2000:0203 - BALALLY, Dublin

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Dublin Site name: BALALLY

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 00E0370

Author: Mark Clinton, Valerie J. Keeley Ltd, Brehon House, Kilkenny Road, Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny.

Site type: Post-medieval cobbled trackway

ITM: E 717667m, N 726429m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.275119, -6.235744

The relevant archaeological literature in recent times has maintained a perception of a section of the Pale Ditch as being extant in the townland of Balally, close to Sandyford in South County Dublin (Healy 1978, 1; Goodbody 1993a, 29; 1993b, 25; O’Keeffe 1992, 71). Indeed, as early as 1895 it had been suggested that the line of the ditch had ‘crossed the Parish of Taney to the south of that part of the lands of Balally now called Moreen’ (Ball and Hamilton 1895, 8). This assertion was based on information supplied to the writers by G.T. Stokes (ibid., 9fn).

The first detailed report on the relevant feature appeared in the late 1970s (Healy 1978, 1–2). The visible remains were described as a linear earthwork 220m long. In its best-preserved section this consisted of a flat-topped bank with flanking fosses (mostly filled in) on either side. The bank was further described as being 3–4m wide on top, 6m wide at the base and 1–1.2m high. The flanking fosses featured an average width of 2m and had a depth of 0.3m. Consequently, the layout and construction of the housing estate of Kilcross were to take into account the presence of the earthwork, and its southern stretch was duly incorporated into the scheme.

In the 1990s the projected construction of the South-Eastern Motorway, whose proposed route would directly impinge on the northern stretch of the earthwork, prompted further archaeological interest in the site. Hence a test excavation was conducted in 1996 by Colin Gracie, which focused on the northern stretch of the earthwork (Excavations 1996, 16, 96E0218). This work exposed a linear ‘fosse’ extending on a north–south orientation (Gracie 1996, 5–6). It was recommended that a full excavation should proceed in advance of the construction of the relevant section of the South-Eastern Motorway.

Full excavation took place over ten weeks between 12 June and 18 August 2000. Initial efforts were concentrated on re-establishing Cuttings A, D and G from the 1996 test excavation. Cutting C from the original excavation had not penetrated very deeply and was supplanted by, and incorporated into, two new cuttings (M and N). An additional test-cutting (B) could not be reactivated as it is now sited within the security wall of the Central Bank compound and thus does not lie within the take of the proposed motorway.

The intervening areas between Cuttings A, D and G, and those areas further to the north and within the motorway corridor, were subsequently investigated. It was soon evident that the suggested ‘fosse’ was in fact the foundation trench for a substantial mortar and granite stone wall. Judging by the overall dimensions of many of the constituent elements filling the foundation trench, it is clear that the wall was originally of a potentially significant height.

Foundation trench/wall foundations

The foundation trench averaged 1.2–1.3m wide and 0.4–0.5m deep. The sides and floor of the trench had been cut quite angularly into the underlying yellow boulder clay. The foundation ‘courses’ of the wall had been tightly packed into the trench, and consequently the wall averaged 1.2m wide. Its exposed length was 50.5m. The wall (and logically its foundation trench) extended on a basically north-north-east/south-south-west line but almost adopted a north–south course in its final stage. The southern limits of these features (within the area of the motorway corridor) could not be investigated because of the presence of an active subterranean high-voltage electricity supply line. The northern terminal of the wall was uncovered within the excavated area (see below). The wall had in former times denoted the eastern flank of a cobbled trackway or avenue.

Cobbled trackway

The cobbled trackway had an average width of 5m. Its composite material was on average 0.1–0.25m in depth. The stones employed in the cobbling were generally angular and quite uniform in a limited range of sizes (e.g. 0.1m x 0.1m x 0.04m; 0.07m x 0.04m x 0.03m; 0.2m x 0.1m x 0.06m; 0.06m x 0.04m x 0.02m). Although the stones were loosely set, their very quantity and an underlying bedding stratum would have achieved a relatively even surface. An interesting noted feature was that the wheels of passing carts or carriages had created ruts in the cobbled surface; these were still very much in evidence.

Beneath the cobble stratum a layer of gravel, sand and loosely set stones had been laid down to form a foundation bed for the trackway. This stratum varied in depth from 0.24m in Cutting H, to 0.15–0.2m in Cuttings E and F, to 0.2–0.24m in Cutting G. Beneath the bedding layer a stratum of orange to light brown clay (silty in places) overlay the natural boulder clay. This interim layer varied in depth from 0.1m to 0.2m in Cutting G to a maximum of 0.4m (overlying a French drain) in Cutting K.

The northern terminals of both the cobbled trackway and the flanking eastern wall were uncovered in Cutting M, the trackway progressing 1.9m further than the wall. In the adjoining cutting to the west (N), despite extensive disturbance resulting from the installation of two parallel-running gas pipelines, there were firm indications that the western flank of the cobbled trackway extended an additional 3.4m. At its northern terminal in Cutting M, the trackway had been laid down on top of an underlying accumulation of minor boulders. These extended down to a depth of 0.8m.

The interpretation of this conjunction of features was facilitated by a study of the first edition of OS 6-inch Sheet No. 22 and a subsequent plotting of the indicated features on the ground. It thus became apparent that it was at this point that the trackway (and its attendant wall) would have encountered the former course of a small stream (the course of the stream was radically adjusted in more recent times as a result of the construction of a security wall for the Central Bank compound). There can be little doubt that there was a bridge of an unknown but probably insubstantial nature (probably wood-built?) formerly in situ at the northern terminal of the cobbled trackway. As the trackway and the river would have met at an acute angle, the western flank of the trackway would, by necessity, have been longer than its eastern counterpart. The relevant OS map further indicated that the trackway proceeded along its northerly course on the far bank of the stream before turning in an easterly direction towards the former site of Moreen House.

There were a number of indications that the western edge of the cobbled trackway was also denoted by walling or at least by a formally set kerb. Whether or not this feature was continuous could not be determined, but it would appear that it was never of as substantial a structure as its eastern counterpart. The best-preserved manifestation was uncovered in Cutting N. There, the foundation course of a mortared wall, 0.6 wide and surviving to a height of 0.24m, extended over a length of 6.6m. Further to the north, beyond an area of gas pipeline disturbance, a further 1.3m could be traced. Again, to the south in Cutting E, a neatly arranged alignment of rocks denoted the western edge of the cobbled trackway. This alignment extended briefly into Cutting J. As an indication that there may have been some ancillary boundary demarcation, two collapsed stakes were found in position along the western edge of the cobbled trackway in Cutting G.

Church enclosure

Aerial photography dating to 1971 has revealed the former presence of a double-banked enclosure at Balally. The enclosure was centred on the ruins of Balally church (Ball 1903, 73; Simington 1945, 261). The apparent dimension of the enclosure, which was oval in form, was c. 148m (Fairey Survey of Ireland (BKS 21776139/40); Mount and Keeley 1990, 120).

Two independent excavations, by Claire Cotter and Charles Mount, had formerly investigated areas within the confines of the enclosure. In 1990 the laying of a gas pipeline caused a 1.15m-wide trench to be extended across the interior of the enclosure and to the immediate south of the church itself (Excavations 1990, 4; Excavations 1991, 24). Almost simultaneously the planned construction of the motorway had prompted extensive archaeological investigations to take place within the southern half of the enclosure (Excavations 1990, 2; Excavations 1991, 23). The results of the two excavations were somewhat disappointing. The pipeline work established the presence of the foundation course for a building or a yard of some description to the immediate south of the church remains, while the more extensive investigation uncovered three pits and a number of ill-defined ditch and drain features. The latter excavation did, however, recover a bronze strap-tag of 7th–10th-century date (Mount and Keeley 1990, 123) and sherds of Leinster cooking ware of probable 13th–14th-century date (Ó Floinn 1988, 337).

French drain

The recent excavations would also have impinged on the former site of the enclosure. Again, there were no convincing surviving elements of the banks in evidence. One feature was uncovered, however, that may shed some light on the issue. A French drain was uncovered extending through Cuttings L, K and P. The surface of this feature lay 0.7–0.8m beneath sod level. It was c. 1–1.5m wide and 0.54–0.8m deep. The host trench was filled with tightly packed, large stones and minor boulders. Interestingly, the trench for the drain lay within the perimeters of a broader, shallower cut. This varied from 1.6m to 3.6m in width and 0.2m to 0.44m in depth. It is not impossible of course that the diggers of the drain had deemed it necessary to incorporate a broader upper/outer cut into the design of the drain, possibly to facilitate a greater catchment area. Thus the combined cuts may be intricately related. There is, however, an alternative interpretation to be considered. The actual course of the drain is worthy of attention. It is on a slightly curving trajectory, varying from an east-north-east/west-south-west line in Cuttings L and K to a north-east/south-west line in Cutting P. This suggested curve is remarkably similar to the one (judging by the aerial photograph) adopted by the early historic period enclosure. There are two known factors to be considered in this equation. Firstly, it is known that the banks were extant at the time of the construction of the cobbled trackway. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the former were partially destroyed by the post-medieval construction operation. Secondly, the former course of the nearby stream is known. Thus it can be stated that the drain was not heading for the nearest point of potential intersection with the stream. Is it possible, therefore, that the drain builders were influenced in the siting of the drain by the presence of the banks or, more specifically, by the presence of a depression between the curving banks? In other words, is it possible that the broad shallow upper/outer cut of the drain in fact represents a scooped-out concavity connected with the building of the banks? The dating evidence is meagre. The French drain itself appeared to be an integral structural aspect of the post-medieval cobbled trackway. This was evident from the association established between the upper layers of rocks in the drain, a stratum of redeposited brown, silty clay that had been utilised to bring the overall level up to the prevailing level of the gravelly stone foundation bed, and from the gravelly stone fill and the cobbled trackway itself. Two finds were retrieved from deep down among the rocks in the drain—a rimsherd of unglazed terracotta-like ware of possible post-medieval date and a button. Significantly, a sherd of medieval pottery (of Dublin-type coarseware) was found in the fill of the upper/outer cut at floor level. Whether or not the sherd was in a primary place of deposition is not clear, as it displays signs of wear.

It should also be borne in mind that neither of the previous two excavations conducted within the general environs of the church and enclosure established any indications of a fosse. It would have been expected that the trench cut for the gas pipeline, in particular given that it transversed the enclosure, would have detected any extant evidence for a fosse, but this was not the case (Excavations 1990, 24).


The finds from the excavation may be subdivided into three phases: medieval, post-medieval and modern.

Nearly all of the artefacts were ceramic, and only a small number of coins, buttons etc. were present. With the exception of about a dozen sherds of medieval pottery, the finds belonged to the two later phases.


The evidence garnered from the excavation of Balally correlates very well with the information already available in both the early archaeological literature and the cartographical sources. It is documented that the development of Moreen House and its grounds took place in ‘the latter part of the 18th century’ (Ball 1903, 75). The grounds, it is recorded, were laid out with ‘much trouble and expense’ (Ball 1903, 75) The first edition of Sheet 22 of the OS maps clearly illustrates that by the 1840s a trackway or avenue was in existence in the relevant area of the grounds. There are no indications of any such feature on the 1760 map of the area by John Rocque. Unfortunately, there are no estate maps extant (pers. comm., Aideen Ireland, National Archives). The recent excavations have established that the ‘avenue’ took the form of a cobbled trackway, with a potentially substantial wall extending along its eastern side. There are some indications that a more insubstantial wall (or kerbing in places) denoted the western flank of the trackway.

The question of the ‘lately’ perceived association between the extant remains and the medieval Pale Ditch should now be addressed. Indeed, while the excavated section of the feature can be categorised as a later 18th-century avenue or trackway, the southern stretch, extending through the housing estate of Kilcross, is not so easily rationalised. As Healy noted in 1978, there the feature takes the form of a linear earthwork no less than 1–1.2m high, 3–4m wide on top and 6m wide at the bottom (the flanking fosses he recorded have now been landscaped out of view). Given the fact that this stretch of the feature is sited on higher, well-drained terrain, it might be difficult to explain away its raised profile as a manifestation of a later 18th-century trackway. Ironically, there was a propensity in medieval (and indeed post-medieval) times to use sections of the flat-topped Pale Ditch bank as paths and roadways, their permanently dry condition and linear routes being an obvious attraction. Examples of such secondary use have been noted at Neillstown in County Meath (O’Keeffe 1992, 71) and at Ballyogan in County Dublin (Goodbody 1993a, 30). To compound the difficulties, it should be remembered that the original physical manifestation of the Pale Ditch is still generally poorly understood.

The key factor in any analysis of Pale (Maghery), or indeed ‘March’ Ditches, is the reality that responsibility for their construction lay with individual landowners. Thus, not only could the composition/format of the resultant linear earthworks vary from estate to estate but also there is a healthy suspicion that many individual sections were either only half-built or, indeed, not built at all. One must therefore allow for both discontinuous sections and variations in orientation (i.e. respecting the boundaries of individual holdings as opposed to a formal ‘frontier’ per se).

An outside possibility must exist, therefore, that the southern section of the linear earthwork at Balally represents an unfinished section of the Pale Ditch. The topographical evidence would seem to suggest that the lower-lying section (i.e. the excavated section) already existed in the form of a natural moraine or causeway across very marshy ground. It is not improbable either that the earlier inhabitants of the church enclosure used this causeway as an access route from/to the higher ground to the south. Thus it may already have been adopted into use as a rough trackway. It might be suggested that the builders of the Pale Ditch would have viewed such a configuration as a suitable base for the ultimate extension of their ditch. Finally, is it possible that the builders of the late 18th-century cobbled trackway removed or simply levelled out an earlier (bank) feature? Against this, one would have to draw attention to the total absence of any indications of flanking fosses.

A strong counter-argument against all of the preceding suggestions would be that a church, known from the documentary sources to have been in use in the Middle Ages, would hardly have been left immediately ‘beyond the Pale’, given that an alternative siting (a few hundred metres to the west) would not only have placed the church within the Pale but also have occupied the cusp of a strategic ridge with the land falling away in a pronounced fashion to the west and north-west. It is not impossible, therefore, that the elevated southern section of the linear earthwork is no more than a fanciful later 18th-century landscaping feature intrinsically associated with the southward extension of the cobbled trackway. Ultimately only an excavation of a segment of the southern extension would resolve the debate in a satisfactory fashion.


Ball, F.E. 1903 A history of the County Dublin. Part 2. Dublin.

Ball, F.E. and Hamilton, E. 1895 The parish of Taney: a history of Dundrum near Dublin, and its neighbourhood. Dublin.

Goodbody, R. 1993a On the borders of the Pale: a history of the Kilgobbin, Stepaside and Sandyford area. Bray.

Goodbody, R. 1993b Pale Ditch in South County Dublin. Archaeology Ireland 7 (3) (25), 24–5.

Gracie, C. 1996 Site 1: Balally. In V.J. Keeley (ed.), Additional archaeological assessment of Routes A and S South Eastern Motorway. Vol. 1, 6–7.

Healy, P. 1978 A report on the importance of an earthwork believed to be part of the Pale ditch at Balally, Co. Dublin. An Foras Forbartha Teoranta. Dublin.

Mount, C. and Keeley, V. 1990 An early medieval strap-tag from Balally, County Dublin. JRSAI 120, 120–5.

Ó Floinn, R. 1988 Handmade medieval pottery in S.E. Ireland: ‘Leinster Cooking Ware’. In P. Wallace and G. MacNiocaill (eds), Keimelia. Galway.

O’Keeffe, T. 1992 Medieval frontiers and fortification: the Pale and its Evolution. In F.H.A. Aalen and K. Whelan (eds), Dublin city and county: from prehistory to present (Studies in honour of J.H. Andrews). Dublin.

Simington, R.C. 1945 Civil Survey 1654–56, County of Dublin. Dublin.