Hear the Stories from the Grave

This audiobook details the discovery in 2003 of a graveyard and the foundations of a small forgotten stone church in Ballyshannon, County Donegal. The audiobook weaves the archaeological information into fictionalised first-person accounts, allowing you to hear stories from the grave. The discoveries were made as part of the N15 Bundoran–Ballyshannon Bypass archaeological works. It led to one of the largest excavations of medieval burials ever undertaken on this island; over 1,200 individuals were excavated from the site at Ballyhanna over the winter of 2003–4, representing 1,000 years of burial through the entire Irish medieval period. 

The Ballyhanna Research Project is a cross-border collaborative research project that was established to investigate a medieval church and burial ground, which was lost from local knowledge for centuries, rediscovered in 2003 and subsequently excavated. One of the primary aims of the project is to show how scientific research may aid our interpretations of archaeology and reveal new insights into past societies. The project research tells us about this community through death and burial traditions, and by examining these aspects, it also tells us also about the people that lived in this medieval community, who, over the course of a millennium, were laid to rest in a small graveyard by the banks of the River Erne.

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The audiobook contains information on:

  • The History of Ballyhanna
  • The archaeological excavation
  • How science revealed the story of Ballyhanna
  • Fictionalised accounts based on archaeological and historical evidence that tell the ‘stories from the grave’.

Five sections are written from the first-person perspective of individuals whose remains were discovered during the excavation, or who were likely to have lived and worked at Ballyhanna in the past. These first-person accounts are fictional, but attempt to recreate their time, surroundings and lives, based on the information retrieved during the excavation and analysis, and from contemporary historical records. The first of these perspectives is The Story of the Physician. This story was inspired by the excavation’s discovery of the skull of a young girl who had undergone trepanation, a surgical intervention where a small hole was drilled into the skull. From the evidence of the bone, she had clearly survived this dangerous procedure, though she was clearly an unfortunate individual as she died at a young age from severe chronic infection.

The next story, The Story of the Pilgrim was inspired by the discovery of the skeleton of a female with a scallop shell found placed over the right breast. A scallop shell is the emblem of St James the Apostle, who was believed to have been buried at Santiago de Compostela, the presence of this shell may indicate that this woman had been on a pilgrimage to north-west Spain, following the route of the famous Camino.

The Story of the Soldier was inspired by the Battle at Ath Seanaigh, the ford nearby to Ballyhanna, that took place in 1247. In this battle the Normans with their Ó Canannáin allies defeated the men of Tír Connaill and slayed the King Máel Sechlainn. A number of the remains discovered during the excavation showed signs of having suffered a violent death. Including the skeleton of a young man with an Anglo-Norman type arrowhead embedded in his ribs. Though we cannot say for certain that this young man fell in the Battle of 1247, it seems a possible scenario.

The Story of the Midwife tells the sad story of child mortality and the dangers of childbirth in medieval Ireland. It was particularly inspired by the poignant discovery of the remains of a young mother with her newly delivered baby twins carefully placed across her chest and abdomen within the crook of her arm. This poignant discovery gives a tangible glimpse of all-too-understandable pain and loss, shown in the care and arrangement of the burial.

The final story, The Story of the Gravedigger was inspired by the terrible plague that swept through the region in 1478. This is likely to have had terrible consequences for those in the vicinity of Ballyhanna, at this time before modern medicine and hygiene such outbreaks had almost apocalyptic mortality rates.

The Ballyhanna Stories from the Grave Audiobook

Abarta Heritage produced this audio guide on behalf of Transport Infrastructure Ireland.  The Ballyhanna Stories from the Grave audiobook is based on the excavation reports from the dig, and the publication The Science of a Lost Medieval Gaelic Graveyard by Catriona J. McKenzie, Eileen M. Murphy and Colm J. Donnelly, published by Transport Infrastructure Ireland. A second publication on the site; Life and death in medieval Gaelic Ireland: The skeletons from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal, by Catriona J. McKenzie & Eileen M. Murphy has recently been published by Four Courts Press.

The audiobook was written by Neil Jackman of Abarta Heritage, and narrated by Gerry O’Brien and Sharon Mannion.  The audio guide was produced by Róisín Burke with sound engineer Declan Lonergan of Bluebird Studios.