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Men found in shallow grave under Cork pub met a violent death centuries ago, say archaeologists

Skeletal remains found on the site of Nancy Spain’s pub in Cork have been determined to date back to as early as 1447.

The site on Barrack Street in Cork city
The site on Barrack Street in Cork city

MEN WHOSE SKELETAL remains dating back centuries were found in a shallow grave last year during the demolition of 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 7 October 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 20 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.
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Archaeologists said 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.

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

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

Niamh Daly, the osteo-archaeologist employed at the site, said 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 80 metres from the burial site, burnt down. The revolt continued for a month before it was quelled by English reinforcements.

City Archaeologist Ciara Brett said 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.”

Second discovery

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

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

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“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.

David Murphy, the archaeologist who excavated the site, said 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.”

Murphy said that 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.”

About the author:

Olivia Kelleher

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