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Ó Murchú, Séamus

The Blackstairs Mountains, South East Ireland; Investigating the Archaeological Potential of an Understudied Upland Landscape

PhD Candidate:Séamus Ó Murchú
Supervisor: Dr Rob Sands
Funded By: (opens in a new window)Achaeolandscapes Europe



The aim of this project is to better understand the archaeology of the selected upland landscapes in Ireland through the use of remote sensing techniques and the involvement of local communities in the recording and interpretative process. The project is funded and facilitated by the Archaeolandscapes Europe Network (http://www.archaeolandscapes.eu/) which aims to promote the use of remote sensing across Europe and disseminate information on techniques and results to a wider academic and public audience.


Although Irish uplands have received greater archaeological attention in recent years they remain relatively unexplored archaeologically. The number of small and large scale projects which have been conducted in the Irish uplands are few and far between in comparison to those conducted in Britain or on the European mainland. This in part has to do with the amount of land which is considered upland. For example only 5% of the island of Ireland rises above 300m (Stelfox 1996, 18) in comparison to Wales where 39% of the country is considered upland (Darvill 1986, 4). As a natural barrier to infrastructure, the Irish uplands missed out on the pre-development investigations of the Celtic Tiger era. Along with this, the Irish uplands did not receive the same agricultural intensification in the 1980’s as the British uplands which led to a boom in archaeological research there (RCAHMW 2003, 5). This has led many mountainous areas in Ireland to become overgrown with wild plants such as heather with small scale sheep grazing doing little to control this overgrowth except during periods of burning. Another contributing factor is that Coillte own about 1 million acres (7% of the total land mass of Ireland) much of which is in the uplands (see (opens in a new window)Coillte web site). This would inhibit some archaeological research especially when the land is planted. This lack of visibility combined with a marginal outlook on the uplands today has led to the widespread avoidance of these areas in terms of archaeological research in comparison to the seemingly richer lowlands.

Despite these difficulties a number of successful and influential projects have been undertaken in recent years in Ireland. For example, Dr Stefan Bergh, NUI Galway, has had a long standing interest in the prehistory of upland landscapes, publishing on Knocknarea and the Cúil Írra Peninsula, Co. Sligo (2002). Other published work on upland regions in Ireland include, amongst a multitude of others, Professor William O’Brien’s (UCC) work on the Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork (2009), the Monavullagh Mountains, Co. Waterford by Michael Moore (1995), Slieve Donard, Co. Down by Sam Moore, IT Sligo (2012) and the Ballyhoura Hills by Martin Doody (2008). Postgraduate research has also been conducted on this topic such as Andrew Whitefield’s PhD investigating a number of upland landscapes in the West and Teresa McDonald’s (NUIG) and Noel McCarthy’s PhD (NUIG) research on Achill Island, Co. Mayo and Slieve Gamph, Co. Sligo respectively. Other ongoing research into upland areas conducted in NUI Galway includes Michelle Comber’s research on the Beara Peninsula, Co, Cork and Richard Clutterbuck’s PhD research on the Slieveardagh Hills, Co. Kilkenny. Research from UCD includes PhD research by Kim Rice on the Dublin/ Wicklow Mountains and Christian Grant on the Burren, Co. Clare. These have been completed using a variety of methods including field survey, excavation and paleoenvironmental techniques. This project will add to this growing field of research in Ireland. Remote sensing techniques such as aerial photography, LiDAR and satellite imagery, allow the archaeologist to gain a better glimpse of subtle changes in topography and even to see beneath overlying vegetation. Similarly, people who use these landscapes continually have built up an understanding and knowledge of the fabric of these areas which would take years of research to match. This project will make use of these resources which are underused in upland contexts to better understand the nature of human activity in the Irish uplands.

This research project will explicitly examine selected, under explored, upland landscape areas in Ireland for archaeological potential. Two case study areas have been selected to meet the aims of the project, The Blackstairs Mountains in Counties Carlow, Wexford and Kilkenny and The South Dublin/ North Wicklow Mountains. It is deliberately, and perhaps inevitably, multi-period in outlook treating the study areas in a holistic manner. The singling out of the uplands provides a convenient framework for approaching issues such as preservation and analysis (Coyne 2006, 9) but it also has many flaws. It can give the impression that people who used the uplands in the past had a different identity to people who used the lowlands and it implies a consistency of perception about upland areas over time. By looking at human upland activity in the recent past, it is clear that the use of elevated zones was intrinsically linked to the use of surrounding and distant lowlands.  Booleying or transhumance, which was still practiced in many parts of Ireland until a few decades ago, is the best example of this. Therefore, to understand human use of the uplands, this project will contextualise the upland evidence within a broader landscape view.

The significance of this project is multi-faceted. It will critically assess the application of remote sensing techniques in upland landscapes which can vary from thick heather to blanket bog to bare bedrock. It will also characterise the archaeology in the chosen upland zone. This includes desk based historic landscape characterisation and an investigation of local knowledge and attitudes to the environments under examination. A more up-to-date Sites and Monuments Record for the counties of the chosen study areas will be created. A significant element of the project will include the application of a Citizen Science program. Local clubs, communities and landowners such as Hill-walking clubs are continually using these landscapes for recreational and economic purposes. This project will encourage these groups to get involved in the process of recording and identification of archaeological features in the landscapes they enjoy. It will also assess the existing approaches and best practice to upland landscapes facilitated through the Archaeolandscapes Network. 


Bergh, S. 2002 "Knockanarea- the ultimate monument. Megaliths and mountains in Neolithic Cúil Irra, north west Ireland". In C. Scarre (ed.) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe. London; Routledge, 139-151.

Coyne, F. 2006 Islands in the Clouds; An Upland Archaeological Study on Mount Brandon and the Paps, County Kerry. Kerry; Kerry County Council.

Doody, M. 2008 The Ballyhoura Hills Project. Wicklow; Wordwell Press

Darvill, T. 1986 The Archaeology of the Uplands; a rapid reassessment of archaeological knowledge and practice. London; the Council for British Archaeology.

Moore, M.J. 1995 "A Bronze Age settlement and ritual centre in the Monavullagh Mountains, Co. Waterford Ireland." In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 61. Pp 191-243.

O’Brien, W. 2009 Local Worlds: Early settlement landscapes and upland farming in south-west Ireland. Cork; The Collins Press.

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