Antiquities of the Mealagh Valley

The Mealagh Valley (locals pronounce it Maylock) runs from Bantry Bay to the Maughanaclea (Maw-na-clay) hills and through this valley the Mealagh River flows from north east to south west. Along the valley are found numerous ancient monuments, evidence of occupation from the earliest times. David Myler, some years ago, with support from other local people, undertook to survey all the archaeological sites in the area and the result was this book. Sorry – it’s out of print and we are glad we managed to pick up a copy several years ago.

David and I have been in virtual touch for quite a while through social media, promising to meet up and explore when we got a chance – and that finally happened on Friday! Along the way we discovered family connections, so it was no wonder I felt an instant kinship when we met – we bonded over archaeology and shared family stories. David, a Dubliner originally, has been living here for decades and in that time has taken courses in archaeology and developed a passion for the heritage of this – his territory.

It was a joy to be taken on a field trip by the man who has, literally, written the book about the archaeology of the Mealagh Valley. It’s only the first of many, I hope, since we really only got to sample a few of the sites this time – although, as you will see, the places he took us were pretty spectacular!

David had secured all the permissions we needed to visit the sites on private land. We started out in the townland of Ardrah (Árd Rath – high fort) with a ring fort (above) commanding panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. A ring fort (also called a rath, lios, dún, or cashel if made of stone) was the dwelling of a high-status individual in early medieval Ireland and examples like this probably date to 500 AD to 1,000 AD. The banks had traces of stone here and there so may well have been faced with stone, and the interior had been levelled.

There would have been a house and perhaps other buildings inside, and a wooden pallisade fence on top of the surrounding bank. There’s a good summary of what we know about ring forts in this engaging website about Irish mythology – I especially enjoy the writer’s comments on the use of ‘fairy fort’ to describe these structures. 

From there we climbed a couple of fences – the first of several fence-climbing incidents during the day and thanks to David for sacrificing his jacket to save us from the barbed wire – and trekked uphill. The monument started to reveal itself as we got higher – at first I thought it was a standing stone.

No – a stone pair?

What, there’s more?

This is the Ardrah stone row, consisting of fours stones aligned ENE/WSW, a common alignment for stone pairs and rows. Take a quick trip over to Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh for more about this kind of monument. You will see that this one is pretty typical – it has an orientation to the south west, consists of stones that could be interpreted as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the stones rise in height towards the SW. The southernmost stone is enormous – Robert is providing the scale.

But wait, I hear you say – I see five stones, not four! And you are right. there are five stones, whereas originally there had been only four, and all the records state that this row consists of four stones. The photograph in David’s book, which dates to 1998, clearly shows four.

So – where did the fifth, and smallest, stone come from? It’s a head-scratcher and all we can do is point to the presence of the nearby fairy fort and speculate that the Other Crowd are messing with us.

And then it was on to the piece of prehistory that David discovered in the course of his survey. I should explain here that much of what the Mealagh Valley group was documenting was already known, since the whole county had been surveyed in the 1980s. But what the County Survey lists and what a local group like this looks at, will differ – for example, this group was interested in folklore and local stories about the monuments they visited and about items of interest beyond the remit of the county survey. Moreover, because they are local themselves, they are likely to be contacted if anyone spots an unusual rock or such like, and can be on the spot to examine new ‘finds’. Finally, a project like this generates appreciation and pride in, and a sense of ownership of, one’s heritage, and thus, hopefully, less likelihood of monuments being damaged.

David had been alerted by a farmer to a ‘funny pile of stones’ on the boundaries of the townlands of Ardrah and Gortnacowly (Gort na Camhlaigh – field of the ruins), an area that had been impacted by forestry activity. It’s quite high up and the views are immense. As we walked up, it sent shivers down our spines as David related how he hunted around for what had been described to him, almost giving up, and finally stumbling upon the mangled remains of what he instantly recognised as a Bronze Age wedge tomb.

A digger clearing out a drainage ditch had inflicted damage but most of the stones were still lying around. One side of the tomb, and the back stone, were in situ. That’s probably the capstone, or one of them, on the other side of the fence.

As an archaeologist, it’s actually quite rare in Ireland to discover a previously unrecorded monument – having done so once or twice I know what a thrill it is. David’s wedge tomb is a classic of its type – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths for more about them. That’s David above, showing us how to make sense of the stones, both those in situ and those which have been disturbed. He was able to ascertain that the workings in the area had turned up quartz pebbles – a feature of several West Cork wedge tombs.

This one was, as expected, oriented towards the setting sun – but that doesn’t begin to describe the incredible sweep of the view from this point – the whole of Bantry Bay lay before us, with the Beara on one side and Sheep’s Head on the other.

Our final visit of the day was to a type of monument I had never seen before – a ‘Four Poster’. That’s it, above, and note that there is a distant view of the sea, ten kilometres away, from it.

Only five four posters have been recorded in Ireland, one in Wexford, one in Kerry and the other four in West Cork. Here’s what the National Monuments site has to say about them: An arrangement of four upright stones standing at the corners of an irregular quadrilateral. The stones are usually graded in height with the tallest stone at either the south-west or north-east corner. Their closest counterparts are to be found in northern England and Scotland. These monuments are closely related to stone circles in date and function though they are much less numerous. These are dated to the Bronze Age (c. 2400-500 BC).

There are, in fact, only three stones remaining here. The largest stone is massive and of course there are all kind of alignment possibilities with arrangements like this. The closest counterpart to these four posters are to be found in Northern England and Scotland. There have been no excavations at four posters in Ireland but those few which have been dug in Britain yielded a Bronze Age range of dates.

We saw some other things along the way – a booley (above), a hedge school, a mass rock – and Robert wants to write in the future about one particular site, so I won’t deal with it here. The day was cold and crisp – but you hardly notice little things like freezing hands with a landscape like this to wander around in.

What a great day! Thank you, David, for being our tour guide and friend and we look forward to returning the favour soon.

20 thoughts

  1. A fabulous tour! Some of those stones in the four-poster are massive! And the wedge tomb – is the damage recent? Can anything be done to put it back or is that not good practice? What a find, and what a fabulous view from there.

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  2. A wonderful day’s exploration by the sound of it and ye managed to get the last of the beautiful clear weather as well. Mind you nobody deserves it more.. All in the search of knowledge.

    Like

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