The townland of Dorsey takes its name from ancient Iron-age ramparts of the Dorsey entrenchment. In Irish chronicles, stories have been told referring to a place called the “Doors of Emhain (Armagh)” it was also sometimes called the “Gates to the Fews”. The ancient road from Dundalk to Armagh known as Beala Mór an Feadha or the “Great Road of the Fews” runs the length of the townland of Dorsey and crosses the Dorsey entrenchment. The references to gates or doors may have come from this guarded entrance.
Dorsey is split into smaller townlands including Dorsey Proper and it is within this townland and in neighbouring Tullynavall that you can find the remains of gigantic dun or hill fort. The remains of this are sufficient to demonstrate how powerful and numerous the tribe or clan that built it must have been.
The dun is an irregular trapezoid 2.2km long, 600 m wide and 4km round. This vast enclosure was fortified by ramparts or walls. These ramparts originally consisted of a wall with deep fosses or ditches on both sides and smaller ramparts outside the fosses. Sadly a greater part of the original dun has been destroyed. Much of the original boundary bank has been removed over the generations to “improve” the land, and the original line is marked only by slight variations in the slopes of a field. But in some places the ramparts are still very imposing reaching over 6m in height. Evidence and folklore tell us that the southern “wall” would have been the major defence facing attack from that direction, while the other sides are bounded by natural barriers such as Carragher’s bog and the Dorsey river and would probably have been lower when they were built than the southern wall.
It has been suggested by some, that Dorsey may have had been a fortified frontier post – the chief frontier post – of the Ulster kingdom whose capital was Emain Macha (Navan fort). The Dorsey’s peculiar plan and its actual position was due to the double purpose of controlling the Beala Mór an Feadha (Great Road of the Fews) and a second route over the ford at Drummil Bridge. This would have been during the period of Conor Mac Nessa and Cu Chullain. Indeed some think that Dorsey could have been the home of Cú Chullain rather than the nearby and much smaller Dun Dealgan at Castletown, Dundalk, that usually claims this honour. Certainly by its size Dorsey would have been fit for a king!
In around 200BCE it appears that stretches of the already impressive southern wall were reinforced and made higher still, as part of a linear defence called the Black Pig’s Dyke, which extends into Monaghan and Cavan. Oak pilings have been found suggesting that the ramparts were built on a foundation of piles laced with horizontal beams and strengthened with flat stones. It is these pilings that have been dated, using dendrochronology (the study of tree rings), as the same time as the final phases of the enormous Navan Fort. This linear defensive architecture and the cattle raiding that took place across it were seen as a threat to the kingdom of Tara. These threats lead ultimately to the Raid of the Collas and the sacking and burning of Navan Fort. The Dorsey, as its name implies, literally commanded gates in this continuous fortification.
Next to Dorsey, on the summit of the ridge in a field adjoining the rampart, is a pillar stone 1.5m high, known as the White Stone of Calliagh Berra or the White Stone of Watching. This bears several deep curious marks said to be the finger prints of Calliagh Berra, the witch of nearby Slieve Gullion. This style of standing stone, dates from the Neolithic and could possibly have been the religious centre of a settlement predating the entrenchment, showing that this area has been important for settlement for the whole of human history.
Indeed through history the Dorsey has continued to be of significance; stone cannon balls found in entrenchment suggest that the defences were perhaps used or fought over in the 16th century perhaps during the Nine Years War. In the 19th century the walls of Dorsey were put to a different use as part of a pound to keep farm animals safe…but not too safe, as in 1748 century Tory and outlaw Cal Mór was employed to keep the pound but stole the cattle and was hanged drawn and quartered for the crime as well as for a number of murders.
A video filmed at a public archaeological excavation carried out in 2019 can be viewed here.
The journal of the Creggan Local History Society 1990 and 1987
County Louth Archaeological Journal 1938 and 1940