While writing this Journal over the years, Finola and I have included many examples of Prehistoric Rock Art, mainly on the west side of the country, in Cork and Kerry. Here is just one – you can find others through the search facility in the header. Finola’s UCC thesis from 1973 also concentrated on specimens from the southwest and her own drawings based on tracings direct from the rock surfaces provide a unique record of this form of prehistoric art. They have formed the basis of exhibitions which we have promoted over the years: here’s one from 2015.
Upper: the opening of our Rock Art exhibition at Cork Public Museum , October 2015 and (lower) one of Finola’s drawings from 1973. Another area in Ireland which has a concentration of Rock Art is Wicklow. We have been spending a few days in that county, and decide to go and have a look for some examples there. Finola dug out from her archives a photo which she took in 1972 when she and some college friends visited a Wicklow site:
Could we find that particular rock again? Well, we think we did, but it has been moved in fairly recent times. Here it is in its new setting (we believe) – it’s not very propitious:
The present site is in the townland of Togher More, behind a fence lining a main road. The National Monuments record tells the story, which confirms that Finola’s earlier photograph was taken in the townland of Baltynanima:
. . . Class: Rock art (present location) Townland: TOGHER MORE Description: Found during ploughing c. 1.8m to the SW in Baltynanima and moved here in the mid 1980’s (see W1018-036—- for original location record). An irregular shaped schist boulder (L 1.3m; W 0.9m; T 0.5m) with 16 cup marks and the remains of another where the corner of the boulder appears to have come away. The four largest cups (diameters 10-12cm; depth c. 6cm) are enclosed by circles (max ext. diameter 20cm) formed by incised lines (widths 1.5-2cm; depths 1cm) with the exception of one which has only a semi circle incised line around it. The remaining 13 cups have diameters of 6-8cm and depths of 4-5cm. There are also three incised linear grooves (L 14- 22cm; W 4cm; D 2.5-3.5cm) visible on the stones surface. Described, photographed and drawn by Price on the 29th January 1933 . . .
National Monuments Record WI018-049
It’s not unusual to find that ‘portable’ stones with Rock Art on the surface are moved, usually to protect them if a site is to be developed. Here’s another example we found, in the townland of Knockrahen:
In this case the rock was found while the foundations were being dug for the house. The owner (with whom we spoke) noticed the markings and decided to keep it as a feature in her new garden. The photo below was taken by Chris Corlett for the National Monuments records. Thank you, Chris (and the NM), for allowing us to use this – and the detail on the header pic. Below Chris’s photo is Finola’s, with my hand in the shot to give it scale.
While out in Wicklow we noticed that many of the National Monument records of Rock Art are credited to George Henry Kinihan (1829 – 1908). He was a geologist who also had an interest in archaeology. His home was in Clontarf and he is buried in the Protestant churchyard in Avoca, Co Wicklow. He was involved in his lifetime in engineering works, particular railway construction, but was also a keen Rock Art enthusiast.
Two portraits of Kinihan: he was said to have been of ‘strong and massive build’. He spent some of his early years working under George du Noyer of the Irish Geological Survey – who shared with him an interest in antiquities in the landscape. Here is a du Noyer drawing of cross slabs in Co Wexford:
On du Noyer’s death in 1869, Kinihan was appointed District Surveyor of the Geological Survey, in charge of field work and mapping, and oversaw the completion of the One Inch Geological Map of Ireland. He also became President of The Royal geological Society of Ireland in 1880. Now, here is a conundrum:
Here is part of the current Historic Monuments Viewer, showing the location of archaeological sites in Ballykean, Co Wicklow. All the yellow-and-red dots are recorded as Rock Art, discovered by Kinihan (there are 14 just in this small area of the townland). In every case, the site is described in detail, with numbers of cupmarks etc recorded. But also – in every case – the description concludes: ‘…The site indicated by Kinahan in 1884 was inspected in 1990, however this stone was not located…’ These are not the only instances in Co Wicklow where Rock Art found by Kinihan can no longer be traced. Does this mean that all these instances have now been destroyed or buried? Is it possible that this experienced archaeological enthusiast could have misinterpreted so many sites? It remains an adventure for us – another day – to go in search of some of these enigmatic examples to see if we re-establish the credibility of this Wicklow giant in this very particular specialism.
The Dúchas Collections (duchas.ie) are an invaluable resource for any of us interested in Ireland’s handed-down culture. Encompassing folklore, traditional ways of life, stories and visual images, the material is readily available on-line, and the archives are substantial and perfectly preserved, hopefully for all time. A recent find, for me, is the work of Simon Coleman, who was commissioned by the Irish Folklore Commission to accompany some of its collectors, and to visually record aspects of their work, in the mid twentieth century.
. . . Coleman was commissioned to travel in the company of full time folklore collectors, and to make drawings of local work practices and associated equipment, the traditionally built environments he encountered, as well as the diverse material culture evident in homes and communities of the day . . .
UCD Digital library, national Folklore Collection
The simple studies by Coleman, above – which portray alternative forms of transporting goods – abundantly describe visually a way of life which is vanished today. The Commission also employed photographers (and the Dúchas collections are also rich in these) but – in my view – there is an immediacy in these drawings which make them completely convincing: we are looking directly into Ireland’s past.
Have you ever heard of “Cad”? I hadn’t, until I looked into the work of Simon Coleman. The word in Irish is Caid, and it refers to a game which was played with sticks. There is a suggestion that it was a precursor to Gaelic football, although I am not convinced about this. In the version that Coleman recorded in 1959 in Inishmaan, Co Galway, the object of play was a short piece of stick, chamfered at both ends. This was hit by one of the players with a large, stout stick, making it fly into the air. As it descended the player gave it a hardy whack into a field, and the aim was to shoot it further than anyone else. Coleman’s drawings are accompanied by his notes:
. . . Sticks Game: the game of ‘cad’, Inish Meadhon. The ‘cad’ (short length of stick: approximately 2 1/2”) lying against a stone in the middle of the road; ‘cad’ is tapped with stick and jumps into the air about 4 or 5 feet thus; before it has time to fall to the roadway again, it is hit full-bloodedly into the adjacent fields. Each player has one try; the distance that the cad is hit is measured by the player with a stick approximately 6ft long . . .
Duchas.ie – Photographic collection
Interestingly, i was speaking to an Irish friend today and I mentioned ‘Cad’. He had heard of it through his family, although was not aware of it being played in his lifetime. The game he described was virtually identical to the notes above.
Coleman’s subjects were always wide-ranging. He was employed by the Folklore Commission in 1949 and again in 1959. We might imagine that he chose his own topics provided he fulfilled the brief of making an active record of what he saw. The top picture, above, shows traditional ‘Sunday Attire’, Inishere, Co Galway, and the interior view with bed and turf fire is from Croaghgorm or Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal. Also from Donegal is the simple but effective explanation of how ropes are made, below.
Particularly striking for me is the fact that all these images have been made in my own lifetime: This is an Ireland from not so long ago! There are very many more drawings and paintings by Coleman in this Collection, and I will return to them in future posts. Finally, for today, I can’t resist this spectacular rendering of a cottage interior from Clare, Co Galway.
I gratefully acknowledge and credit the Photographic Collection of Dúchas for all the above images (Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann / National Folklore Collection). The header is a group of cottages at Gortahork, Co Donegal
The fine map, above, was drawn in 1375 and is attributed to Abraham Cresques (courtesy Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division). it is known generally as the Atlas Catalan. What interests us is that it depicts two islands off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland (see detail below): Hy-Brasil and Demar. These landfalls are shown on maps since then through the centuries, the last depiction being in 1865.
We look out to the hundred Carbery Islands in Roaringwater bay. The view (above) is always changing as sun, rain and wind stir up the surface of the sea and the sky and clouds create wonderful panoramas. But, generally, the view is predictable: we know that Horse island will be across from us, and Cape Clear will always be on the distant horizon, while the smaller islets break up the surface of the ocean in-between, and help calm down its wildness when the storms come.
But, suppose it wasn’t always predictable? What if those islands changed, moved around or appeared and disappeared? It seems that such things do happen, here in Ireland. At least, they do according to some of the recorded evidence. ‘Mythical Islands’ have been mentioned by mariners and storytellers through the centuries.
Our best source of information for Ireland’s ‘transcendent’ islands is our old friend Thomas Westropp (above, kitted out for an expedition) who was an archaeologist and folklorist living between 1860 and 1922. He was active in Counties Clare and Limerick and wrote a paper for The Royal Academy in 1912 – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their History and Fable. This comprehensive paper includes a list of evanescent islands, a new map drawn by Westropp, and a summary of historic maps which have located them:
Westropp’s exploration of the subject is remarkably comprehensive. Here are some extracts:
. . . Bran son of Febal, sleeping near his fort, hears sweet music, and awakes to seize a magic apple branch. An unknown woman sings of “a glorious island round which sea-horses glisten – a fair course against the white swelling surge.” In it dwells no wailing, treachery, death, or sickness; it glows many-coloured in incomparable haze, with snowy cliff’s and strands of dragon-stones and crystals. She vanishes, and Bran, with twenty-seven followers, embarks. They meet the sea-god Mananann mac Lir in his chariot, visit Magh Mell, the Isle of Laughter, and the Isle of Women, whose queen draws Bran to it by a magic clue. Entranced by love, the visitors do not note the flight of time; in apparently undiminished youth and strength they return to Ireland; it is only when the first to step ashore falls to ashes, as if centuries dead, that they know the truth. The survivors tell their tale without landing, and sail out into the deep, never to be seen again . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . The Sunken Land. I found no name for this in north Mayo save when it was confused with Manister Ladra. Belief in it prevailed in north Erris and Tirawley from Dunminulla to Downpatrick. In 1839 it was said to extend from near Teelin to the Stags of Broadhaven and thence half way to America. A boatman knew a woman named Lavelle who saw from the shore (when gathering Carrigeen moss) a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on the hedges. A Ballycastle boatman, a native of Co. Sligo, corroborated this, adding that he had seen it twice at intervals of seven years, and if he lived to see it a third time he would be able to disenchant it. He could talk of nothing else, became idle and useless, and died, worn out and miserable, on the very eve of the expected third appearance . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . Owen Gallagher, Lieutenant Henri’s servant, heard of one Biddy Took, who, when gathering dillish (seaweed), asked some passing boatmen to put her out to an islet and fetch her back on their return : amused by her talk they brought her fishing, and soon got a ” tremendous bite.” They landed a green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape, and in their fright let him escape and dive. The man who hooked him died suddenly within a year. Gallagher also said that he had fired at and wounded a seal; soon after, when far out to sea in his currach, he got lost in a fog-bank and reached an unknown island. An old man, moaning, with one eye blinded, stood on the shore and proved to be the seal. With more than human forgiveness, he warned his enemy to fly from the land of the seal men, lest his (the seal’s) sons and friends should avenge the cruelty . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . The Aran people now believe that Brasil is seen only once in seven years. They call it the Great Land. In Clare, I have heard from several fishermen at Kilkee and elsewhere that they had seen it ; they also told legends of people lost when trying to reach it. I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded ; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could “see New York ” ! With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought ; stood for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints ; affected the early map-makers ; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries ; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ” Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.” . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
Above is the view from our house – Nead an Iolair – a day or two ago, when a strong sea mist was coming across from the south-west, enveloping Cape Clear and making it float ethereally like one of the mythical islands. Other writers have tackled the subject of the vanishing lands, including Joseph Jacobs, who put together a collection of stories in 1919. The subject is ‘Wonder Voyages’, and the book (available online here) covers some of Ireland’s adventurers, including Máel Dúin – a predecessor of Brendan the Voyager.
Máel Dúin sets out ‘into the limitless ocean’, suggesting that ‘God will bring the boat where it needs to go’. He and his crew encounter a large number of strange islands, including:
The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat
The island of tame birds
The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach
The island of horses and demons
The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all eat, drink, and give thanks to Almighty God.
The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights
The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles, and loose skin; it casts stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat
The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere
The island of apples, pigs, and birds
The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat
The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colours as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island for fear of changing colour
The island of the swineherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen
The island of the ugly mill and miller, who was “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”
The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewman who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath
The island with maidens and intoxicating drink
The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin
The island of colourful birds singing like psalms
The island with the psalm-singing old man with noble monastic words
The island with the golden wall around it
The island of angry smiths
The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monsters but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.
The island with a woman pelting them with nuts
The island with a river sky that was raining salmon
The island on a pedestal
The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)
The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir
The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed
The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman
It’s clear that, in the shared Irish psyche, we are aware of places that we can’t always see, or visit. it’s all part of a folk knowledge that’s largely hidden away, except in the memories of older generations, that relates to the sea, and the idea that there are races of people who live on ‘lost’ islands – or even in the sea. In some of the stories about the islands it is suggested that, when they vanish, it’s because they have submerged under the ocean – perhaps temporarily.
There’s a great collection of stories readily available in a series of podcasts known as Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments. Look out for the one titled Blúiríní Béaloidis 16 – Otherworld Islands In Folk Tradition. I have transcribed one of my favourite pieces from this podcast, and will finish this post with it. It summarises, very neatly, the tradition that other worlds are out there, and – at times – our world and theirs meet, providing solid evidence for there being human life under the sea! The tale was collected by Dr McCarthy of Kerry.
. . . People from Dingle Harbour used to sail to Kilrush in Limerick long ago. There was a boat leaving the harbour to Limerick one day with a load of salt. There were 8 men in the boat. They had prepared the boat. There was no quay in Dingle in those days, just a slipway. A fine, strapping young man approached them carrying a pot and a pot-hook, The pot-hook looked as if it had come straight from the forge. He addressed the boat’s captain. Are you going to Limerick, my good man? I am, said the captain, we are just about to leave. Would you mind terribly, said the young man, taking me some of the way? I don’t mind, said the captain, if you wish to come all of the way. He placed his pot and pot-hook in the boat, and got in himself. They rowed away and raised the sail at the mouth of the harbour. They were halfway when the man with the pot and pot-hook roused himself. I’ll be leaving you now, he said to the captain, and I’m very grateful to you. He took hold of his pot and his pot-hook and he leapt into the sea. They never saw him again . . .
There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:
. . . Some time later, a man with a line and hook was fishing in the sea in the same place, and a boiled potato came up on his hook . . .
We took a few steps over the border – from Cork County to Kerry Kingdom – to search out some vestiges of architecture which relate to the Orpen family, which claimed it could trace its history back to the sixth century. Probably the best-known member of that clan – certainly in Ireland – was William Orpen (1878 – 1931). Orpen was a ‘naturally talented painter’ who spent much of the First World War as an officially commissioned artist, producing strikingly graphic images of that depraved conflict, including the Battle of the Somme, from direct experience in the trenches.
Upper – Zonnebeke 1918, and lower – Self portrait 1917 by Orpen. William Orpen’s grandfather was Sir Richard Theodore Orpen (1788-1876), Born and brought up in Dublin, this Orpen married Elizabeth Stack in 1819 and they built a large mansion on the site of an earlier castle and medieval monastery beside the meeting of the rivers Obeg and Roughty, in the townland of Ardtully, Co Kerry. In Irish, the name is Ard Tuilithe, meaning ‘high flood’.
The Orpen’s Grand Design project consisted of a 27-roomed two-storey dwelling with a tower, in what can be loosely described as the ‘Baronial’ style. The house was the family’s residence throughout the rest of Sir Richard’s life, and was inherited by one of his sons, Right Reverend Dr Raymond D’Audemar Stack Orpen, who was the last to live there.
It’s useful to compare the first OS 6″ map (top) – which dates from around 1840, prior to the construction of the new house, which was completed in 1847 – with (lower) the OS 25″ version, dating to the late 1800s. the house is clear there, as is the bridge over the rivers, built by an earlier Orpen generation: it bears the date 1786.
That’s the 1847 Ardtully House, above, in its heyday. The illustration is from The County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870). Here (below) is an aerial view of the dwelling within its immediate context. Below that is today’s view from the ‘Ardtully Old Bridge’.
The fine bridge once led to the Demesne; now it ignominiously ends in a field gate. The construction of it is worth a close look – there are some fascinating rocks and outcrops used in its foundation.
The house met its end in 1921 – a victim of IRA burnings. It stands, gaunt and crumbling: a symbol of a period in Irish history. It’s fully accessible, and the Kerry landscape is stunning on a wonderful sunny spring day. Well worth a visit.
The ‘Baronial’ style of architecture – sometimes called ‘Scottish Baronial’ is given short shrift by ‘The Irish Aesthete‘:
. . . Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers . . .
Certainly, the house in its present state doesn’t present much grace. The architectural style was fairly short-lived, and was said to have its origins in France, with references to the Gothic Revival and romanticism. There are further examples extant in Ireland: the nearest (probably) is Blarney House, Co Cork, altogether a more elaborate project, designed and built by Sir Thomas Lanyon of Belfast for the Colthurst family of Ardrum. Surviving today – close to the well-known Blarney Castle, it was also completed in the 1840s.
What better place to spend Easter Day than at the ‘Easter end’ of Long Island? We can see the island – out there in Roaringwater Bay – from our home here at Nead an Iolair. The lighthouse on the end of the island faces us – and winks through the night with the character of 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds. The narrow headland on which it stands bears the name ‘Copper Point’ – and so does the lighthouse.
This aerial view shows Long Island in its context – a part of Roaringwater Bay and its ‘Carbery’s Hundred Islands’. Its neighbours to the east are Castle Island and Horse Island – all in our view – (that’s our view, below).
A closer aerial view of the island, above. It’s accessed by a regular ferry which leaves Colla Pier, a short distance from Schull town. The ferry arrives at Long Island Pier: there it is, on the pier (below).
Our destination on this Easter Sunday was Castaway East – the furthest house on the ‘Easter’ end of the island. We have taken you there before, when we organised a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in July of last year. The hosts there are Tracy and Peter, who served us brilliantly for that occasion, and also for the Wildflower Walks which Finola led last June: the Castaway crew provided a superb picnic for everyone, delivered to us at the island’s western end. This time we decided that we would test Tracy and Peter’s skills by ordering up an Easter Sunday lunch to celebrate a ‘special’ birthday for our good friend, Peter Clarke.
Amanda Clarke, Finola and birthday boy Peter, looking forward to a morning coffee (with delicious Easter treats) after arriving at Castaway East. We had an upstairs room in the Castaway house, with a good view over the island. Before lunch we had an opportunity to explore part of the island we had never been to before, heading down to Copper Point.
Why is it called ‘Copper Point’? Because there was a copper mine close by, one of many such enterprises that were seen in West Cork in the nineteenth century. Explorations on the island were started in the 1840s by the Cornish mining engineer Captain William Thomas: he wrote a Roaringwater Journal post for us a couple of years ago! William sank a trial shaft for 10 fathoms (60 feet) and extended a level south from this shaft for 3 fathoms. No metal bearing lode was found, and the mine was abandoned. Traces of these workings can still be seen not far from the lighthouse. It’s slightly ironic, perhaps, that the name ‘Copper Point’ arrived from somewhere and stuck.
It’s a wild landscape – but very beautiful and imbued with atmosphere. We certainly worked up a good appetite while on our morning walk, and returned to the house with great expectations.
All those expectations were far exceeded when we sat down to our meal. We had a room to ourselves, attractively furnished and comfortable, with a welcome wood-burning stove on the go in one corner. Tracy and Peter have spent considerable time and energy upgrading what was a very run-down cottage, and have used locally available materials with impressive imagination.
Tracy – in charge of the culinary delights – had worked out a menu which was entirely tailored to our various tastes (and dislikes) – and it was brilliant! All the courses were exemplary.
The main was a Sunday roast to make your mouths water… Fillets of pork for the three of us who are not vegetarian, and a miraculous stuffed filo pastry pie for Amanda. The accompanying vegetables were prepared without any meaty elements – so we could all savour them in equal measure.
Peter was delighted with every aspect of his celebratory meal – we all were! The choux bun dessert was unbelievable; not a morsel was left behind. The riches never stopped: for our after-dinner coffee we went outside to the terrace-with-a-view and enjoyed home-made fondants and biscuits.
I think you’ve got the message… Sunday lunch at Castaway East is a very special experience indeed. Combine it with a good walk on a beautiful and atmospheric West Cork island and you will have a day you will always remember. If you want the experience for yourselves give Tracy and Peter a shout: they will be delighted to organise it for you.
Contact Tracy & Peter Collins on +353 872966489 or email firstname.lastname@example.org – They also have a campsite!
. . . Description: Listed as an ‘ancient copper mine’ in the RMP (1998). Located in rough hill pasture on the W side of a deep wide ravine running N-S across the hill. A natural cave with two E-facing entrances extends c. 35m W into the hill. The height varies from c. 1m to c. 4m and jagged rocks protrude from the roof. Loose stones are scattered on the uneven floor. While there are traces of green malachite copper staining in a few places there is no evidence to indicate prehistoric mining. The material in the spoil mound outside the lower entrance suggests some unsuccessful 19th century exploration for copper may have been carried out here. The evidence is not sufficient to warrant accepting this as the location of an archaeological monument . . .
archaeology.ie Compiled by: Connie Murphy
This now ‘redundant’ entry in the official records seemed to imply that the ‘ancient’ mine wasn’t there at all – it was just a cave. But the records also make no mention of any sort of inscription on the cave walls: perhaps, if there were scribings, they were considered ‘modern graffiti’ and of no historic interest. We set out to solve the mystery, accompanied by our intrepid friends David Myler and his children. David has written about the site on his own Facebook page.
En route was another – much younger – piece of local history that we had long wanted to visit: an enormous white cross set up on top of Coom Hill to commemorate the Holy Year of 1950. Once visited on Corpus Christie day every year by a procession which started in Skibbereen, it remains an important local landmark and is situated with dramatic views in all directions.
The two screenshots above are from a film taken in the 1960s, showing the procession to the cross. You can watch the full film online here. Below are some of the views which can be seen from the top of the hill.
The cross – and the views – were only tasters for the adventures we had in store. Justin had researched the location of the ‘cave’ and his instructions unerringly led us across country towards a gulley – a substantial gash in the landscape running north to south, where the high land dropped away: tucked in just below us we found our goal.
The cave has two entrances – higher and lower – and the rock faces within certainly look as though they had been worked in places. This could be from the “. . . unsuccessful 19th century exploration for copper. . .” mentioned in the archaeological record. But the exposed stone is covered in scratchings: names, words, dates from all periods – recognisably going back as far as the 1700s. There are also a few images, such as this group of leaves which has been partly obscured by modern-day painted lettering: – and note the harp in the top left of the next pic down:
We had been surprised that we could not find any written description of the graffiti which – although not ‘ancient’ – has to be of interest, as it is a record of marks made by people through many centuries. In our recent census (2022) we have all been asked to contribute to a ‘time capsule’ – our words will be sealed up ready for opening by future generations a hundred years from now. (Some of these words have been published on the internet. My favourite is the simple and poignant: “Is there anybody there…?”). This cave is a comparable ‘time capsule’ but perhaps less embracing of contemporary life.
Centre, above: the copper staining, which is mentioned in the redundant archaeological record. Above is the far end of the cave, with some interesting lighting effects. The pic below gives an impression of the scale of the interior.
Before writing this post I made a few more enquiries, and discovered that the rock scribings had been thoroughly researched and written up in an article in Volume 10 of the Skibbereen & District Historical Society Journal, dating from 2014. The reason I had not previously discovered this was that the writers chose the local name of Lick Hill, rather than Coom Hill or the townland name (Gortshanecrone). Local knowledge is everything!
The excellent article is written by Jasper Ungoed-Thomas (whose ancestors – Wolfes – had carved their names on these walls) and Terri Kearney, who has been the Manager of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre since it opened in 2000. The Journal article is as comprehensive as you could ever need, with a full list of the names inscribed on the cave walls, together with information on those named where it is known. As an example, J Cotter, 1790 has the following entry:
. . . Cork Anglo-Protestant family, dating back to at least seventeenth century. Edward Cotter RIC during War of Independence. A Catholic branch existed by twentieth century. Edward Cotter was section commander of Bantry IRA . . .
Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal , Volume 10 2014
The same Journal article describes well the techniques which have been employed in many of the scribings:
. . . The nature of the rock face, with its hard surface, inevitably influenced the quality of the inscriptions. From the late eighteenth century until the later twentieth century, those who wished to leave a record of their visit had little option but to carve their graffiti. It is quite easy to scratch a name, but the outcome is often difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Results which are usually, but by no mean always, easy to read can be achieved by cutting, probably with a knife. But almost certainly the fairly few very clear inscriptions were done with a sharp chisel. Presumably some visitors came prepared to inscribe their names, since proper carving is not easy; it demands time, application and skill . . .
Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal , Volume 10 2014
Wolfe and Cotter names are seen in the examples above. Having visited the cave we perhaps thought our adventures were over for the day. However, getting back to where we had parked our cars was hazardous, as we opted to follow what seemed to be an easier route (I have to confess it was my suggestion!).
It proved to be a long and tedious trek. The terrain was uncertain and we had to negotiate bogs and steep, uneven surfaces where there were no visible footholds. When we wearily made it to a boreen, we found we still had far to go. A lesson learned: always go back the way you came – you know you will arrive! In spite of the strains, we had a great day out, and broadened our knowledge of local West Cork history. Don’t forget – as always – seek the permission (and advice) of landowners before you embark on any such exploration. And don’t unduly disturb the local residents!
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