Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

13 thoughts

  1. I am a foreigner, so I have less right to comment than others, but I must say that one of the things that endeared me to travel and folklore study in your country (I focused on local histories and beliefs attached to archaeological sites) was the ease with which I could walk right up to these monuments and have a look. Included in the “ease” was the fact that nobody minded if I had a look — I asked permission if there were houses nearby, and was often invited to tea later — and I learned about the most excellent Irish custom of “Go and look — Just be sure you shut any gate that was closed.” This is in total opposition to the concept of land rights where I live (New England, USA) where somebody owns everything, and beyond your yard or the streets, you are in a state of constant trespass 🙂

    I had a combined archaeology and folklore background, but of course I had no business touching anything under the ground. Even so, it was amazing to have access to see this history up close (and occasionally it was a necessary viewing — the “Piper’s Stones” in Wicklow had a legend of a hound’s paw prints on them (probably an Ulster Saga motif), and I once there I found the carved of the holes for the old “wedge drills” once used to split boulders — so easy access had its scientific, not just romantic antiquarian, purposes.

    But over the years I did see some erosion of protection for monuments — or an increase in the desire to make note of one’s presence. In 2004, at the ruins of a Norman abbey in Meath, Ardmulchan, where I often visited during my bicycle-borne folklore study as a rest point when jet-lagged, I climbed the scrap of spiral stair to the remaining ruined chamber and found graffiti and other objectionable detritus (and I started visited this place for a few trips since 1980). I started seeing such things more often after that. My favorite tower at Slane now had a locked gate and the person with the key could never be found.

    I knew the need for these protections, but it was so different from previous experience. Also, sometimes the damage came from cattle rubbing on such things as standing stones. This was not as bad as the farmers using a standing stone to help push a hay rick up on the forks of the tractor. In 2012 I revisited “Finn MacCool’s Finger Stone at the base of Bruse Hill in Cavan, and found it knocked over and sinking in the mud from this kind of use (the local man said this had happened recently). Yet this was not the first time — during my first visit to the stone in 1980, I found one corner of it knocked away with a sledgehammer. (I have the before-and-after photos but cannot upload here). A local woman remarked that the farmer was trying to clear his field for easier farming, but that he stopped for some reason and noted, “He would have died anyway if he had completed the job,” referring to the noninterference beliefs once, er, believed in. So perhaps we can thank the fairies for their role in archaeological site protection and easy access! 🙂

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    • Thanks for that detailed and thoughtful comment, Wade. In many ways your experiences of fieldwork in Ireland mirrored my own, done in the 70s on a Honda 50. And yes, it is always distressing to see sites which have been graffitied or damaged. I even get incensed at New Age offerings and – worst of all – fires in sensitive archaeological sites. As the older generations passes, folk beliefs are losing their power to protect sites. So – when are you coming back for a visit to your spiritual home?

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      • I would want to come back as soon as possible! Was planning another month of fieldwork just as the pandemic hit. But soon after that my hips started screaming out for joint replacement surgery. Fieldwork without hips is very difficult 🙂

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      • PS — Honda 50 fieldwork! I saw so many Honda 50s during my first bicycle trip that I really envied the riders at times. That dependable and ubiquitous motorcycle might well have been the perfect fieldwork machine! (We used to ride those and similar motorbikes in the woods when we were kids, and they took a tremendous beating and be coaxed across all sorts of terrain).

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  2. I have tried not to get upset about the fence for as you say, the intentions were good and access is now freely given but ….. it is a real blight. The whole atmosphere has been deadened and it’s now impossible to get a clear view of the site. It has been literally penned. On a happier note, I need to know how you got so close to Dunbeacon tower house – wonderful images.

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  3. The fence around the circle is a great shame. Improved access is good of course but the unsympathetic choice of fencing and its proximity to the monument is very disappointing. It would be interesting to learn what the process was to erect the fence and if it received proper approval.

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