The defended homes of the Anglo-Norman colonists; Bree’s moated sites

Moated site by Billy Colfer

Moated sites are rectangular shaped enclosures that are primarily associated with the 13thand 14th century Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland.  Bree has a notable concentration of these monuments with 12 located within the parish bounds (see Table 1 below). However, of these only 4 are still upstanding. Moated sites were most likely the homes of minor lords and well-to-do tenant farmers and would have formed the focal point of large agricultural estates.   In some instances they may also have represented outlying grange farms associated with monastic establishments.

In Bree, this appears to be the case with the moated sites located at BallymorrisGalbally and Garranstackle, all of which, were located along the edge of the Knights Hospitaller’s manor of Ballyhogue. Research by Dr Kieran O’Conor has indicated that a smaller number of moated sites, especially in the north and west of Ireland, may also have been used by Gaelic Lords (O’Connor 2000).  It is estimated that there are close to 1,000 moated sites in Ireland (ibid), with the vast majority occurring in the south and east, where there are notable concentrations in counties, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary and Limerick. They were often built on the outer edges of the Anglo Norman colonies and it has been suggested that they may represent a second wave of settlement into more marginal land (see Empey 1982). These areas came under increasing pressure from Irish attacks in the 13th and 14th centuries and this may have necessitated the construction of more defensive settlement types (see Barry 1987).

Moated sites in Bree and the surrounding area; yellow dots (© National Monuments Viewer)

Moated sites are normally defined by a large and deep ditch, with an internal bank of clay (the ditches are often no longer visible, having completely silted up). For added protection the bank would have been surmounted by a wooden palisade of stakes or planks, as is recorded at Ballyconner, Co. Wexford (see below). The entrance was  protected by a large timber gate with some sites also having evidence for guard towers/gate houses, for example Rigsdale, Co. Cork.

The presence of tower, especially if manned by archers, would have been a significant addition to the site’s defences. The gateway was typically accessed via an earthen ramp as seen at Craane, Bree or in more elaborate examples, via a drawbridge. An example of the later was identified not far from Bree during the excavation of a moated site at Coolamurry, Davidstown. (See Fagan 2005; see image below). In many cases moated sites were built close to a stream or spring, so the surrounding ditch/moat could be flooded with water for additional protection. In Bree, this can be seen at moated sites, which are located at Barmoney, Bree, Kilgibbon, Dunanore and Raheennahoon.

Coolamurry drawbridge by Simon Dick

We are lucky that a detailed account for the construction of a moated site survives from Co. Wexford in the account rolls of the manor of Old Ross. It describes how, in the years 1282-3 and 1283-4, 66 perches of moat were dug around the haggard or farmstead of Ballyconner (Mylerspark, Co. Wexford; see Colfer 1996). The most expensive item described during the build was the wooden palisade, which cost over £10 to construct. The stakes for the palisade were fashioned out of tree trunks, which were sharpened and then driven into a foundation trench.  It was obviously a substantial structure as a total of 18 carpenters and their assistants were involved in its build. One of these workers was referred to as Thomas the Ditcher and this man was probably also employed in constructing the surrounding moat, which cost over £3 to excavate. The rolls also describe the construction of a gate for the site which cost 8/6d for build and carriage. The cost of transporting the gate to the site was particularly expensive (5/3d) leading Dr Terry Barry to suggest that it may have been a very substantial affair, perhaps even a gate tower (Barry 1977, 10). Possible evidence for just such a structure was recently uncovered at a moated site at Coolamurry, Davidstown, where the remains of what may have been a wooden gate tower and an associated drawbridge were found (Fagan 2005).

A number of recent excavations have given us an insight into what the internal layout of a moated site may have been like. It appears they typically contained at least one large building, probably a hall house, as well as ancillary features such rubbish pits, stone lined drains, metalled path ways and yard areas. For example at Carrowreagh Co. Wexford, a moated site defined by a ditch 2m deep by 4.5m wide, had evidence for a large rectangular building which appears to have been constructed out of earth fast sill beams. The inhabitants of this moated site also made their own pottery as evidenced by a kiln that was identified just outside the enclosing ditch. Unsurprisingly then large quantities of medieval ceramics (mainly locally produced wares) were recovered from this site along with evidence of food waste in the form of butchered animal bone and charred cereal grains.

Reconstruction drawing of Coolmurry moated site by Simon Dick
Reconstruction drawing of Coolamurry moated site by Simon Dick

At Coolamurry, also in Co. Wexford, an excavation revealed another large wooden building, this time defined by stakeholes and slot-trenches that was located in the eastern side of the site. The western side of side of the enclosure, which was separated from the building by a north-south ditch, may have been used for keeping livestock, as well as other farmyard activities.  Stone structures were also sometimes constructed at moated sites, for example at Rigsdale in Co. Cork, the remains of a large stone building, approximately 20m long by 8m wide was identified within the interior of the enclosure. Similarly, in Bree parish, a moated site located  in Galbally townland contains a well-built stone structure which measures c. 8m long by 5m wide (Barry 1987, 92). The moated site at Rigsdale, Cork, appears to have been abandoned shortly after it was built, possibly in the 1320s as a result of attacks by the First Earl of Desmond in conjunction with Dermot McCarthy (ibid, 91).

Aerial view of a moated site in Galbally, Bree

As this last example demonstrates moated sites, despite their obvious defensive features, were not designed to withstand a concerted attack by a large group of well armed men.  Instead, they were probably intended as protection against opportunistic bands of cattle rustlers and thieves.  The fact that so many were constructed in the troubled borderlands of the Anglo-Norman colony suggests that they must have been a pretty effective deterrent .

Colm Moriarty


Table 1. Moated sites in Bree

RMP No. Type Townland Upstanding?
WX031-021—- Moated site? BALLYMORRIS No
WX026-020—- Moated site DUNANORE Yes
WX031-015—- Moated site SPARROWSLAND No
WX026-032—- Moated site KILGIBBON Partially
WX031-022001- Moated site GALBALLY Yes
WX025-031—- Moated site CRAANE Yes
WX025-032—- Moated site BREE No
WX025-033—- Moated site? BREE No
WX031-040—- Moated site BARMONEY No
WX031-036—- Moated site BARMONEY No
WX026-023—- Moated site BORRMOUNT Yes
WX031-016001- Moated site RAHEENNAHOON No


Barry, T.B. 1977. Medieval moated sites of the southeast of Ireland. Oxford

Barry, T.B. 1987. The archaeology of Medieval Ireland. London

Colfer, W. 1996. ‘In search of the barricade and ditch at Ballyconner, Co. Wexford’ inArchaeology Ireland 10, No. 2. 16-19

O’Conner, K. D. 2000. ‘The ethnicity of Irish moated sites’ in Ruralia III Pamataky Archeologicke, Supplememt 14. Prague

Empey, C. A. 1982. Medieval Knocktopher: a study in manorial settlement – part 1.Old Kilkenny Review 2, No. 4, 329-342