2003:2035 - RATHSHILLANE, Wexford

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Wexford Site name: RATHSHILLANE

Sites and Monuments Record No.: WX053-011---- Licence number: 03E0223

Author: Cóilín Ó Drisceoil

Site type: House - fortified house

Period/Dating: Late Medieval (AD 1100-AD 1599)

ITM: E 709236m, N 606933m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 52.203346, -6.401848

A preliminary assessment was completed in March 2003 in advance of a decision being made about a proposed conservation and development project at Rathshillane fortified house, Co. Wexford. Following a request for further information, a second assessment was undertaken.

The proposed development involves the stabilisation of the ruins of the castle, inserting a glass and steel structure of modern design within the four walls and constructing a home office/store, garage and associated driveways and services near the castle.

Rathshillane lies on the western shore of Lady's Island Lake. The development area is agricultural land and the castle is situated on the side of a low hill that declines to the lake and an east-west-flowing stream some 100m away. As a consequence of drainage works and reclamation of Lady's Island Lake, the castle is currently some 300m from the lakeshore, though in the 17th century the lake was closer to the house.

Rathshillane fortified house is one of only five in County Wexford and some 200 in Ireland (Moore 1988, 181; O'Conor 1998, 25). The fortified house is a descendant of the tower-house. It differs in that it is a longer building, taking up twice the usual floor space of a tower-house, and does not have a barrel vault at ground-floor level (13.1m north-south by 7.45m). The fortified house also contains only three storeys, as opposed to the usual five, and it was a more comfortable, less defensive, dwelling than its precursors. O'Conor (op. cit.) has dated the new building style, on architectural grounds, to the late 16th to mid-17th centuries.

According to Jeffrey (1979), the earliest known documentary reference to Rathshillane Castle occurs in 1616, when 'Robert French was seized of the tower and lands at Rathshelane'. The previous occupiers of the land, the Elliots, first appear in the records during 1570 and it may have been that they built the fortified house on the site (Jeffrey op. cit.).

On the OS maps of 1841 and 1944, the site occupies the north-east corner of an enclosure, probably the same enclosure visible on an aerial photograph contained in the site's SMR file (ASIAP WX, 72, 32–3) (Moore op. cit.) The size and position of this enclosure suggest that it may be the remains of a bawn, which commonly accompanied fortified houses, although the possibility that it was a later field boundary cannot be discounted (O'Conor op. cit.) Testing undertaken on the site did not conclusively prove the presence of a bawn ditch.

Testing involved the excavation of two trenches within the castle and ten outside it. Thirteen per cent of the proposed development area was tested. Four areas of archaeological importance were identified. Area 1 was the original cobbled floor of the castle. Area 2 was a layer of redeposited subsoil thrown up to form the platform on which the castle was built. A drainage gully at the base of the platform was termed Area 3 and a large area of organic soil filling a natural hollow, Area 4, which corresponds partially with the location of the enclosure noted above, may represent its plough-damaged remains. There were relatively few artefacts found and most of them related to later occupation of the site.

Jeffrey, W.H. 1979 'The castles of Co. Wexford', Journal of the Wexford Historical Society.
Moore, M.J. 1988 The archaeological inventory of County Wexford. Dublin.
O'Conor, K.D. 1998 The archaeology of medieval rural settlement in Ireland. Discovery Programme Monograph 3. Dublin.

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