There are some places in this world that touch you deeply in the soul. Derrynablaha has that affect on me. I first went there a few years ago and immediately felt that it was alive with ghosts. I was in search of Rock Art then, and Finola had told me about her experiences in the early 1970s – an intrepid young student on an old Honda 50 loaded down with sheets of cellophane and measuring rods. She had met the O’Sullivans who dwelt in the single farmstead there – they plied her with tea and directed her to the rocks above the house where treasures awaited. When I drove into that valley 40 years later I found only the ruins of the O’Sullivan cottage. It was a poignant moment – the mountains were empty: in some ways it felt like the loneliest place on earth, yet also one of the most beautiful.
What kind of a beauty is that? A mixtures of lives vanished and nature healing the wounds. Sheep still grazing on those rock-strewn fields: men from another valley tending them – O’Sullivans also, but – they claim – no relation to the last generation there.
Those lives are recently gone but, as I first climbed the precipitous slopes to the west of the old farm, I felt the presence of other ghosts – from a more ancient time. It’s a long haul up to the iconic carved stone which commands the wide view across to Lough Brin but, each time I make that journey, I feel more strongly drawn to the people who made that place their home – or possibly their temple.
This expedition must have been my fourth visit to the hillside which commands such a magnificent view over the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny and which takes in the lake on the valley floor – seemingly a mere puddle from that elevation yet in fact covering several hectares. On each visit I find more evidence of prehistoric occupation: on this occasion it appeared to me that the carved stone is sited on the edge of a circular plateau; I could trace old retaining walls below, some circles which could have been hut walls half lost in the undergrowth and – above this site – a wall of boulders which might have dammed the stream which runs down the mountain here, to create a little reservoir. I also saw the vestiges of a wedge tomb – aligned east to west – and the base of a cairn… All this, of course, is my imagination at work, but it’s a place where the imagination can take wing.
I have so many questions… Was there once tree growth at this level? Derrynablaha means ‘little oak wood of the flowers’ – I imagine something like the stunted oak forests on Dartmoor, where the ancient trees are gnarled and twisted from the ravages of a harsh climate, but which cling to the rocky terrain. But possibly the plateau was raised above this – a place where visibility over the whole landscape was important and visitors anticipated in advance. In my dreams I see fires burning up there in the night, figures dancing, songs being sung… Are they really Wolves and Deer I see moving around the fires, or are they my own ancestors wearing grotesque masks?
Why shouldn’t I have these thoughts? After all, technology might have changed over 5,000 years – but our minds haven’t. It’s not so hard to try and understand our forebears: I like to think they appreciated the power of the pristine landscapes which they inhabited – just as we are awed by the magnificence of their old haunts as we see them today.
Feel i was in there with you, lovely story and how magical it looks. Love to do a wild camp around those parts.
Thank you for the comment, Tony – it’s certainly a very special place.
Interesting reflections, I have been pondering on trees recently in connection with rock art here in the Cumbrian Fells where the tree line was at around 600m apparently in the Neolithic period. Specifically was the rock exposed from under the litter to make the cups, etc – as seems likely – or were the marks inscribed on rock that was naturally exposed and perhaps in a tree free area… so many questions to ponder! Thanks for the piece.
Thank you for your thoughts. In a place like Derrynablaha it seems to me that the elevation – and the visibility – were most important factors for the inhabitants: I can’t imagine tree cover at that level.
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Wonderful thought-provoking writing, and some beautiful images – the clouds add an extra something to an already very special place. How sad about the old cottage, nature reclaims things very quickly. I think it’s somewhere you have to take us – please!
We are very willing to take you there – in fact, why not come and help us to record all the rocks? We must choose a good weather spell…
A very moving piece of writing Robert. Not easy to express the feelings one has at these places. I’ve wanted to do this when visiting Assycombe on Dartmoor but so far the spirit to do so has eluded me.
Kick that spirit into gear, Perran! We had such a good day out with you on Dartmoor…
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