The Significant Rock Art of Clonfinlough

Whenever we stray from our home territory of West Cork, we are always on the lookout for archaeological wonders. When we set our course for Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly, last week (I like the possible translation of the Irish Cluain Muccu Nóis: Meadow of the Pigs of Nós, but there is an alternative Cluain Mhic Nóis: Meadow of the Sons of Nós), we were looking for Ireland’s most important medieval monastic site, but we were diverted only a stone’s throw from our destination by a sign that we couldn’t ignore…

Tucked away to the south east of Clonmacnoise, on a by-road, sits an isolated church in front of which is a well defined and fenced pathway leading past the Priest’s house, through fields, over a stile and into a pasture where cows grazed and barely gave us a glance. There – open to the ravages of weather and cattle – is a large, earthfast slab of limestone bearing a remarkable array of markings.

Header – a detail from the stone’s crowded surface. Upper – the well-defined path leading from St Kieran’s Church to the stone (don’t confuse this St Kieran with the one from Cape Clear). Lower – the limestone slab situated beyond the stile

For Rock Art enthusiasts like us the stone was a wonderful find. The surface is teeming with rings, lines, shapes – and even lettering. In spite of the weathering, everything was deeply defined and easy to see. And the more we looked, the more we did see, and the more perplexed we became. I even noted footprints! Remember my search last week for the footprint left by Archangel Gabriel on his visit to his eponymous mountain in West Cork? Here I counted six, and my size nine feet fitted perfectly in them all.

Upper – two of the ‘footprints’ scattered on the stone’s marked surface. Lower – the stone in its landscape context: ‘footprints’ are also visible

When we returned from our visit to Offaly I was able to research the available information on the Clonfinlough Stone and was delighted to find a very comprehensive study of it written by Finola’s old friend and Rock Art expert from UCC, Elizabeth Shee Twohig. The piece – Context and Chronology of the Carved Stone at Clonfinlough, County Offaly – was published in 2002 in The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 132 pp 99-113. It makes the most enlightening read, outlining the ways in which the stone was regarded and drawn by early antiquarians and then opening up discussion on how much of the stone’s markings might in fact be natural formations, or natural forms which have influenced and been enhanced by ‘artists’ working with motifs which have become familiar to Rock Art researchers today, including cupmarks.

Engravings by George Victor du Noyer illustrating a paper published by James Grave in 1865. Note the emphasis that du Noyer has placed on recognisable ‘Greek’ style lettering (termed phi by Shee Twohig)

Elizabeth Shee Twohig quotes theories by RAS Macalister which evolved between 1921 and 1949, and which include the idea that the phi markings represent ‘…a possible depiction of a battle between the ‘loop men’ and the ‘cross men’ and suggested that the cupmarks …may even indicate the number of severed heads!…’ In his 1928 book The Archaeology of Ireland Macalister (quoted by Shee Twohig) suggests ‘…the carvings as showing a battle or pre-battle scene, the medicine men having prepared for their occult purposes a picture of the consummation desired…’ while in 1949 he saw it as a sign-manual of a hostile expedition from Spain which sailed up the Shannon: ‘…the battlefield, printed with the footmarks of the flying foe, strewn with weapons cast away in their flight and with missile stones…’

These are but brief extracts from the Shee Twohig account and discussions, which are essential reading – not just for possible enlightenment on the markings on this stone, but also for a well defined background on how ideas about Rock Art generally have developed since the time of the earliest antiquarians.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig has amplified her study of the Clonfinlough Stone with the first truly accurate drawing of the markings on it (above). It is certainly interesting to compare this with the 1865 engravings by du Noyer

Elizabeth Shee Twohig brings in to her study the possible significance of the stone’s positioning close to the great monastic centre of Clonmacnoise, which in medieval times was the prime pilgrimage destination in Ireland. There is evidence that one of the paved pilgrim routes passed close by the Clonfinlough Stone. It is plausible, therefore, that at least some of the markings on this limestone slab could have dated from those times: Clonmacnoise was active between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Upper – the many enigmatic markings on the stone: natural limestone solution pits, Bronze Age Rock Art, crosses carved by or for medieval pilgrims? Lower – the stone is within sight of the present day church

A trawl through the folklore records proves fertile. One legend says that at certain times of the year a horseman manifests and gallops around the stone. Another has it that a local boy named Michael used to play at the rock and there met another boy who gave him a silver knife. His mother made him take the knife back and leave it on the stone, for she said the boy was a fairy trying to entice him away. It is also said that another Michael will find the knife, and when he does he will find two big pots of gold under the rocks. Whatever the truth is about the rock and its meaning, I am struck by the path we found coming from the little church which is in sight of the Clonfinlough Stone: could there be something pagan in that stone which required the church to be built there – or is it a mutual guardianship?

PS – since publishing this post, Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh has pointed me to this 3D Sketchfab image of the Clonfinlough Stone available to view online:

In the church at Clonfinlough is a curious series of Stations: this one showing the ’empty tomb’ can be seen as a rock supplanted by a cross…

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