Around 200 artefacts found in Irish Civil War hideout in Sligo

4 May 2022

Independent researcher Robert Mulraney surveying the cave. Image: Robert Mulraney

Archaeologists have been uncovering the secrets of a ‘Civil War time capsule’ in a Sligo cave.

Researchers have completed the first archaeological research excavation of an Irish Civil War site, studying a Sligo location that was used as a hideout for the anti-Treaty IRA nearly 100 years ago.

A team of archaeologists spent a week excavating the small cave that overlooks Glencar Lake in north Sligo. The team found around 200 artefacts, including a boot lace, a belt buckle and a clay pipe, as well as shards of pottery and glass.

Researchers said the small site – called Tormore Cave – was used as a hideout during the War of Independence and was the principal hideout of the north Sligo anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War.

The team said that the location of the cave had been lost after the war, until one of the men who had hidden there, William Pilkington, returned to Sligo in the 1930s and revealed its location.

“Many people knew that a mountain cave had been used as a hideout for six weeks, but almost no one knew where it was located,” said Dr Marion Dowd, lecturer in prehistoric archaeology at the newly established Atlantic Technological University.

“Because so few people have visited the cave over the past 100 years, the site was essentially a Civil War time capsule. The structures and artefacts we discovered were as they had been left when the men abandoned the cave in October 1922.”

The researchers said that 34 men successfully reached Tormore Cave after being driven out of their headquarters at Rahelly House following a battle with the National Army in September 1922.

The research team, which was funded by Atlantic Technological University, said a large boulder had been placed at the entrance of the cave to keep it hidden. Once inside, excavations through soil layers revealed constructed steps leading into the cave.

The men had also created a mortar-surfaced floor layered over with flagstones, in a similar way to traditional Irish cottages of the 1920s. It is believed the 34 men created this to keep the space clean and create a drier surface.

The 34 men stayed hidden for six weeks in harsh conditions, with little food and unable to light fires as the smoke would attract attention. These men were never discovered, making Tormore Cave one of the most successful hideouts of the entire revolutionary period in Ireland.

“As part of the project, we are trying to identify the men who sought refuge in the cave, who survived the ordeal and who then became largely forgotten,” independent researcher Robert Mulraney said. “So far we have identified seven men and have been speaking with their relatives.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic