Tullylish - its Celtic Origins

Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989


its Celtic Origins

by M.P. Campbell

Tullylish Parish in Irish 'Tulach Lis' meaning 'the hill of the fort' or as stated by Dr R Ivens, 'the hill of the enclosure' owes its origin to the siting of an early monastery on an elevated hill overlooking the River Bann to the east of the present Church of Ireland in the townland of Tullylish, some one and a half miles east of Gilford. That a fort, and later a monastery, should be sited here is understandable since it was a feature of early Celtic raths and monasteries that they should be situated convenient to a line of communication and also close to a river. There were obvious advantages in such an arrangement. The route traversing in the west side of the County Down from north to south has probably been important since early times, according to Fulton in his thesis 'Roads of Co Down'.

Before Belfast grew to importance, the chief route lay along the west from Newry to the Lurgan area and thence to Antrim along the east side of Lough Neagh. The only indication of this road on early 17th century maps is the pass at Tullylish shown on a survey printed about 1654. It is a reasonable assumption that this road would have been a major means of communication in Celtic times since raths abound in West Down and raths are found along ancient roadways.

To state when the monastery at Tullylish was established is not possible but it may be presumed it was founded in the 6th or 7th century.

The earliest reference to Tullylish Parish is of a conjectural nature. In the "Annals of the Four Masters' under the date A.M. 3501 is the following entry.

"This was the year in which Eremhom and Emher assumed the joint sovereignty of Ireland and divided Ireland into two parts between them. It was in it, moreover that these following acts were done:

Carraig-Blaraighe by Mantan". This is a rather vague quotation indeed. The editor of the Annals, John O'Donavan states that he never met any topographical name like Blaraighe except Blyry in Co Westmeath. However, one of the townlands comprising the present Parish of Tullylish, Bleary, is so called. Close by is the sessiogh (quarter townland) of Broughlish meaning a palace or large residence. So the above extract may possibly refer to Bleary in Tullylish.

St Nascai (Feast Day 12th May) may have been the founder of the monastery. There appears to be some difficulty, not alone in determining the period when that saint lived, but even the identity of the subject is doubtful. Dean Myles in "Historical Notes on the Parish of Tullylish" states that in the published Martyrology of Tullagh the simple entry Nasc occurs at this date. Preceding it, however, there is the entry, "Ere-i-maigh Leis" which may have been another name for Tullylish.

The killing of Abbot Dunchu

In the "Annals of Ulster" we find a record of the killing of Abbot Dunchu in the year 804 near the shrine of St Patrick in 'Tulach-Lios' which the author identifies with Tullylish in Iveagh. If that is so then the existence here at that period of a shrine of St Patrick is of immense interest since the presence of the Abbot is clear indication that a monastery had been here for some time before the brutal killing.

Dr Anne Hamlin, a noted authority on early Celtic Monasticism, states that the killing is the only one of the period ever to be recorded: unfortunately for us, the reason for such a crime is not given. However, it seems unlikely that Tullylish was established before the monastery in Dromore which was founded by St Colman about 510 AD. The fact that Tullylish monastery was enclosed in a circular fort or rath-like structure is an indication that it occupied a former Celtic site which was defensive in nature.

Samuel Lewis for instance, in his "Topographical dictionary of Ireland", published 1837, writes of Tullylish:

"The Church, which is situated at Banford on the Southern bank of the river over which is an excellent stone bridge was built in 1698 upon the outer defences Of an ancient fort or field-work raised to defend the pass of river on the site of the former edifice which had been destroyed in 1641".

The most widespread misconception about forts is that these structures were built and inhabited by the Danes. It has been suggested that this is the result of confusing the Danes with the De Danann, a people mentioned in the early mythological accounts of the colonisation of Ireland. According to O'Riordain in "Antiquities of the Irish Country-side", the forts are no more due to the De Danann than to the Danes and their attribution to the latter is an old idea.

Geraldus Cambrensis writing in the twelfth century spoke of the 'great trenches', very deep and round and frequently in threes and also walled fortifications (castella) still complete but empty and uninhabited which he ascribed to the Norse under Turgesius.

Possibly this passage by Giraldus was accepted by early antiquaries whose speculations were inspired by works like Lewis's "Topographical Dictionary", which has frequent references to forts and Danish forts, These forts or raths were not meant to be defensive in a military sense but would give protection from attacks by Celtic marauders or cattle thieves.

Strategic location

The monastery located in Tullylish on this site was strategically well positioned: on a line of communication N-S and on an elevated position above the Bann watershed, commanding a good view over the surrounding countryside. Monks of the day (Celtic Period) besides being men of religion were farmers, labourers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, coppersmiths, masons, millers, etc. This rath was most likely a typical Celtic one except for an area which was given over to buildings reserved for monastic purposes.

With the passage of time and the changing order of religious organisation such a site would have suggested itself as the ideal place for the building of a parish church. Recent archaeological excavations at Tullylish have proved beyond doubt that the fort of Tullylish was a monastic site. Although the extent of the discovery has not been fully analysed it has confirmed the widely held belief that Tullylish was quite an important monastic settlement.

Medieval pottery discovered

During the mechanical excavation of the site, quantities of medieval pottery were recovered from what was suspected to be the topmost fill of a large ditch. Hand excavation proved this to be the case and a large, steep sided, flat bottomed, rock-cut ditch was revealed some 4.60m wide and 2.80m deep, located some 30m outside the previously defined limit of the site. Immediately below the top soil and a dump of levelling material, was a layer of what appeared to be hidden material containing large quantities of highly decorated unglazed coil-built pottery which can be dated by the associated coins to the very late fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.

The ditch fill below this medieval layer contained only artefacts of Early Christian date which in addition to souterrain-ware pottery, fragments of a crucible and a few bronze and iron artefacts, included a considerable number of fragments of lignite bracelets ranging from the finished polished article through roughly carved pieces to the discarded centres. This provided some of the earliest evidence for the manufacture of these characteristic ornaments of the Early Christian Ireland.

Dr Richard Ivens reporting on his excavations states, "About 5m inside the line of this ditch a second earlier and even more massive ditch was found (c. 5m wide and 3.60m deep) with almost sheer sides and a flat bottom. Apart from one or two sherds of souterra in-ware pottery, no artefacts have so far been recovered from the excavated sections of this ditch, and it appeared to have been deliberately filled in after an initial period of silting and use as a midden dump. However, the ditch was not completely filled at this stage but left as a broad and rather shallow (c 1.50m) feature with a number of large stone packed post-holes and many small stone holes cut into its floor.

Subsequently this shallow ditch was infilled and sealed by the tail of a slight remnant of the bank, which can be associated with the secondary outer ditch. This slight bank remnant lay directly on a primary subsoil which seems to have been scraped clean of the original top soil. Apart from the bones of a single human leg which lay on the sub soil and were protected by two flat stones, the surface beneath the bank was totally sterile.

The massive nature of these defence works might suggest that the site was originally a secular defensive work of the nature of a small hill fort which was subsequently taken over by a monastic community.

To date, the excavated area within the line of these ditches consists entirely of an extensive burial ground which judging from the way the graves are under cut, was used over a considerable period. The burials appear to be orientated in a manner that follows the line of the defences which suggests that they are contemporary, early Christian graves.

During medieval period (c. 14th - 15th century) the line of the inner ditch was re-used by a series of agricultural and industrial structures which were cut into its soft fill. These include: a number of small pits containing very large amounts of slag and other vitreous material, and although these pits cannot have been furnaces, they do indicate metal working on a considerable scale somewhere in the vicinity: large hollow (c. 5m x 10m) containing a large central hearth and several ancillary hearths (this feature is still under excavation): and a large stone-built furnace some 2 meters in diameter with three equally spaced flues, two of which have been carefully blocked and were presumably used selectively, according to wind direction. Though no direct evidence as to its original use has so far been recovered, it seems likely that this elaborate structure was a corn-drying kiln".

This proves conclusively what was generally believed, that Tullylish was a habitation and then Church site from the Celtic era through the early Christian period to modern times. So much for Tullylish.


Another ancient church is found in Donacloney in the old churchyard on the banks of the River Lagan. It was built in or near a rath similar to that at Tullylish. The name Donacloney is from the Irish Domhnach Chuana meaning "The Church of the meadow"; this name obviously is derived from the first religious foundation in the area. It was generally believed that those place-names with a 'Donagh', meaning church occurring in them, were sites founded by St Patrick himself.

Could St Patrick have been so busy whilst in Ireland? Contrary to the view taken by Archdeacon Atkinson in his history of Donacloney that St Patrick founded this ancient site in the course of his journeys from Armagh to Saul near Downpatrick, such a prefix as 'Donagh' does not occur in place names until after the seventh century.

As in Tullylish, there is evidence that the original monastic settlement was developed within an earlier Celtic rath or fort. Today there is much fairy-lore associated with forts and the "wee-people" who dwell in them. Thanks to the DOE (Ancient Monuments Branch), forts are preserved and will no longer be ravaged or destroyed as they were in the past. About 30,000 still survive in Ireland of which 1,300 are identified in Co Down.

* Dr Richard Ivens carried out the archaeological excavations at the site (1983).