During the summer my family and I explored the Craggaunowen, Living Past complex in county Clare. I hadn’t been there for many years and it was a bright, sunny day for this second visit. Craggaunowen recreates the way people lived in Ireland during the Pre-historic and early Christian eras. An adviser to Sotheby’s on Medieval art, John Hunt, came up with the idea and purchased the land, which was the site of a ruined castle. He restored the castle to it’s former glory and built a crannog and ringfort on it’s grounds. In time he gave the complex to the Irish people, hoping it would be developed further. Here are some photos that may give you an idea of what you will find there should you get the chance to visit.
It was built by John MacSioda MacNamara about 1550, a typical fortified Tower House that the gentry of the time lived in. With the collapse of the old Gaelic order in the seventeenth century, the castle was left uninhabitable. Under the direction of Tom Steele (not the singer/actor) in the early nineteenth century, restoration work began. It was not until 1965 that the work was completed by John Hunt.
If you look closely at the lady with the spinning wheel, you will see that eyeglasses were invented much earlier than we have been led to believe. ;)
On a more serious note, imagine trying to keep warm on an Irish winter’s evening with a fire that small. This is a photo of one end of a very large room.
This is the other end. The king of the castle appears to be in full control of his subjects in this image. I think he’s calling for dinner to be served.
I take it this was the owner’s bedroom as it has a lovely view from the parapet through the open door.
This must be the guest bedroom – a bit more sparsely furnished than the one above. Notice the mattress, not exactly Memory Foam but a lot better than a hard floor. There was an electric socket on the wall at the end of the bed, proving they also had electricity in medieval times. ;)
During the Iron Age and Early Christian Period some Irish communities lived in lake-dwellings of this type. Even as late as the seventeenth century these crannogs would have been occupied. They were artificial islands where people lived in relative security (a bit like gated developments nowadays) The houses where made of wattle and mud and the area was surrounded by a timber fence. To get onto these islands you would need a dug-out canoe if there was no causeway or bridge to use.
This reconstructed crannog has a bridge which is used to gain access. You can be excused for thinking it looks like a scene from Tenko (1980’s tv series about a Japanese POW camp).
Here’s an example of some of the real estate you will find within the boundaries of the enclosure. A solid roof and sturdy walls, what more could you ask for?
Inside the cabin there may have been one window opposite the doorway and a fire in the centre of the floor. The occupants slept around the edges of the room, possibly huddling together in the winter to keep warm. In the photo on the left, you will see an example of an Iron age clothes airer – only joking. It’s the packaging that the evening’s dinner came in and will either be worn or slept under, probably both. This was, of course, at a time when wearing animal skins was not frowned upon.
In this shot you can see a typical Iron Age family having some fast food, (meaning any edible animal that ran quicker than thirty miles an hour). If you don’t believe that, then it’s my family having a picnic in a crannog around the communal fire pit. (Notice how the king has joined his subjects for the meal, dinner mustn’t have been served in the castle).
This is an underground passage called a Souterrain, used for a food storage area. It is well built, ventilated but draft free, and can maintain a constant temperature of about 4 degrees C or 38 degrees F, irrespective of how hot the day is. Souterrains were also used as hiding places in case of attack or as escape routes.
A rebellion being quashed by one of the king’s loyal soldiers. You can tell by the tee-shirt he’s destined for greater things.
The Bus Stop
We looked at this construction for a long time, trying to figure out what it might be, as it was not on the visitors’ guide we were given. Although it appeared to be some sort of storage unit, we decided it was an Iron Age bus stop and duly waited for the number 26 to come along. (Science buffs will understand why it was a number 26).
If the bus ever does pick you up, you can get off at the Portal Tomb. At first you might think this is fake, but apparently it’s the real thing. It is about 1.25m high and the cap stone is triangular, which makes it quite an unusually shaped chamber.
The Brendan Voyage
A famous Irish sailor lived during the Iron Age and it is very appropriate that this last leg of our journey should be about him.
At the end of the Craggaunowen trail you will come upon a pyramid shaped, glass building which houses a leather hulled boat. It was built by Tim Severin in 1976, based on a vessel described in a 9th century manuscript. This design is still in use on the west coast of Ireland. According to the story from the manuscript, St. Brendan, who died in 583 AD, was a navigator and the first man to discover the ‘Promised Land‘ across the Atlantic ocean. Severin and his crew proved that it was indeed possible for Brendan to have made such a voyage by using a similar vessel. They stopped off on the Aran Islands, Donegal, the Hebrides, the Faroes and they over-wintered in Iceland before finally arriving in America, having crossed the North Atlantic.
Their boat was made of oak-tanned hides that were sewn together, then stretched over a flexible frame of Ash. This made the vessel much more resilient than a wooden boat in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. When the hull was punctured by sharp ice in the ice-floes, the crew were able to sew a leather patch over the damaged hide, and complete their journey.
Craggaunowen, The Living Past complex, is near the village of Quin in county Clare.