Archaeology

In recent years the curriculum of the annual Fr. James MacDyer Archaeology School, now in existence for over 30 years, focuses on attracting the new participants as well as those students who wish to return to study in greater depth. National Geographic recently named Gleann Cholm Cille as one of the Top 10 Historic Sites on the island of Ireland.

Gleann Cholm Cille (The Valley of St Columba) and the nearby valleys in southwest Donegal contain some of the most interesting prehistoric and early historic structures in Ireland (some would argue, in Europe). Monuments from the early Neolithic (c. 4000BC) onwards are dotted across this beautiful and informative landscape; among them the huge dolmens at Malinmore and the great court-tombs at Clochán Mór and Farranmacbride. The previous name of the valley – Senglenn ('the old glen') – was very apt.

In medieval times (roughly AD500-1600) that name was changed to honour one of Ireland's best-loved saints: Colmcille (in Irish) or Columba (in Latin). Legends and folkore claim that the saint (c. AD520-593) came to the valley and founded a church there. An important legacy from that Christianisation is the surviving cluster of stone cross-slabs (some probably dating to around AD800) and other early ecclesiastical features around the valley. Another legacy is the famous turas ('pilgrimage') made around those sites; primarily on 9 June, the day the saint died – his feast-day.

This Summer School, based in such an appropriate location, is aimed at adults with an interest in the archaeology and ancient history of Ireland. No previous knowledge is required; merely a curiosity and a willingness to participate in outdoor sessions, studying the evidence of the monuments in their landscape context. Apart from the local monuments, the course will provide an introduction to the archaeology of Ireland in general.

The sites to be visited raise a number of sub-themes which will be pursued also in the discussions and lectures: (i) how the visible landscape is a 'text' to be read; (ii) the process of 'conversion' by which pagan Celtic Ireland became a vibrant Christian culture; (iii) the ethical and practical problems associated with the conservation and 'restoring' of ancient monuments or leaving them as 'ruins'; and (iv) the degree to which the archaeology of the ancient world contributes evidence to the current debate on climate change. One of the sub-themes given prominence this year is the alignment of ancient monuments with astronomical (sky) events.

Normally, day-time sessions are held outdoors at the monuments, with occasional visits to sites outside the glen. There'll also be various evening activities – especially a number of background lectures – and, of course, time to enjoy the other attractions for which the glen is famous.

Please note: Participants are advised to have proper rain-gear and strong walking boots.

Archaeology Summer School 2022

The programme below is still being finalised and there may be some changes arising, for example, from weather and access conditions.

SaturdayIntroduction

SundayShort introductory walk — 'reading the landscape'
Lecture: 'Gleann Cholm Cille in the context of Irish archaeology'

MondayAmuigh faoin aer – visits to local prehistoric (Neolithic) burial monuments (10:00-17:00)
Participants (divided into small teams) will be asked to undertake some basic archaeological tasks as an introduction to field research.

TuesdayAmuigh faoin aer - visits to monuments of various periods in the locality from prehistoric to post-medieval (10:00-13:00)
Storytelling with Eithne Ní Ghallchobhair - archaeological monuments in the Donegal folklore tradition (15:00-16:30)
Illustrated lecture by Brian Lacey: ‘Boyle Somerville and the beginning of the scientific investigations of archaeological monuments as they relate to astronomical events’ (19:30-21:00)

WednesdayDay-long tour to sites outside the valley (10:00-18:00)
Choice of sites will depend on local tides/weather

ThursdaySite visits (10:00-15:00)
Visits to sites near Gleann Cholm Cille: Carrick, Teelin, Kilcar.
Guest lecture by Dr Patrick McCafferty: 'Royal sites and their geographical and astronomical alignments' (19:30-21:00)

FridaySite visits (10:00-15:00)
Visit to Gleann Cholm Cille Folk Village to compare the post-medieval traditional structures there with prehistoric/medieval houses/settlements. Also, a walking tour of some of the 'stations' of Turas Cholm Cille with an introduction to the story of St Colmcille, the patron of the valley.
Debriefing session — 'What did we learn this week?' (16:00-17:00)

Summer School Director

The 2023 Summer School will be directed by Dr Brian Lacey who has been researching the archaeology and early history of Counties Donegal and Derry for 40 years. A former university lecturer and museum director in Derry, he oversaw the archaeological survey of Donegal (1979-83). His particular specialism is the lore of St Colmcille. He has published 14 books and many research papers.

Background to the Summer School

The Gleann Cholm Cille archaeology summer school was established in 1973 by Fr James McDyer with Prof. Michael Herity, University College Dublin, acting as director. Fr McDyer extolled the abundance of archaeological riches in Donegal thus: ‘Rarely has the uncouth hand been raised to deface the monuments here. Never has the march of progress been allowed to brush them irreverently aside’. Prof. Herity served as director until 2015. He sadly passed away on 22 January 2016. ‘Suaimhneas síoraí ar a anam’.