Releagh Souterrain

Entrance to the Releagh souterrain
The entrance to the Releagh Souterrain. (Photo: James Eogan)

In 2015, long awaited road realignment and widening was at long last started by Kerry County Council and the National Roads Authority on the N71 secondary national road between Releagh Bridge and the Tunnels. Previously, this main road – much travelled by local and tourist traffic alike – featured some very dangerously narrow bends in the Releagh townland, and many unsuspecting drivers found their cars virtually wedged in between the sheer rock face on one side and an oversized tourist coach on the other. When two buses or lorries would meet, a long string of traffic could often be seen reversing a couple of hundred yards down the road to enable one large vehicle to pass the other. This stretch of road may now have lost its picturesque character but it is considerably safer and much more convenient to negotiate.

During the course of widening the road, an archaeological structure known as a ‘souterrain’ (an underground passage with chambers) was accidentally discovered by a construction worker in early April 2015. Obviously, road works were immediately halted for the ancient site to be surveyed. James Eogan, a senior archaeologist with the National Roads Authority, explained at the time: “The road works had only clipped the end of the souterrain which had remained in good condition. The chamber section is actually running away from the road and into a farm. There are souterrains in many parts of the country and this one is the 870th recorded in Kerry alone. This one is interesting as people had not previously known about it and it shows there was a settlement in the area in the 8th to 10th century period. It is also significant in that it was tunneled into rock as miners might do which is most unusual. Souterrains generally consist of dry stone walls with lintels running across them and earth on top.”

Souterrains are thought to have been places of refuge during times of trouble. They may also have been used for storing valuables and perishable food stuffs, with the relatively low temperatures inside the tunnels helping to preserve the latter.  The majority appear to date from between 750 and 1250 AD and they are often found in association with ring forts (though there is no surviving evidence for a ring fort at Releagh). This souterrain in the archaeologically rich area of Bonane reportedly consists of two internal chambers which measure around 4 metres (13 feet) wide.

Although the Releagh Souterrain is located close to the edge of the newly aligned N71, it was decided to let construction of this important route go ahead without delay. Having recorded this latest find in Bonane for posterity, the entrance was then blocked and the site preserved. It is not planned to make this souterrain publicly accessible.