no bones about it | 

Men whose skeletal remains were uncovered in Cork met 'violent and gruesome end'

The men were aged between 18 to 25 and had their hands tied behind their backs. They had been buried in a head to toe manner

Photo of the historic grave supplied by Cork County Council

Olivia Kelleher

Men whose skeletal remains dating back centuries were found in a shallow grave last year by builders who were demolishing a pub in Cork city "met a violent and gruesome end," archaeologists have determined.

The first skeletal remains were unearthed at the site of Nancy Spain's pub on October 7, 2021 with the remains of five other males being found at the site on Barrack Street in the days that followed. Four were buried together in a mass grave.

Nancy Spain's pub, which closed around twenty years ago, was situated in a historic area. It was positioned just 500 metres from a 17th century gallows and in the region of 200 metres from the 17th century Elizabeth Fort.

Archaeologists say that skeletal remains of four men found underneath Nancy Spain's were uncovered within a mass burial pit and "had evidently met a violent end. " The men were aged between 18 to 25 and had their hands tied behind their backs. They had been buried in a head to toe manner.

In a statement Cork City Council says that fragments of bone taken from two of the skeletons to facilitate radiocarbon dating have returned dates from the period between AD 1447 and 1636.

"It is hoped that ongoing post-excavation work will provide greater clarity and accuracy on burial date of the revealed individuals."

The uncovering of this ditch feature is a highly significant archaeological discovery. Photo: supplied by Cork County Council

Ms Niamh Daly, the osteo-archaeologist employed at the site, says the context of the burials of four men and the way they were placed in the burial pit indicates that they were not treated in a respectful manner.

"In fact, it was evident that all four individuals were buried in a manner which suggests that the hands/wrists were bound behind the backs, and it is likely that the feet/ankles were also bound”.

The estimated sex, age and the nature and position of burial points to a military connection for the revealed remains.

The period of death indicated by the radiocarbon dating was a turbulent and violent time in Irish history, with Munster and Cork the focus of several significant events. Such events included the first Desmond Rebellion (1569 – 1573), the second Desmond Rebellion (1579 – 1583), the Nine Years War (1593 – 1603) which culminated with the Battle of Kinsale, and a revolt in Cork City in 1603.

This revolt followed the death of Elizabeth I and saw the citizens of Cork uprising against English rule and even saw the precursor to Elizabeth Fort, located only 80m from the burial site, burnt down. The revolt continued for a month before it was quelled by English reinforcements.

Ms Brett says whichever event led to the deaths of the six individuals discovered in Barrack Street, what is certain is that based on the nature of the burial positions within the shallow graves suggest they "met a violent and gruesome end."

Meanwhile, a second discovery by archaeologists relates to a previously unknown exceptionally large defensive cut feature (ditch) which has been dated, through radiocarbon dating, to the period between the early 11th and mid-12th century, a time when the city was being developed by the Hiberno-Scandinavians – descendants of the Vikings who had intermixed with native Irish people

The archaeological excavation revealed a section of a ditch measuring 24m in length (northwest to southeast), up to 9.6m wide and up to 2.9m deep.

City Archaeologist Ciara Brett says the uncovering of the ditch feature at the Barrack Street site is a highly significant archaeological discovery for the city of Cork.

"This area formed part of the suburbs of the medieval city and is therefore of important historical and archaeological significance. The ditch, which is exceptionally large in size, was not known about prior to excavation. There is no record in the historical sources, neither documentary nor cartographic, of the existence of such a substantial feature in this part of the city.”

The results of the radiocarbon dating would appear to suggest an association with the Hiberno-Scandinavian settlement, which has been proven through archaeological research, to have developed in the South Main Street area and the southern end of Barrack Street. Mr David Murphy, the archaeologist who excavated the site says the Barrack Street ditch discovery raises new questions on the extent of the late 11th / early 12th century Hiberno-Scandinavian settlement in Cork.

"The archaeological and historical evidence indicates that Cork’s urban roots tentatively developed during the latter half of the 11th century in an area which straddled the south channel of the Lee, encompassing the northern end of present-day Barrack Street, the area immediately south of Sullivan’s Quay in the vicinity of St Nicholas’ church and the southern tip of the newly reclaimed south island within the reed marsh estuary.

While there is a growing corpus of evidence relating to the Hiberno-Scandinavian settlement on the south island, the actual extent of settlement on the south bank of the Lee is still unclear. The presence of this defensive ditch feature, some 300 metres upslope and to the southwest of the accepted area of settlement, may suggest that the settlement was more extensive than previously thought.”

Mr Murphy says alternatively, and perhaps more likely, is that a defensive ditch feature, which enclosed the lower lying settlement, was dug into the higher ridgeline above the riverside settlement.

"The ability to defend the higher ground above the settlement would dispossess any potential attackers of a significant strategic advantage. If this theory is correct, the ditch would most likely extend in an elongated curved manner and roughly follow the alignment of Vicar Street and Tower Street for a portion of its route.”

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