New Rock Art Find in West Cork

“I’ve found a funny rock carving and a friend told me to ring you” – that’s my favourite type of call to get! It doesn’t always work out: sometimes the marks are machine-made, or a natural geological feature of the rock. But the anticipation is always there that this time it will be the real thing.

And it was! Our caller was John Minihane, a retired harbour master and a Harley enthusiast, living in a beautiful traditional farmhouse near Union Hall, once the home of his grandmother. He had been tidying up the back garden and pulled ivy off what seemed to be just a big rock in a bank separating his property from a neighbours. It turned out to be a standing stone with prehistoric rock art on it.

Not all rock art is spectacular – some of it can be underwhelming, consisting of only a few cupmarks. Take a look at some of our previous posts on rock art (C2 on our Navigation Page) to see some of the examples, from simple to complex, we have written about. The one (below) is possibly one of the most iconic pieces of rock art in Ireland – it’s from Derrynablaha in Kerry.

This photograph (above) shows the rock art panel in its location, high in the Kerry Mountains, overlooking a beautiful valley and lake. The image is by Ken Williams, used with his permission. Ken is Ireland premier photographer of archaeological subjects – read more about him here or better yet visit his amazing website.

The latest thinking about Atlantic Rock Art (it occurs all down the Atlantic Coast, from Portugal to Scotland) is that it is Neolithic – that is, about 5,000 years old. In its elemental, form, the humble cupmark, it persists into the Bronze Age, sometimes occurring on Wedge Tombs and Boulder Burials. So this standing stone, with cupmarks and grooves, might be anywhere from 5,000 to 2,500 years old.

Most rock art is found on bedrock (like Derreennaclogh, above) or earth-fast boulders, but in West Cork, we do have other examples of rock art on standing stones. Two can be found about 9km east near Rosscarbery, both in the townland of Burgatia and both with cupmarks and cup-and-ring marks. Another is located on the townland boundary between Knockanoulty and Barnabah, about 14km to the SW. I’ve shown that one below, both as a photograph and as a drawing.

When I was a student (back in the dawn of time) and recording rock art, the conventional method was to chalk in the carvings, trace it all on to clear film, re-trace it in paper using Indian ink, and then have that photographically reduced. That’s how I produced the drawings above. Robert has used his architectural drafting skills to produce drawings more recently – below is his rendering of the cupmarked stone a local farmer showed us quite near where we live.

Mostly, nowadays, archaeologists favour techniques that do not interfere with the rock surface, and that usually means a photographic technique known as photogrammetry. The idea is to take lots of photos (150 in this case), moving at a steady rate and distance across the surface of the rock, load these into a program that can create a 3D image, and see what comes out.

We are very grateful to Nick Hogan of the University College Cork  Department of Archaeology who used their sophisticated software to create the 3D image. It’s been fun to play with the files he sent us, which are the best way of seeing what’s actually on the rock surface. 

You can set up a grid, or rotating axes, and turn the model so that the light hits it in different ways. This can help you to discern small cupmarks that don’t show up well in photographs. In the case of this rock, the thing that was hard to make out was the exact shape of the groove, and the 3D model shows this up well. If you turn it sideways it looks like an owl – but this is purely a chance occurrence – this art was strictly non-representational (although there’s a chance we might find a  deer or an axe some day, but that’s another story).

It’s always exciting to find a genuine piece of undiscovered archaeology! Thank you, John Minihane, for inviting us over to see your find and allowing us to record it. And thank you, Nick Hogan for the 3D modelling. A most satisfying project all round.

Nine beans rows will I have there, and a piece of prehistoric rock art!

Dunmanus Castle 2: The Castle

Dunmanus Castle stands guard over a natural harbour on the north side of The Mizen Peninsula and is one of the largest of the still-standing Castles of Ivaha.

All of the O’Mahony castles (or tower houses as the archaeologists prefer to call them) were the raised entry type, where the door that gave access to the living quarters of the chief was on the first, rather than the ground floor. There is an entrance on the ground floor, but it allowed access only to the lowest level. While at some of the castles of Ivaha, the raised entry was immediately above the ground-floor entry, at Dunmanus, it is above and to the left of the ground-floor entry: this offset placement probably allowed easier access to the lower entrance.

Dunmanus is the only O’Mahony Castle (as far as we know – several have disappeared) to have an additional turret, this one located at the south west corner. In fact the only other castle like it in this part of West Cork is Kilcoe Castle – see my post about its Magnificent Reconstruction. Jeremy Irons’ restoration also allows us to see what Dunmanus Caste would have looked like in its heyday. 

After the false start at Knockeens (see Dunmanus Castle 1: The Cliff-Edge Fort) the tower house was constructed on the site of an earlier fortification probably called Dún Manus, or the Fort of Manus. It was built by Donagh Mór, a chief of the O’Mahony Fionn (the Fair-Haired) sept, sometime in the 15th century. Donagh Mór had been elected Táiniste (next in line to become Taoiseach, or Chief) but he had to wait over 40 years, until 1473, for his brother to die before he succeeded, and then he only lived two more years. This timeframe fits with the architecture of the castle, which is firmly fifteenth century gothic – the window style below is typical.

Like all the O’Mahonys at this time he was very wealthy, riches that came from his control of both the fisheries in Dunmanus Bay and the resources of the hinterland behind his castle. He could therefore afford to indulge his taste for a high-status residence. While the castle may not have been warm or bright (no fireplaces and small windows) it was certainly a statement in the landscape, designed to impress upon all who saw it that this was the centre of power in this part of the world.

The Castle originally had two floors (ground and first) and a mezzanine under a vault in the main tower. Above this was the principle chamber and above that were the roof and battlements. The floors of the turret (foreground, above) did not line up with the floors of the main tower, but were offset and reached by a series of stairs.

The ground floor was probably used for storage and perhaps public business. It had a wooden ceiling that formed the floor of the room above it (first floor). You can also see the corbels that supported the beams that formed the base for the floor, as well as the large sockets into which the beams were set. If this castle followed the pattern of others, there was no access from the ground floor to any floor above it – no stairway or ladder.

Still visible are the bar holes for the door as well as the spud stone and hanging eye – this was how the door was hung and how it turned. Can you make them out just to the left of the arch above – the spud stone is close to the ground and the hanging eye is level with the top of the arch.

The first floor was a more complex room and it had a mezzanine (you can see the corbels for it) under the vault. From the outside, a set of steps ascended to the raised entry and once you were at this door you could go straight ahead into the first floor room, or turn left and ascend a mural staircase to the floor above the vault. That staircase became spiral further up.

In this first floor room were two other doorways. The first (above), on the west side, was to a mural chamber that included the first floor garderobe or toilet (fifteenth century indoor plumbing!) – more on that later. The second (below) gave onto a short flight of steps leading downward to a vaulted chamber in the turret.* 

This chamber is one of the most interesting features of Dunmanus Castle, because in the floor is a hatch or trap-door which is the only access to yet another small, vaulted windowless cell below.

We know about this cell because there’s a hole in the wall that allows us to see into it – and even go into it. 

Once you’re inside, you realise that originally you would have been in the pitch black and that the only way in or out was the trapdoor in the ceiling. Was this a dungeon? An oubliette? It certainly could have functioned as such, and there are historic accounts of prisoners being confined in such spaces in Irish castles. 

But there are other possible explanations. Mark Samuels, in his Tower Houses of West Cork, speculates that this is in fact a cistern, fed from below, filled in over the years with debris so that it is now impossible to see how deep it went. There are identical features, he says, at Kilcoe and Monteen tower houses. It would have been a significant advantage, especially during a siege, to have a source for water.

However, the best evidence for the use of rooms like this comes from the excavations of Barryscourt Castle, near Carrigtwohill, east of Cork City. Here’s what the authors of this section of the report, Dave Pollock and Conleth Manning conclude about its function.

The ground floor, originally accessed only through a trapdoor in its vault, has in the past been regarded as a prison or dungeon. The more likely explanation is that it was a safe vault or basement strongroom, where cash and records were kept securely, and could be accessed with the aid of a ladder when required. The room above this, referred to variously in other cases as the accounting room or counting house, was where an officer of the Manor called the receiver or cofferer worked. He documented all produce and commodities coming into the castle and made payments as necessary. At Barryscourt this room was only accessible through a small external doorway . . . It is interesting that good examples of accounting rooms with basement strong rooms under them, accessed through trap doors, are found in some late 14th century great towers in England such as Bolton Castle and Warkworth Castle.


Barryscourt Castle Co Cork, Archaeology, History and Architecture, Dave Pollock, ED.
Published by the National Monuments Service, 2017,

There is, of course, no access nowadays to the upper floors of Dunmanus Castle, but we know that the top floor was the ‘solar’ – the largest and most commodious chamber reserved for the Chief and his family. It was also where he entertained, and there are accounts of the lavishness with which guests were received. Take a look at my post, Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of) to see how the brilliant artist JG O’Donoghue, has managed to show us the internal layout of a tower house. Here is his image of the upper floors and wall walk.

From that chamber, a set of stair led up to the battlements, where a wall walk would have surrounded the pitched roof. The wall walk was protected by a set of stepped merlons and crenels in the style known as Irish Crenellations – Kilcoe gets these exactly right.

My final note is on the garderobe, or rather, garderobes, since there was one off the first floor and another at the level of the solar. The chute which served both of them, was divided down the middle by a set of perpendicular slabs set into the inner wall (above and below). 

When I photographed Dunmanus in 2016 these perpendicular slabs were in place. However, as you can see below, by five years later two of them have fallen.

While these particular slabs may not be integral to the cohesion of the building, every stone that falls or slips weakens the overall structure and is another step towards ruination. It would be very sad indeed if Dunmanus Castle is not here in its current state for future generations.

*I am grateful to a friend who shall remain nameless (but who is a relative of Spiderman) for the photographs of the turret room and staircase. Do not attempt to access these spaces.

Fabulous Five-Minute Blackberry Jam

This is my go-to recipe for blackberry jam. I’ve made ‘real’ jam – which takes all day and leaves you hot and bothered – and then wondered how to get through a dozen jars of jam and ended up pressing them on friends and neighbours. This is so much easier!

Blackberries are early and abundant this year. They’re everywhere and they’re free for the picking – all the best chefs are out there, adding them to the ‘foraged’ list on their menus. They’re also incredibly good for you! Although some of the claims made for them are probably fanciful, it’s true that they are packed with fibre, Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. If you’re picking them with gusto, a few drops of your own blood adds some additional flavour.

Although they can be a pain for gardeners, blackberries are marvellous for pollinators. The flowers contain huge amount of nectar and pollen and it’s one of the plants that can really make a difference for bees. They may become a medicinal crop too – a student from Cork, Simon Meehan, won the Young Scientist of the Year award in 2018 with his discovery of an antibiotic contained in blackberry brambles.

So what about that jam recipe? And can it really take only five minutes? Yes! Collecting the fruit, in my own garden, took me about ten minutes (mainly because I kept eating the berries as I was picking) but the jam itself took less than five minutes to make. I used two cups (about a pint, or 500ml).

The secret is Chia Seeds – those tiny little black seeds that swell up and jellify when you add moisture. They, like the blackberries, are also very good for you, being full of B Vitamins and minerals.

If you’re concerned about the calories in honey, or want to keep it vegan, leave out the honey (it will just be a little more tart) or use maple syrup or a sugar substitute. Scale up in ratio – that is, for two cups, just double everything, etc.

Pick through them well!

Ingredients

1 cup blackberries

1Tbs Warm water

1 Tbs Honey

1 Tbs Chia Seeds

Method

Pick through the blackberries to remove any sticks or bugs. but don’t wash them. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until mushified (technical term), or use a hand blender, or just mash everything together really well with a fork. Pour it all into a clean jar (or glass, or yogurt pot) and store in the fridge.

Because this isn’t cooked, you have to keep it in the fridge but it will last for a couple of weeks there. You can also freeze it.

Yum!

Dunmanus Castle 1: The Cliff-Edge Fort

There is a strong local tradition on the Mizen, or Ivaha as I prefer to call it, that Dunmanus Castle is not the original. No – the first site for Donagh Mór O’Mahony’s Castle, the stories say, was in Knockeens, across Dunmanus Harbour from the present site. We set out to investigate.

This is the site, directly across the bay from Dunmanus Castle, and it’s what is labelled in the National Monuments records as a Cliff-Edge Fort. According to their definition that’s A penannular enclosure which utilises a cliff-edge to form one or more sides as an enclosing element. They date from the late Bronze Age up to the medieval period (c. 1800 BC – 16th century AD).

Perhaps the best known cliff-edge fort in Ireland is Dun Aonghasa on the Aran Islands (above) – it’s certainly the most spectacular. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Ireland) There are 20 examples of cliff-edge forts in Cork, of which only 6 are coastal, the rest are on ridges or steep slopes above rivers.

The problem is that some of these may genuinely be a specific type of fortification that uses the cliff-edge as an impregnable barrier – as promontory forts do, for example. Some of them, however, and this may apply to Knockeens, may have been circular ring forts, built on prominent locations to command views of land and sea, but which may have been eroded by sea-action until what is left is clinging on to the edge of a cliff. In the photo above, you can see the obvious erosion at Knockeens. Instead of a circular ring fort, what remains looks D-shaped.

In the 25″ OS map, done in the late 1800s, the site shows ‘Castle in Ruins’

There is plenty of evidence that the Irish clan chieftains built their castles on the sites of their former strongholds – ring forts, cashels and promontory forts (see my post on Three Castle Head, for example). If there was indeed a castle at Knockeens, there is not much evidence of it now, although there are tell-tale signs of some kind of masonry construction.

But whatever Knockeens was – a cliff-edge fort or a ring fort – it’s unusual and impressive. It consists now of a raised platform of earth, probably originally circular, and an outer wall (above). There may have been a radial wall once (see the map below), but it has been ploughed out and is no longer visible on the surface, although it shows up faintly in aerial photographs. There may have been a fosse, or ditch around the outer wall also – slight traces of this also remain.

The raised platform is an imposing spectacle. We approached it from the landward side and were unprepared for how tall it is. The interior sits high above the surrounding land – an extraordinary feat of engineering and one which could only be accomplished by a chieftain with the ability to command the labour of many people. 

If indeed most of it has been swept away by the sea, it is now, of course, only a portion of what it once was. It certainly accomplished several objectives: commanding the entrance to the sheltered harbour, allowing visibility up Dunmanus Bay, and being a dominating force on the landscape – in other words a high-status statement residence and fortification. 

The outer wall appears to have been stone-built or stone-lined (see image below), and it, or the raised platform may have had a palisade around the top – these were common in ring forts. 

Although we could not find a way to get at it from the stony beach below the cliff edge, we could just about make out, from Dunmanus Pier across the bay, a cross-section of stone wall where the platform meets the cliff. In one of the older maps, this is marked as a “Castle in Ruins” although all that is shown is a portion of wall. So there may well be a solid basis for the belief that this was the original site of Dunmanus Castle. 

Michael Healy tells it this way:

It is related locally that before he finally decided on Dunmanus as a site for his castle, Donagh Mór O’Mahony, early in the 15th century, had selected a site on the other side of the inlet and had set his men to work. While they were working a stranger came by and said that they should not build a castle in that place as the sea would come and wash it away. They did not see him again but the project was abandoned and Dunmanus was built on its present site.

The Castles of County Cork,

Michael J Carroll in repeats the assertion that this was intended as the site of the castle but introduces a nuance:

The workmen  noted, however, that the heavy winter seas rose up over the site. The project was abandoned and the stones removed for use in Dunmanus.

The Castles and Fortified Houses of West Cork,

I said at the beginning that there is a ‘strong local tradition’ that this was the original site. What we have learned to do in these cases is go to the Dúchas Folklore Collection, for the stories collected by schoolchildren in the 1930s – and there it was, written by an anonymous students in Kilcomane School (possibly Bridie Kennedy of Lissacaha). Here’s what she wrote:

When O’Mahoney was building his castles he had one for each of his sons. When he was building Dunmanus castle it was in the Knockeen’s side he laid the foundation. There is a part of it still remaining. It goes by the name of the old castle. A half fool one day was passing by and he saw them at work. He told O’Mahoney it was a foolish place to build a castle, that the swells of the ocean and the river from the mountain would eat the foundation from it.

O’Mahoney then asked him where would he build it and the fool showed him a rock at the opposite side of the river called the mount. Then O’Mahoney considered himself and found he had a mistake made, so he took the fool’s advice and built the biggest castle of all the rest on the mount.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921594/4882831/5147738

The sea stack above shows clear evidence of the amount of erosion that has happened over the centuries as well some kind of stone construction at the top level of the stack.

What are Amanda and Peter looking at? It’s a blow hole! Further evidence of how the sea can rage against this cliff.

So there you go – O’Mahony took the advice and built his castle where we see it today – the subject of a future post.

Please note that this site is on private land, used for cattle, and we were granted access by the kind permission of the owner. Our grateful thanks to him.

Fresh From Sea and Land

Would you like some pollock? It was a friendly fisherman on a West Cork pier we happened to stop on. He had just landed with some friends and family and they had caught a lot of fish, mostly pollock. They couldn’t eat them all, Billy said, just help yourself. A little overcome with such generosity, we selected two lovely fish, and asked for his advice on how to cook them.

Just keep it simple, was his advice, with some dry potatoes and cream. Dry, it turned out, was his term for floury potatoes, and we knew just where to get those. Our neighbour, Donal, keeps a fresh vegetable stall nearby. He digs up or cuts the vegetables in the morning, and puts them in a little stall he built himself. You have to get there early if you want the pick of the crop.

Donal’s new potatoes are legendary. I was chatting with a friend who lives nearby recently and we were talking about the best way to lose the Covid weight. It’s all about the carbs, I said – pasta, rice, flour, sugar, potatoes … A look of horror came over her face. “But not Donal’s new potatoes!” We agreed that they couldn’t possibly be anything but healthy and whatever list of Bad Carbs we made, Donal’s New Potatoes could not be on it.

So on the way home from the pier, we dropped by the stall for the potatoes. While I was at it I picked up some carrots, courgettes (Zucchini to this ex-Canadian) and onions. 

I don’t know about you, but I have never actually gutted, cleaned and filleted a fish before. In fact, I have been awestruck by the expertise of the women at the fish stall in the Skibbereen market and their skill with that long, thin-bladed filleting knife. Where to start? YouTube, of course!

So with the computer propped up beside me, and Robert sharpening the knife and encouraging me every step of the messy way, I managed it. I will spare you most of the gory details and include this one that actually looks like I know what I am doing.

Although I probably left good meat behind, at last I had a lovely set of fillets, free of bones. 

After that, it was a question of cutting some vegetable into small pieces – I used carrots, shallots, broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and garlic. 

I piled them all onto a big sheet of buttered tinfoil, along with herbs from my little herb patch, and then laid the fillets on top. 

I poured lots of lemon juice over it all, along with zest, and dotted everything with more butter. Then I wrapped it up, and into the oven it went at 190C for 20 minutes.

The potatoes were simply boiled with some mint from my garden. I chopped more mint to scatter on top once they were cooked.

The results? Delicious!

In West Cork we have access to a lot of very fresh food and we eat well. There are markets in all the towns and villages near us (see this post from a few years ago), and Neighbourfood does a great job of keeping us going all year round. 

But there’s something extra special in a meal like this – straight from the ocean or the ground and onto a plate with very little intervention. 

Mmmmmm…

West Cork Creates 2021

I never fail to come away on a high from this annual exhibition, and this year just confirmed that all over again! It is packed with swoon-worthy pieces, like Paddy McCormack‘s Whale Rider seat, above.

Mary Ffrench, Embroidery on Monoprint

The divide between ‘art’ and ‘craft’, although useful in some ways, can pigeonhole work that does not fall neatly into one category or the other. This annual juried exhibition gloriously transcends any artificial dividing lines and instead celebrates all that is best in the West Cork visual arts scene.

Brendan Ryan, Raku, The Old Mill; Bernadette Tuite, Sculptural Stoneware, Brow Head

Take a look at the website for bios of and statements by each of the artists. There’s a dizzying variety of approaches, materials and visions, but all are responding this year to the theme of Home Ground – and it’s not hard to relate, as we have all become so much more aware of our own patch of ground, and have taken to exploring all that it has to offer.

Greenwood chair by Alison Ospina with fabric by Mary Palmer (and in the background large jugs by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner; Kira O’Brien and her ceramic and hand-printed fabric piece ‘You+Me=Home’

It’s all for sale, too, with some very keen prices, so if you are looking to bring home a piece of West Cork, this is the place for you. The most lustworthy painting in the exhibition, to judge from the reaction of everyone who comes in the door, is Christine Thery’s Vanishing Island (below), a large oil painting of her beloved Heir Island.

Helen O’Keefe’s terroir is another Island – Long Island – and she captures the sometimes nostalgic emptiness of it all in her paintings, although the large one below shows her responsiveness to its vibrant colours as well.

Lots of jewellery too – Here is one of Michael Duerdon’s gorgeous brooches – Garden Shed. (If a particular person out there is wondering what to get me for Christmas…just saying.)

And glass! As someone who studies and writes about stained glass, I was delighted to see such a variety of glass this year, from classical stained glass, to fused creations.

In descending order: Deirdre Buckley Cairns stained glass inspired by the Calf Islands; Angela Brady’s witty ‘Ant Colony’; A vibrant kiln-fired plate from Trish Goodbody; Maura Whelan’s West Cork Wall, and a detail from that piece

Jim Turner and Etain Hickey each have their own ceramics in this show, but they have also collaborated on several items, including beautifully decorated large jugs (above, upper). Etain has been inspired by her lockdown walks this year to produce a set of wall plates in glowing reds and blues, all angles and arcs, illustrating the agricultural life around her (above, lower).

Geoff Greenham is one of my favourite local photographers and I love his approach to the theme this year – juxtaposing the old and new in his series on Skibbereen. Below is ‘Bollard’. Although the exhibition space, in the O’Driscoll building by the River, is superb for exhibiting, it’s not great for photography, so my apologies to Geoff and others for the reflections in some of my images.

Geoff Greenham and Sonia Caldwell were standouts for me last year, when West Cork Creates was solely online, so I will finish with Sonia’s sculpture in this year’s show – another one of her thoughtful, brooding figures which showcases her mastery of technique.

I have only shown a tiny fraction of what’s in the Exhibition. It’s on for another two weeks, until the 28th, so make sure you get there!