Dowth: The Botched Excavations of 1847-48

Dowth: The Botched Excavations of 1847-48

An "excavation" of Dowth was carried out by the Royal Irish Academy in the summers of 1847 and 1848. However, this excavation was, in effect, a plundering expedition which caused extensive damage to the prehistoric site. The roof slabs of the northern passage were lifted, while the ceiling of Dowth's southern chamber was damaged. There is a huge crater in the top of the mound as a result of this foray. The following commentary was published in the Drogheda Conservative newspaper on 5th July 1856 and points out the unbelievable damage done by the RIA during their work at Dowth, led by R.H.Firth.

The land-marks of Irish history which give us a glimpse of the sublime days that are over are fast fading from the antiquarian's view. The sculptured cross, which withstood the winter tempests of twelve hundred years, is broken or placed as a headstone over some peasant's grave.

The Clogtheach and Monastery are falling into shapeless masses, which a few pounds would have repaired; the Anglo Norman Keeps, and strongholds of our Chieftains share the same fate. With regret we must utter the words of Davis- "Who can look upon our shattered monuments of Jerpoint and Mellifont, and not think that a double barbarism, (that of the people and that of their oppressors) has been upon Ireland?

But what is our astonishment, when we see far dearer remains than even these torn, atom by atom, assunder by the committee of Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy; the men we would have supposed, particularly bound to preserve Irish relics. Let us go to that picturesque valley, which we have no hesitation in saying, since the light which has recently been thrown upon Irish history, is the resting ground of Duagda, where by far the most extensive and celebrated of all Irish cemeteries stands; that denominated Brugh na Boinne, and there see what the preservers of antiquities have done, on that delightful spot called Netterville, beneath which the Boyne rolls sluggishly winding like a vast serpent, kissing listlessly, a beautiful enamelled margin; there, some years ago, stood quite perfect the ponderous cairn of the Tuatha Danann Kings (Dowth Moat), but we find that beatiful tumulus literally torn to pieces. Its stones barrowed out as if it were to facilitate the dissoluting propensities of road contractors.

The crater in Dowth left behind by the disastrous 1840s excavations.

This sepulchre of Boadan, the shepherd of Elcmar over Dubhad (Dowth) was rifled by the plundering Northmen A.D., 862. But the barbarian followers of Amlaff Imar, and Amsle although they rifled yet forbore destroying that pyramidal landmark of history and civilization, which the refined antiquarians of the nineteenth century ruthlessly pulled down.

It is quite evident that this examination, and excavation, and despollation, was caused by mere curiosity; for who that is a lover of Ireland's antiquities would leave Dowth Moat as it now stands, after getting permission to excavate and upset it. I am informed by good authority, that the trustees of the Netterville bequest, when they permitted the works to be carried on, were under the impression that the stones which *o*med this interesting mound would be replaced in their original position, and that if they expected it would have been left in the disgraceful position it now stands in, they would never have allowed the Dublin antiquarians to disturb it.

There is a legend told of an old piper, who entered this vast monument about a century ago, with a party of young men and women, on an exploring excursion. I suppose "Darby the Blast" was a bit of a virtuoso. Well, 'twas a fine summer's morning in the month of July, and Darby entered first playing his most sprightly tune, "the humours of Glynn" with variations. But poor Darby and his friends were doomed never to return, but the people heard from them, for the old piper was heard busily playing under ground at Stanleon, a hill on the opposite side of the river.- Probably that was Darby's last tune, for from that day to this he has never been heard of.

The traveller must think what a pity it was that the demolishers of this great catacomb did not at their first examination when they entered its Kistvaens, share the fate of Darby and his companions. It is to be regretted that a society which has done so much good with the miserable pittance of £300 a year from Government, in collecting and preserving interesting national antiquities and filling the museum with choice collections, should be the destroyer of a gigantic relic of druidical times, a monument of our old nationality which speaks of power, arts and religion.

The huge crater in the top of the cairn is a reminder of the destruction of the excavation.

It is not surprising that an Englishman, who a few years ago purchased an estate contiguous to this mound, destroying some of the colossean stones, one of which stood sixteen feet high forming a circle at Cloglea; the supposed remains of a greater pyramid than that at Newgrange, when he had such an example before him, as the ruins of Dowth Moat.-

While the governments of the continent of Europe watched over their antiquities, the relics of Ireland's past greatness were forgotten by its government though princely sums were granted to English museums. Unfortunately the Irish are engrossed so much with political and religious controversy, that they used to exertion to preserve their antiquities.

The Catholic clergy were long the only guardians which such relics had. An O'Halloran, a Walker, and a Vallencey, called attention and awoke a veneration for the remains of ancient Ireland and shed a dim light upon past science, learning, piety and religion; but it was reserved for a Petrie, and others, to diffuse that light in all its clearness and splendour - that brilliance, which it has now attained.

We hope, with the warmest feelings and sympathy, for old Ireland, that such men will rescue this evidence of our former greatness from destruction. It is a debt not only due to the trustees of the late eccentric Lord Netterville but to the men of Ireland.

There may be an excuse alleged that the funds of the Academy were not sufficient to enable the society to replace the Tumulus as it formerly stood, but those who love Ireland feel that they never should have disturbed a single stone until they were able to replace it in its former position.


Read more about the disastrous excavation of Dowth in my book Newgrange: Monument to Immortality.

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