Rathmichael Historical Society

Fifty years of the Rathmichael Historical Society

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Written by Rob Goodbody

This year the Rathmichael Historical Society celebrates its first half century and during the summer members repeated the outings of that first season of 1972, to the ancient church of Rathmichael, the Rathmichael Hill Fort and the Ballycorus lead mines and chimney.

The main focus of the celebrations took place in Rathmichael School on Wednesday 5th October when a large number of past and present members gathered, along with representatives of families of early committee members. The focus of the evening was a talk by Rob Goodbody on the history of the historical society, reflecting on how wonderful it is when a historical society becomes historical itself.

Rob Goodbody

The Rathmichael Historical Society was founded at a meeting of like-minded people in the conservatory of Llanmawr, Corbawn Lane, the home of Mrs Kathleen Turner, in April 1972. Besides Mrs Turner the group included Joan Delany, Joanna Bonar Law, Ian Booth and Rev Ernan Perdue. The name Rathmichael was chosen as it is the site of one of the most important ancient churches in the area and also the name of the medieval parish in which Shankill is located. The name is also distinctive.

The society quickly attracted members from around the Shankill area and began running outings during the summer and evening lectures in the winter.

In 1975 the society added a new attraction to its activities, when it began the Rathmichael Summer School, organised by Joan Delany and designed to teach archaeology to anyone interested in the topic, including surveying archaeological monuments. Joan managed to attract enthusiastic support from many of the brightest stars in professional archaeology to teach on the courses and to deliver lectures.

The Rathmichael Summer School became all the more involved with archaeology from 1979, when the society began an archaeological excavation at Ballyman on the Dublin-Wicklow border. The excavation was fully licensed and one of the society’s members, Betty O’Brien, was the archaeologist. This site was near the ancient church of Ballyman, and the dig uncovered evidence for metal working as well as a corn-drying kiln dating from the fifth century.

After eight summers excavating at Ballyman the society’s excavation moved to Dundrum Castle, again with Betty O’Brien as the licensed archaeologist. This excavation at a fifteenth-century castle quickly discovered that there were extensive remains of a thirteenth-century castle below ground. This included a deep moat that had been backfilled with medieval rubbish. The moat had been spanned by a drawbridge and the excavation also discovered the very first drawbridge structure ever identified at an Irish castle.

In the mid-1990s, after the excavation at Dundrum was complete, the society moved its excavation to Drimnagh Castle, where the licensed archaeologist was Clare Mullins. This excavation kept going through two seasons within the area surrounded by the castle’s moat.

Alongside these archaeological excavations the Rathmichael Summer School continued to run courses in archaeology, with two courses a year run and about thirty participants on each course. In addition, the society began another course, entitled Art and Archaeology, again organised by Joan Delany. After the Drimnagh Castle excavation was completed, the society decided that the complexities of running archaeological excavations by a local historical society became too much and the courses ran for a while without the excavation. Two new courses were added to the Rathmichael Summer School in the late 1990s, run by Rob Goodbody and Seamas Ó Maitiu, one entitled How and Where to Source your Local History, and the other called Visual Courses for Local History. Both courses were located in Dublin city centre and brought the participants to local libraries and other sources of information.

Throughout almost a quarter century of the daytime courses run as the Rathmichael Summer School there was also a week-long series of evening lectures in archaeology and this part of the Summer School is still running, after forty-eight years. Over that time the lectures have been delivered by a veritable who’s who of Irish professional archaeologists and historians.

While participants on the Rathmichael Summer School courses paid a fee for attendance, this was not sufficient to cover the significant costs of archaeological excavations. From the mid-1980s into the 1990s the Rathmichael Historical Society ran a number of fund-raising events of high calibre. Aravon School relocated from Novara Road in Bray to a Victorian mansion at Old Conna Hill at that time and offered the historical society the use of its fine hall as the venue for social evenings that were held on five occasions between 1985 and 1990. These included performances by choirs and chamber ensembles, recitals, exhibitions, displays of finds from the archaeological excavations and various other attractions.

Researching history is an important activity, but its results are lost if they are not passed on. Some of the work carried out by members of the society formed the subject matter for lectures delivered, while other members published their work in books or magazines. The Rathmichael Historical Society itself published a journal between 1973 and 2003 but is probably better known for the small volume called If You Seek Monuments, that was written by founder-member Kathleen Turner and published by the Society in 1983. This is a guide to the historic monuments in the area and still very useful after all these years.

In that same year the society was responsible for rescuing the twelfth-century Kiltuck Cross and having it erected in the grounds of St Anne’s Church, Shankill.

50th Anniversary Cake

That the Rathmichael Historical Society is still lively and active after all these years was evident at the event on 5th October. The highlight of the evening, after the lecture, was the cutting of the birthday cake. This cake was specially made for the occasion by Bakelicious in Shankill and featured the society’s logo. In a wonderful climax to the evening the cake was cut by Ian Booth who, fifty years before, had been one of the first committee members of the society.