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The buried entrance to the north chamber  at  Dowth.
The buried entrance to the north chamber at Dowth. A whole arc of kerbstones are buried on the east side of the mound, between the two passages, where the 1848 trench drove through the monument.

Recent Pperations at Dowth Hall

(From the Minute Book of the Royal Irish Academy,
Antiquities vol. I, 1785-1850, 269-76.)

The tumulus of Dowth is situate between the Boyne & Mattock rivers, in the Barony of Slane, parish & townland of Dowth, & County of Meath. It is an equal distance West of Drogheda. The great size of this mound rendering it probable that it contain one or more Chambers similar to that at New Grange in its Vicinity, the operations to ascertain how far this supposition was well founded were commenced on the 27th September last under my direction.

The Superintendence of the work I undertook at the request of Captain Larcom, who has throughout manifested the greatest interest in the result of the undertaking. The form of the base of the Mound in the North & West sides is not so well defined as on the other sides, caused no doubt, by the removal of a considerable portion of the materials at some former period.

On part of the south and east sides the boundary is distinctly marked being formed of large stones, many of which are over three tons in weight.

The Warrington food vessel.
The Warrington food vessel.

The highest point of the Mound at present above the level of the adjoining land is 51.84 feet, but the summit of it was at least 5 feet higher than this before our operations were commenced. datum line to which all the sectional heights have been reduced is the level of the Sill of the adjoining old Church door, on the Northern side of the building.

The eastern side of the mound is apparently in the condition in which it was originally. On reference to the section No. 2 it will be seen to be of a concave shape, and regular in the outline, to a height of 48.18 feet above the datum line. At this point a flattened span of nearly four yards wide, commences, forming the base of a Capping which completed the mound.

The highest point on the Section, above the datum line, is 52.77 feet. The Southern side of the Mound is at present formed of the Stones removed from the Centre in the course of our operations. These, as loosely thrown out, have assumed a convex form, aswill be seen by a reference to the Section No. 1& presenting an outline different from that of the Eastern side.

An illustration of the ruined circle at Cloghlea.
An illustration of the ruined circle at Cloghlea by Gabrial Beranger dating to 1770.

The Mound is composed altogether of small stones, varying in size from half a cubic foot down to that of road metal, some of which appear to have been collected off the surface of the surrounding land, some from the Rivers Boyne & Mattock, but by far the greater portion, from their angular shape, appear to have been quarried. The surface consists of a covering of rich loamy earth, about 18 inches in thickness.

When perfect, the cubical content of the whole may be estimated at about 75,000 cubic yards, and considering the probable means then available for performing such work, 6 men would be required to collect and place the materials of each Cubic Yard in a day, so that the formation of the Mound itself, without any reference to internal Chambers, would require the labour of nearly half a million of men for a day, when we consider the remote period at which this must have been executed, the limited number of men which could then have been procured for the purpose, the great difficulty of transporting such bulky materials to a distance as those stones surmounting the bank composing the chambers of the Mound, and the consequent great length of time which must have been consumed in the creation of the work, even this apparently rude structure will bear a favourable with some of the more celebrated works of modern times.

Plan of Dowth with its two chambers by George Coffey.
Plan of Dowth with its two chambers by George Coffey.

The difficulty of sinking a shaft from the top through a mass of small rubble comparison stones, the shifting nature of which rendered staying of little value, if not altogether useless, induced me to make a horizontal cut from the margin towards the centre in the direction of the dotted lines on the plan. In the execution of this work I fortunately happened to pass close by the end of the passage leading to the Cruciform structure marked in the Western Margin of the plan.

The passage to this Chamber is twenty-six feet long & from two to three feet wide. The height of the entrance is about 4 feet & it gradually lowers towards the middle of the passage when the height is only three feet 8 inches, from this it again increases until it joins the Chamber, where the height is six feet. The passage is formed by single Stones placed on end sloping inwards towards the top, & stayed by sunken sills placed at intervals along it. The Northern side is formed by nine stones, & the Southern had evidently a similar number, but one of them is now wanting.

OS map of Dowth, 1837.
OS map of Dowth, 1837.

The Chamber to which this passage leads is about seven feet square by nine feet high, formed on the sides by four large stones, set on end, sunk, & varying in height from seven feet 8 Ins. to nine feet above the level of the floor. On these Stones are curious devices formed by a pointed tool, which cannot fail to be highly interesting to the Antiquarian. The three similar chambers at the angles of that point alluded to are each formed by five Stones placed similar to those already noticed.

In the progress of the excavation, the covering Stones of the whole of the passages & chambers were found to have been displaced & they were filled up with small Stones among which were found fragments of Bones in a calcined & perfect state, together with the pieces of the Stone basin now restored & placed in the large chamber also knife blades, a ring, a buckle, a glass & an amber bead, bronze pin of rude workmanship, and stone button or breast ornament of singular construction. After cleaning out the passage & chambers, the covering flags were replaced as nearly as possible in their original position.

The chamber of Dowth North showing the reconstructed stone basin mentioned in the text.
The chamber of Dowth North showing the reconstructed stone basin mentioned in the text. Photograph is an old postcard © OPW.

From the Southern extremity of the cruciform chamber another passage extends in a South-easterly direction for a distance of nine feet, having at its termination a small chamber about three feet square. Another similar small chamber projecting westward is situated near the juncture of the passage with the large chamber, as seen on the plan; after passing these chambers and extending the cutting towards the centre of the Mound, the materials removed were used to fill up the parts previously opened, & when the Centre was reached the opening in it was in the form of an inverted frustum of a cone, the diameter at top being about seventy feet & that at bottom being eight in!

In the centre of the mound a curious funnel or Air shaft was discovered, about five inches in diameter neatly built with small flat Stones. This was reached about seventeen feet from the datum line, & reached to the base of the tumulus. It did not appear to have any connection with any chamber or building which could afford any information as to the probable use forwhich it was designed. Above this funnel & near the surface of the mound several human bones were found, which with the articles already noticed as having been found in the chambers, were deposited in the Museum of the Academy.

William Wakeman's illustration of the north entrance.
William Wakeman's illustration of the north entrance at Dowth, from Sir William Wilde's Beauties of the Boyne, 1849. Wilde made this comment on the drawing: 'The upper portion above the lintel in this drawing, representing the mouth of the passage, is modern, the stones being replaced by the workmen, but the cut gives a very good idea of the appearance of this passage.'

The quantity of materials removed during the course of these associates is about 4,000 Cubic Yards, which from the expenditure (nearly £100) has cost about 6d per cubic Yard. By a reference to the Section it will be seen that the opening has been carried down seven feet below the ground line, but as far as regards the discovery of a supposed central chamber or other remnant of Historic Value, the operation has not been successful, unless in so far as they have shown that no such exists. Whether other chambers such as the ruined chamber, now restored, exist in other parts of the mound is doubtful, but judging from the small chamber in the South side, which is equidistant from the Centre of the Mound with the former one, it is not improbable that others are yet to be discovered.

Before concluding this brief notice I should not omit to mention that the plant necessary to carry on these operations has been kindly supplied by the Commissioners of Public Works, and I have also been much indebted to Mr. Blake of Dowth Hall, who also supplied barrows and other articles wanted for temporary use, and evinced a warm interest in furthering our operations.

For myself I have only to add that I have cheerfully devoted the necessary time to the superintendence of the work, and I am only sorry that my own expectations as well as those of the Gentlemen who so liberally supplied the funds for carrying it on have not been more fully realised.

Signed R. H. Frith.

Balbriggan, 13th March, 1848.

The Netterville Institute, left and Dowth castle, right. The Netterville Institute, which dates to 1877 was used as a base by both Michael and Clare O'Kelly during their work excavating at Newgrange, and by Martin Brennan. The Fenian poet John Boyle O'Reilly was born in Dowth castle, a medieval tower-house.
The Netterville Institute, left and Dowth castle, right. The Netterville Institute, which dates to 1877 was used as a base by both Michael and Clare O'Kelly during their work excavating at Newgrange, and by Martin Brennan. The Fenian poet John Boyle O'Reilly was born in Dowth castle, a medieval tower-house.

The Dowth eviction case

By Claire O'Kelly

The allusion to James Elcock is interesting as it serves to introduce a cause celebre of the 1870s which became known as the Dowth eviction case. On one side was the Elcock family and on the other the Trustees of the Netterville Charities into whose care the mound of Dowth had passed after the death of Lord Netterville.

Three members of the Elcock family, James, Thomas and Luke, were successively involved and on the trustees' side the protagonist was Richard Gradwell of Dowth Hall.

James Elcock had two farms on a yearly tenancy from the trustees under the Land Act of 1870 and the 'moat ', as the mound of Dowth was called, was on one of them. Yearly tenancy conferred a vested interest, which if disturbed without good cause must be compensated for in cash. Therefore, the grounds for disturbance, should such take place, were vital in the case.

Dowth Hall.
A vintage aerial photograph of Dowth Hall with the huge neolithic henge beyond, top of photograph. In 2018 it was discovered that Dowth Hall is constructed on the site of a fairly large passage-tomb with a number of burials and some beautifully engraved stones.

In 1873 James Elcock began to build a wool store from the stones of Dowth but following friendly representations from Gradwell, he desisted and finished the work with bricks drawn from the nearby town with Gradwell's help.

Two years later it came to Gradwell's attention that stones were again being drawn from Dowth, this time by Thomas Elcock, James having died in the meantime. Relations between Gradwell and Thomas were far from friendly, even before this incident, and accordingly, Thomas resisted all efforts to come to an amicable arrangement.

Letters from Gradwell's lawyer were sent to Elcock requiring him to replace the stones or suffer eviction. Elcock refused and a notice to quit was served. For various reasons, the eviction was not carried out until January of 1879 and by then Thomas had died and his nephew, Luke, was carrying on the fight.

Carvings on two kerbstones at Dowth.
Carvings on two kerbstones at Dowth, the lower one showing some fairly obvious solar symbolism. Images from the Dowth Survey by Michael and Clare O'Kelly.

Neither the Elcocks nor their advisers had been idle in the four intervening years. As Gradwell put it (1878), 'He [Elcock] has dragged the trustees to defend their title to the property in every court in Ireland, and appealed to the House of Lords.'

The dispute naturally excited more than ordinary interest as this was the period of the 'land war'. Public meetings were held, letters and articles appeared in the press and various attempts at reaching a settlement were made, including bringing the matter for arbitration before three local members of parliament, one of whom was Charles Stewart Parnell.

A measure of agreement was finally reached to the effect that Elcock should spend £50 in repairing the sides of the cavity in the side of the mound and that it would henceforth be excluded from his holding. He was to get a new agreement under the Land Act. The question of costs, however, was to prove the stumbling block, who was to pay and how much, and in the end the agreement was never put into legal force. Gradwell said (1878):

If he [Elcock] had been inclined, he might have settled the question in dispute on fair terms at any time before he threw the dice in the first Court of Appeal. I have reason to believe his advisers would not allow it. They relied on his deep purse, his chance of a verdict, and failing this, on popular clamour, to oust the trustees out of the estate.

The eviction was duly carried out and Elcock brought an action for disturbance. The judge ruled that since the motive for the disturbance was the removal of stones from Dowth and since Luke Elcock swore that no stones had been removed since the first intimations from the trustees' solicitor in 1874, there was no justification for executing the habere four years or more later. He said there should have been a continual influencing motive right up to the end in order for the disturbance to be justified.

The judge therefore awarded the plaintiff the full amount claimed for disturbance to a total of £530. The trustees had claimed a set-off of £550 for waste and injury but of this sum, the judge allowed only the amount claimed for actual injury to the mound, namely £50. A curious verdict.

The indignation of those interested in the preservation of antiquities, very much a minority group, was voiced by the Rev. J. Graves. He deplored the fact that there was then no Act to protect ancient monuments and pointed out that thousands of tons of stone had been removed from Dowth before it could be stopped and that all the protesters got for their pains was a costly lawsuit.

Site of a find of megalithic art at Craud, close to Dowth, undoubtedly taken from a megalithic monument.
Site of a find of megalithic art at Craud, close to Dowth, undoubtedly taken from a megalithic monument.

The Elcock affair brings to mind a similar case that occurred in Brittany in more recent times. In 1954 and 1955 a contractor began removing material from two artificial mounds at Barnenez-en-Plouezoch in Finistere for the purpose of road building. When he had destroyed a fine passage grave in one tumulus and four in the other, the destruction came to the notice of the authorities and prosecution was instituted against the contractor.

He was fined 6000 francs and ordered to make good the damage to the tumuli. He lodged an appeal and, when this was heard three months later, the Court of Appeal declared that the first court had been too lenient, since in his capacity as a businessman the contractor must have known he was breaking the law.

Accordingly, the court doubled the fine and not only that, it appointed an expert to evaluate the cost of the repair and restoration of the two tumuli, this sum to be borne by the contractor. The amount arrived at was almost a million and a half fiancs and at the then rate of exchange of approximately ten francs to the pound sterling, the amount of this can be appreciated.

An early photo of Dowth by Hogg.
An early photo of the north chamber of Dowth looking out along the passage.
Photograph by A. R. Hogg, © NMNI.

The mounds were then professionally excavated and restored and are now one of the archaeological show-pieces of Brittany. As the excavator remarked (Giot 1954, 149) It is, of course, ironical that after a planned and systematic excavation one would never have dared to prepare such a spectacular and instructive exhibit as is provided by the contractor's slicing open of the chambers.'

What a pity that a similarly enlightened legislature did not prevail at Dowth but the times were against it on many counts.

The Elcock-Gradwell dispute came at the worst possible moment as far as Dowth and the Netterville trustees were concerned. All Ireland was then, figuratively speaking, up in arms against the landlords, and tenants everywhere were banding together in tenants' associations so as to secure their rights, epitomized by the three Fs: fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom to sell the interest in their holdings.

The dice were loaded against the 'moat 'of Dowth as far as any dispassionate view of Elcock's depredations went.

The notice to quit served on the Elcocks and finally executed caused the case to be looked upon as an open-and-shut example of landlord victimization. The clergy of the area, in Slane, Navan, Kells, and so on, were fully behind Elcock, as were some members of parliament, including Parnell.

Even the fact that Gradwell and the other trustees were Catholic does not seem to have mitigated the general animosity towards them. Amid the recriminations the mound was forgotten and when it was brought to attention, a legal value of £50 was all that was placed on it.

Looking south east from the north side of Dowth mound, to Dowth castle and the Netterville institute.
Looking south east from the north side of Dowth mound, to Dowth castle and the Netterville institute.