The National Monument of Dunbeg, which translates as the little fort, is a popular tourist attraction in County Kerry with its distinctive rows of defences and spectacular views over Dingle Bay to Valentia Island and the World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael. Unfortunately, the site has been periodically closed to the public for repairs and safety measures as the sea continues to erode the cliffs. This erosion is particularly severe during storms, and storms are predicted to become more severe with climate change.
When you approach the promontory from the road, you walk through four banks, five ditches, and an inner drystone rampart. A central causeway crosses the banks to the rampart but people are encouraged to walk on the eastern side of the fort due to erosion at the entrance. An underground stone-built passage, known as a souterrain, extends for over 16m from the rampart to the third bank. A stone-flagged pathway did lead from the rampart entrance to a circular drystone structure known as a clochán in the interior of the fort
We have a relatively good record of changes at this site as the promontory fort attracted the attention of19th century antiquarians and geologists as well as 20th-century tourists. George Du Noyer’s visited and recorded the site in 1856, and the triangular-shape promontory he drew has been indented up to 35m along its western side which sits on the 30m-high cliffs. This has resulted in the fort becoming more crescent-moon shape in plan today.
Human activity in the 19th century also impacted the fort, with hare hunters overturning stones, and stone being taken for building elsewhere. Drystone field walls that once crossed the fort banks and ditches were removed during Office of Public Works (OPW) restoration in 1892. The OPW also repaired the roof of one of the two guard chambers that sat on either side of the rampart wall entrance. The western guardhouse is no longer extant. The OPW repairs also made a curve at the rampart’s terminals and inserted a boundary wall. Previous plans of the site indicated there had been a straight rampart wall.
In 1897, Thomas Westropp said around 3m of land has fallen on the western side in the last 20 years. Professor R.A.S. MacAlister, later of University College Dublin, records that he visited the site in 1896 and again in 1898 and in that time the western end of the stone rampart had eroded into the sea. Another OPW visit in September 1915 sketches the disappearance of 9.5m of the western side of the rampart since 1897 and ground fissures, a sign of impending instability, were also shown.
In 1977, the OPW and National Monuments Service commissioned an excavation to examine the site, its dating and history of occupation before more features were lost. A view from the inside of the fort looking at the rampart wall shows the cliff erosion from the west had reached the western guardhouse to the side of the covered entrance. Excavation led by Professor Terry Barry from Trinity College Dublin revealed post holes, hearths and stake holes within the clochán and suggested wattle shelters supported by wooden posts and stakes. Analysis of occupation debris indicated a diet of pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, deer, birds and fish. Radiocarbon dates suggest it was inhabited in the 10th or 11th centuries AD. Further excavation at the rampart revealed an earlier shallow ditch radiocarbon dated to the 6th century BC. This indicates a long history of use at the site, though it may not have been continuous.
Within the last 7 years, the cliff has been experiencing another period of instability. In January 2014, a storm resulted in the southern side of the entrance through the rampart collapsing causing a section to fall away close to the passageway through the stone rampart. The CHERISH Project began early in 2017 and has been recording the latest changes with regular drone and laser scanner surveys. In December 2017, the site had to be closed again after flash flooding down Mount Eagle caused stream erosion within the fort causeway, banks and ditches. Then during Storm Eleanor on 3rd January 2018, most of the covered entrance through the rampart and the ground below collapsed into the sea. The last covered area of this entrance had collapsed by our next visit in April 2019.