What the ice reveals

Wed, 27/01/2010 - 10:38
Submitted by Clare Wright
Situated on the north bank of the River Quoile, which skirts the town of Downpatrick in County Down, sits Inch Abbey. Built in 1180 by John de Courcy (a Norman knight who arrived in Ireland in 1177), this Cistercian House is said to have been founded as an act of repentance for the destruction of the abbey at Erinagh (3 miles to the south) a few years earlier.
The abbey was colonised directly by monks from Lancashire, along with some of the monks from Erinagh. At the time of construction, it was on an island in the extensive Quoile Marshes, which surrounded what was the seaside town of Downpatrick. However, subsequent drainage, as a result of the installation of a tidal barrage across the River Quoile in 1745 and a further barrage built in 1957, meant Downpatrick became excluded from the tidal flow of Strangford Lough. Land drainage reduced the marshes, and cattle now graze on meadows which used to he beneath the sea. Today, names such as Quoile Quay and Steamboat Quay survive to remind us of the seafaring past.
Visiting Inch Abbey today, stunning views across the Quoile River provide a backdrop to iconic historical treasures such as Down Cathedral, (where St Patrick is reputed to be buried) and the ancient settlement on the ‘Mound of Down.
On a cold winter  day, we watched the swans, sitting still in small pools of water between the ice, and we stopped at the shore to collect stones to skim across the ice and listen to the echo from the frozen layer below.
The shore was also frozen with chunks of muddy crumbling ice. On closer inspection this revealed layers of old and somewhat crumbling oyster shells. Were these stranded from the time when the sea rose up the Quoile Estuary, or could these be remnants of the once inhabited abbey?
In conversation with Prof Ronnie Buchanan, local historian, he concluded that the oyster shells, concentrated in such a small area on the shore, were most likely to have been dumped there by the monks that once lived in the abbey in a midden, or dump for domestic waste. Generally, a midden is laid down in deposits as the debris of daily life is tossed onto a pile.
To discover hands on evidence of life in the abbey was a real find of local history on our doorstep.


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