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Credit: Jennifer Cottle (2013)

Slievemore Deserted Village

Many stone ruins decorate the landscape of Ireland, creating landmarks and memorials of bygone times. Churches, tombs, and hill forts scattered across the island are a testament to the lives of people who left marks that survive across the centuries, even in more remote outreaches in the west. Among these include the nearly 100 stone homes which make up the Deserted Village on the slopes of Slievemore Mountain.

 

Slievemore Deserted Village is located on Achill Island in County Mayo on

the western coast of Ireland. It is only a couple of miles from the nearby

villages of Dooagh, Pollagh, and Keel. It rests on the southern slope of

Slievemore Mountain, the tallest mountain on Achill.(1) Modern-day

visitors can access the open-air site by the unpaved road which connects

it to nearby villages. There is no admission, welcoming center, staff or

park rangers, or physical boundary separating the abandoned settlement

from the rest of the countryside; just the road, the stone cabins, and the

occasional herd of free-ranging sheep. It is one of the island's best-known

sites.(4)

 

What was the village at Slievemore?

 

The village at Slievemore was once the seasonal residence of a

semi-nomadic population living on Achill Island. These people

practiced a lifestyle called booleying (or, in technical jargon,

transhumance). Booleying was the practice of living in different areas

during the summer and winter months to allow animal herds to have

good grazing pastures all year long. The village at Slievemore was

home to the summer cabins of local cattle owners who would travel

to stay there during the early spring and summer with their cows and

other herd animals.(1) Historical accounts suggest that most of the

herd animals owned by the villagers at Slievemore were cows but

sheep may have been present as well.(5) While most inhabitants of

the village only stayed in the cabins during the warmer months and

traveled back down the mountain to winter in other residences, there

were reports of a few people who lived in the cabins on Slievemore

year-round.(2) It is one of the largest known booley villages in Ireland

as well as one of the most recently occupied.(1,2)

 

While the deserted village is certainly one of the largest sites nearby, the area surrounding it has a rich archaeological landscape which includes tombs and other structures dating back all the way to the Neolithic.(1) It's been suggested that some of the houses at the Deserted Village may have been built with stones taken from some of these ancient structures.(5) Within walking distance of the cabins are tombs believed to be over 5,000 years old as well as possible evidence for Stone Age farming activities. Also present are structures and farms dating to the Bronze Age. All of these suggest that the area around Slievemore has been occupied continuously for several thousand years, despite being a rather remote area of the country.(6)

 

Cows and Booleying in Ireland

 

Cattle have been an important part of Irish culture and economy since

ancient times.(10) Bulls and cows are significant figures in early Irish

folklore and mythology. One of its most famous epics, Tain Bo Cuailnge, or

“The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” is Ireland's equivalent to the Greek Illiad,

describing a great battle complete with semi-divine heroes, tragedy,

fighting, and godly intervention. The main story is about the events

surrounding an intense war between two kingdoms in Ireland after one

ruler stole a prized mystical cow from another ruler and refused to return

it. The first written record of the Tain is believed to date back to the 6th

Century but may have been around for much longer in the form of oral

storytelling.(11)

 

Cows were for a long time a symbol of wealth and social status in Ireland. Their significance was so great that they played a critical role in Brehon law, a medieval legal system that ruled much of the country. At this time, cattle were a form of currency and their value was stipulated according to the law. Cows could be used to pay for many important monetary activities, including dowries, debts, and retribution where a person or a person's property were damaged or even killed. Cattle were useful animals, able to produce valuable dairy foods, be slaughtered for meat if needed, be used for labor, or bred and sold. However, they weren't just seen as base property; parts of the law reinforced how cattle were to be treated including their housing and their wellness. These animals were important enough that the law provided for their comfort and their well-being to ensure that fit, healthy individuals would be valuable attributes to their owners, sellers, and buyers.(10)

 

Moving to different locations between the warmer and colder seasons was

strategic for a number of reasons. For one, moving to different locations gave

the pastures time to regrow before the cattle returned to feed, thus avoiding

letting anyone spot become overgrazed and barren. It also gave growing crops

more space and nutrients to flourish without competing with grazing livestock.

The animals were given a more well-balanced diet of both the lowland, coastal

plants and the mountainous, inland grasses. (10)

 

People who practiced booleying constructed seasonal homes to stay in as

they moved from one location to the other.(10) These booley homes were

prevalent across northwest Europe for several centuries, common from the

Bronze Age well into the 19th Century.(7) The presence of this style of housing

in Ireland paired with the significance of cattle in ancient Irish culture implies

that booleying may have been practiced within the country for a long period of time. While some English historians in the past viewed the practice as proof that the Irish were uncultured and too uncivilized to govern themselves (providing an excuse for it to remain under British rule), later sources romanticized the pastoral, nomadic lifestyle.(7,10) Tales abounded of young cattle herders who fell in love in the unchaperoned pastures of the wild western coast.(10)

 

Village Life

 

While the stone cabins which can still be

seen today are believed to have been built

sometime in the 19th Century, people are

thought to have settled in the area of the

Deserted Village since the early Medieval

Period around the 13th Century.(1,5) Other

sources believe it was settled much later in

the 18th Century, back up with archaeological

evidence dating from this time period.(2,3) Though the total number of houses can be estimated based on historical accounts, surveys, and modern observation, how many people actually occupied the village at any one time is largely a mystery. However, a 2009 study provided a calculated estimation based on the population and calculations of similar sites. Based on this study, the population was suggested to be between 290-350 people at any time, based on the populations of surrounding areas and the amount of room offered by the cabins at Slievemore.(3) Though only around 80 of the cabins are still left, a survey map of the area dating to 1838 recorded the presence of over 130 homes.(4)

 

The booley village at Slievemore was made up of almost identical homes scattered over a mile (1.5 kilometers) across the mountain slope in three main groups of cabins.(,47) These clusters of houses and their associated fields may have represented different extended family groups and their corresponding plots of lands. It's been

suggested that to help handle the farming and cattle, family members stayed

close and shared the workload between them. Traditional gender roles played a

part in how the labor was divided. Both men and women would help work in the

fields, but women were largely the ones responsible for household chores like

child-raising, cooking, and cleaning.(3) An 1836 historical account of a booley

migration describes how entire villages closed down their winter residences and,

hauling their goods, food, animals, and families, trekked up the mountain to the

summer village. The first homes were apparently temporary structures made

from wattle and sod. While letting their cattle graze on the fresh grasses, the

inhabitants planted their crops and remained there for two months until winter

returned. Then they made the same trek in the opposite direction to return to the

coast for fishing grounds, coming back only briefly in the fall to harvest the fully

grown crops.(5)

 

The cabins, also called booley huts, byre houses, or barn

homes, didn't just provide shelter for the human

occupants; animals including cows were kept there as

well. The majority of the population didn't own more

than one or two cows per family, which were primarily

kept to provide valuable nutrient-rich foods like milk and

cheese products. The temperatures in Ireland can

remain quite cold for several months out of the year,

even throughout spring, and the few animals each family

owned wouldn't have been able to keep themselves

warm on their own without shelter. Even inside the

home, the drafty cabins would have been chilly for the human population of the village as well. To solve both issues, animals were kept in specially-built sections of the building. Special rings installed into the walls provided a place for the animals to be tethered so they would stay in one place. Keeping livestock indoors allowed both human and animals to share body heat and keep each other warm.(7) There was also the belief that doing so would help the cows produce more milk.(3)

 

Many of these buildings had a channel sunk into the floor which ran

outside, allowing waste to flow and be emptied into the yard outside.(7)

Some of the drains emptied into manure pits outside, allowing manure

to be collected as fertilizer for the fields.(3) Perhaps to help with

unwanted smells, a curtain or other divider was sometimes hung to

separate the animals from the human living spaces. While the lifestyle

was practical for the people who actually practiced it, the English who

took over Ireland were aghast. British observers recorded the presence

of the tradition during the Colonial Period in savage terms, reporting

that the population was so backward and uncivilized that they slept

together with their livestock. To them, it was another excuse to enforce

their rule and assimilate the Irish to British ways, under the belief that

they were not able to think in their own best

interest.(7)

 

The booley homes at Slievemore varied little

in how they were constructed. The stone

walls were topped with a thatched grass roof

which was common across Ireland for

centuries. Doors and windows were built to

avoid harsh winds that came in from the

west.(3) Most were one-room homes with the

barn and living spaces separated on opposite

ends of the house. They contained cooking,

sleeping, bathing, and livestock areas.(2)

Other rooms could and were added or torn

down over time, evidenced by the presence of blocked-up doorways and windows in some of

the remaining structures. Some homes ended up with multiple rooms, the most being four.

On the opposite end of the livestock, a hearth was kept burning year-round to help with

heating, cooking, and cleaning. Often, one of the first modifications to a home was to add a

bedroom so it shared a wall with the hearth, allowing the heat from the fire to warm the

room. Fires were mostly fueled by turf, dried pieces of peat cut from the bogs which create a

smoky, earthy, sweet-smelling fire. The cabins were relatively small, no more than fifteen by ten feet. Storage was achieved with shelves, niches, and places to hang objects which were built into the walls and by lofts built over the barn end. It's been suggested that the presence of these built-in features could point to differences in wealth and status among the individual families at Slievemore. More features like shelving and lofts could be interpreted as the household needing or able to afford the extra space.(3)

 

Cattle weren't the only means of subsistence

for the villagers at Slievemore. There is

evidence that the population also farmed on

the slopes of the mountain, employing a

special agricultural style known as lazybeds.

Lazybeds or ridges are a way of preparing

fields and planting crops so they form a

series of ridges separated by lower

channels.(8) To create a lazybed, a series of

long strips of fresh soil is turned over and the

n seeds are planted. The seeds are then

covered with fertilizer and soil dug from

trenches on either side to create an upraised

ridge with a furrow on either side. This form

of farming was perfect for areas where good

farmland was scarce. Forming the ridges allowed nutrient rich soil to surround the growing crops while the furrows on either side helped drain the soil to prevent it from becoming water

logged, a necessity in the boggy, rainy areas throughout

Ireland.(3) It also took up less space than traditional farming

and could be adapted to the shape of the landscape.(8)

Lazybeds were used predominately by small tenant farmers

and strongly associated with potato growing, though grains

like oats were also grown in this fashion.(3,8) They were also

strongly associated with the poorer, more rural Irish living in

the west. After the conquest of Ireland, English lords began

to take away the more rich farmlands in the east from the

native Irish to give to Protestant farmers as a way to

culturally assimilate the land. At the same time, they pushed

the Irish into the less fertile lands in the west. Lazybed

farming was a way to cope with the waterlogged, rocky, and

generally poor agricultural fields in this part of the country.

British lords found a way to make this adaptation out to be

inferior as well. They were nicknamed “lazybeds” by British

contemporaries because they were thought to be a lazy form

of farming. While labor intensive like any other farming

practice, lazybeds can be made with only a shovel.(9) In

addition to the fields, some homes had small walled

gardens.(3)

 

Booleying persisted on Achill Island long after it had been

dropped in other parts of Ireland for permanent living

arrangements.(2) The village was occupied by its booley

population until the mid-19th Century when the Great Famine

(also called an Gorta Mor or “the Great Hunger”) crashed over

the country.(1,2) With it came wasted farm lands, exorbitant

rent increases, and mass emigration.(1) Achill itself was

estimated to have lost up to 16% of its total population (over

800 individuals) during the famine, a major blow to an area of

less than 5,000.(6) Those who didn't leave Achill chose to

become fishermen, a more lucrative opportunity in a devastated farming economy.(2) Even after the famine, the cabins at Slievemore were still used by a much reduced group of people from the villages of Dooagh and Pollagh who continued to practice booleying into the 19th Century. Achill was the last place in Ireland (and possibly all of Europe) where booleying was still practiced when it finally died out in the 1940s.(1)

 

Deserted Village Today

 

Today, only the stone walls of the 80 or so homes are still

standing, interspersed with the remains of the lazybed

ridges and former land tracts.(1) They are aligned with the

20th Century road which runs through the former booley

settlement.(3) Slievemore has been investigated by the

Achill Archaeological School in the nearby village of Dooagh

every year since 1991.(1,3) The school educates students

from around the world in archaeological excavation, survey,

laboratory work, and Irish history by having them participate in

field work. Thanks to the efforts of students and staff, a great is

now known about the Deserted Village at Slievemore than ever

before. As well as investigations into nearby Stone Age tombs

and other archaeological sites, excavations have uncovered goods

that tell archaeologists much about the daily lives and means of t

he people who lived in the village. Among these are 18th and

19th Century ceramics, handmade nails, clay pipes, and glass.(3)

 

The remains of the village still stand today on the slopes of

Slievemore Mountain. Though it was abandoned and forgotten,

people continue to explore and preserve the heritage of a group

who continued the traditional lives of their ancestors for

centuries and through the generations.

 

 

If you want to read more, see some of the

references below and check out Slievemore's page in

our Places You Need to Go series.

 

The website Voices from the Dawn features an interactive

VR segment on their website which allows users to virtually

explore Slievemore and other incredible archaeological sites

throughout Ireland without ever leaving your chair. Check out

their virtual reality tour of Slievemore and other sites 

here: https://voicesfromthedawn.com/keel-east-slievemore/

 

Special shout out to my former field school: Achill

Archaeological Field School operates today on the western

coast of Ireland and continues to teach hundreds of students

and non-students from around the world about archaeology,

field methods, and history every year. Check out their past

projects and see if some of their upcoming courses would fit

into your summer schedule

here: https://achill-fieldschool.com/

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

(1)Achill Tourism. “The Deserted Village, Slievemore.” Accessed March 28, 2019. https://achilltourism.com/places-of-interest/deserted-village-achill-island-co-mayo-ireland/

 

(2)Atlas Obscura. “Slievemore's deserted stone village.” Accessed March 28, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/slievemore-s-deserted-stone-village

 

(3)Schak, Lorelai. “Households and Social Status in the Deserted Village at Slievemore, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, Ireland.” Bachelor of Arts Thesis. University of Wisconsin, 2009.

 

(4)Achill Archaeological Field School. “Slievemore 'Deserted Village.” Accessed March 28, 2019. https://achill-fieldschool.com/research-excavations/archaeology-on-slievemore/

 

(5)Voices from the Dawn. “Keel East and Slievemore Deserted Village.” Accessed March 29, 2019. https://voicesfromthedawn.com/keel-east-slievemore/

 

(6)Museums of Mayo. “Achill Archaeological Field School- Deserted Village Project.” Accessed March 29, 2019. http://www.museumsofmayo.com/achill_1.htm

 

(7)The Awl. “Meet Me in My Byre Dwelling.” Accessed March 29, 2019. https://www.theawl.com/2017/02/meet-me-in-my-byre-dwelling/

 

(8)Baker, Alan and Patricia. Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973. https://books.google.com/books?id=cDM7AAAAIAAJ&q=lazybed#v=onepage&q&f=false

 

(9)“Lazybeds in the Cooley Mountains.” Louthfield Name Project (blog). April 24, 2015. Accessed March 29, 2019. https://louthfieldnames.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/lazy-beds-in-the-cooley-mountains/

 

(10)That's Farming. “A History of Irish Cattle is Published.” Accessed March 29, 2019. https://www.thatsfarming.com/news/history-of-irish-cattle-book

 

(11)Kinsella, Thomas (trans.). The Tain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

 

Image Credits

 

All photographs which are labeled Jennifer Cottle (2013) were taken by the author. They are free to use as long as appropriate credit is included.

 

(1A)Booley House, National Library of Ireland. Digital image. Ask About Ireland. Accessed April 2, 2019. http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/big-houses-of-ireland/image-audio-and-video-pil/places/achill/

 

(2B)On the move – Kerry cattle (believed to be Ireland’s most ancient breed) from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. Digital image. Roaring Water Journal. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/booleying/

 

(3C)First-edition Ordnance Survey map (1838) of the village of Slievemore, Achill Island. Digital image. Achill Archaeological Field School. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://achill-fieldschool.com/research-excavations/archaeology-on-slievemore/

 

(4D)Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. “Byre Dwelling: An example from Co. Mayo of a family home occupied by both the family and their milking cows.” Twitter, June 1, 2016. https://twitter.com/BunrattyCastle/status/737959411428274176

 

(5E)Achill Island, Ireland- Map. Digital Image. Drifter Planet. Accessed April 3, 2019. https://drifterplanet.com/achill-island-ireland-county-mayo/

 

(6F ireland map)Map of County Mayo, Ireland. Digital Image. Achill Tourism. Accessed April 3, 2019. https://achilltourism.com/map-of-county-mayoireland/

 

(7G)Achill Field School. "Slievemore 'deserted village' Achill Island c.1942 from the newly digitised collection of @bealoideasucd #Achillfieldschool." Twitter, September 27, 2017. https://twitter.com/AchillArch/status/912971981074653184

 

(8H)Participants in Achill Archaeological Field School on site at Slievemore. Digital image. Archaeological Institute of America. Accessed April 3, 2019. https://www.archaeological.org/interactivedigs/achillislandireland/currentresearch

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Reconstruction of sacrificial bulls being lead into the cavern and then collapsing as they succomb to the vapors to the music of flutes. Credit: News.com.AU(2B) 
Temple complex during excavation with Plutonium on right. Credit: Hurriyet Daily News(4D)
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A cow herder moves his cattle in early 20th Century Ireland. Credit: Roaring Water Journal(2B)
Painting depicting a family with their booley cabin. Credit: Ask About Ireland(1A)
Part of the Ordinance Survey map from 1838. Credit: Achill Archaeological Field School(3C)
Example of a byre home (below, left) displaying animal space (above) and living spaces (below. right). Credit: Bunratty Castle and Folk Park Twitter(4D)
Photos of the interiors of some of the cabins. Niches and other built-in storage spaces can be seen (below, left). Credit: Jennifer Cottle (2013)
Maps showing locations of Achill Island in Ireland (above) and Slievemore's Deserted Village (below). Credits: Drifter Planet(5E- below) and Achill Tourism(6F- above)
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Looking up the mountain. Portions of lazybed ridges can still be seen in the background. Credit: Jennifer Cottle (2013) 
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View of garden grounds and city beyond from castle vantage point. Credit: Arch Daily(4D)
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Scenes from the booley village at Slievemore circa 1942. Credit: Achill Field School Twitter(7G)
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The Deserted Village today. Credit: Jennifer Cottle (2013)
Participants with the Achill Field School on-site during excavation. Credit: Archaeological Institute of America(8H)
Archaeologists displaying the two statues that guarded the Ploutonium. Credit: Seeker(8H)