Sun’s Out! A Further Look at The Beara

A few years ago, on one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.

Kenmare Stone Circle

The significant stone circle at Kenmare is an unusual monument in several respects. It is said to be the largest stone circle in the south west of Ireland, oval in shape and measuring 17.4 x 15.8m. It seems intact: I found no record of any intervention or ‘improvement’ to the circle, which consists of an oval ring of 15 stones with a central ‘boulder burial’. Although situated very close to the main streets of this Kerry town, it has often been described as ‘hard to find’. I can remedy that – here’s a present-day location map:

The site is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Kenmare and now has its own dedicated car park beside it. The circle is very ‘tidy’ and well looked after. A nominal entrance fee is requested, the funds being put towards the maintenance of the area.

While the circle is fairly well enclosed nowadays by a ring of tall trees, the vista would previously have been more open with extensive views. Quarrying has taken place in the vicinity in past years. Here is the historic 6″ OS map showing the site as it was around the late nineteenth century.

The archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer gives a brief, sober description of the site:

. . . In level pasture, on the SW outskirts of Kenmare town. A subcircular area (17m E-W; 15m N-S) is enclosed by fifteen stones (L 0.8-1.6m; T 0.2-0.7m; H 0.3-1.2m), two of which are prostrate. The axial stone is the lowest and is a regular flat-topped slab contrasting with most of the other stones, which with one or two exceptions, are of boulder type. A boulder-burial (KE093-032002-) occupies the centre of the stone circle. (Ó Nualláin 1984a, 26, no. 41) . . .

Archaeology.ie KE093-032001

I was disappointed in my search for an antiquarian’s account of this circle: Ó Nualláin (quoted above) and others have included it in general lists of such monuments. I was hoping for some speculation on its significant size, and on the large central boulder, itself a slightly unusual feature within a stone circle.

Finola has comprehensively speculated on boulder burials, however, in her Roaringwater Journal post from a few years ago. (She has also written on stone circles generally here). The Kenmare example is visually very much in line with the overall archaeology.ie Monument Class description:

. . . Boulder Burial – A large boulder or capstone of megalithic proportions, resting on a number of supporting stones, usually three or four in number, which, in most cases, do not form a recognisable chamber structure. Excavations suggest a Bronze Age date for this burial monument (c. 2400-500 BC) . . .

Archaeology.IE Monument Classification

Finola has pointed out, however, that there is no conclusive evidence for assuming that these ‘boulder burials’ are – well – principally burials.

. . . William O’Brien [Professor of Archaeology UCC] excavated three boulder burials in the late 1980s and found no evidence of burials. In his book, Iverni, he comments in an understated way, “The absence of human remains at Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane does pose some questions as to their use.” His findings dated the sites to the Middle Bronze Age, between 3000 and 3,500 years ago . . .

Finola Finlay, Roaringwater Journal

So, should we perhaps call them ‘elevated stones’? Visually, they are certainly always striking. This one at Kenmare is said to weigh around 7 tons. Bearing in mind the stones in this circle are likely to originate some few miles distant, we can imagine the efforts required to assemble them. O’Brien dates the boulder burials he studied to 1000 or 1500 BC. This would tie in with the general thinking that stone circles were Bronze Age also.

The two drawings above are from Jack Roberts. On his survey (top) I have superimposed an oval template which confirms the suggestion that the Kenmare ‘circle’ is egg-shaped. In the lower sketch view – probably dating from the 1980s – the stones appear to be out in the open, free from the present-day tree shielding.

While it is generally implied that all the stones in this monument were placed at the same time, there is always the possibility that there might have been an evolution in its construction. By that I mean that we could speculate that the ‘boulder burial’ stone was placed first and the circle came afterwards – perhaps to enhance its setting. Or vice versa.

This photograph clearly shows the recumbent stone. Many of the circles in south west Ireland are known as axial circles, where a ‘recumbent’ stone (seemingly placed on its long edge) may provide a horizon viewing point when observed from a ‘portal’ of two stones at the opposite side. The orientation axis created by this observation is usually from north east towards south west (as is the case here). Where a stone circle has a clear horizon (such as Drombeg, in West Cork) it has been noted that this alignment faces the setting sun at midsummer solstice.

As you can see from these close studies of some of the individual stones (above) there are quite significant differences in their shape and character within the circle. It has been suggested (elsewhere) that the shapes and the relative placing of the stones is significant. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ stones have been suggested – but this is yet more speculation.

As far as we can see there are no ancient markings on the stones at Kenmare (except for a possible single cup-mark on the upper surface of the boulder burial), but I am fascinated by the lichen shapes and textures on one particular stone (above). This is ‘nature’s art’, of course.

It’s impossible to ignore the two ‘fairy’ hawthorn trees that have been established within the vicinity of the stones. In my opinion it was an inspiration to exploit the idea of visitors purchasing ‘message cards’ from the site kiosk and writing down their own thoughts and personal wishes, which are then tied on to the branches. That’s Finola, above, being affected by the rainbow fairy vibes. She has written her own post today specifically on this aspect of the place. My favourite message is this one, below:

Caheragh Explorer

I’ll explain at the outset that Caheragh is (more or less) pronounced ‘corer’ (as in coring apples)! It’s a parish in West Cork that we have visited before. Have a look at my article on the Ilen River, here. This locality is brimming over with history and we go exploring as often as possible: there is always more to find. And – with wide views and cloud scapes in all directions from the high ground – it’s an uplifting place, especially when blessed with the August sun.

Here’s a vista to the north-east, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard that might just be a ring-fort, or possibly the site of a monastic centre dating from medieval times – more on that later. In the middle distance is the Ilen River with its wooded banks, heading out towards Castle Donovan and – eventually – to its source on Mullaghmesha (or, perhaps, Nowen Hill – we have yet to determine exactly where it rises. This post from the Sweet Ilen series covers the area). And that Donovan castle itself graces the cover of the latest Skibbereen Historical Journal (Volume 18, 2022), which you can get in bookshops locally, or online here. You will find a summary of some of my research on the Ilen River in this journal, together with many other fascinating and erudite articles.

But, going back to that sunlit vista, you’ll notice Tadhg’s Little Oak Tree is indicated. I can’t resist quoting the story of this feature that appears as a ‘Redundant Record’ in the Historic Environment Viewer:

. . . On E bank of River Ilen. Site of tree, ‘Darriheen Teige’ or ‘Daraichin Teige’ (Tadhg’s little oak tree), where Tadhg O’Donovan, chieftain of Clan Cahill, was slain c 1560 by rival group of O’Donovan’s (O’Donoghue 1986, 55). Nearby is Poll a’ Daraichin (pool of the little oak) . . .

Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer – Record CO132-066

Well, it seems strange that the ‘site of a tree’ is a recorded monument. In fact, if the oak was still flourishing (we couldn’t find it), it would probably be just one of only a few trees included in Ireland’s vast record of archaeological monuments!

For today’s post I am indebted to our historian friend Pat Crowley, who directed us to a clip from The Southern Star newspaper dated January 12, 1929. It was a letter written to the newspaper by Captain Francis O’Neill, retired Chief of Police in Chicago and well-known prolific collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill (1848-1936) was raised in his family home at Tralibane, in the parish of Caheragh. He has been mentioned in this journal, and I was fascinated to read his letter, which became a protracted discussion on the parish, the old graveyard, historic sites and archaeology in the area.

All this came about because Francis had returned from Chicago to West Cork in 1906 – after a long absence – ostensibly to visit the burial place of his parents, and to order a suitable monument to mark their graves (above).

. . . On my return to Ireland July 1906, after an absence of 41 years, I visited the bleak Caheragh graveyard, in which the remains of my parents, and O’Neill ancestors, were buried. There being nothing visible in the environment to indicate its origin as a cemetery, personal curiosity, abetted by that of the Downings of Tralibane – cousins of McCarthy Downing, MP – led to investigation . . . The result, somewhat disconnected and fragmentary, is herewith submitted for publication . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

The O’Neill burial plot at Caheragh. Francis ordered the large cross to mark the graves of his parents. The inscription reads:

Erected By
Captain Daniel Francis O’Neill
Chicago USA
To the Memory of his Parents
John O’Neill of Tralibane
Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years
And
Catherine O’Mahoney (Cianach)
Died 1900 Aged 88 Years
Requiescant In Pace
Amen

Quoting again from Francis O’Neill’s letter to the Southern Star:

. . . All available authorities in my library have been consulted, and I find that references to the parish of Caheragh are both meagre and obscure… The earliest mention of this parish which has come to my notice, is in the report of Dive Downes, Episcopal Bishop of Cork and Ross, who made a trip on horseback to all parishes in his diocese in the years 1699 – 1702. Following is the entry: – “Caheragh Church, about two miles distant from Drommaleage Church to the SW lies close to the Island River (he means Ilen). On the west side of the river are 35.5 lowlands in this parish, of which 20 lie on the west side of the river, and 6.5 lie on the east side of the said river . . . There are about 12 Protestant families in this parish. ’Tis thought there are forty Papists for one Protestant in this parish . . . Will Gureheen, a very old man, is priest of this parish . . . The church is ruinous. The north side is down . . .”

Southern Star 12.01.1929

A vista to the west, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard. The present-day village of Caheragh is distant beyond the green pasture (a long way from this ‘Old Graveyard’ – why…?), identifiable through the spire of the 1963 Holy Family Church. O’Neill continues, now quoting from Samuel Lewis “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” published in London in 1837:

“Near Lisangle are the ruins of a strong castle, once the residence of McCarthy, King of Cork. The ruins of the old church also remain, which the people here call the ‘Abbey of Cahir” . . . The absence of ruins at Caheragh, which, by the way, seems to have never attracted the attention of historians or antiquaries, is easily accounted for. The stones, conveniently at hand, were utilised in the building of the walls which encompassed the graveyard . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above – the western boundary wall of Caheragh Old Graveyard. The small road continues over the Ilen River: the bridge here was built by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, to replace a ford, the stone flag bed of which can still be seen.

. . . The Irish word Cathair, spelled and pronounced in English Caher or Cahir, meant a circular stone fort, and therefore Caheragh, under any form of spelling, signifies the field of the stone fort. But where is the fort? one naturally asks. Remembering the descriptive nature of the Irish place names on my short call at Caheragh in 1906, I looked for something to justify the name and found it. In order to gain a vantage point, to view the country round about, I struggled through the thicket of furze to the top of the hill east of the road and, unexpectedly, to my great delight, found the outlines of the stone foundations of the Cahir, mostly covered with soil and grass, but quite distinct on the flat top. Again was the correctness of Irish topographical names vindicated . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

This feature (the two pictures above) is the hilltop referred to by O’Neill, where he claims to have found the ruins of the ‘Cahir’. Today it is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a ‘ringfort’ or ‘rath’:

CO132-017001-

Class: Ringfort – rath

Townland: CAHERAGH

Description: In pasture, atop hillock broken by rock outcrop. Circular area (36.5m N-S; 37.5m E-W) enclosed by earthen bank (max H 3.8m). Break in bank to NNW (Wth 5m); and WSW (Wth 4m), where triangular feature adjoins inner bank face. Possible souterrain (CO132-017002-) in SW quadrant

Archaeology.IE National Monuments Record

Top: flat-topped mound with circular summit, very much in line with the expectation of a ringfort structure. Centre: stone embankment seen from the top of the ‘fort’. Lower: a defined ‘entrance’ through the ‘fort embankment’ on the summit of the mound. This could be ancient or modern: cattle use the fields in which this feature is located, and some of the topography could be shaped by this usage over centuries.

. . . The builders of Abbeys and Monasteries were wise in their day in the choice of locations for their establishment, and one essential desideratum was near to a plentiful supply of water, such as the banks of lakes and rivers, or adjoining never-failing springs. In this instance the River Ilen met all requirements, and taking everything into consideration, I am led to the conclusion that the graveyard at Caheragh was the site of the “Abbey of Cahir” mentioned by Lewis in the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above: evidence of built structures on the summit of the ‘ringfort’ mound at Caheragh. A significant circular foundation is clearly outlined. Perhaps, after all, there is some substance in the Captain’s musings on what occupied this site in earlier times? This account is from The county and city of Cork remembrancer; or, Annals of the county and city of Cork by Francis H Tuckey, Savage and Son, 1837:

. . . 1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan . . . ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be ‘situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard at Caheragh’ (possibly on the site of the ringfort). It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse . . .

So there – for your consideration – is the suggestion that the hill above Caheragh’s Old Graveyard (which may, in earlier times, have been a ringfort with a souterrain) was the monastic settlement Blessed Mary de Caheragh in medieval times. That’s quite a thought. My own opinion would be that the monastery would have been founded on the level ground close to the river: in fact where the graveyard is today. As the monastery declined, a church might have remained, eventually becoming a ruin. It was common for old churches and their environs to be used for burials and this might account for the comparative remoteness of this site from the village itself. Now – of course – there is no trace of a church ruin. This theory would hold good except for the annals quoted above, which state that a monastic site was situated on the hilltop overlooking what is now the graveyard.

Evidence of stone quarries on the hillside suggest that significant quantities of stone has been used locally. Graveyard wall, field fences, or built structures? But the most challenging feature has to be the ringed foundation, or base, clear to see on the edge of the hill (below). Could it be a souterrain entrance – or, more fanciful, the base of a round tower?

I’ll leave you with that conundrum (and my whimsical daydream below) for now, but we will continue with Francis O’Neill’s musings (which become even more complex) in a future post.

Rock Art and Red Socks

(Mizen Magic 26: Balteen)

What do red socks have to do with rock art?  Well, nothing really, but they turned out to be surprisingly useful this week.

It’s been ages since we talked about rock art, hasn’t it? Thinking about that, I decided to do some tidying up in our blog and I have created a special page for Rock Art, and another one for Mizen Magic, since this post also fits into the Mizen Magic series. 

Robert and I set off to hunt down rock art we haven’t yet seen on the Mizen. The National Monuments site contains two records for Cupmarked Stones in the townland of Balteen, and both proved easy to find. (If you can’t remember what a Cupmarked Stone is, take a look at this post before reading on.) The first is along the road that leads from Barley Cove to the North Side. That’s my butt marking the location of the rock, above.

It’s built into the bank and we might not have been as quick to spot it as we were unless somebody else had already found it and cleared away some of the overgrowth – I suspect Rock Art Kerry, AKA Aoibheann Lambe had been there before us, perhaps a couple of years ago. We usually remember to bring a soft brush with us for a gentle cleaning of the rock surface (lots of moss on this one) but we had forgotten this time. The red socks came to the rescue.

This is a lovely example of a cupmarked stone – although it’s possible there is more on it than cupmarks only. The central cupmark appears to have some carving around it that helps to mark it out and elevate it – not a complete circle but an arc that may end in an expanded finial. We have sent the photos off to UCC for a 3D rendering and this may clarify this aspect of the carving. Here’s a short video – see what you think about that arc.

Meanwhile, since it’s hard to make out what’s in the surface of a grey rock on a grey day, clever Robert has made a scaled drawing of it. We know that cupmarked stones like this can date anywhere from the Neolithic (about 5,000 years ago) up to the Bronze Age (ended about 2,500 years ago), and that the cupmarks were probably made by picking or bashing them out with a stone cobble, but we don’t know why they were done, or what meaning the cupmark itself may carry.

We also don’t know if this one is in its original position, but it’s likely that it is not. It is currently incorporated into the bank at the side of the road, leading us to suspect that it was found in the vicinity and built into the wall to give it a place where it would be visible to all passers-by.

The second one (above) was a surprise! First of all, it’s enormous! It looks like it may have been a capstone for a large structure, or perhaps a boulder burial. However, it’s difficult to determine if there is anything underneath and it may well be a glacial erratic that simply ended up here. This one is in the same townland but it’s on private property, so we are not pinpointing it on a map, at the request of the owners – but they are happy to give permission to see the stone and they welcomed us to take photos and tell them a little about rock art in general. There are nine cupmarks, from large to small and some appear to be arranged in a rough semi-circle – something we have observed on other cupmarked stones.

I am trying something a little new with this post – doing short videos to see if this helps to convey more than a photograph might. I’d be interested in your feedback on this. Note: You may have to play the videos on YouTube – sorry if this aspect isn’t working right for everyone!

Just when you think you have seen all the Mizen has to offer, it reveals yet more of its secrets!

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel is, I believe, a rarely regarded topographical prominence on the Mizen. Yet it is impossible to ignore: the summit can be seen from most parts of this western peninsula. And, for those visitors who do notice it – and make the effort to scale its heights, it presents the most spectacular of views over rugged landscapes to the oceans beyond.

Brian Lalor has chosen to make this peak the centrepiece of his new exhibition, which opened in Schull’s Blue House Gallery at the weekend: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel. You have to see it. The works are for sale, so it will be impossible, probably, to assemble them as one entity ever again. (Unless, perhaps, in a hundred years time – if there is still an intellectual world in existence – Brian’s genius will be fully recognised and appreciated, and an astute curator will raid collections from all over the world in order to put this canon back together as a centenary project).

The works themselves draw attention to some of Brian’s many artistic talents: conté crayon drawings, exquisite watercolour sketches and linocut prints. They make an impressive whole on the walls of Schull’s eccentric gallery, which is a jumble of smallish rooms, a staircase and landing, with a minimalist shop-window frontage. Circumnavigating the spaces is a revealing and stimulating experience.

Returning to the subject matter of the work, Brian – General Editor of Gill & Macmillan’s mammoth 2003 volume The Encyclopaedia of Ireland – and considered a prime authority on Ireland’s art heritage and its place in world culture, is familiar with artists’ legacies from many other domains. He grew up in a household which contained significant pieces of Japanese art and was au fait from a young age with the concept of ukiyo-e – the floating world. His early awareness of the arts of Japan provided the source of inspiration for this exhibition: Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, woodblock prints which date from the early 1830s. Here are Fine Wind, Clear Morning (upper) and Inume Pass (lower) from the series:

Fuji is one of Japan’s Holy Mountains. Brian’s juxtaposition is brilliant: our Mount Gabriel has to be a holy place. It is named after an Archangel, who is said to have descended to the mountain top to view the unsurpassed beauty of West Cork’s landscapes, the reputation of which had reached to Heaven even back in those days. In so doing he left behind his footprint, which is still to be seen on the summit.

The Archangel was not the only biblical character to visit Gabriel: Satan himself touched down, but stumbled on a large rock. In a fit of temper he picked up the rock and threw it far off into the sea beyond. This caused such a hazard to shipping that we have had to erect a lighthouse on it. Here is Finola’s photographic view of The Fastnet, taken at sunset. For me, it has a suitably print-like quality . . .

Legends attached to Gabriel include many that attribute Irish heroes to activities on the summit. Finn MacCool, for example, is also credited with throwing large rocks from the mountain, including this fine boulder burial at Rathruane:

Brian’s observation and humour are not missing from this exhibition. He has included a cabinet of ‘artefacts’ distilled from his own explorations on the mountain. These make reference to the ancient history of the site and its connection with copper extraction in the Bronze Age and in medieval times, and also the twentieth century manifestations of air traffic control technology (known as ‘Gabriel’s Balls’) . . .

I am particularly taken with Brian’s linocut series – a limited edition of only ten of each print. They provide the ‘fine detail’ in the overall assemblage, and work so well together on the back wall of the largest room.

The detail print, above, shows Brian’s representation of archaeological finds connected with ancient copper mining which have been found during excavations on the mountain.

As ‘Guest Curator’ of this exhibition I was delighted to introduce it to an eager audience on the opening night in Schull (above). The show only runs until the 3rd of August, so please rush over in order not to miss it. It is (for me) the highlight of West Cork’s summer offerings!

Blue House Gallery, Schull

The gallery also has on show some work by other West Cork artists, well worth exploration, so don’t miss them when you go. I can’t resist finishing with one of them: this work (below) by Keith Payne – Sego Canyon. Keith has always been fascinated by ‘Rock Art’ in all parts of the world, and painted this based on his visit to a collection of petroglyphs on a cliff-face in Utah. It’s very apt, I think, to see this work in the context of the Brian Lalor exhibition. Below it is our own photograph of 5,000 year old Rock Art at Derreenaclough, West Cork – discovered only a few years ago. I am personally of the opinion that the siting of this rock in full view of ‘sacred’ Mount Gabriel is purely intentional!

A fully illustrated catalogue is available to purchase in the gallery

Some useful links:

The Giant’s Ring

It’s not West Cork, but – if you are looking for an impressive archaeological site – take a little trip over the border into the North, as we did very recently. Just outside Belfast City we found The Giant’s Ring. The size of it is astonishing – 180 metres in internal diameter, and covering an area of 2.8 hectares. And what we see today is only part of a cluster of monuments here.

This marked up location plan, produced by archaeologist Barrie Hartwell in 1998, shows the Giant’s Ring, and other sites nearby which have been discovered by aerial survey and crop marks. We can’t really know what the focus of the whole complex is. Guesses are made as to what its function might have been, based on similarities to other finds, but the size of this ‘Ring’ sets it apart from most other equivalent discoveries. If you want West of Ireland comparisons, then Drombeg Circle has a diameter of 9.3 metres; The Giant’s Ring, at 180m, is twenty times greater! Also, the Grange Stone Circle in Co Limerick – which appears very large to us (it’s the Republic’s largest) – has a diameter of ‘only’ 60 metres.

It’s hard to judge the scale from a photograph, but looking at the figure just visible at the right-hand edge of this view, above, helps to set the scene. The ‘small’ pile of stone that you can also see within the enclosure is, in fact, a monument in its own right, generally thought today to be the remains of a passage grave. Here’s a nearer view, followed by close-ups. The structure – a type which used to be called a ‘dolmen’ (and still is in some of the accounts of The Giant’s Ring) is quite substantial.

This passage grave is far less impressive than – say – Newgrange, but why would it be sited in this enormous ring – which resembles a ‘henge’? It is dwarfed by the huge circular bank. It is likely that the grave or tomb structure was covered by a mound. Here is an artist’s impression of the enclosure being used for a ritual purpose:

In 1995 archaeologist Barrie Hartwell provided the following commentary to this sketch:

. . . This conjectural reconstruction of the Giant’s Ring brings together a number of ideas. Here the Giant’s Ring stands on the southern edge of a plateau overlooking the fertile land of the Lagan Valley. The internal slope of the bank is lined with stones and the bank has a flat top on which people crowd to view the spectacle unfolding within. The passage grave, embedded in an earthen mound provides the focus of activity. The quarry ditch can be seen between the two. In the right foreground is a circular bank, first seen as a crop mark in an aerial photograph. This was excavated in 1991, when the remains of a stoney bank were found on the eastern side. The central area had been removed by quarrying to a depth of 3m and backfilled within the last two hundred years . . .

Prehistory of The Giant’s Ring & Ballynahatty Townland
Barrie Hartwell LISBURN.COM

Above is an image from Google Earth showing the context of the circular monument in its immediate surroundings. There is no sign in this image of the many nearby sites which have been identified close to the Ring (look again at Barrie Hartwell’s location plan), but archaeologists have been busy at this location in comparatively modern times. Hartwell summarised some of the excavations in an article for Archaeology Ireland Volume 5, No 4, Winter 1991. He reports a description of a ‘chamber’ that was described in 1855 by Robert MacAdam, editor of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology:

. . . On November 21st 1855, Robert MacAdam picked up the Belfast Newsletter in his office in the Soho Foundry in Belfast . . . His attention was caught by a paragraph in the paper announcing the ‘discovery of an ancient tomb on the farm of Mr David Bodel of Ballynehatty’. He immediately visited the spot, just six miles south of Belfast, with his friend Mr Getty, and found that the tomb was still largely intact and that most of the contents had been rescued by the farmer. Equally interesting was its position close to the great enigmatic banked enclosure of the Giant’s Ring on an isolated, undulating, upland block of land overlooking the River Lagan. They were impressed enough to return at the weekend with other members of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society to record it properly . . .

Archaeology Ireland Volume 5 No 4 – Winter 1991

The above illustration accompanies the article. Note that this find appears to have been sited outside of the Giant’s Ring itself. Hartwell’s account continues:

. . . Their plan and description shows that this curious structure had been built in a paved, 1.5m deep, flat-bottomed pit and with a corbelled roof supported by a stone perimeter wall, five internal stone dividers and a central prop. The top of the roof was 0.5m below the ground surface and may have been covered with small stones to form a cairn. In two of the radial compartments so formed were found the remains of four ‘…urns, about twelve inches high by ten broad…’ each containing burnt bones. One of the urns had disintegrated, and two of them were later described as being large and rudely formed. One of these survives today as a Bronze Age Collared Urn. The fourth was a typical globular-shaped Carrowkeel Ware pot usually found in Neolithic passage tombs . . .

Archaeology Ireland Volume 5 No 4 – Winter 1991

I found a further reference to the discovery of this ‘chamber’ in the archives of the Belfast News, 1855:

Hartwell’s fascinating account describes other finds in the area, and reports how Bodel – the farmer who owned the land – could remember stories of previous finds going back through generations of his family: a number of sites had been destroyed through agricultural clearance or ‘treasure hunting’. According to his memories these included a standing stone, another megalithic tomb, a multiple cist cairn, a number of single cist burials and two ‘cemeteries’ which produced many cart-loads of human bones. He also noted that similar sites had been found in his neighbours’ fields.

We can distil from these various stories that what we see today at this site was central to a very significant cultural hub, much of which is now lost. Hartwell suggests that some of the more recent excavations provide evidence that human activity here dates from 3039 to 2503 BC. His conclusion is significant:

. . . It is placed firmly in the late Neolithic rather than the Bronze Age. The closest parallel in Ireland is surely Newgrange. Indeed, the Bend in the Boyne and the ‘Loop in the Lagan’ invite close comparison. The scale of the monuments may vary but all the elements of a ceremonial landscape are there – passage tombs, henges, pit circles, flat cemeteries, and, of course, the river. Just as the river at its extremities defines a natural region, it mat also have defined a human territory with the ceremonial centre at its hub . . . Ancestral rights to territory were anchored by a thousand years of burial rites and the sanctity of the land shown by the continuum of ritual from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age . . .

Archaeology Ireland Volume 5 No 4 – Winter 1991

Former landowners of the estate on which this monument stands were the Dungannons of Belvoir House. In the mid nineteenth century Lord Dungannon built a protective wall around the Giant’s Ring (shown in the top sketch which reportedly dates from 1897). The plaque on the entrance gate (above) marks a visit to the site by Countess Dungannon, presumably to commemorate the completion of this wall.

The site has understandably attracted artists and photographers. The upper photo by R Welch dates from 1902 and the centre photo by S Kirker dates from 1905. The old postcard, above, is undated, but is remarkably similar in its viewpoint to the 1897 sketch – which one came first?

So there we have it: a very significant ceremonial site which has been compared in importance to Newgrange. What was it for? A burial place imbued with connections to an afterlife? We cannot know. But my own thoughts when looking at this vast circle is that in the present day we would call it an ‘arena’, and we might use it for sports, drama or processions. In fact I noted a report that stated it was used for horse-racing in the eighteenth century. A significant disappointment for me is that I have been unable to find any folklore or ‘stories’ about The Giant’s Ring. Northern Ireland does not share the equivalent of the Dúchas Folklore Collections which we have in Ireland, dating from the 1930s. There must have been tales told about it through the generations: I would be most interested to hear from anyone who can fill in this omission, please.