Amazing archaeological find near Ballyshannon

During test excavations in 2001 for the proposed N15 Bundoran-Ballyshannon bypass, an exciting archaeological discovery was made. Human skeletal remains were unearthed in a green field on the outskirts of Ballyshannon, in the townland of Ballyhanna. Subsequent excavation on the site revealed the foundations of a medieval church and associated cemetery on the south bank of the river Erne. The site is thought to date from between 1100-1400 AD. Local history always relies on folk memory to fill in the gaps when written records are sketchy or non-existent; however, no such folk or local tradition has been handed down in the area concerning a burial site or church at Ballyhanna.

The first local clue to the presence of a church in Ballyhanna is contained in Hugh Allingham's (half-brother to the poet, William) history of Ballyshannon 1879; he discovered a 1609 inquisition which recorded ". "They also saie that in the said parish of Inishmacsaint is a chapple of ease, called Ffennoare (Finner) in Macginey, unto which said chapple the vicar of the said parish is to send a curate to saie divine service; and that that in the said parish also is another chapple called Ballihanny".

In the 1950s renowned local historian, Fr Paddy Gallagher, tried to locate the chapel at Ballyhanna. In keeping with a good mystery story, part of the townland was submerged when the Erne hydro-electricity scheme was being developed; however, from his research Fr Paddy was cinfident that there was no visible trace of a church at Ballyhanna even before the flooding. During the archaeological dig, the foundations of a building were uncovered, around which some graves were gathered, and this has given rise to speculation, that the long lost chapel has been found. The evidence pointed to a graveyard for a settled community who used it over the generations. Remains were in graves dug lengthways from west to east, with the feet pointing east. This was clear evidence that these were Christina burials, as the bodies were facing the rising sun in line with Christian resurrection beliefs. Further excavations revealed two mass graves, but it is important to note that the major portion of the site showed the graves in an organised fashion as would be the practice in a normal cemetery.

Over 1,000 remains were unearthed, but it was the discovery on a skeleton of two coins, which led to a verifiable date. These "long-cross" pennies date from the reign of Henry 111 (1251-1254) and Edward 1 (1276-1302). Also, the discovery of small pieces of quartz crystal beside some remains led to the conclusion that this was part of a religious custom. No doubt the work of the archaeological team and local historians will lead to further revelations about Ballyhanna in generations to come.*

* Article by Ballyshannon historian and former Donegal Historical Society President Anthony Begley, in "The Donegal Democrat" "Living in Ballyshannon" supplement October 2005


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