A securely built underground structure made up of three passages
Finnis Souterrain, near the village of Dromara, Co Down, is a securely built underground structure made up of three passages. The main passage runs from east to west for approximately 29m. The first 7.5m consists of a passage around 1m in height running to a low ‘lintelled’ defensive structure. Beyond the lintel, the passage opens out and curves gently downwards.
Finnis Souterrain is made of granite, with large stones near the base giving way to smaller stones, creating an inward batter or curve. The main passage sidewalls are characterised by an outward stepping of the top most wall course, which provides a platform or ledge onto which the massive roof lintel stones were set. Two side passages extend from the central passageway in a north easterly direction, and there are low lintels at the entrance of each of these chambers. The chambers are both around 6m in length.
In the first side passage, the constricted entrance is formed by large lintels. A roof aperture above these lintels possibly provided a vantage place for someone to hide and surprise an unwelcome intruder.
Finnis Souterrain is known locally as ‘Binder’s Cove’. According to Mark Clinton, souterrains were commonly referred to as ‘an uamh’ or cave. He also states that the given price for building a souterrain was two cows. ‘Binder’ was the nickname given to a previous occupier of the souterrain field.
Souterrains date from the early Christian period, between the sixth and tenth centuries AD. This was a period of civil unrest, with the constant threat of Viking raids, intertribal cattle raids, and regular theft of slaves. Although there is some debate about the purpose of souterrains, it is thought that they were built mainly as places of refuge, but were used for storage on a day to day basis. Finnis Souterrain would have made a useful cool store in the summer.
The present entrance to the souterrain is not the original access point, the location of which is not known. Archaeologists think that the main passage continued beyond the present entrance. A report in the Northern Whig in 1836 refers to stone steps leading down to the souterrain, but these have never been found. It is not known when the present entrance to the site was made, but in 1833, the rector of the parish erected a protective iron door on the site.
Finnis Souterrain has been known for at least 200 years, but has been ‘rediscovered’ many times. The site was cleared and opened in 1977, and although surveyed by archaeologists, was not formally excavated. The present landowner expressed an interest in opening the site to the public and this was achieved in July 2003 at the instigation of Banbridge District Council, with funding provided by the Environment and Heritage Service, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and the Mourne Heritage Trust.
Several tonnes of accumulated earth were removed from the souterrain, but it needed little other work—a testament to the endeavours of its builders over 1000 years ago! Some fairly minor repairs were made inside, solar lighting installed, the floor covered in stone chippings, and the old iron door replaced. A new field boundary and access path were created, and a small lay-by and interpretative board provided for visitors.
Although common, souterrains are, by their very nature, dark underground structures and not suitable for general public access. Thus, Binder’s Cove gives an almost unique opportunity for the public to visit one of these hidden places.
The Souterrains of Ireland (2001) by Mark Clinton
© Banbridge District Council