2003:1670 - Coopershill House, Riverstown, Sligo

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Sligo Site name: Coopershill House, Riverstown

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 03E0925

Author: Charles E. Orser, Jr, Illinois State University and Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway.

Site type: 17th-19th-century demesne

ITM: E 574223m, N 820368m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.131700, -8.394400

In June and July 2003 a team of students sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Rural Ireland at Illinois State University conducted excavations around and inside the ruins of the first mansion on the Coopershill Demesne near Riverstown, Co. Sligo. This was the tenth year of the centre's research in rural Ireland, but the first season in County Sligo.

Coopershill is the ancestral home of a branch of the Cooper family which intermarried with the O'Haras in the early 19th century. The current owners of the estate, who are O'Haras, are the direct descendants of the original Cooper settlers.

The Coopers built two mansions on the Coopershill Demesne. The first house, the object of the investigations, was probably built in the 1650s or 1660s. Historical records indicate that the family lived in this house, called Tanzyfort, until the late 18th century. At this time, they moved to their newly constructed Georgian mansion, which was located on a hill overlooking the first house. The building of the still occupied second house could only be accomplished after the family had solved the problem of constructing a bridge across the River Unshin, which they did in the early 1750s.

The first mansion, located near the river and on the old road to Sligo, was an L-shaped structure with two storeys. It is now in ruins and exhibits evidence of massive alteration and reuse since its abandonment around 1780. Measurements taken within the ruins indicate that the building extended over 1674 square feet on each floor. Preliminary excavation inside the structure revealed the probable presence of at least two rooms, a front hall of 984 square feet and a kitchen of 690 square feet. The original hall had a flagstone floor, while the kitchen floor was composed of tightly set cobblestones.

The west-facing front wall of the house contained a doorway and three windows. The face bond was composed of random uncoursed rubble, probably with a lime plaster rendering. The door had a cambered arch, whereas the windows may have been reworked with brick relieving arches. The upper expanse of the house's front wall was dismantled (probably in 1781) and replaced with vertical stone coping. This decorative treatment may have been designed to convert the ruined house wall into a garden wall or perhaps to give the ruin a romantic appearance to visitors calling at the mansion.

Excavation revealed a possible back entrance almost directly opposite the front doorway, and structural evidence suggests the presence of a fireplace along the north wall of the kitchen and a second-storey fireplace in the building's north-east corner. A more recent structure, called the 'Kennel', was intruded through the north wall of the building, probably during the 1780-1860 period. The builders of the Kennel may have been seeking to tie into a structural feature of the first building, but further excavation is required to determine this for certain. The presence of a window with diamond-shaped mullions in the second floor of the Kennel suggests that this element was removed from the original house and reused in the later building. The Kennel was built to house the huntsman and the locally famous Coopershill hounds.

Excavation took place in the yard directly in front (west) of the house, to the north of the house in front (east) of the Kennel, and at four locations inside the ruin. The yard in front of the house was found to have been intensely disturbed, containing artefacts dating from the late 17th century to the present. Excavations north of the house were inconclusive, and those inside the ruin revealed the house's original flooring and the methods used to construct the wall foundations. The earliest artefacts were shards of tin-glazed earthenware and a lead cloth seal reading 1718.

Further excavation is planned for 2004. The goal of the second season will be to uncover the entire floor surface, to document the room arrangement and to construct a more complete understanding of the building's architectural history. As is true of most historical archaeology, much of this research will be supplemented with information gleaned from historical documents. The family's archive is curated within the current Coopershill House and has been made readily available to the research team by the house's owners.