Fish Palaces – and How They Worked

Four years ago I wrote about the fishing industry that once flourished on the shores of Roaringwater Bay (and around much of the west coast of Ireland): according to extant records it was active before 1500, and probably had its heyday in the seventeenth century, when it was heavily invested in by the Great Earl of Cork (Richard Boyle, sometimes described as ‘the richest man in the known world’). In those days, pilchards were the main catch: huge shoals of them came to the comparatively warm, sheltered waters of the islands during the summer months, along with other oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Seine boats were commonly used for this enterprise. Today, pilchards are rare: through a combination of overfishing and changing climate, the bountiful shoals no longer appear.

Header – pilchard curing in St Ives, Cornwall c1890: the pilchards are piled up in layers, forming the huge mound in the centre of the photograph. They are salted and weighted down. Above – curing the fish, Valencia Island, Co Kerry, early 20th century (Reddit / Ireland)

Shooting the Seine:

There were two boats per seine net, the seine and the faller. The seine boat was 27 foot long with a beam close to nine foot. The golden rule on the Northside was to never get into a boat whose beam was less than one third its length. The seine boat had five oars of about 17 foot (bow, Béal-tuile, aft, bloc and tiller oars). The crew of seven had to shoot the seine net; one man shooting the trip rope, another to feed out the bunt rope, four men rowing and the huer (master of the seine and captain of the boat) directing the operation. The faller (or bloc) boat was 24 foot long with a crew of five. Its job was stoning and to carry any fish caught. The largest load a faller could carry would be around 5,000 fish. All boats carried a Crucifix and a bottle of Holy Water.

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1991)

Twentieth century remains of a seine boat, from Northside of the Mizen

If the fish are gone, remains of the machinery of that industry are still to be seen. In particular, the sites of some of the curing stations – or Fish Palaces – are visible, and are recorded on the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. Take a look at the map below: I have drawn green pilchards to show the sites of fish palaces mentioned in the database – eleven in all on this section of the map. Also shown by red pilchards, however, are the sites of another six ‘curing stations’: these are mentioned in a long article by historian Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949: Volume 51, pages 137 – 157.

Known sites – or historical mention of – fish palaces (curing stations) in the South West of Ireland (information from  National Monuments database and  Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland 1949)

The active fishing of pilchards on a large scale in Ireland has been discontinued for many years so that, unlike Cornwall, there is little left, apart from published records, to indicate its former importance. There is, however, published information as to the methods of fishing, and a few sites of old curing stations, frequently called pallices, can still be identified.

from Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, 1949

Arthur Edward James Went (1910–80), noted fisheries biologist and historian, lived at Sandycove, Co Dublin. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in the Department of Agriculture, Dublin, and later was promoted to the position of Scientific Adviser and Chief Inspector of Fisheries

As explorers of all things historic and archaeological – particularly in West Cork – Finola and I couldn’t resist visiting some of the sites of Palaces – or Pallices – documented in these studies. We have always know about the one nearest to Nead an Iolair, in Rossbrin Cove – it’s just down the road: a perfect sheltered harbour, although it does dry out at very low tides. However, there seems to be some debate about exactly where this one is located. It would date from the time of William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork, so how much would be left after 500 years? There is a field on the north shore of the Cove with an old name: The Palleashes which, according to Arthur Went (quoting local tradition), was the site of a curing station for pilchards, operated by the ‘Spaniards’. There seems to be some difference of opinion locally as to which of the many small fields here is the actual site, although it is likely to be close to the large, now modernised quay, as this shows up on the earliest maps.

In the upper picture: the quay at Rossbrin is still used by small fishing boats today. Centre – the field above the present quay may be The Palleashes, and therefore could be the site of the medieval fish palace: there are very overgrown signs of stone walls here. Lower picture – the old 6″ OS map, surveyed around 1840, shows a lane accessing the area above the quay (to the left of the ‘Holy Well’ – that lane is no longer there today) and there are buildings close to the shore which could indicate the palace. In 1840 there was no road running along the north shore of the Cove, but the strand at low tide would have been used as a thoroughfare. Just above the ‘Holy Well’ indicated on the shoreline – and slightly to the right – is a small red dot. This is the area shown by Arthur Went as the possible site of the fish palace (and subsequently marked as such on the Archaeological Database); in my opinion it is more likely to have been directly accessed from the water.

A sure sign of the site of a fish palace is a line of perforations or holes – as can be seen above at Baltimore, where a substantial curing station is recorded (although it may only date from the nineteenth century). Large timbers were inserted horizontally into these holes to form a ‘press beam’ to provide leverage for bucklers to squash out the oil from the salted pilchards, as shown in Arthur Went’s diagram, below:

The ‘Train Oil’ – produced from the compressed pilchards – was a valuable commodity, and was collected to be stored and used for treating leather, and as fuel for lamps. As a by-product of the pilchard industry it was said to be as valuable as the fish themselves.

Palace Strand, in Schull

To continue my researches I went along to Schull, where Arthur Went mentions a ‘Palace House’ on ‘Palace Strand’ – an inlet just to the east of the main harbour. This is right beside the old railway station which was not quite the terminus of the Schull & Skibbereen Railway, as a spur went on from the station to serve the harbour itself. The station buildings and part of the platform are still there – now a private residence. I could not find anything in the area shown on Went’s map at the east end of the strand, but I did find something at the west end.

In the upper picture is a wall on the western boundary of the old station site in Schull. This contains beam holes very similar in size and spacing to those we have seen in fish palaces elsewhere: it’s very tempting to think that this wall – now part of a derelict building – may have had this purpose, as it is well situated close to the shoreline of Palace Strand. If this was a fish palace, it is also likely to date from the nineteenth century, as the early Ordnance Survey maps don’t indicate it. The centre picture shows the old station buildings today, and the lower picture taken at Schull Station in 1939 reminds us of past times: the railway closed in 1947.

This post is a ‘taster’ for a fully illustrated talk I’m giving at Bank House, Ballydehob, on Tuesday 26 February at 8pm: Pilchards & Palaces – 300 years of Fishing in South-West Ireland. It’s part of the Autumn series of Ballydehob’s ‘Talks at the Vaults’

Below – a postcard showing fish curing on Cape Clear in 1906 (from Hely’s, Dublin)

Barley Lake

In Ireland February 1st – St Brigid’s Day – is thought of as the first day of Spring: we begin to look out for snowdrops and daffodils, and expect to see a ‘real stretch’ in the evenings. Of course, we also make our St Brigid’s Cross to ensure good luck and fertility to the household. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that the church festival of Candlemas (St Blaise’s Day) falls on the following day: February 2nd. Traditionally, people took candles into the church to be blessed that day, and these were used for the rest of the year.  Surely this is something else connected with the turning of the year and the coming of the light?

Header – a tantalizing glimpse of Barley Lake seen from the N71 road north of Glengarriff. Above – the winding boreen that heads up towards Crossterry Mountain

To make our own celebration of the arrival of Spring we set out on February 2nd on a trip to Crossterry Mountain in County Cork, just north of the road running west to the Beara Peninsula from Glengarriff. This was unexplored territory for us, but we had long planned to visit Barley Lake: if you travel on the spectacular N71 road from Bantry over to Kenmare you get tantalising glimpses of this corrie or tarn away to the west, just before you pass through the first of the tunnels.

Above – a closer view of the mountain crater that contains the lake

If you are into geology, Barley Lake is a classic demonstration of how Ireland’s land mass was moulded by the movement of the great glacier sheets towards the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. As the melting glacial ice moved south, it carved out and dragged huge boulders, which ‘plucked’ or excavated the land surface, leaving craters which filled with water after the ice melted. These are known as ‘corrie lakes’, ‘ribbon lakes’ or ‘tarns’. Barley Lake is one such crater; another is the lake at Gougane Barra in the Shehy Mountains, also in West Cork.

Upper – how ‘corrie lakes’ or ‘tarns’ are formed (DooFi  via Wikipedia). Above – glacial geology clearly delineated by fresh snow on the way to Crossterry Mountain

The road to the lake is remote and picturesque, but we were surprised to find quite a sizeable settlement high up on the mountainy road. We were not quite sure what it is called, but the townland is Crostera West. We enjoyed some of the names we found on the map: Lake Derreenadavodia, Magannagan Stream . . .

Mountain dwellers: Coomarkane townland, Scully’s Cottage and a red-roofed barn becoming part of the landscape

Driving, you approach Barley Lake from the north side. On the extract from OS Map 85, below, you can see the narrow way that winds up to a high point – the 300 metre contour, where there is a place to park, and then proceed on foot. Look carefully at the way the road is drawn here – it’s no exaggeration: there really is a series of hard S bends that have to be negotiated to get up the mountain. We should have photographed them, but I was hanging on tight to the steering wheel, while Finola was hanging on to anything she could – and we found ourselves driving into a blizzard!

Middle photo – a relatively straightforward part of the drive up the mountain, before we reached the S bends! Lower photo – snow coming in as we reached the summit

It was a day of weather contrasts: some of the journey was made in that beautiful low sunlight that we have been experiencing at the start of this year, while at other times the wind whipped suddenly in and threw sleet and ice at us. On the top we found a good covering of snow on the rock-strewn path that we had to take to reach the shores of the lake. We braved the elements, and passed by peat workings that looked to be still in use.

Top – the path to the lake. Above – peat workings

The lake itself felt remote and lonely – and unvisited on our winter day, although I gather many hikers aim to circumnavigate the shores. We didn’t: it takes several hours and the light was beginning to fade with the incoming snow. It would be fair to say that it’s bleak up there, but – as always in Ireland – beautiful. Our only companions were sheep, who seemed to space themselves out neatly on every available ledge.

Robert – finding his own ledge! Thank you to Finola, who took all the photographs on this journey

In spite of some challenging conditions, it was a grand day out. As we wended our way carefully back down the bends, we admired the wonderful distant views, and – as we approached the glens of Glengarriff, fortuitously back in sunlight – paused to examine more geological formations.

We never tire of exploring West Cork, and we will never run out of destinations: as always, our delight is the out-of-the-way side roads – Ireland’s speciality.

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus:

Surfing the Archives

There’s really valuable history to be found on the internet! Here’s an example… the very first post we published after we moved to Nead an Iolair a whole lot of years ago mentioned a concert we attended in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen which honoured a Rector of that church who was also Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin: Canon James Goodman, who lived from 1828 to 1896. He was also an uilleann piper and collector of traditional music. I wrote about him in more detail the following year, Some of you may remember a story I often tell about the Canon’s grave in Creagh Burial Ground, on the way to Baltimore. It was his wish that his pipes be buried with him, and so they were. Finola and I would visit the atmospheric site at Creagh and listen out for the haunting tones of the Canon’s pipes playing away there.

Header picture – a bronze statue at the entrance to Abbeystrewery Church in Skibbereen shows Canon Goodman playing his uilleann pipes. Above – Creagh Burial Ground and the Canon’s grave

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s an update to the story about the Canon and his buried pipes. I have been surfing the archives of Ireland’s principle media outlet, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and it’s a wonderful resource! When you click on the links, you may find that some of the material is preceded by short advertisements: sorry, they are built in to the archive site – to help fund it no doubt. That’s a worthwhile cause, anyway. Now, have a look at this:

Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh being interviewed on RTE in 1966. He became the owner of Canon Goodman’s pipes and they have since passed to his son, Eoin O Riabhaig, player and pipemaker from Cork city

. . . When Canon Goodman died he wished for his pipes to be buried with him and his good friend Alderman Phair made sure that this happened. However, Alderman Phair thought it a pity that such a set of pipes would just lie in a grave so just days after Goodman’s burial the pipes were taken out of his grave. The pipes remained in Alderman Phair’s possession for six or seven years before being passed on to Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. The pipes were made by master craftsman Willie Taylor . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Before leaving that subject behind for today, here’s a YouTube video of Mícheál playing the Canon’s Taylor pipes; it dates from 1963:

Remembering my recent post on the Irish drum, or Bodhran, I was delighted to find some ‘old footage’ on the RTE Archives on the instrument:

This link is also footage from 1966:

. . . Sonny Canavan tells Ted Nealon about taking part in the Wren Boy activities and as Captain not being able to have a drink.  79 year old John (Jack) Duggan talks about his plans to go out with the Wren Boys this forthcoming Saint Stephen’s Day. Jack has been involved with the Wren Boys since he was twelve and played the concertina.  John is also a bodhrán maker and describes in detail how to go about it using a sieve from a barrel for the rim and the skin of a goat . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Sonny Canavan is interviewed again in 1977 (above):

. . . Sonny Canavan raises goats to provide the skin for his instruments and he gave this particular man a goat so he too could make a bodhrán. The man explains that after he shot and skinned the goat, the skin was buried for nine days it was then dug up and putting in on the bodhrán rim . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1977)

And this piece is of additional interest because it shows Listowel playwright and writer John B Keane visiting Sonny to talk about bodhráns. J B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers, which was published in 1986. The writer died in 2002.

Here’s another RTE piece showing concertina maestro Noel Hill, from Clare. I wrote about that instrument in The Clare Trumpet.

. . . Iarla Ó Lionáird introduces Noel Hill who plays a concertina made in the 1860′s. Noel Hill describes this concertina as having a special tone and an unusual key. From Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Noel Hill performs two reels, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Trip to Durrow’. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1988)

We have never written about traditional Irish dancing – there’s a good subject! A post for another day, perhaps: it’s certainly thriving in Ireland. It enjoyed a great revival of popularity with the River Dance shows, but that was professional and polished (and impressive!) – but I like to see the raw version: people young and old dancing for personal enjoyment and entertainment in their kitchens or at the scoriachts. So, to finish for today (although I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s on offer in the RTE archives), here are two pieces: The Fastest Reel in the West, from 1972, and Door Dancing, from 1981.

. . . Gay Byrne introduces John Conneely from Knock, Kilshamuck, Co. Mayo, who performs a reel in his own unique style to the music of ‘George White’s Favourite’ performed by John Cleary. The remarkable thing about this is that John had previously been hospitalised for months following a fall on a building site in England which left him with a broken back. Ciaran MacMathuna who is sitting in the audience describes John’s unique dance as “the fastest reel in the west”. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1972)

. . . In Ireland long ago it was customary when groups of people worked together, as a ‘Meitheal’ to dig potatoes or save hay, that they would gather after a day’s work to relax and have a dance. These gatherings took place in traditional Irish cottages with mud floors and flagstones. A door was taken off its hinges to provide a flat surface for dancing. Solo set dancers were asked to dance on the doors as the skill of the dancer is best shown by how well they can produce the variety of steps within the narrow confines of the dance surface. In order to gauge the best dancer amongst a group of solo dancers, they placed four glasses on the corners of the door to help determine the most skilled dancer. The person to spill the least amount of water was the winner of the competition . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1981)

Tailpiece – from the RTE Stills Library – The Oranmore Céilí Band, 1985:

Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.

Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown

Our ‘Off the M8‘ series is intended to make your journeys across Ireland far more interesting! We travel between Cork and Dublin fairly regularly and, each time, we determine to search out something new. It may be an aspect of medieval history, architecture, stained glass or – as in today’s example – archaeology.

How far you want to stray from the ease and directness of the motorway in your explorations is entirely up to you. This diversion will add about forty minutes to your journey: you will leave the M8 at Junction 3, head across to Carlow on the R430, and then, after Carlow, meet the M9 at Junction 4 and continue up to Dublin. You’ll have to take a little diversion east out of Carlow on to the Hacketstown Road (R726) to find today’s destination: the largest prehistoric portal tomb in Europe, and perhaps in the world!

Robert stands at the east face of the megalithic structure: the orientation suggests a relationship to the rising sun, possibly at significant calendrical events

It’s known variously as the Brownshill Portal Tomb, or the Kernanstown Dolmen (Kernanstown is the name of the Townland, and the word ‘Dolmen’ was formerly used to describe megalithic structures which consist of a large stone slab resting on smaller boulders). The Irish National Monuments Service, in its listing of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, has set out to regularise the names given to various structures. It does not recognise the once widely-used terms ‘Dolmen’ or ‘Cromlech’, but defines a variety of ‘Megalithic Tomb’ structures, of which the Portal Tomb is one:

. . . A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC . . .

Finola is giving scale to the portal tomb in the header picture, where the two ‘portal stones’ and central ‘gate stone’ support the east side of the capstone: these features are common to these structures across Ireland, Britain and Europe. Above – the back (west face) of the capstone: Finola is standing at the southern tip

Historically, ‘Dolmen’ was the most common term for these archaeological structures. William Copeland Borlase (1848 – 1899) wrote a lengthy treatise in three volumes on The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people published in 1897. In it, he describes the Brownshill / Kernanstown structure thus:

In the Barony of Carlow, in the Townland of Kernanstown, and Parish of Urghin, two miles E. of Carlow, to the N. of Browne’s Hill, or Browneshill House, also called Mount Browne, are three dolmens. The largest of the three is marked Cromlech in Ord. Surv. Map No. 7.

There are three dolmens on this hill. One is of enormous proportions, the two others are smaller. The former has been described by Ryan, Ledwich, and G. Du Noyer. Of one of the latter there is a drawing and plan in Miss Stokes’s collection of drawings of dolmens. The remaining one is situated a distance of 50 yards to the N. of the latter.

The great dolmen stands in the centre of a large flat field in permanent pasture, and has no trace of a bank or cairn near it. It consists of a splendid block of granite, the longer axis of which is N. and S., raised at an angle of 35 degrees to the horizon, upon four blocks, three of which, pillar-like, support the E. side, at a height of 6 feet above the floor, while one sustains its lower and W. side, at a height of only about 2 feet above ground.

The following are my measurements of the block thus elevated into position: Superficial measurement from N.E. to S.W., 23½ feet; ditto from N.W. to S.E., 22 feet; girth 65 feet; thickness at W. side, 6 feet; at S. side, 5 feet; at E. side, 6 feet; and at N. side, 4 feet.

. . . it is, I believe, the largest block raised from the ground by the dolmen-builders which is known, not only in the British isles, but on the continent of Europe

Two picture postcards of the ‘Brown’s Hill Dolmen’ probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century

Today, there is only one portal tomb visible at Brownshill, although the National Monuments listing confirms that there were three in the area at one time. I was intrigued to find this engraving:

There is no ‘Brownstown’ in County Carlow, so it is likely that this engraving (above) is another version of ‘Brownshill’. It’s hard to see in this the portal tomb we have been describing, so it is possible it is an image of one of the other ‘lost’ dolmens. There is no further information attached to this illustration.

The two illustrations above show how the portal tomb is today enclosed and made accessible by means of a fenced pathway leading from the road to the east of the structure. This setting is not ideal: the impressive nature of the huge capstone is visually diminished by the fencing – although the provision of good disabled access to the monument is highly commendable. The massive granite stone has been estimated to weigh up to 160 tons, and we can only wonder at the methods used to lift it some 5,000 years ago. Here is an imaginative view (dating from the nineteenth century) of a megalithic tomb being built:

Celtomania is an expression which has been used by some antiquarians to describe the use of megalithic structures by ‘Druids’ and ancient races for ritual purposes. This fanciful scene by Edward King (above) shows ancient warriors, sickle-wielding and harp-playing druids, oak trees and standing stones – and a ‘dolmen’. It is taken from a 1969 book on megalithic structures in Brittany which I purchased in my travels there in the 1970s: Carnac ou les mésaventures de la narration by Denis Roche.

The ‘chamber’ of the Brownshill monument is visible when viewed from the south (top photo, above). This structure has never been excavated so we cannot say for sure that it was used to deposit human remains or cremations; in tombs elsewhere, excavations have revealed such a use in some, but not all. It has been suggested that all such structures were fully or partly covered in earth or stone, as implied in the example from Brittany below:

The structure at Brownshill, County Carlow must surely be one of the wonders of the megalithic world. It’s hard not to think that the sheer immensity of the raised capstone would require it to be seen so that the labour involved in its construction is appreciated. These stone edifices were the earliest architecture in the world of our settled ancestors, and the first examples of engineering prowess: one of the reasons for their existence must have been the demonstration of power and knowledge.

Above – a dolmen in Brittany (where they are still known by that name!) demonstrating a reversal of the principles of construction at Brownshill. In the Irish example, the huge capstone is supported by comparatively slender uprights; in France the capstone, although also substantial and heavy, sits on very large portal stones. The result is visually impressive in a different way.

Here in Ireland there are many more examples of portal tombs waiting to be visited and reported on: they are on our list.