‘Father of Mountsandel’ leaves a lasting legacy to Coleraine

Professor Peter Woodman. INCR 09-701-CON
Professor Peter Woodman. INCR 09-701-CON

Mountsandel in Coleraine is renowned in archaeology as the first documented settlement of man in the Island of Ireland.

It has held this place for 40 years and it proves civilisation in Ireland to be at least 9,800 years old.

It is famous on account of the seminal research of archaeologist Peter Woodman, subsequently Professor Peter Woodman PhD, D.Litt.(Q.U.B,) and Dean of Faculty at the University College Cork and ultimately, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology.

It was a shock to his many friends here that he had suffered a severe stroke in last month from which he made no recovery .He was 73 years. His intellect, agile figure and looks belied any hint of what was to come.

It was only two months earlier that he had attended a meeting in the Lodge Hotel at the invitation of the Rotary Club of Coleraine at which he expressed his pleasure that Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, had produced a Mountsandel Blueprint Plan to bring to a wider audience the unique history of those early Mesolithic people who came up the Bann to settle at what is now the Cutts.

Originally from Holywood in Co. Down, Peter Woodman eventually became known throughout Europe as the premiere expert on the Mesolithic and was consulted widely abroad in Russia, Norway, Scotland, the Arctic and Isle of Man.

He conducted research in more than 20 sites throughout Ireland including Newferry, Bushmills, Carnlough, Castleroe and Glenarm in the North.

He published over 100 academic papers and as recently as 2015 published a four page article in the Journal “Archeology Ireland” entitled “ A fine spot for fishing” on the Mountsandel settlement.

This seminal article included a dramatic aerial picture of the River Bann, Cutts and Fort as well as one of him supervising the momentous archaeological dig at Mountsandel in 1973, the results of which took him by surprise and rewrote the history books.

That photograph showed a tall athlete with long dark locks at the age of 30 when he worked as assistant keeper of prehistoric antiquaries at the Ulster Museum (now the National Museum of Northern Ireland).

He had been an Ireland champion in the triple jump.

Just last year he was invited to Cloonavin, the headquarters of Causeway Coast and Glens Council, to participate in the first Mountsandel Festival and to help launch his new book “Ireland’s First Settlers”, a daunting task of over a thousand pages which fortunately collects his knowledge of Mesolithic Man for posterity.

Eight years ago he had a collection of academic papers published and dedicated to him under the heading “From Bann Flakes to Bushmills” as a tribute from his peers in recognition of his contribution to archeology and following his honour of being awarded the Graham Clarke Prize by the European Prehistoric Society.

His name crops up in standard textbooks on Irish history and children attending schools in the Republic of Ireland learn about Mountsandel in their curriculum. The tragedy is that when these children develop a love of the subject and come to Mountsandel, to walk in the footsteps of their Mesolithic ancestors they are unable to find it as there are very few signs to celebrate its significance here and it is not on the North’s schools’ curriculum.

In Jonathan Bardon’s book “A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes” produced for a BBC radio series, he describes what man first found here nearly 10,000 years ago.

“The last ice sheets had receded 3000 years earlier and the sea level was five metres lower than it is today. The falls and rapids at Mountsandel must have been a majestic site; below them in early summer the salmon waited in thousands for a flood to take them upstream to spawn, and sea bass foraged at high tide for crabs, flounder and smolts.

“Flint was carried from the beach at Portrush and Downhill. They gathered hazelnuts supplemented by crab apple, goosegrass and the seeds of water lilies.”

When Peter’s team excavated the site they learned how people then lived. There was charcoal from hearths and the remains of ten circular huts each about twenty feet in diameter.

It is not possible here to record all of his work and the honours bestowed on him.

His influence in the halls through which he spread his passion for antiquarianism and archaeology such as the Ulster Museum, the Royal Irish Academy, the National Heritage Council will be remembered with great fondness.

For those of us who met him on his visits to the North Coast in recent years the abiding presence of a modest and positive man who could talk to anyone as an equal will be remembered with a smile.

We attended his funeral in Cork as did several academics from our Ulster University and met his wife Toni, who trained as a nurse in Belfast,his five children, Aaron,Deborah, Peter, Emma, Patricia and grandchildren, and many of his friends.

When he was asked to, he came over many years to generously support the work of our local Council on its website www.mountsandel and in their plan for a Causeway Museum.

In the last three years he came at the invitation of Rotary to give talks in Coleraine, without recompense for the time and expertise which he gave so selflessly.

”To reach a great height you need to have great depth” seems an appropriate summation of his unassuming and intuitive presence.

Former Rotary president and friend, Liam Hickey, recalls him at Garron Tower School where they boarded together.

Back then he had that inquisitive quality which he expressed through an interest in astronomy. “It is to all our benefit that he chose to pursue a career below rather than above the ground”, said Liam.

Past Rotary Ireland District Governor, Wesley Armstrong, nominated Peter to become an Honorary Member of the Rotary Club of Coleraine,

He said: “It was a pleasure to have such an unassuming and gentleman become a member of our world wide organisation and in particular our Coleraine Club.

“We are indebted to him for his drive and enthusiasm in connection with the Mountsandel Project. He was a pleasure to work with and will be sadly missed by us all”.

* With thanks to Derek Sinnamon and Rotary for the above tribute.