The Iron Age and the Donabate Portrane Peninsula


Barry Raftery described the people of the early Irish Iron Age as 'The Invisible People' (Becker et al. 2008) as until recently, knowledge of Iron Age Ireland was largely restricted to an artefact record which is biased towards the north of the country; a limited burial record; and' a small but significant, group of specialised monuments: the so-called Royal sites (Becker et al. 2008,1). There was also an apparent gap in the archaeological record for the first 400 years of the Iron Age period until the appearance of artefacts associated with the La Tene culture, the term used for the rich Celtic culture of Late Iron Age Europe (Mitchel and Ryan, 1997). This period of prehistory is also aceramic with natively produced pottery not reappearing in the archaeological record until the later stages of the early medieval period. For the period 600BC to 500AD no sites or finds dating to this period have been made on the peninsula (Courtney and Goucher 2007). Evidence of Iron Age settlement comes from sites of on the periphery of the peninsula (Figure 10).

Along the coast of North County Dublin the most visible Iron Age remains are the impressive promontory forts at Drumanagh to the north of the Donabate-Portrane peninsula, Lambay Ireland, and Howth (Stout and Stout 1992). Stout and Stout (1992, 11) say this indicates that the Dublin coastline was well fortified during this period and that the construction of the forts indicates a sizeable population. The geography of the peninsula does not provide any promontory locations which would have been suitable for the siting of a promontory fort during this period. It is reasonable to assume though, that the Iron Age population of the peninsula had some association with the builders of these promontory forts.

Iron Age Activity Donabate Peninsula)

On Lambay island in addition to the promontory forts burials discovered near the harbour in the 1920s had associated finds reflecting material used in the Roman World dating to the first century AD (Cooney, 2009). Roman finds have also been made at Drumanagh which Cooney suggests indicates that Lambay and Drumanagh were occupied by communities who had strong links, possibly trading, with Roman Britain. Is it possible the inhabitants of the Donabate-Portrane peninsula were open to similar influences given its proximity to these sites. It is also possible that some of the enclosure and Fulachta Fiadh sites identified on the peninsula could be Iron Age in date. A possible ring barrow site (DU012-061) is shown in Kilcrea (Baker 2006). Whilst this could be Iron Age in date, examination of the SMR in the National Monuments Archive did not provide any additional information this possible site.

At Bellinstown on the landward side of the peninsula a ring barrow was discovered and excavated during construction of the Airport to Balbriggan section of the M1. The site consisted of a circular ring-barrow, with an entrance at the northern and western part of the ring. A small deposit of cremated human bone was found within the ditch on the eastern side of the feature. A deer antler was also found directly opposite the western causeway/entrance. The north-eastern side of the ring-ditch was cut through by five inhumations oriented east-west and adjacent to these were four inhumations were oriented north-east/south-west (Lynch 2002, 0473). Unfortunately, for this site it has not been possible to get access to the final excavation report but the summary classifies the site as an early Iron Age ring barrow burial site which continued to be used for burial in the later Iron Age with a change in burial practice to inhumation. It has been believed that this change to inhumation was possibly influenced by contact with Roman Britain, (Mulligan 2005,7) though this is now being questioned (Gabriel Cooney Pers Comm). This site also provides evidence suggesting the presence of deer in the vicinity of the peninsula in the Early Iron Age.

Just north of Bellinstown in the townland of Coldwinters a significant site which may be Iron Age/Early Medieval in date was also discovered and excavated. The main phase of activity at this site is described as the construction of a large ritual complex which contained human burials (Opie 2002). The main feature consisted of a large circular ditch 2.5m to 4 m in width and 1m to 1.5 m in depth with a diameter of 39m. The interior of the enclosure contained a series of concentric smaller ditches roughly following the curve of the outer ditch. Six burials were recovered from the centre of the enclosure at Coldwinters. The excavation report suggests the burials and the ritual enclosure dates to the late Iron Age/Early medieval period on the basis that that hammer stones discovered were ritual deposits. The burial practice though is extended supine inhumations aligned east west with no grave goods which suggests an early Christian date (Opie 2002).

A total of 28,172 fragments (Opie 2002, 105).of animal bone were recovered from the site and especially from the outer enclosure ditch. Of the identifiable species, cattle bone was predominant. Post excavation analysis of the cattle bone recovered showed evidence of the animals being culled between 8 and 18 months which suggests they were being used primarily for meat production rather than dairying. Other animal remains recovered on the site include sheep, goat, pig, horse and dog (Opie 2002).

The excavation report (Opie 2002, 124) concludes that the presence of both juvenile and adult animals and both processed and discarded elements of the butchery process and burnt animal bone on the site suggests that the animals were being bred, reared butchered, cooked ,eaten and disposed of at the site. This in turn means the animals must have been used by a local population who would have had to live nearby to have under taken all the aspects of animal husbandry noted on the site. The evidence suggested an economy based on meat production with cattle, sheep and pigs kept primarily for meat.

Evidence cereal growing was also found in one of the excavated pits which contained a concentration of grain seed suggesting it was used for grain storage. Some evidence of burnt grain seeds was also recovered from some of the hearths on the site. This suggests there was a strong domestic element to the site though only limited evidence of any settlement structures was found in the area excavated.

Whilst the Coldwinters site is situated at the head of the Rogerstown estuary it is reasonable to assume the insight it provides into the daily life and diet of its occupants reflects the lifestyle of inhabitants of the Donabate-Portrane peninsula at the time.


Special thanks to Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd, NRA and IAC for facilitating access to unpublished excavation and archaeological assessment reports.

  • Baker, C (2006) Archaeological Assessment, Donabate Local Action Area Plan, Ballymastone and Corballis Lands, Donabate, Co Dublin.Unpublished report Margaret Gowen & Co Ltd
  • Becker, K,. J. Ó'Néill and L. O'Flynn 2008. Iron Age Ireland: Finding an Invisible people. Final Report to the Heritage Council
  • Cooney, G. 1993 Lambay: An Island on the Horizon. Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 24-28
  • Cooney, G. 2009 The Prehistory of Lambay, A Long View in Baker, C. (ed) Axes, Warriors and Windmills: Archaeological Discoveries in North Fingal. Fingal County Council.
  • Courtney, L and L. Goucher 2007. The Historic Landscape Characterisation Project of the Donabate-Portraine Peninsula. Margaret Gowen & Co Ltd.
  • Lynch, P. 2002 Final Report Archaeological Excavation Possilbe Hearth,Trough,Pit Site 3 Staffordstown Airport Balbriggan Co. Dublin. Unpublished report. Valerie J Keeley. Ltd.
  • Mitchell, F and M. Ryan 1997. Reading the Irish Landscape. Townhouse
  • Mulligan, P. 2005 A Short Guide to Irish Antiquities. Wordwell, Dublin
  • Opie, H. 2002. Archaeological Excavation Site 4 Coldwinters Swords, Co. Dublin Airport-Balbriggan Northern Motorway scheme. Unpublished excavation report, Valerie J Keely Ltd
  • Stout, G. and M. Stout 1992. 'Patterns in the past: county Dublin 5000BC-1000AD' in Aalen,
  • F.H.A. and Wheelan, K. (ed.) Dublin City and County: From Prehistory to Present. Geography Publications, Dublin.

Last Updated , Feb 2012