peninsula out of a total of approximately two hundred recorded in Ireland.

As the name indicates these monuments comprise linear fortifications constructed with earth and stone across the landward approach to the promontory with steep cliffs providing the remaining natural defences. The fortifications include combinations of earthen banks, fosses (ditches) and stone ramparts that extend across the necks of the promontory. A causeway usually extends across the defences to the entrance. Hutsites (clocháns) are frequently present and in some instances souterrains are also found in the interior reflecting the occupation or settlement of the sites.

In some instances, i.e. at Dún Uí Mhaoláin in Ventry Harbour the defences consist of just a single bank and fosse while others, including Dunbeg have complex multiple vallations.The most visually spectacular is Dún Easc situated close to Dingle in the townland of Ballymacadoyle. The largest by far is the Dún Mór in Coumeenole North on the most westerly tip of the Dingle Peninsula. Although Dunmore encloses over 80 acres (32ha) its fortifications that extend across the headland for circa 500m are very insubstantial. This defensively impractical structure most likely is ritual in nature in that its defences demarcate sacred space dedicated to the tutelary goddess Dhuibhne (Dovinnias). In that context dramatically situated at the summit of the headland is a very fine ogham stone inscribed with her name.

These wonderfully situated sites are somewhat of an archaeological conundrum for a number of reasons. The largely accepted defensive nature of these sites is not supported by the dearth of occupation evidence from excavated examples. Indeed results indicate that settlement was of a short duration while radiocarbon dates appear to generally support an early medieval milieu coeval with cahers and ringforts. Irish coastal promontory forts share similar morphological similarities to Breton and Cornish sites that have been associated with the Veneti and consequently Irish sites have traditionally been attributed to the Iron Age. The reality is that only one radiocarbon date from the Iron Age has been recorded in Ireland and this was obtained from Dunbeg. However, caution must be exercised here as the date was recovered from an earlier fosse situated abutting the interior of the stone rampart and whose nature and extent were not determined.Coastal promontory forts were often re-occupied and re-fortified in the high medieval period with the construction of tower houses on the interior i.e. at Ferriter’s Cove near Ballyferriter.

 Dunbeg has been a National Monument since 1892 and has enjoyed quite an amount of attention from scholars and antiquarians since the mid-19th century.In 1977 it was extensively excavated by Terry Barry over three months. Since that time it has become a visitor centre with car-parking, audio visual centre and restaurant provided by the local landowner and from which a short pathway extends downslope to the cliff edge site.

Dunbeg has suffered seasonal collapse from intense coastal erosion over many years. Cartographic evidence indicates that possibly as much as 50% of the site, mostly of the western limits of the monument, has fallen into the sea. A generation ago the OPW erected a protective fence as well as a wooden support frame through the entrance of the stone rampart. Last winter's storms were particularly violent resulting in the collapse of a large section of the fort. Access through the original entranceway of the stone rampart is now permanently closed off as the recent collapse has now extended as far as the inside of the entranceway. After the recent collapse the monument was temporarily closed off to the public by the OPW.

Re-fencing works have just been completed and the site has now been reopened to the public. Monitoring of the new fence works was undertaken by Laurence Dunne Archaeology who also supervised minor remedial conservation works to sections of the earthen ramparts that have suffered from visitor stress as well as slumping to some sections of the 1977 excavations. A report on the results will be submitted to the OPW and the National Monuments Service.