TULSK, Ireland – Finding pieces of wood mixed in with turf in an Irish peat bog is nothing unusual. Recognising those rods as part of a trap that prehistoric man used to impale deer in 1,200 BC requires someone with skill and know-how.

One such person is Christy Lawless, 70, an amateur archaeologist from County Mayo and one of the speakers at this month’s Rathcroghan Conference on archaeology in Roscommon. The conference, held in the heart of the area where the warrior Queen Medb supposedly once ruled, emphasises community involvement in preserving and recording Ireland’s heritage.

Lawless, who for 35 years worked for the mobile library service, has been on the trail of deer traps and other evidence of early man in the west of Ireland since he was a young boy when a neighbour cutting turf showed him sharpened rods he said had been used to kill deer.

“Local people set these rods upright three or four feet above the surface of the bog and deer would not see them and they would come down on top of these spears and that’s the way ancient people caught their deer,” Lawless said. ” It is simple but clever.”

Lawless says he has since discovered 156 fulachta fiadh — deer-cooking sites — as well as associated deer traps in his native parish. He has even recreated the cooking techniques of early man — though he serves lamb instead of deer.

A  pit dug near a water source fills up with water due to seepage and can be brought to a boil in just over 15 minutes by filling the pit with red-hot stones. Lawless said that using this method, he has cooked six-pound lamb shanks for interested groups — “20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over for well cooked lamb”.

Lawless, like several other speakers at the conference held at the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre — gateway to the Rathcroghan Mound that was reputedly part of Queen Medb’s domain  — does his investigations more for the thrill of it, and for the hope of preserving Ireland’s heritage, than for monetary reward.

“No, I’m not a trained archaeologist, I just had an interest in the landscape from when I was very young and I worked in the library service and had all the resources I needed — so it’s self-taught field archaeologist, yes,” Lawless said.

(To hear an edited interview with Christy Lawless click here:

Dr. Niall Brady, who runs a marine archaeological firm, spoke about his field research at one of Ireland’s great ruined castles, the Anglo-Norman seat of the de Burgh and O’Conor families at Ballintober, County Roscommon. Brady, who has been assisted by students from the United States, hopes the work will lead to greater understanding of the castle’s role in history, and to finding a way to make better use of a monument that is closed to the public.

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“What we are interested in discovering is what it means to the different groups and how this has changed over time and how their perspectives are different,” Brady said during a special visit, arranged for the conference. “We’re also interested in how we can make this castle safe so it is accessible to the public again.”

Pyers O’Conor Nash, who with his wife Marguerite lives at the nearby 46-room Clonalis House mansion, said that he has high hopes that the field work will lead to some solution that would allow the castle to be open to the public, especially if the castle could be included in a walking tour that would provide insurance for visitors.

“It’s not because I want to keep people out, it’s simply this has the ability to destroy our property over there if we get heavily sued….the manor house we live in,” O’Conor Nash said.  — By Michael Roddy

To hear an edited interview with Niall Brady and Pyers O’Conor Nash click here:

The annual Rathcroghan Conference was held on April 8-9. http://www.rathcroghan.ie

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