The archaeology of Ireland’s revolutionary period isn’t just restricted to bullet holes in our urban areas. The countryside also has much to record, from safe houses to training grounds, arms dumps and ambush sites. Look around you, in your fields, particularly near double ditches; you might come across the remains of an essential part of our revolutionary history…the dug-out.
Dug-outs generally consist of an underground room or bunker excavated into a hillside or bank. The sides of this underground room were usually reinforced with timber, while the roof was constructed of tin sheeting or wood that was covered entirely with earth and sod, creating an invisible place of shelter for Volunteers ‘on the run’ or recovering from injury.
From historical accounts and field surveys, we know that at least half of the Limerick dug-outs were located within ‘double-ditches’, that is, on a narrow berm of land between two ditches. These ditches usually divided land holdings and acted as routeways between farms. They are not navigable by modern vehicles, but in the early twentieth century, they were the by-ways regularly used by Volunteers and Cumann na mBan to traverse the county. It is, therefore, unsurprising that dug-outs should be located within the double-ditch network.
To date, the Archaeology of the Irish Revolution in East Limerick project has identified the existence of at least six dug-outs in places such as Anglesboro, Crean, Cush, Flemmingstown, Knockuregare and Stephenstown in Co. Limerick. These were not all built simultaneously; for example, the East Limerick Brigade Headquarters at Knockuregare used a dug-out near the Purcell family home since at least 1920, while the dug-outs in Cush and Stephenstown were constructed from mid-1921 onwards.
Access into some of these dug-outs was reportedly by a trap door at surface level, e.g. Stephenstown, Co. Limerick (Jack McCarthy WS0883). However, the Crean dug-out clearly shows a side entrance, sloping downwards for about 2m (see image below). It was said that the Volunteers used to pull a bush into this gap whenever they entered the dug-out to conceal the entrance from view.
The dug-out in Crean, which measures 4.2m x 2.3m (13’9” x 7’6”) and a maximum 0.95m depth, survives reasonably well and is still visible to this day. This small space once housed several Volunteers for several months, including Nick O’Dwyer, the Brigade Engineer and Commanding Officer (O/C) of the 3rd Battalion, while he was recovering from injuries (Annie Noone pension file MSP34REF56452). His brother Gerard, Tom Houlihan and Pat Kinanne were also treated for their injuries there. Nick O’Dwyer also stayed at the Brigade HQ dug-out at Uregare, Co. Limerick. After nine months living in dug-outs he was not doing well. You can read his personal account in the witness statement below.
Unfortunately, some dug-outs in other counties have been ‘cleared’ and ‘cleaned up’ in recent years by concerned locals and landowners. This work has been done to save the memory of these sites but at the cost of losing the archaeological record. If archaeologists had surveyed the sites before the clean-up, then scaled drawings, photographs, and an understanding of the layers might have been recorded and shared with the community.
Despite this recent interest in revolutionary archaeology has seen several dug-outs located across the south of the country. These vary somewhat in style regarding setting and access but generally have the same form and function. So far, the Archaeology of the Irish Revolution in East Limerick project has managed to precisely locate one dug-out on the ground. Finding the exact locations of dug-outs can be challenging due to deterioration and land improvement over the last century. The main issues encountered have been land access and local knowledge regarding their exact position. So if you know of any dug-outs on your land or in your area, please get in touch with us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or fill in our survey form here.
It is important that dug-outs, used so universally when events intensified in 1920-1921, become recognised and protected archaeological sites. They are an integral part of our revolutionary landscape and are one of the few site types that visibly demonstrate the challenges faced by people in the revolutionary period. The story they currently tell is simply that they existed, but archaeological approaches to these sites could hopefully shine a light onto these critically important aspects of the Irish revolution and life in 1920s Ireland.
To find out more about these sites and the archaeology of the Irish revolution in east Co. Limerick, come along to our next free revolutionary workshop in the Thomas Fitzgerald Centre, Bruff, on the 27th of April at 7 pm. All are welcome to attend.
Sources used in the creation of this blog include:
Annie Noone pension file MSP34REF56452
Jack McCarthy WS0883
Nicholas O’Dwyer WS680