Archaeological investigations were carried out by Moore Archaeological and Environmental Services Ltd. at Terryland, near the Dyke Road, Galway in early 2013. The archaeological team led by Billy Quinn excavated 10 individuals buried just below the existing surface. The human remains were discovered following archaeological testing of the site during the construction of a proposed multi modal access ramp connecting the Dyke Road with N6/ Bóthar na dTreabh. The work was carried out on behalf of Galway City Council and the National Roads Authority with the advice and assistance of Mr. Jim Higgins, Galway City Heritage Officer. The remains were analysed by Linda Lynch, Osteoarchaeologist. The excavations were carried out under licence to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
The skeletons were all in a poor state of preservation and some had been previously truncated by earlier groundworks in the area. The remains consist of seven adults and three juveniles. Of the seven adults four were males and three females. All the burials were orientated east west – however three of the individuals, contrary to traditional practice, were interred with their heads to the east. Also of note were the varying positions of the arms and legs – usually in graves from this period the arms lay alongside the body and the legs were extended. In the Terryland cemetery the remains were buried less formally with the arms bent at the elbow or with the legs flexed. All the burials were interred without coffins – however a number of nails were found within the grave cuts. These may have been used to fasten a shroud or a winding sheet. It would appear, based on the level of the graves, their general arrangement and the lack of phasing, that the remains were buried broadly contemporaneously.
A number of samples were selected for radiocarbon dating, and were given a broad date range with a likely convergence in the 17th century. This general date was corroborated by a number of pottery sherds found in association with the grave cuts.
The remains were discovered to the immediate east of Terryland Castle. From both historical and cartographic records it is known that this area was close to a fording point to the south of present day Jordans Island and that there was a castle here in 1574 (O’Flanagan 1927a, Vol. 1, 166-7). From the available sources it would appear that this building was replaced by a gabled house built by the fourth Earl of Clanricard, Richard Burke. The castle was the scene of a number of military engagements throughout the 17th century. During the Confederate wars (1641-1653), when the inhabitants of the town were in dispute with a garrison at Forthill, the fifth Earl, Ulick, dispatched his Lieutenant, Dermott O’Daly, along with three companies and thirty musketeers to take charge of his castle at Tirellan. The castle was described as being situated on a neck of land commanding the river Corrib (Hardiman 1820, 112). From this position O’Daly was able to assist the townspeople in preventing supplies being delivered to relieve the Forthill garrison.
Later, in advance of the Cromwellian siege of 1652, the Earl is recorded as ‘repairing to Tirellan’ in order to establish a committee to beseech the Duke of Lorraine for assistance from the advancing English. These negotiations failed and in August of 1651 Sir Charles Coote blockaded the town by taking the castles at Tirellan, Oranmore and Claregalway. The siege was to last for nine months before the Governor of the town finally surrendered. It is notable that the treaty of capitulation signed on the 5th of April 1652 included the following ‘Sir Valentine Blake, Sir Oliver Ffrench, John Blake esquire and Dominick Blake, were to be delivered as hostages to Coote and finally ‘the new castle at Tirellan and the fort of Mutton island were to be surrendered.’ (Hardiman 1820, 132).
The next known violent chapter in the history of the castle took place during the Wars of the Two Kings (1689-1691). Following the defeat of the Jacobite army at Aughrim only Galway and Limerick stood in the way of a complete victory for the Williamite forces; Colonel Lutterel commander of the English approached Galway from the west intent on besieging the town. The advancing cavalry were met with opposition from both French and Irish troops manning advanced posts. In one particular skirmish the castle of Tirellan (Terryland Castle) was burnt to prevent the enemy making any use of it against the town. The outworks of the castle were held by the Jacobites, until after a number of sorties resulting in the deaths of several English, the defenders were forced to abandon their positions. Given a free hand the English proceeded to burn all the suburbs beyond the north-west gate (Hardiman 1820, 159).
Mindful of these conflicts, and in the absence of any recorded church sites and graveyards in the immediate vicinity, it was initially speculated that the remains exposed at Terryland may have been associated with the aforementioned historical events. This hypothesis was based on the type of pottery sherds and the presence of a clay pipe stem fragment found in association with the human remains; all of which indicated a late 17th-century date (tinglazed ware found in C.6, the grave fill of Skeleton No. 6).
Adding weight to this speculation was the irregular nature of the burials. Certainty the graves were unusual given the conventions of the time. According to Christian tradition burials of this period, as now, were laid to rest orientated in an extended, supine position with the head to the west and the arms along the sides. At Terryland, although the grave cuts were found at relatively the same level and dug in respect of each other, the individuals appear to have been buried without coffins and the positioning of the remains was haphazard. These aberrations included two individuals (Skeleton 5 and 10) buried together in the same grave but in opposing directions, and two other burials (Skeleton 1 and Skeleton 8) buried with their heads to the east, contrary to the norm. Furthermore, in the instance of Skeletons 4, 5, 8 and 9 the lower legs were flexed at the knee, and the arms, where present, were variously bent at the elbow, lying on the sacrum, resting on the pelvis or lying alongside the torso. The randomness of these skeletal attitudes suggests that the individuals were interred in shrouds or winding sheets, possibly using nails as pins, and that the burials were carried out lacking the usual degree of ceremony or respect.
So were these individuals the casualties of war? Analysis of the remains determined that the ten individuals comprised seven adults, four of whom were female and three juveniles. Moreover the majority of the adults were less than 30 years of age. These profiles do not fit with combatants dying in a military action. Furthermore there is no evidence from the skeletal remains of fatal direct impact trauma. What the bones do tell us is a general tale of hardship. The 10 individuals were all under 30 years, a profile that would traditionally be considered the least vulnerable in a population group. Given the high rates of infant mortality it is worth noting the lack of infants. The remains present evidence of physiological stresses, lesions and Schmorl’s nodes all evidence of hard labour throughout their relatively short lives.
Ireland in the 17th century was a dangerous place. From the Confederate Wars (1641-49), through the Cromwellian conquest (1649-53) and the Wars of the Two Kings (1689-1691), the civilian population endured a lasting tumult that decimated the population. Indeed between the two years of 1650 and 1652 it is estimated that a quarter of the country’s population died as a result of a man made famine and its attendant diseases, including typhus and dysentery. In Connaught these privations were compounded by an influx of displaced people, the result of a deliberate programme of land confiscation and transplantation. Given the scale of the calamities endured by the population it is reasonable to conclude that many individuals deprived of their homes, ravaged by war, disease and hunger died prematurely, were buried often in haste, in unconsecrated ground and with little rite or ritual. The unusual burial positions and the lack of coffins suggests that the burials in Terryland do not represent a traditional cemetery for the community, but rather served a more immediate function for the disposal of the dead in a period of stress that disrupted the normal functions of society.
Rather than attempting to tie the demise of these individuals into a known historical event e.g. the 1691 skirmish at the nearby castle, it is more likely that their premature deaths were caused not by the swift violence of war but by the equally brutalising and fatal consequences of it.