In March 1859 Edward Brenan, then Postmaster in Dungarvan and an amateur antiquarian, saw some workmen carrying large bones into the square. He discovered that they had been at Shandon on the bank of the Colligan river about Â½ mile to the north of the town, where a limestone quarry was being worked.
The workmen later recalled the events-.. ' at the level of about three ft below the surface.. they came on what one of them styled 'a cartload of beef & mutton bones'... These they cast aside..until coming on the entire long bones of a mammoth, curiosity was excited, and a tibia of this animal was paraded in the town of Dungarvan as the thigh bone of a giant... and one individual, anxious to turn the bone to good account, collected a large donkey load and sold them to make bone dust'.
Brenan recalled -'I at once proceeded to the place, with a view to acquiring further particulars from the quarrymen, who informed me that a quantity of such bones had been broken and taken away with the stones used for the repair of the roads; and further, that not being aware of their value, They made no attempt to preserve them, but they promised that for future they would be more careful'. The workmen did find further bones (some of them are illustrated here) which Brenan presented to the Museum of the Royal Dublin Society. These included the remains of mammoth bear, rein-deer, hare, and horse.
As this was the first discovery of mammoth in the south of Ireland it caused great interest. Brenan read a paper on his discoveries at the Royal Dublin Society in June 1859, this was subsequently published in the 'Natural History Review' in October 1859 and also in the journal of the Royal Dublin Society.
In 1870 A. Leith Adams Professor of Zoology in the Royal College of Science in Ireland and Professor Harkness visited the Shandon Cave site. They had been assured by Brenan that all the bones had been removed so Adams was surprised to find several more bones. He also discovered a small opening about 2ft high which he felt was the continuation of the main cave area which had been quarried away. Encouraged by these finds he felt a new excavation of the site should be carried out. However, this did not occur until June 1875 when he began an excavation financed to the sum of Â£40 by the Royal Irish Academy. The excavation begun on the 14th June and ended on July 20th. Adams published a report on the dig in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy in 1876 which was accompanied by plans and a sketch of the cave interior and exterior drawn by Edward Hardman.
The entrance Adams discovered led to a chamber was 70ft wide and its height varied from 2ft to 8ft. The original length of the destroyed portion of the cave was about 150ft. 'There is evidence that the original opening to Shandon Cave was on the northern side of the public road, and that subsequently, on the foundation of the latter, the entrance was by a shattered mass of limestone on the southern side of the turnpike.. There is, therefore, every probability that the road passes across the floor of the cavern, and may be resting on a bed of fossil remains. Adams found the remaining bones of the mammoth discovered by Brenan, and the bones of another. A Professor Owens and Dr. Carte who examined the mammoth bones found by Brenan concluded that the mammal was 15ft in height and 24ft long. Adams noted that the bones of horse found at Shandon 'somewhat exceeded the height of the Exmoor pony, and stood about 14 hands at the shoulder. The remains at about 40 reindeer were found by Brenan and Adams.
The skull and other bones of a Grisly Bear were found by Brenan in 1859. Adams stated that it was the remains of a very old female, its height was about 35 inches and the body was about 5 ft in length.
Note : The Shandon bones are now held in the Natural History Museum in Dublin and one of the pieces is on display in the new Collins Barracks Museum.
Author: Willie Fraher