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16 October 2014
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Binder's Cove - a rediscovered souterrain near Finnis, Dromara

Finnis Souterrain (a scheduled ancient monument) is known locally as 'Binders Cove'. Although the first

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Binder's Cove - a rediscovered souterrain near Finnis, Dromara

An innovation in defensive architecture

A view of the entrance from within, showing the solar powered lighting
A view of the entrance from within, showing the solar powered lighting

Finnis Souterrain (a scheduled ancient monument) is known locally as 'Binders Cove'. Although the first recorded discovery of Binder's Cove was in the 18th Century, it actually dates back to the 9th century. Souterrains were "underground stone lined tunnels". Because there was much clann feuding and raiding from foreign invaders such as the Vikings in the Early Christian period, souterrains are thought to have been places of refuge for the occupants of the monastery or its attached enclosure. They may also have been 'safes' where valuable gold and silver religious artefacts were kept. As they were dark, cold and dry, food might also have been stored in them.

Binder's Cove consists of a main passage of around 30metres in length and two straight side passages on the right hand side, each approximately 6m long. The passages are roughly 1m wide and 1.5m high. The walls are constructed of dry stone masonry and the roof comprises large flat stone lintels spanning between the walls.

Although souterrains are fairly common, there are very few to which the public has free access. This one is very much open to the public and is well worth a visit. It has one added feature that certainly doesn't date from the 9th century and that is; Solar powered lighting! Yes it's true... there's a large solar panel just outside the entrance which constantly charges a large bank of batteries, thus providing the visitor with readily available light whenever it's needed. A high-tech (and very 'green') solution to an ancient problem!

So how did it come to be re-opened after lying hidden for about a thousand years?

Nuala Hamilton, Countryside Officer for Banbridge District Council explained: "About 10 years ago, a local man, Oliver Quail, mentioned the site to me and said that it would be good to have the monument opened to the public. More recently, the landowner, Mr Hugh Pat O'Hare approached the Council and asked if we would be interested in opening the site to the public. Various trials and tribulations ensued but in July this year, as a result of a partnership project with the Mourne Heritage Trust and EHS Built Heritage, Banbridge District Council opened the souterrain to the public. This gives locals and visitors an almost unique opportunity to visit a hidden component of the Early Christian landscape."

Oliver Quail is a skilled dry stone wall builder and is deeply interested in local history. It was fitting that he actually carried out the works needed to the inside structure of the souterrain. This was specialised work carried out in cramped and difficult conditions long before the lighting was put in. The works needed to the structure were very limited considering the age of the monument. He also did work to the mud floor so that visitors could get in without getting muddy.

Michael McNamee talking to Pat, Oliver and Nuala on Radio Ulster
Michael McNamee talking to Pat, Oliver and Nuala on Radio Ulster

Michael McNamee, from Radio Ulster's "Your Place & Mine" programme went underground to talk to Pat, Oliver and Nuala about the reconstruction of this hidden marvel.

Click Here to see video taken on the dayinside the souterrain.
(Note: Most of the video in this clip was shot using a night vision camera and thus appears in black and white.)

Click Here to listen to the report as transmitted on 'Your Place and Mine'

Solar Power

Getting the right solution to the lighting problem was vital to the success of the project. Without it, the souterrain would have been in total darkness and thus would be quite inaccessible to visitors. As the souterrain is located around 120m across a field in a fairly remote area, a renewable source of energy for the lighting was required. It had to be low maintenance and reasonably vandal proof. Initially wind power was considered but it was decided that this would probably be too intrusive and so the council chose to explore the possibility of using solar power. There are clear instructions on the use of the lights which switch themselves off automatically after 15 minutes.. you can of course reactivate them by pressing a push button on each light.

How to get there:

The souterrain is located off the Carrigagh Road, about 2.5 miles south of Finnis. (Map ref. J272442)

From Finnis: (which is on the B7 Rathfriland-Dromara Road, near Dromara) take the first road on your left past the chapel. This road is the Carrigagh Road and is marked with a sign for 'Legananny Dolmen'. Continue along this road until you reach a crossroads - continue straight ahead (continuation of the Carrigagh Road). Go past the road which is signed to Legananny Dolmen. About 400 yards further you will see a small lay-by on your left with a wooden sign marking the souterrain.

From the south: take the main Banbridge-Castlewellan Road. Then take the A50 turn off at Moneyslane onto B7 Rathfriland-Dromara Road. Continue towards Dromara for around 3.5 miles until you see a sign for 'Legananny Dolmen'. Turn right at this sign into the Slievenaboley Road. Continue along it and take the first road on your left. This is the Carrigagh Road. Continue for a short distance until you see a lay-by on your right and a wooden signpost for the souterrain.

Historical Background

The Early Christian settlements in Ireland:

In the 5th century AD Ireland underwent a radical change which transformed the nature of the Irish settlement and made a lasting impact on the natural environment. Pollen records testify to a huge upsurge in grasses and weeds associated with pasture and arable farming - indicating a revolution in the landscape.

At about the same time Christianity arrived on the scene and closer contact with the world of the Romans was established. From then on technological advances spread and agriculture in Ireland, and thus food production, improved dramatically, leading to a substantial increase in the population.

This increase in population lead to the construction of literally tens of thousands of ringforts or 'raths', as they are more commonly known, the remains of which we see almost everyday throughout the Irish countryside. These raths provided the security a settlement needed at the time but towards the end of the first millennium the ringfort fell out of use. The reasons are lost in time and there are many suggestions as to why their popularity faded. One of these suggestions is that the arrival of the marauding Vikings meant the ringfort defences became obsolete since they'd moved warfare onto a different plane.

It was at this time that, as the ringforts vanished, a new innovation in defensive architecture appeared - the souterrain.

The Souterrain

A souterrain is an artificially built or dug underground structure, often built within pre-existing ringforts but many were constructed independently of enclosures and the most common are built in a dry-stone style.

They were made by digging an open trench which was then lined with dry-stone walls, roofed with large lintels and then covered with soil. The simplest consist of one or two passages which open out into chambers little more than a metre wide and would rarely have a height of more than 1.75m. The passages between the chambers are usually narrower and lower and the construction process frequently included an obstruction such as a hanging lintel which 'squeezed' the access space thus reducing the opportunity for rapid or easy ingress - these are often referred to as 'creeps'. Other Irish souterrains show the use of blind alleys and split levels which were designed to confuse the intruder.

The function of the souterrain has long been the subject of debate and the most accepted opinion is that they were used primarily as a place of refuge and occasionally as a storage site.

It's perhaps harder to accept that these - hard to access - tunnels were where people stored their everyday goods but, seen as refuges from quick enemy raids, where the object would have been to capture people , they must have been effective. It would have been a very confident raider who would have been the first to crawl down a dark tunnel into the unknown with an unknown number of people, who knew the layout intimately, ahead of him in the dark.

Binder's Cove - Finnis

Research shows that throughout Ireland there are regional variations in souterrains and that there might well have been specialist souterrain builders just as they were, at that time, specialist builders of church and round towers.

Oliver Quail shows a secret stone which can be slid out to reveal a cavity - perhaps once used to hide treasures in?
Oliver Quail shows a secret stone which can be slid out to reveal a cavity - perhaps once used to hide treasures in?

This site has been known locally from the early 18th century and is impressive in its sheer scale. There is a dry-stone wall constructed entrance passage 7m long, 1m high and 0.8m wide and at the end of this passage is a constriction where a lowered lintel reduces the tunnel height. Once through this constriction the souterrain opens out and consists of a passage about 30m long and about 1.5m high and there are two passages leading off to the right, each about 6m long and several wall niches and blocked air vents have been carved into the walls.

Although Binder's Cove arguable lacks some of the more interesting features found in certain other Irish souterrains, its fine state of preservation and the very easy and well constructed access makes it well worth a visit. As you approach the entrance you'll probably get the impression that the grill gate is locked - it isn't and you'll see that state of the art solar powered lighting is on hand to make your visit more comfortable.


Your Responses

Ciaran Gorman -
Feb '07
Phenomenal!! Will visit in early spring 2007.
S daly, they never taught this at school.
I'll bring the family. Thanks for bringing this into the public domain.

Zak Hanna -
April '06
I visited Binder's Cove with my granny and cousins 2 weeks ago. It felt so scary, as if we were in a haunted cave!!!!! But i enjoyed it. Would love to visit it again. I live in Dromara, so I can go anytime!

Uiscebeatha - Feb '06
I went along and saw a ghostly figure at the end of the passage. When the lights went off, I resisted the urge to turn them on again. It was quite an experience. Was a girl murdered here ?

Thomas -
Feb '06
I spent three years in Belfast in the 90's, and never knew of things like this! Typical.

Liam O'Hara - July '05
We visited Binder's Cove yesterday, and it was a great experience. Finding it in the middle of such beautiful scenery is the first pleasure. Then the well maintained site itself, with plenty of useful information. The souterrain has been made secure to make it a safe place to visit, but has been left unaltered enough to give a clear feeling of what it must have been like there a thousand years ago.

Finally, the guardian of the souterrain, a cheeky little terrier, called to welcome us, and also had a good check around to make sure we had left the place as we found it; a very suitable security system!

Allan Ullmann - July '05
Hi, I took my two sons, Cameron 6 and Scott 3 to Binders Cove on Sunday 26th June 2005.
I have to say that we had an exceptionally good time.
Both boys, and I have to admit myself too, felt as if we were taking a huge 1000 year step back in time. It really was some adventure to explore every young boys dream, a real hidden cave.Well done for making this site accessible!

I will never forget the way both boys gripped me when the lights shut off after 15 minutes!

Mervyn Hall - November '04
Well done for making this wonderful piece of history open to the public and for putting so much work into making it accessible!


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