How the Secrets of a Prehistoric World were Revealed by Séamus Ó hUltacháin

In the mid 1990s four megalithic tombs were known to exist in Burren townland with a scattering of outliers in the adjacent townlands of Cavan and Fermanagh. In the summer of 1997 I was told by Paddy McGovern of Legeelan that a ‘stone ditch’ (which would have been buried over millennia) had been discovered by him when cutting turf as a young man some fifty years previously. The wall was mostly taken away for road building but remnants could still be seen. The adjacent townland of Burren was now a mature coniferous forest, ready for harvesting and an uneasiness that the ‘whole archaeological story’ had not been told and that ‘archaeology’ could be destroyed in harvesting operations prompted me to remark to Gaby Burns that I felt that only ‘half the story’ had been told. And so in the autumn of 1997 we began surveying this enigmatic limestone escarpment, where huge sandstone boulders which ‘did not belong’ were omnipresent. Bit by bit we began to realise that we were examining the (substantial) remains of an almost perfectly preserved ‘prehistoric world’. Although we had no background in archaeology we quickly began to trust our instincts – our ‘gut feelings’. The landscape never ceased to surprise – never failed to fascinate. We were driven on both by the joy of discovery and the desire to share our discoveries. We were greatly encouraged by Rory Sherlock who undertook an archaeological survey in this area in 1998 –’99 and by other archaeologists and geologists. Gaby was the recorder/cartographer/illustrator while I forged ahead into ‘the unknown’. The result of our work is contained in the book ‘Burren-Marlbank – A Monumental Prehistoric Landscape’. After twenty-one years of studying this ‘relict’ landscape I’m still not sure if ‘half the story’ has been told. Hopefully it has not!

Séamus Ó hUltacháin


The following is a poem ‘Baile’ (in Irish) which tries to imagine the shock/wonder/excitement of our prehistoric ancestors when they first reached the Burren/Marlbank escarpment. In a way it mirrors the confusion/excitement we experienced as we tried to re-imagine and unravel their world.



Is le mór-iontas a d’amharc siad thart
Nuair a bhain siad an scairp aolchloiche amach don chéad uair
Scaipthe ar fud na coillearnaí
Na clocha ollmhóra gaineamhchloiche – as áit – achan áit
Cuid acu macasamhail na sléibhte a bhfuair siad spléachadh orthu
Eadar an coll is an iúr ar a mbealach aníos ó na h-uiscebhealaí
Bheadh éacht mór oibre le déanamh
A mbeart a chur i gcrích
Agus imfháluithe a leagan amach dá mbeithigh agus dá mbarraí san áit seo
Ach nárbh é sin a mhol na saoithe is na draoithe dóibh a dhéanamh
A mhaígh gurbh anseo a threoraigh déithe na nua-thalmhaíochta iad
Chun lonnaithe agus deireadh a chur le h-ocras is le h-anró
Agus stop a chur leis an síor-ghluaiseacht
Agus giota ar ghiota tháinic siad chun tuisceana
Gurbh anseo cinnte a d’fhág na déithe an bunábhar buan
Fá choinne cróite is claíocha is fiú páirceanna súgartha
Is gurbh anseo a raibh fáil ar an dúrchloch luachmhar
Crochta sna h-aillte os cionn ailteanna alltachta
A d’fheilfeadh dá n-uirlísí feirme is baile
Is le tua cloiche i láimh chrom siad ar an obair
Is leag siad síos crainnte is rinn’ spás glan de
Is scoilt siad an chéad chloch is chuir síos marcanna
Is ghrean siad cuid eile le rúnscríbhinn phearsanta
Pobal beag faiteach ar imeall na scairpe
Réabhlóidithe radacacha ag cumadh ár staire

Séamus Ó hUltacháin

The Yellow Bittern by Thomas S. McDonagh (Translated from An Bonnán Buí)

 The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst —
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.

            It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,
The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
But for the bittern that’s shy and apart
And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.

My darling told me to drink no more
Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;
But I told her ’tis drink gives me health and strength
And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
Could get his death from the thirst at last —
Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
You’ll get no sup when your life is past.

            In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls
A bittern calls from a wineless place,
And tells me that hither he cannot come
Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea
Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight —
Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.



** 1] A translation of the 18th-century poem “An Bonnán Buí” by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. MacDonagh writes: “All my translations are very close to the originals.
In my version of this poem I have changed nothing for the purpose of elucidation. I have even translated the name of Loch Mhic an Éin, a lake in the North-west
of Ireland. Some of the references must be obscure to all but students of Irish literature; I think, however, that the poem does not suffer too much from
the difficulty of these.” bittern: heron-like marsh bird with a booming cry.

Gillan, Patrick. “MacDonagh, Thomas Stanislaus (1878-1916).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford:
OUP, 2004.

Biographical information 

Given name: Thomas Stanislaus
Family name: MacDonagh
Birth date: 1 January 1878
Death date: 3 May 1916
Nationality: Irish
Family relations
wife: Muriel Gifford (from January 1912)
Education: Rockwell College, near Cashel, county Tipperary to 1901
Politics: Irish Republican Brotherhood: 1915 to 1916
Occupation: Teacher
29 Oakley Road, Ranelagh
St Colman’s College, Fermoy, county Cork
St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny
Cloughjordan, county Tipperary: 1878
Dublin: 1908
32 Baggot Street, Dublin, near St Stephen’s Green: 1912
Cause of death: firing squad
Buried at: Unmarked grave, Arbour Hill barracks


For An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna in old Gaelc script click here

For English translation The Yellow Bittern by Seamus Heaney click here

The Yellow Bittern by Seamus Heaney (Translated from An Bonnán Buí)

Yellow bittern, there you are now,
Skin and bone on the frozen shore.
It wasn’t hunger but thirst for a mouthful
That left you foundered and me heartsore.
What odds is it now about Troy’s destruction
With you on the flagstones upside down,
Who never injured or hurt a creature
And preferred bog water to any wine?

Bittern, bittern, your end was awful,
Your perished skull there on the road,
You that would call me every morning
With your gargler’s song as you guzzled mud.
And that’s what’s ahead of your brother Cathal
(You know what they say about me and the stuff)
But they’ve got it wrong and the truth is simple:
A drop would have saved that croaker’s life.

I am saddened, bittern, and broken hearted
To find you in scrags in the rushy tufts,
And the big rats scampering down the rat paths
To wake your carcass and have their fun.
If you could have got word to me in time, bird,
That you were in trouble and craved a sup,
I’d have struck the fetters of those lough waters
And wet your thrapple with the blow I struck.

Your common birds do not concern me,
The blackbird, say, or the thrush or crane,
But the yellow bittern, my heartsome namesake
With my looks and locks, he’s the one I mourn.
Constantly he was drinking, drinking,
And by all accounts I’ve a name for it too,
But every drop I get I’ll sink it
For fear I might get my end from drouth.

The woman I love says to give it up now
Or else I’ll go to an early grave,
But I say no and keep resisting
For taking drink’s what prolongs your days.
You saw for yourself a while ago
What happened to the bird when its throat went dry;
So my friends and neighbours, let it flow:
You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.


For An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna in old Gaelc script click here

For English translation The Yellow Bittern by Thomas S. McDonagh click here