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Culture(s) Pre-Famine Irish
Temporal Period(s) Modern

Summary Details

Location: Between Roosky and Scramogue, County Roscommon, Republic of Ireland (Approx. 53° 49' 35" N, 8° 0' 56" W)
Period: Modern, Post-Medieval
Date Range: circa 1749 to 1848


The excavations at Ballykilcline were the first in Ireland to focus exclusively on the pre-Famine lives of the rural Irish with a strongly anthropological emphasis (Hull 2006).

Research History

Site Discovery

The archaeological excavation of Ballykilcline built upon the previous work of Dr. Charles Orser at the nearby townlands of Gorttoose (1996) and the mud-cabin village of Mulliviltrin (1997). In brief, excavations at these previous sites established the project and served as the foundation of the successful research program focussing on the pre-Famine lives of Irish tenants and landless labourers.

Oral history and extensive archival research were used to locate the former holding of the Nary family--Kiltullyvary--within the townland of Ballykilcline. Excavations began in 1998, and the placement of excavation units was informed by the 1837 Ordnance Survey map as well as geophysical testing (by Kevin Barton, Landscape and Geophysical Services, County Mayo). The investigation of the Nary holding continued each summer through 2002 with crews from an annual Illinois State University archaeological field school, the Earth Watch program, and a myriad of local and international volunteers.

Major Finds/Insights

The significance of the excavations at Ballykilcline (and, indeed, those at Gorttose and Mulliviltrin) is multi-scalar. On the most local level, the investigations of the Nary holding shed light on the daily lives of a single family largely lost to history. Mark Nary and his three sons held the land and worked the 30 acre parcel cooperatively. The family was forcibly evicted by the Crown during the winter of 1847-1848 (known as "Black '47"), the worst year of the Great Irish Famine. The two stone-built Nary cottages were thrown down, and the majority of the stones were removed from the landscape in order to provide clear pasture for grazing animals that replaced the human population after the Famine. Following the multi-year excavations at the site, over 9,000 artifacts were collected, reflecting a wide range of material objects previously thought unavailable to the rural Irish population. Artifacts included mid-range imported ceramic vessels (such as transferware plates), locally-potted (and largely undocumented) coarse red earthenware sherds, window glass, utensils, nails, shoe cleats, beads, sewing scissors, buttons and other items reflecting a typical early to mid-nineteenth century European domestic settlement. The collection also contained two items that were particularly evocative--a metal alloy thimble stamped "FORGET ME NOT" and a bowl fragment from a kaolin smoking pipe stamped "REPEAL." Archaeological features included stone walls, cobbled surfaces, pits, open field drains, and deeply-buried subsurface stone box (French) drains. These features reflect the presence of two stone cabins and possibly numerous other farmyard structures (pillars and walls), in addition to a series of agricultural drains and a network of paths and roads (Hull 2006a).

Beyond the particularistic insights into the Nary family, this research project also served to challenge the commonly-held beliefs within the academy that the rural Irish were people were persons living on the edge of, but not actively participating in, modern life (as it was in the nineteenth century). In fact, historian Robert Scally (Scally 1995) described Ballykilcline's tenants as "ragged, shoeless and uncombed" beyond the reaches of and, indeed, lacking the means to participate in the consumer economy that defined Europe (Orser and Ryder 2006). Scally's assertion that the inhabitants of Ballykilcline and, by extension, the Irish "peasantry" (a term often used as a catch-all for the rural Irish working class), were somehow excluded from the marketplace is absolutely incorrect. To be fair, the primary documents Scally consulted during his research often portray the rural Irish as shockingly poor (among other things). At Ballykilcline, it is the power of archaeology and its unique insight into the material lives of individuals that truly demonstrate how misleading historical documents may be. As Orser and Ryder (Orser and Ryder 2006:19-20) conclude, "the men and women of Ballykilcline were not the backward, isolated people Scally portrays. Rather, they were active participants in a widespread market network, and they manipulated the agricultural system--as best they could--to their advantage until hunger and eviction made further resistance impossible."

Other issues addressed by this research include the production and sale of locally made (and largely undocumented) coarse red earthenware vessels and their centrality to subsistence activities (see Orser 2000, Hull 2004, Orser 2006a) , the central role of women in both the family and the economy (see Hull 2006b), the impact of the "Improvement" movement on traditional agriculture (see Hull 2006c), the redefinition of the Irish rural class from monolithic peasantry to a complex agri-social hierarchy (see Hull 2004, Hull 2006d), the archaeological signature of eviction (see Orser 2006b), and the material lives of the Irish abroad (especially in the United States; see Brighton 2004, Brighton 2006, Brighton 2009).

Current Investigations

The research program at Ballykilcline was completed in 2002. Dr. Orser and his team continued to research pre-Famine rural society in County Sligo (Riverstown) and County Donegal. He and former members of his research team continue to examine the material lives of the Irish, both within Ireland and abroad, as well broader anthropological topics arising from such studies (see Brighton 2009, Brighton 2011, Hull 2004).

Site Reports

The following site reports were produced for Duchas (Heritage Service) and the National Museum of Ireland.
(Orser 1998)--first season
(Orser et al 2000)--second season
(Hull and Orser 2001)--third season
(Hull 2001)--fourth season
(Hull and Brighton 2002)--fifth season

Material Culture

Assemblage Summary

Hull 2004

General Description Type Total Group Total Percentage Group Percentage
Ceramics 5,787 63.6
Creamware 31 0.3
Pearlware 782 8.6
Whiteware 1,687 18.5
Porcelain 8 0.09
Stoneware 53 0.6
Coarseware/redware 2,587 28.4
Kaolin clay smoking pipe 639 7
Glass 1,980 21.8
Brown/amber, curved 1 0.01
Olive/green, curved 1,049 11.5
Aqua/light blue, curved 28 0.3
Cobalt, curved 1 0.01
Colorless, curved 160 1.8
Flat glass 735 8.1
Stemware fragment 1 0.01
Bead 5 0.05
Metal 1,001 11
Nail/wire/tack 431 4.7
Draft animal shoe 7 0.08
Shoe cleat 3 0.03
Kettle fragment 23 0.3
Spoon 3 0.03
Knife 3 0.03
Utensil handle 11 0.1
Spike/stake 6 0.07
Reaping hook 4 0.04
Miscellaneous iron 441 4.8
Brass/metal alloy button 27 0.3
Thimble 1 0.01
Lead bullet/bird shot 37 0.4
Gilting 1 0.01
Coin 1 0.01
Miscellaneous metal 2 0.02
Other 331 3.6
Bone/tooth/shell 204 2.2
Stone/chalcedony/slate 59 0.6
Plastic/rubber 4 0.04
Charcoal (sample) 4 0.04
Whitewash/plaster (sample) 26 0.3
Mortar (sample) 15 0.2
Peat/organic (sample) 7 0.07
Paint (sample) 1 0.01
Burned earth (sample) 10 0.1
Burned wood (sample) 1 0.01
TOTAL 9,099 100.0

General Notes

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