The Blackstairs Blitz

A Heinkel He111H-6 is loaded before a bombing mission. Image:

A German Bomber takes off from fortress Europe on the night of the 1st January 1941 as part of a bombing mission over Britain. The Blitz is still ongoing after the Battle of Britain.  Accounts from the night say that on their way to their targets they are intercepted by the RAF who chased them out over the Irish Sea.

Heinkel He111H-6 in flight Image:

Meanwhile an unsuspecting family are winding down for the night in the Scullogue Gap in the shadow of Knockroe Mountain in County Carlow. The Shannon family, John, James and Michael, brothers of the homeowner Patrick Shannon Snr along with their sisters Bridget and Mary Ellen and Patricks nephew Raymond and niece Kathleen after reciting the rosary and sitting by the fire all went to bed like any ordinary night.

Supermarine Spitfire, world famous for its role in the defence of Britain. Image:

Whether it was intercepted or whether it got lost,  we can only assume the bomber made its way across neutral Ireland in an attempt to return home when at 7 o clock in the morning, as the Nationalist newspaper from the 11th January reported, “The tranquillity and silence of that peaceful valley of Knockroe, reposing ‘neath the towering peaks of Mount Leinster and the lordly Blackstairs on the other, was suddenly disturbed ‘ere day broke on Thursday morning 2nd, by the invasion of an unidentified aircraft which streaked out from the frosty sky to cause a rude awakening and separate the inmates of a happy homestead by dispatching three of them to eternity… For miles around the countryside was shaken and the echo of eight bombs dropped was plainly heard”.

Mount Leinster Image:

One of these eight bombs had struck the home of the Shannon family as they Nationalist reported that after they retired to bed “little did they or anyone else realise that on this fateful night that this fateful family was to be separated forever in this life, that three of this happy household that lay down did so to sleep their last long sleep, which, sad to relate, was the case as was known to all corners of the globe some few hours later”.

The bombs were dropped in more or less a straight line. Two hit the slopes of Mount Leinster, the third was a direct hit on the Shannon house. Two more fell on the laneway to the house, two more hit Blackstairs Mountain on the opposite side of the valley and the last landed in a stream.

Blackstairs Mountain Image: Wikipedia

Mary Ellen Shannon (44), Brigid Shannon (38) and Kathleen Shannon (16) were all killed instantly. James Shannon (45) and Michael Shannon (37) were seriously injured. Miraculously John Shannon (43), his brother Patrick the homeowner (48) and his son Raymond (17) all escaped unhurt and it was John and Raymond who went for help. “Neighbours snatched up lamps and hurried to the pathetic scene along the snow-covered roadway in the half light of the morning. They had to climb the big craters in the laneway from which stones of huge weight were scattered about”. James Shannon was found first beneath 200 kilos of stone and rubble. Michael was found next, first identified only by his bare feet sticking out from a pile of rubble. Bridget Shannon was found next, blown completely clear of the house and landing beside an outhouse. Half an hour later Mary Ellen and Kathleen were found with nothing but fragments left of the beds they slept in.

Only the east gable was left standing and it had been here that Patrick, John and Raymond had slept. John recounted later how he “was awakened by a thunderous crash, and he jumped out of bed and went to the bedroom door. When he opened the door he saw that the whole house had disappeared up to the very edge of the door at which he stood. They made their escape through one of the windows. James and Michael slept next to the kitchen and were so close to the explosion that their beds were found in the adjoining fields.

One of the first rescuers at the scene, Mr. Breen of Knockroe reported how “he was awakened by the drone of an aeroplane in the early morning. He felt his own house vibrating, and jumped out of bed and hastily dressed himself. Taking a flash lamp he rushed out of doors to see what had happened. It was half light at the time, and he saw flashes of light on the Blackstairs Mountain. At first he thought the mountain was ablaze. He saw several quick flashes and heard deafening explosions and saw an aeroplane flying in a south westerly direction towards New Ross”. The Nationalist report goes on to give other accounts from the rescue and continues with the funeral arrangements and the inquest that followed.

The Shannon House Today. Image;

The house was rebuilt with local effort after the tragedy and remained in the Shannon family until Raymond died in 1994 and the house was sold. The house is passed on the ascent towards Mount Leinster via Knockroe. A reminder to all those who pass is a simple plaque placed in a wall with the year “1941” inscribed.

The memorial plaque. Image:

The bombs were probably dropped in an attempt to lose weight and gain altitude as they closed in on the mountains after their plane was damaged following the engagement with the RAF. Perhaps instead they had got lost on their way over the Channel and instead of suffering humiliation on their return, the decided to release their load rather than return fully laden. However, conspiracy theories question that as it was by no means an isolated incident.

 From the 1st– 3rd January 1941 a series of German bombs were dropped over Ireland. The first hit Julianstown and Duleek, Co. Meath on the 1st of January with no injuries. Two were dropped on wasteground on the Fortfield road in Dublin, more were dropped in Wicklow, and high explosive and incendery bombs landed on the Curragh racecourse The following morning 2 bombs levelled a number of homes in Terenure, Dublin, injuring seven, while three were dropped in Ballymurrin, Wexford with no damage. This was then followed by the Knockroe incident. The last happened on the morning of the 3rd January when two houses were hit on the Donore Avenue, Dublin injuring 20. The War Room website reports that:

Following this series of events, suspicion arose in some circles that the bombings might have been deliberate action by one or more of the belligerents in an attempt to draw Ireland into the war. They occurred after a curious incident prior to the New Year when the German Legation requested that extra staff be allowed to join them by flying into Rinneanna [near the Shannon in Clare]. The Irish government refused and the question was put to rest. Others believed that they were captured German weapons dropped from British aircraft again in an attempt to force Ireland into the war. This idea was fueled in recent weeks by German Propaganda radio broadcasts, which suggested that the British might try something such as this.

Whatever the Knockroe case was probably a tragic accident and the house was more than likely not targeted deliberately.

The unsuspecting Blackstairs Mountains were part of national and world affairs for a brief period in the 1940’s. Just one of the many famous incidents to occur on its slopes and hopefully I’ll get time to write a few more in the future.

Blackstairs Mountains from Dranagh Mountain
Murphy, T. Death from the Sky; The Knockroe Tragedy. Carloviana 2001, 10-13.
The War Rooms website; bombings
Aviation crashes in Ireland 1939-45
The Nationalist 11/01/1941 (all quotations are from the Nationalist report)

Deer Trap Find, Blackstairs Mountains

The Blackstairs Mountains have many secrets and these are slowly coming to light.
Blackstairs Mountains ridgeline from Dranagh Mountain
(Blackstairs Mountain is the first large peak you see protruding over the ridgeline in the centre of the image)
While out walking in June 2011, Mike Monahon, Carlow, noticed some wood fragments poaking out of a peat hag on the summit of Blackstairs Mountain, County Carlow. After removing some of the peat he noticed that some of the pieces appeared to be worked and given it’s location (on top of the second highest peak in the Blackstairs) he deemed it must be archaeological and covered it back up. He returned home and contacted the National Museum of Ireland. 
Peat Hag which contained the find

On the 25th of June 2011, Dr. Andy Halpin, Assistant Keeper of Irish Antiquities travelled to Carlow to identify the reported object. He was accompanied by Mike Monahon, Dermot Mulligan, curator of the County Carlow Museum Ann Murphy and myself. A partial removal of the covering peat confirmed the initial suspicion that the object was a deer trap. It was decided to leave the object in situ until a plan had been put in place for its removal later that summer. The find was covered back with peat to maintain it in its wet environment.

Deer Trap being exposed by Dr. Halpin

Deer Trap in the Peat
Deer Trap in the peat
Mike Monahon beside his find

 On the 27th of July, Dr. Halpin returned to extract the deer trap from the peat. He invited me along and we excavated the deer trap under excellent weather conditions. It had been planned to extract the find with a helicopter time permitting on the same day or on the following day if excavation took too long. This was to protect the object as the descent was rocky, wet and difficult and a fall could have damaged the object. When the find was extracted it was decided to leave the trap on the mountain and return the following day for extraction. The fragmented remains were bagged and covered with sods so as to protect them.

Deer Trap once we removed the top layer of peat to its exposure at the time of finding
Exposed deer trap
View of deer trap
cross piece in previous image indicated by lighter colour in wood
Tool marks
Underside view
The hag after removal

  Thursday 28th of June proved to be a very wet day and the benefit of hindsight proved that the helicopter should have been called in the previous day. The top of the mountain was completely covered in cloud and mist so it would have been far too dangerous to land any helicopter. After waiting for a number of hours to see if the cloud would lift it was decided that the find would have to be carried down. This was done in one go (with a number of breaks!) and the find was brought to Dublin for conservation.

We had to hand lift it all the way down (and given that it was waterlogged in the peat for at least a few hundred years it was very heavy)

Deer traps have been found dating from the Bronze Age through to the medieval period so there was a broad date on our trap. Another example from Carlow was found during the excavation of the M9 in Prumplestown Lower. This was dated 660-810 AD. It backed up evidence for the use of deer traps in the medieval period. A cross in Clonmacnoise depicts a deer with its leg caught in one of these traps.
Prumplestown Trap (photo: Rubicon Archaeology)

Deer traps worked by placing the trap on the ground, the deer would put its foot in the hole and spikes would prevent it from pulling it back up again. 

So excitingly I found out today that the deer trap (which is currently under conservation) was radiocarbon dated. I assumed from previous examples in the museum and elsewhere in Europe that it was probably medieval. But this one returned a date of 2102 ± 33 BP and so probably dates 203-42BC. 
So an example of some lovely and definitely Iron Age activity in the Blackstairs Mountains!!! Nice!

Check out the rubicon blog about the Prumplestown Lower deer trap for more info.

Reek Sunday

Croagh Patrick or The Reek, Co. Mayo

The tradition of holy mountains in Ireland remains strong today. On certain Christian feast days or saints days, hundreds or thousands of pilgrims can come together to climb these holy mountains. Nowhere upland pilgramage in Ireland is more famous than on Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo where people come from the world over to make an attempt at the summit. Some even tackle the mountains steep and rocky slopes barefoot.

St. Patrick is said to have fasted on the top of this mountain for forty days and forty nights in the 5th Century, built a church and banished the snakes from Ireland.

Oratory on top of Croagh Patrick
Croagh Patrick is also known as The Reek. It is easily Ireland’s most climbed mountain with large crowds climbing to the summit all year round.. The main day however is the Last Sunday in July known as Reek Sunday when pilgrims climb in their thousands to the oratory on top (built in 1905) where a mass is said. The tradition of climbing the mountain on the last Sunday in July has all the hallmarks of the Lughnasa festival which can be traced back to the Iron Age. Like holy wells the new young religion established itself in the 5th and later centuries by making use of earlier features and traditions. In this way the remnants of prehistoric activities and traditions are still found in Ireland today.
Clew Bay, Co. Mayo

On a clear day, Croagh Patrick offers one of the best views of Clew Bay with its numerous islands, many one of which are privately owned (one was owned by John Lennon). Climbing the mountain is well worth the effort although I do not reccomend climbing it barefoot due to the steepness of the slope and the many loose and jagged rocks which form the path towards the summit.
Path to the summit, this is why barefoot is not a good idea

For a really interesting blog on medieval pilgrimage be sure and follow 

Slane Fieldschool

Over Easter week 2012 I had the opportunity to take part in an introduction to archaeological geophysics course on the Hill of Slane, Co. Meath. The Hill of Slane is located to the North of the village of Slane which is just outside the World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne. We stayed in the Slane Farm Hostel for the week, a fantastic hostel with everything you need for any length of a stay (both indoor and camping) including fresh eggs in the morning. The Hill of Slane and Slane Village is well worth a visit by anyone in the Brú na Bóinne area. There are a number of upstanding archaeological features on the hill. It is reputedly the site on which St. Patrick lit the first Pascal Fire in Ireland in defiance of the High King Laoighaire who had him arrested and brought to Tara. Here St. Patrick taught him about God and Christianity and while the King himself did not convert he allowed Patrick to continue his mission in Ireland. The course was run by Kevin Barton and Dr. Conor Brady.

Slane Festival of Fire

The course had 18 participants from 11 different countries (Ireland, Bolivia, Estonia, Latvia, USA, Poland, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Finland and Germany). We arrived on Saturday the 07 April from our various origins and got to see the First Slane Festival that evening, an event organised by Slane locals celebrating their locality and it’s ties to St. Patrick. There were acrobatic and fire displays and the Easter Fire was lit before the locals paraded back down the hill with the Easter Flame for the vigil mass.

Sunday the 08 April brought a trip to the Brú na Bóinne Neolithic passage tomb sites of Knowth and Newgrange. We were provided with tours of both sites from the OPW. After the Newgrange tour, Kevin gave us a brief account of the recent survey carried out on Newgrange which aimed to search for the presence of a second passage. While the survey could not be completed, the method proved successful as demonstrated by the survey carried out on the already known passage. We then went to Drogheda to stock up on food for the week and followed that with a tour of The Hill of Slane led by Dr. Conor Brady who outlined the monastic site, the monastery, the Norman motte and the various anomalies which were identified through field survey and LiDAR survey. We were also introduced to the field we would be working in the following day.

That evening following dinner, we had our introductory lecture and a lecture on magnetic susceptibility survey and surface collection survey from Conor and Kevin. This was followed by a case study on surface collection survey through a report on the survey and excavation carried out at Rossnaree in the Boyne Valley by Dr. Conor Brady.


Monday the 09 April was spent in a ploughed field on the south-west side of the Hill. For the week we were split into groups of four and each group given an area to make teaching and surveying work easier and more hands-on. Here we practiced fieldwalking, magneic susceptibility, sub-metre GPS, metal detecting and total station use. The evening brought a lecture from Kevin where he presented the results of geophysical surveys on an archaeological site in Norway. The results of each survey were compared to one another to highlight the benefits of multi-method approaches, to show how they complement one another and to demonstrate how some features are visible in some survey results but not in others. Piotr from Poland then introduced us to the software Snuffler, a free to use programme used for processing magnetic and resistance surveys. This would be the programme we would be using for our data processing later in the week and following the field school.

Magnetic Susceptibility
Metal detecting

Surface Collection
Tuesday 10th and for the rest of the week we remained in the vicinity of the monastic site on top of the hill for survey work.  In 1997 a trench was dug for an electric cable to provide floodlights on the monuments. This extended in an east-west direction from the visitors car park to the monuments. The trench was dug about 30cm wide and 1m deep. Kieran Campbell, a consultant archaeologist monitored the excavation of this trench and noted a number of possible archaeological remains mainly in the form of stone scatters and blocks. These may be the remains of centuries of activity on the hill. Because this was only a 30cm wide keyhole no interpretations could be made. Each of these features was marked by its distance from the gate at the end of the field. Before we arrived to the Field school these spots had been identified and marked with a sub-metre GPS. A grid of ten 20x20m squares was created around the line. The line went through five of these squares with another five added in order to extend the survey. Our job was to survey these grids in our groups using the various remote sensing methods that were demonstrated to us. The aim of this survey was to identify if the features identified by Kieran Campbell extended beyond the trench. For the first day our tasks were; earth resistance, magnetic susceptibility and dumpy levels.
That morning we carried out an Earth Resistance survey with points taken every 50cm along transects spaced 50cm apart. After a few readings the machine decided to give up so we carried out a magnetic susceptibility survey which threw up some strange results possibly due to the volcanic bedrock which was quite close to the surface. After lunch two of us carried out a dumpy level survey while two of us practiced low-level aerial photography using kites.
The evening brought with it a lecture from the Discovery Programme on their research in Ireland demonstrating their use of techniques such as LiDAR, Photogrammetry and laser scanning. Different case studies were demonstrated and varying results that can be achieved by using different approaches to the same technique were also demonstrated. They also showed some of the results from laser scans carried out that day on the College with other groups.
Magnetic Susceptibility and GPS survey

Wednesday the 11 April was started with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey.  GPR is used to take slices of the earth to identify cuts and ditches and other anomalies. These can then be viewed both vertically and horizontally It is operated by at least two people. We took it in turns to control the operation and to pull the antennae. GPR’s come in various sizes which either have high resolution or allow for deeper surveys at the expense of resolution. Thus it is up to the surveyor to decide which is more important. The GPR we were using was a GSSI SIR-3000 GPR which had a frequency of 400MHz. This would provide high-resolution results to a depth of about 1.5m as opposed to a 100MHz GPR which would have a lower resolution but penetrate to depths of 5-20m. Readings were taken spaced at 50cm apart in 20m transects.
In the afternoon we were with the Discovery Programme where they demonstrated three of their laser scanners. Laser scanners emit thousands of pulses every second and the distance and time of return is collected to build up a 3-D image of an object or features surface. Control points and GPS are used to fit the scans together in the processing stage. The first scanner was the Trimble laser scanner used to scan a section of the church on the Hill of Slane. This scanner is used to survey large objects such as buildings. It shoots around 5,000 points per second and has a range of about 100m. This was useful as we could see it as it happened on a toughbook. The second scanner was the Faro laser scanner which was used to scan The College next to the church. The Faro scanner is a self-contained unit so once its set up, it collects the points without the need of a Toughbook and so is a less hands on and far quicker method. It is also used to survey large objects such as buildings and emits over 900,000 points per second. Like the Trimble, it uses reference points to tie the scans together to build up a 3-D model. The final scanner was carried out on a decorated panel inside The College. This was a NextEngine object scanner and like the Trimble scanner we could see it as it happened. It scans a specific area and is then moved to scan the next area, using overlaps to fit the scans together to form a 3-D model of an object or artefact.
The evening brought a display from Kevin on our results from the day and then demonstration on the use of the program Snuffler from Piotr using the results that we had collected ourselves.

Trimble Laser Scanner

Faro Laser Scanner

Object Laser Scanner

GPR Survey
GPR Survey
On thursday 12th we managed to complete the earth resistivity survey of our grid which we hadn’t managed to do earlier in the week (see Tuesday above). After this we carried out an electrical resistivity tomography survey. This takes a 2-D slice of the earth to highlight anomalies. It uses probes spaced every 20m and uses the same meter as the earth resistance. Four cables are plugged in to the meter and attached with crocodile clips to four probes at a time. The current is measured on the reading and then the crocodile clips are moved one up. Once the line is complete the clips are brought back to the start and the spacing is increased.  We carried this out over the area of the pipeline to a depth of about 1.5m. 
In the afternoon we carried out the magnetic gradiometry survey of our area. To do this we had to be completely metal free. Luckily it was not raining so our rain gear could be kept off. We used two flux-gate gradiometers, a single and a dual gradiometer. These measure changes in the vertical magnetic field caused by buried objects or areas with a higher magnetic susceptibility (burnt areas) which are higher than the surrounding soil. At first we found a spot which had a reading of zero magnetism. This is harder to achieve with the dual gradiometer as two probes are at work at once.  Onc a control had been established, we went to our grid and scanned them at first in parallels lines and then in zig zags spaced at 50cm intervals. We also walked in two methods, one with lines as a reference to provide more accurate scans and one with flags at the end of the grid which was a little more inaccurate. This was to show how the different forms may be able to show different results which vary in accuracy. We downloaded the data into Surfer and had a look at it in the field which showed some excellent results just from the raw data. 
In the evening we had a demonstration on the use of Snuffler on data from the magnetic gradiometry survey and then a demonstration from Michal from Poland on the use of QGIS to geo-reference low-level aerial photographs and to draw polygons on the geo-referenced images. 

Earth Resistance Survey
Earth Resistivity Tomography Probes

Earth Resistivity Tomography Survey


The final day of the course brought with it a wind down for our group. Each group had been assigned either a morning or afternoon free to carry out further work on an area of their choice with the available equipment. Our free slot was assigned as Friday morning and for this our first task was to mark with a sub-metre GPS the location of all the surface collection and metal detector hits from the first day for the areas of Groups 2, 3 and our own. Groups 1’s area was to be left as they wanted to carry out further work on their area in their free slot that afternoon as they had identified a burnt area and a number of pieces of flint. We took an early lunch so as to finish up early that day. Philip Bromwell from RTE news also visited us that morning and carried out a few interviews and took a few shots of the work being carried out for the 6 o’clock news (here).
In the afternoon we got to try out the Low level aerial photography using kites. The platform and the camera had been damaged in a fall earlier in the week so we didn’t get to see this aspect however we got to try out controlling the kite in low winds which was difficult enough in itself. We were also taken through how to construct our own-homemade camera platform by Michal and Asia.

In the evening we had an early computer session as we had finished up early. Michal brought us through using the programme Agisoft to build up 3-D representations of images. We were also given a free version of this and demonstrated how to use the full version.

This was an excellent course with the perfect balance between teaching and learning by doing. If it is run again it is definitely worth the investment for any archaeologist to go away for this week. It teaches so much and really opens your eyes to what is available to the profession. 
10/10 a great week!