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On Friday, in the southwest corner of Phoenix Park, overlooking Chapelizod, three panels of steel fencing stood around the Knockmaree Dolmen.
Inside the temporary enclosure were four yellow parking cones and a wrap of red and white tape.
The dolmen – or cromlech – resembles a rugged, irregularly shaped park bench.
Made up of a heavy limestone slab, laid across five smaller rocks, and supported by a concrete block, the landmark is about four feet long, two high, and – save for the more recent additions – around 5,000 years old.
The fencing now up is an interim security measure after a chunk of the dolmen’s capstone broke off, says a press spokesperson for the Office of Public Works (OPW).
It had been repaired in the 1990s, they said. But they didn’t say how the stone became unattached again earlier this month.
Despite being the oldest identified human-made structure in the Chapelizod area, until now, it has been vulnerable to damage, says Peter Kavanagh, a member of the Chapelizod Heritage Society.
Members of local history and neighbourhood groups have been asking the OPW since the 1990s for better protection of the ancient site, he says.
“We had asked the OPW to put a little fence around it,” he says. “It’s important because it’s not just a stone. It represents the people of Chapelizod.”
Was It Knocked or Did It Fall?
On Monday morning, Kavanagh ascended Knockmary Hill to survey the dolmen.
The thin frost on the grass was thawing as he scaled the slim and steep path leading from Park Lane up to Knockmary Lodge.
Across the surface of the dolmen’s L-shaped capstone were cracks. One of the splits, right down its centre, had been mended with concrete.
That, Kavanagh says, occurred in the 1970s. “A gang was drinking here. They lit a little fire underneath and kept throwing sticks on the fire, and it cracked the whole thing.”
Across the monument, other hairline cracks are visible. And at the corner where the latest break occurred, its absence was evidenced by a jagged square scar, silvery blue with pale yellow blotches.
A wedge of the capstone has come clean off.
Kavanagh’s wife spotted it while out walking their dogs on the first Saturday morning in February, he says. “When she came home, she said there’s a lump after being knocked off the cromlech.”
She took photos showing the hefty wedge on the ground. Alongside it was a set of pronounced track marks from a piece of machinery.
Last Friday, the faded track marks were still visible beside the Neolithic tomb.
The morning after his wife had noticed the break, Kavanagh ventured out to see for himself.
He wanted to photograph the fragment to check if there were any impact marks, he says. “With that stone, you’d get a bruise, and the bruise would be white.”
But the wedge was gone by then, he says.
The Office of Public Works’ spokesperson said its workers had inspected the dolmen.
It had been repaired in the 1990s, they said. “It would appear that this repair has now failed with a small portion of the capstone […] becoming unattached.”
The OPW plans to repair the capstone with the help of the National Monument Service, the spokesperson said. In the meantime, the area has been secured with temporary fencing.
There isn’t even an information board to tell strollers-by about the historic significance of the dolmen, said Kavanagh, as he wandered around the monument on Monday.
Dating to sometime between 3,000 and 2,500 BC, the Knockmaree Dolmen is the oldest evidence of human activity in Chapelizod, according to the Chapelizod Heritage Society’s historic journal, Adsiltia.
It was uncovered in 1838 by workmen who were carrying out improvements in the park on the behalf of the Commissioner of Woods and Forests, Kavanagh says.
A lieutenant from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland happened to be passing by on his horse, he says. “And someone started shouting, ‘We found something.’”
The workers were removing an ancient tumulus, a mound 15ft high, when they uncovered four clay urns containing cremated bones, George Petrie, president of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy told a committee meeting on 28 May 1838. “Subsequently, in the centre of the mound, a tomb was discovered, and the workmen were stopped from proceeding further.”
The capstone, Petrie said, stood on five supporting stones, with a further five used to form the tomb’s enclosure.
Inside the tomb were two male human skeletons, a femora belonging to another’s remains, and a bone believed to belong to a dog, Petrie said in his report.
According to Thomas Drummond, the Under-Secretary for Ireland, the discovery had the potential to “throw much light on the disputed question of the origin of ‘cromlechs’.”
Kavanagh says that the artefacts found in the burial, including a flint knife and shell necklace, now reside in the Natural History Museum. “And the cromlech has never been protected since.”
A Bit of Fencing
The broken wedge has only highlighted an issue that members of the Chapelizod Heritage Society, the Chapelizod Old Village Association and Chapelizod Tidy Towns had been raising with the OPW since the 1990s, Kavanagh says.
Each of the local organisations had recorded and reported the fissures and hairline cracks that preceded the latest piece of damage, he says.
Permanent protection should already have been in place around the monument before this could occur, he says.
During a Dáil Éireann debate in March 2006, Sinn Fein TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the then-Minister of Finance, Brian Cowen why the OPW had failed to protect the dolmen.
It had deteriorated in recent years due to traffic and other activities, he said, before querying when a plaque explaining its history would be erected.
The then-Minister said the site was not at risk from traffic, noting a 2003 archaeological inspection, which reported that there was no evidence of damage since the capstone was repaired in 1973.
“The possibility of erecting an information plaque at the site will, however, be examined,” Cowen said in conclusion.
More recently, Fine Gael Senator Mary Seery Kearney says Kavanagh brought her to see the landmark in 2022 as part of the most recent local effort. “It wasn’t being protected. The actual item is there without any railings around it.”
In correspondence with the Minister for Heritage, the Green Party’s Malcolm Noonan, in July 2022, she was told that the OPW would need to carefully consider the heavy impact that fencing could have on the monument.
Minister Noonan wrote that as part of its restoration, the OPW Conservation Architect recommended lime putty be used to fill its joints, with this replenished at regular intervals.
The OPW, at the time, would arrange for a structural engineer to assess the capstone, the Minister wrote, also noting that signage could be created to dissuade people from clambering on it.
Later, in November, the minister told Seery Kearney that a structural engineer assessment and signage forms would make up part of the OPW Business Plan for 2023.
There still wasn’t any signage near the monument, as of 13 February.
It needs to be identified publicly, Seery Kearney says. “People thought it was just a table. They sit on it. They have picnics on it without realising that it is 5,000 years of history, right there.”
The OPW didn’t respond by the time this was published to questions about whether it would consider putting up permanent fencing. The Minister for Heritage did not respond to a request for comment either.
Standing by the temporary fencing, Kavanagh takes a Chapelizod Heritage Society pamphlet out of his bag. On its cover is a photograph of the cromlech.
It is the society’s logo, he says. “We are shouting out: look after this!”
There’s already an information plaque for the dolmen but its at the bottom of the hill near the road.
There’s no National Monument sign by Knockmaree Dolmen which there should be. However the one next to Glendruid Dolmen didn’t stop it getting defaced with graffiti this year. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_monument_(Ireland)
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