It’s an almost entirely unknown national treasure – a valley of breathtaking grandeur dotted with the greatest concentration of prehistoric rock art in Ireland.
Derrynablaha (Little Oak Wood of the Flowers) is in Kerry, right in the heart of the Iveragh Peninsula (better known as the Ring of Kerry), on one of the few narrow roads that traverse the Peninsula. The rock art has been known for many years – the first paper about it appeared in the early 1960s, curiously, by an Italian rock art expert, Emmanuel Anati. The Cork husband/wife team of Michael and Claire O’Kelly traversed the valley, finding many new pieces and leaving extensive notes. Elizabeth Shee, the leading expert on passage grave art, added to the literature in the early 70s. In 1972 and 73 I (Finola Finlay) recorded and drew all the known examples, using the tracing techniques of the day. Blaze O’Connor and Avril Purcell both wrote about Derrynablaha in the early years of the 21st Century, relating the rock art to the landscape it occupied. Many more pieces came to light in the adjoining townland of Derreeny and were recorded by Ann O’Sullivan and John Sheehan in their Survey of the Iveragh Peninsula. Rose-Mary Cussen examined the art about five years ago, looking for patterns in the enigmatic carvings while other scholars have included Derrynablaha as part of a focus on Irish prehistory. A few photographers have attempted to capture images of the art, but none more so than Ken Williams, of the outstanding Shadows and Stone website.
This weekend, several of these rock art enthusiasts and experts came together for a unique expedition to Derynablaha and Derreeny. Elizabeth Shee, myself, Avril Purcell, Rose-Mary Cussen, and Ken Williams took part, accompanied by Robert Harris (see his take on this special place) and Clare O’Sullivan, a UCC undergraduate. Our objective was to visit as many of the panels as possible and to assess what has changed in the landscape in the 65 years since it was first described in academic journals. (See the end of this page for links to other Rock Art topics we have posted over the last couple of years.)
Finding the panels was the first challenge! We had all the information from the National Monuments records, including GPS locations for each rock. However, GPS readings can vary, and many of the ones we were using for Derrynablaha were from the early days of GPS and could be 30m out or even more. Apart from the small fields around the original farmhouse, this is a landscape of bog, gorse and tall grasses, of steep hillsides and tumbling streams, of numberless boulders and outcrops. It was, we think, populated by early herding agriculturalists in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. Historically, it supported a sizeable population in pre-Famine times (ruined cottages dot the land) and one sheep farm still operates now. Finding the rock art needle in the landscape haystack took time and patience, sharp eyes, and the good memories of those who had been there more recently than I. Where the GPS recording let us down we turned to the meticulous notes made by Claire O’Kelly: notes that said things like “keep the stream to your right and the large triangular rock in view and the rock is a short way below the wire fence.” These notes turned up trumps more than once.
In the end we located all but one panel of the ones we were tracking. The Derreeny rocks were easier to find as the GPS readings were more accurate. It was exhausting and exhilarating work and reminded us yet again how difficult this art can be to find and to see. While some panels were clear and sharp, others were weathered and lichened to the point of invisibility. For some, my drawings were needed to appreciate the full extent of the carvings. (I was feeling pretty pleased with myself about these drawings until we discovered one panel on Day 2 for which my drawing was mirror-imaged in my thesis. Fortunately, the Sullivan and Sheehan Survey had noted and corrected this in their work.)
On day 2 the team consisted of Ken, Finola, Robert and Rose-Mary and we spent our time on the most southerly examples in Derrynablaha, especially the large tabular rock and its associated rosette stone. One of the most extensively carved pieces of rock art in Ireland, this iconic piece commands a panoramic view of the whole area, extending to Lough Brin to the east, the Ballaghbeama Gap to the north and to Kealduff River valley to the south. Leaning against it is a stone with a superb example of the rare “rosette” motif.
For really excellent images of this stone, view it on Ken’s Shadows and Stone site.
We also lingered over an unusual panel with multiple lines, cupmarks and rosettes: this one was so faint that Ken resorted to having us provide shade using his jacket and our bodies. The results he got, with his flash technology, revealed astonishing detail totally invisible to the naked eye.
Our second objective was to assess the general ‘health’ of the rock art and its context. Mostly, we were encouraged: very little has changed in this valley over the years. It is remote and the land is marginal, suitable mainly as rough mountain pasture for sheep. The landowner knows about the rock art and is careful not to disturb or damage it.
However, two factors threaten the rock art even in this far-flung region. The first is forestry: a sizeable plantation occupies an area east of the road and at the south end of the townland. We didn’t have time to visit this area, but noted in the National Monuments records that two previously identified pieces of rock art are now within the forest boundaries and can no longer be found. The second factor is land-clearing for the purposes of improving the grazing fields. Farmers are encouraged to do this and there are grants available through European funds. We failed to find one piece that was located in such a cleared area, despite extensive searching over two days. Hopefully, this is a function of erroneous GPS readings and the rock still exists – but it is worrying.
Derrynablaha and Derreeny have always been special places. We can only speculate on the meaning or meanings of the extraordinary numbers of carved rocks in this landscape. Were they familiar, even domestic, expressions of belief or supplication? Did they mark routeways through the mountainous territory or boundaries between clan lands? Were they, or some of them, hidden ritual sites known only to certain members of a priestly class? Did the carvings identify suitable spots for calendrical observations? Did they have altogether different functions that we have yet to comprehend? We may never know the full extent of the meaning of the rock art to those who carved them. Yet – we do know their meaning to us. As the largest body of this category of prehistoric site in Ireland, this collection constitutes a vital link to our most distant past.
Other Rock Art Posts in Roaringwater Journal