Discover Fermanagh's Rich Archaeological Heritage
Fermanagh abounds in historic monuments and locations stretching back millennia.
Human history in Fermanagh begins at least 7,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period, the era of the hunter-gatherers.
It is not until the Neolithic, from c.4000 BC, that the people of the region begin to emerge from the shadows. Most of what we know about the prehistoric inhabitants of Fermanagh is derived from the megalithic tombs where they buried their dead. Among the other monuments from the prehistoric period are standing stones, stone circles and stone alignments. The best example of a stone circle in Fermanagh is at Drumskinny.
Christianity arrived in Fermanagh in the 5th century and in the centuries that followed numerous centres of religious worship were established across the county.
Most of Fermanagh’s important early ecclesiastical sites are found on islands. A remarkable carved statue can be found in the old graveyard at Caldragh on Boa Island. Two back to back figures are represented, each with an exaggerated head, shoulders and crossed arms. The statue is now thought to date from the Early Christian period, though its full significance has yet to be understood.
Set into a recess in the reconstructed north wall of the ruined church on White Island in Lower Lough Erne is a series of carved figures that probably date to the 9th or 10th centuries. Six of the figures have been completed, while the rough outline of a seventh also survives, its presence suggesting that the figures were carved on site.
The most important ecclesiastical site in Fermanagh is Devenish Island. Despite the destruction that it has experienced over the centuries, Devenish still has the power to engage the imagination in way that few other archaeological sites can. The beginnings of Devenish as a centre of religious life go back to the 6th century when St Molaise established a monastic settlement here. The earliest stone structures on the site have been dated to the 12th century. The round tower at Devenish is the finest surviving example in Northern Ireland and clearly marked it out as a place of religious importance.
Not surprisingly, given its extensive waterways, lake dwellings in the form of artificial islands known as crannogs are found in some numbers in Fermanagh with nearly 80 positive identifications and another 65 or so possibilities. The recent excavation of the crannog at Drumclay has revealed a site of great importance, rich in finds from a period of occupation stretching from around AD 900 to 1600.
The 13th century saw the rise of the Maguires as the ruling family of Fermanagh.
The Moat, Cornashee, Lisnaskea, an impressive circular earthwork with a central stone cairn, was the inauguration site of the Maguire kings, a location of enormous symbolic significance. The only structure that can be identified as a tower house with some certainty is the keep at Enniskillen castle, the earliest documented reference to which is from 1439. When its occupant in 1484, Sean Maguire, succeeded to the chieftaincy, Enniskillen became the principal power centre in Fermanagh.
The most important medieval religious building in Fermanagh is St Mary’s Priory (or Abbey) on Devenish Island. According to a Latin inscription on a stone that was once placed in the priory, it was built in 1449. This was an impressive structure, nearly 29m long, with a crossing tower, the quality of the masonry of which has been commented on. The two-light east window in the Decorated style was subsequently moved to Monea Church of Ireland church. A further feature at Devenish from this period is the highly decorative cross that was discovered during clearance work in the 1870s and erected in the graveyard close to the priory. Standing at 7 ft tall, it has been dated to the 15th century.
The most tangible links with the Plantation period are the remains of the strong houses, generally referred to in the records as castles that survive in the Ulster landscape.
Of all the northern counties Fermanagh is without doubt the best place to explore these structures. Enniskillen continued to be the principal seat of power in the county. In 1609 Captain (later Sir) William Cole was appointed constable of Enniskillen castle and began reconstructing the site. The Watergate is the most striking survival of Cole’s building activities here.
Built by Malcolm Hamilton, a Protestant clergyman who would go on to become archbishop of Cashel, Monea is rightly regarded as the finest castle in Plantation Ulster. The outer shell of the castle survives reasonably intact and its dominant feature is the pair of round towers projecting from the west end and flanking the entrance.
Portora castle, on the outskirts of Enniskillen, and strategically overlooking the point where the River Erne joins Lower Lough Erne, was another fortification built by Sir William Cole. Today, thanks in part to the Victorian gunpowder experiments of Portora schoolboys, little of the house remains though three of the flankers survive.
At Tully, near the shore of Lower Lough Erne, Sir John Hume built a castle. It is T-shaped in plan comprising a main rectangular block with a square projection slightly to the east of centre on the south side which contained the entrance and stairs. The ground floor of the main block has a semi-circular barrel vault, while the east end of this room is entirely taken up with a fireplace.
At Lisnaskea, the Balfours built a fine castle. In its plan and in many of the details, such as the corbelling, the castle is unmistakably Scottish in character. It was part of a much larger complex being constructed on this site by the Balfours, which also included a bawn, servants’ quarters, and a church.
At Castle Archdale only portions stand of what was once a fairly extensive castle complex. The remains of the south wall of the bawn include a round-headed gateway, above which is a tablet stating that this castle was built by the East Anglian planter John Archdale in 1615. Opposite the gateway are the surviving remnants of the three-storey tower.
The best surviving example of church architecture from the Plantation period can be found at Derrygonnelly where a small chapel was built by Sir John Dunbar in 1627. The round-headed doorway in the west gable with its diamond-faceted quoins and voussoirs that is the most interesting part of the chapel, representing as it does one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in Northern Ireland.
Photography credit: Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism