Notes from the Past

We heard – from our correspondent Justin Cremin – about an ancient copper mine somewhere near Skibbereen: possibly prehistoric (like the mines on Mount Gabriel). Supposedly there were rock scribings there (perhaps like those we explored in the Cooleenlemane valley). The Archaeological records proved a little disappointing:

CO150-070

Townland: GORTSHANECRONE

Class: Redundant record

. . . 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!

Dunworley Promontory Fort – A Bit Of A Stunner

We’ve been wanting to visit this site for ages and the opportunity came this week, thanks to the kindness of Diarmuid Kingston and Tim Feen of Dúchas/the Clonakilty Historical Society, and the landowner, Jim Molony. As the Heritage Council said when they posted the photo below on their Twitter account – it’s a bit of a stunner!

Partly, this outing was to kick off a project I have in mind to follow in the footsteps, 100 years later, of Thomas J Westropp, the antiquarian who did so much to modernise Irish Archaeology and whose special interest was forts and fortified headlands. I already wrote about one of the promontory forts that he documented and we visited last year – Gouladoo, on the Sheep’s Head. I suppose that was In the Footsteps of Westropp 1, Part 1, and this is Part 2. 

Let’s review what a promontory fort is. In 2004 Liam Downey laid out the thinking on this type of monument for the Archaeology Ireland/Wordwell Heritage Guide series. He called them ‘enigmatic.’ They are headlands fortified at the narrowest part, or neck, by earth or stone banks, ditches or walls and they vary considerably in the size of the enclosed area and the length of the fortifications. The sea and the cliffs all around the enclosure provide another level of defence, often seemingly impregnable. 

This type of fortification may have been built as early as the Bronze Age, although most are believed to date to the Iron Age (from 500BC) or the Early Medieval Period (from 450AD), but many were obviously also occupied in the medieval period, when additional defences were added, as at Dunworley. 

Why were they built? Downey says this:

Their overtly defensive character and exposed locations, allied to the admittedly scarce excavation evidence, suggest that they might have been built as temporary refuges for use in times of grave danger. On the other hand, assuming that defence was the purpose, the cliff-top location suggests a fight to the death rather than a safe refuge. Assuming that human nature does not change radically from one era to another, one potential explanation for the location is prestige. Several promontory forts are built on a large scale and some are very impressive in appearance, especially those with closely spaced walls or banks. These may have been status sites, visible from a distance and designed to dominate the adjacent countryside. The spectacular locations, unspoiled sea views, occasional associations with royalty, pagan deities or St Patrick, and even the element dún combine to suggest that the social role of these monuments in ancient times may have been quite complex. 

In the light of all this, let’s take a look at Dunworley. It’s unusual, in that the narrow neck of the promontory has had an additional feature built on it, in the shape of a small tower house – a gate house, in fact. 

The features of this small tower (our guides called it a wee castle) are pretty typical of fifteenth century tower houses in West Cork (except on a smaller scale), with a base batter (lowest level splayed outwards), rubble construction, and inside one ope with a splayed embrasure (below). The two doors, back and front, are simple affairs and there is no sign of bar holes, eye or spud stones for the doors.

One of the more curious features, noted by Westropp, is that there appears to have been two floors, as evidenced by the corbels upon which the floor joists would have rested (below). However, the corbels are less than a metre apart, so it is hard to imagine how that space would have been used. 

The internal vault, which would have separated the lower floors from the topmost floor and the wallwalk, is not a continuous vault but two arches which are covered by large slatey slabs. Although not as common as the continuous vault (see Dunmanus for an example of this), I have seen this type of vaulting in other West Cork towers – at Dunlough, for example, and less obviously at Dun an Óir on Cape Clear and at Rossbrin – all 15th century tower houses of the West Cork Irish families of O’Mahony and O’Driscoll.

Westropp, in his 1916 paper Fortified Headlands and Castles on the South Coast of Munster. Part I. From Sherkin to Youghal, Co. Cork, gives a complicated genealogy for the fort. He says it was destroyed by Fineen McCarthy after the Battle of Callan in 1260 – and this would imply that whatever original fortification was here, it was built by an Anglo-Norman family, since it was the anglo-Norman castles that Fineen destroyed. It may then have been taken over by the O’Cowhigs, but was definitely held by a branch of the Barrys by 1573. It passed to the Travers, the Hamiltons and back to the Travers. Jim Moloney, the present owner, told me that it has been in his family since his grandfather bought it.

Westropp, in his usual thorough fashion, provides a drawing of the small tower, both its position at the neck of the promontory, and a plan of the building itself – the top left and top centre plans below.

Some accounts mention a house on the promontory, but Westropp saw no sign of one. He did, however, note:

The day of my visit the headland was covered with cattle ; and it was interesting to see them, when called out to water, going in single file, without delay or hustling, through the little doorways, the outer 3 feet 1 inch wide, by 5 feet high ; the inner 2 feet 10 inches wide, and 5 feet 9 inches high. This shows how easily cattle might be brought through the small doors (but usually wider and higher than this gateway) in the dry-stone ring-forts.

This is particularly interesting because the land is considered unsuitable for livestock now, because of the difficulty of getting them on and off the promontory and because there is no source of water on it. In any case, it has been declared an Area of Special Conservation, since the cliffs are home to nesting choughs – a very suitable designation for such an epic place.

The day of our visit was a stormy one – Amanda was actually blown off her feet at one point. It was easy to see how such a place could be defended in times of attack, and act as a refuge. The whole area had such a wild, remote and romantic air that we truly felt privileged to be able to visit it, and to step back in time to imagine it in its heyday.

You can see us below, bracing against the wind. Many thanks to Diarmuid, Tim and Jim for facilitating our visit and answering all our questions. 

Ballycummisk Archaeology

There’s a fine ringfort just over the hill from us – in the townland of Ballycummisk. A definition of a ‘ringfort’ in archaeological terms is given here:

. . . Many people lived in enclosed farmsteads known as ringforts in the Early Christian/Early Medieval period. Second to fulachta fiadh, they are the most common field monument surviving in Ireland with up to 60,000 examples, most dating to between 550-900AD. Ringforts are circular areas, measuring c24-60m in diameter, usually enclosed with one or more earthen banks, often topped with a timber palisade. In the west of Ireland the ringfort was often enclosed by a stone wall, with stone huts in the interior. Traces of iron and bronze working have been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional . . .

HeritageCouncil.ie
Significant Unpublished Irish Archaeological Excavations 1930-1997

A simpler definition comes from the monumental 1200-page Volume 1 of the ‘New History of Ireland’ series published in 2005 and edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: “archaeologists are agreed that the vast bulk of them are the farm enclosures of the well-to-do of early medieval Ireland”.

The upper picture is taken from within the ringfort enclosure; the north bank of the fort can be seen beyond a small stone outcrop which is said to be the site of a souterrain. Time for another definition:

. . . Souterrain: an underground structure consisting of one or more chambers connected by narrow passages or creepways, usually constructed of drystone-walling with a lintelled roof over the passages and a corbelled roof over the chambers. Most souterrains appear to have been built in the early medieval period by ringfort inhabitants (c. 500 – 1000 AD) as a defensive feature and/or for storage . . .

archaeology.ie/HistoricEnvironment

You can see more about souterrains – including some illustrations – in my post from four years ago about Knockdrum Fort, south of Skibbereen.

The Schools Folklore Collection is an important source of local beliefs and traditions – if not exactly historical information. The stories were collected in the 1930s but were remembered through family traditions which could go back through several generations. The example pages above – dating from 1936 – describe the Ballycummisk fort. Here is a transcription of the paragraph:

. . . There is a fort in a place called Ballycummisk. It is near the sea, and was first found about two years ago by people who were ploughing. It is a hole going down through the ground, with four stone walls. You could not see down now, because it was filled in when they got to it. They could only see the walls. They dug down about a yard, and then drove down a ten foot crowbar, but the bottom could not be found. Very small pipes were found and shells This field is sloping to the sea. A stone about a yard long was also found. They thought it to be a handle for some old stone weapon . . .

Schools Folklore Collection
Frank coughlan Ballydehob

Frank Coughlan’s description almost certainly refers to the discovery of a souterrain. It doesn’t quite ring true as he says that “the field is sloping down to the sea”. In fact, the fields containing the ringfort are sloping southwards away from the sea, which is not visible at all from the site.

This aerial view shows parts of the townlands of Ballycummisk and Cappaghglass. The ringfort is marked. Another nearby feature – also shown – is a large standing stone, known as ‘Bishop’s Luck’.

The stone is 1.6m high, 2.05m in length, and 0.45m in width: tall and wide in one direction, and relatively narrow in the other. It is also worth noting that the ‘long’ orientation is exactly North-South. This stone has been in this position for at least 180 years as it appears in the earliest edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey (1830s), marked as ‘Gallaun’ – and even given a little illustration!

The standing stone is not far from the ringfort: perhaps there is a connection, although standing stones are generally reckoned to date from earlier times than the forts. Here is an extract from a recent article in Archaeology Ireland: Vol 34 No 1 (Spring 2020) pp 26-29, Wordwell Ltd:

. . . The classic standing stone surviving from the Bronze Age in Ireland is a rough-hewn or unshaped pillar, known as a gallaun (from the Irish gallán), generally oblong or oval in cross-section and up to 3m or more in height. Stones presumed to belong within this class vary considerably in height, from as little as 1m to as much as 6-7m in exceptional cases, the majority probably falling in the 1.5-2m range. Seán Ó Nualláin noted many years ago that in his experience the axis is generally aligned north-east/south-west. This is by no means a universal rule. Gallauns are by far the most numerous of all pre-Christian standing stones in Ireland. Approximately 600 are known in Cork and Kerryb alone. Beyond this region, examples are to be found extensively throughout the Irish countryside and many of them have attracted folk explanations . . .



Lone Standing Stones by Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam DowneY
Archaeology Ireland 2020

In these two pictures you can see the striking profile of the Bishop’s Luck standing stone against the skyline which features Mount Gabriel – the highest piece of land in the immediate area. Gabriel was an important place in prehistoric times as the centre of a significant copper mining industry – yet no artefacts have ever been found on the summit. In the lower picture you can see how the western edge of the standing stone ‘echoes’ the distant profile of Gabriel on the horizon. This is a phenomenon that has been noted a few times with regard to stones standing in the landscape. Here is Gabriel seen from the ringfort:

Finola has written comprehensively about standing stones in this Journal: here and here. O’Sullivan and Downey mention (above) that examples have attracted folk explanations. This doesn’t seem to be the case here: no mention is made of the stone in the Schools Folklore Collection. But surely there must be significance in the name: Bishop’s Luck?

But – hang on! There is ‘Bishop’ folklore associated with a site not very far away – in the neighbouring townland of Stouke. Finola recorded this in her 2016 post here. It’s a simple tale: The story goes that during the time of the penal laws a Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. A bullaun stone in the graveyard at Stouke is supposed to be his head. If our possibly Bronze Age stone in Ballycummisk had anything to do with this, it should surely be known as Bishop’s Bad Luck?

One further place that’s worth a mention here is the top of the hill to the south of the ringfort and standing stone. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have a magnificent view across to Rossbrin Harbour, with Cape Clear on the horizon in the far distance. There is a passage grave on the high point of Cape Clear. There seems to be some evidence for the inter-visibility of ancient sites, which makes me wonder whether there was ever any early structure on this hilltop. There are rocky outcrops there in the present day, and field clearance is evidenced by the presence of large slabs in the nearby field boundaries.

These are just thoughts, but I don’t mind thinking them! West Cork (and most of rural Ireland) must have much to reveal in terms of its ancient history. One point to remember: if you ever go searching yourself for archaeology or old sites, don’t forget that you will probably be entering private land. It is courteous to always seek permission: most owners are agreeable and – perhaps – may have stories to tell themselves.

Hell Fire

It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:

It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:

. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .

William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.

The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

From left to right: Henry Barry 4th Baron of Santry, Colonel Henry Clements, Colonel Henry Ponsonby, Colonel Richard St George, and Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl Carhampton. Biographies of all of them are summarised here – also from the Abarta reports. Their lives in general were debauched and relatively short. Missing from the portrait are father and son Richard Chappell Whaley and Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who was to become ‘the most famous Buck of all’. Richard’s nickname was ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley because of his hatred of religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic church. He would amuse himself on Sundays by riding around Dublin setting fire to the thatched roofs of Catholic chapels. The Whaleys were related through their ancestry to Oliver Cromwell. Their family residence was Whaley Abbey, Co Wicklow: you can find more on this in Finola’s post today.

Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!

It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.

The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:

. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle. When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .


Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School

. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .

Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin

. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .

Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow

The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.

A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .

As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!

Grange – Ireland’s Largest Stone Circle

If you are travelling through County Limerick, you shouldn’t miss a visit to Ireland’s largest stone circle: Grange, near the Lough Gur complex. There are 113 stones in this circle today, generally standing close by each other (‘contiguous’) and thus unlike the majority of the circle monuments in Ireland, where individual stones are separated.

The great circular arena which these stones define is also on a platform raised (in the present day) about 600mm above the surrounding land. Excavations which took place between 1939 and 1954 (S P Ó Ríordáin 1951) and subsequent radiocarbon dating indicate a construction date just short of 3,000 BC, which makes the circle one of the oldest in Ireland.

The internal diameter of this circle (a ring drawn around the inner faces of the stones) measures approximately 45.5 metres. Here is Ó Ríordáin’s drawings of the elevations of the stones:

Finola bravely stands against the largest stone in the circle, which is traditionally named Rannach Crom Dubh. The meaning is not clear; Crom suggests ‘bent, crooked, or stooped’, while Dubh means ‘black or dark one’. Rannach can mean ‘open-handed’, which could imply a trading connection. This stone is said to weigh over 40 tonnes and was brought to this spot from three kilometres away. Interestingly, some say that this stone marks the ceremonial entrance into the circle and is aligned with the sunrise on the 1st of August, known as Lughnasadh, the day that marks the beginning of the harvest in Ireland. In fact, there are many orientations that can be given to this circle. This article by Ken Williams explores some possibilities here.

This Beaker pottery sherd was found and recorded by Ó Ríordáin. It is one of a great number of such remains to be found at the site. One commentator made the suggestion that . . . The breaking of Beaker pots against the standing stones seems to have been part of a ceremony . . . Can we trace the more modern tradition of breaking wine glasses after a toast to such an early origin? It’s said to bring luck and happiness in some cultures. This would, of course, imply that the great circle was a celebratory feasting site.

There is evidence today that visitors feel compelled to leave offerings at the site: coins, small stones, beads, and other ephemera. The examples above are adjacent to Rannach Crom Dubh, while below is one of the standing stones in the circle that appears to have been deliberately cut, or slotted, at some time in its history. Today, coins are deposited within this slot.

My own feeling about this site is that it is an arena where people gathered to feast and celebrate. An ancient ‘circus’ perhaps? Ken Williams analyses the possibilities of archeo-astronomical alignments in his article, mentioning our West Cork friend Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, whose detailed work we have investigated, here.

The features of this site are fascinating and provide much food for thought, especially when seen through the eyes of archaeologists. Of course, we want to know who conceived this monument, and who was in charge of the human power and organisation that was required to erect it. There won’t be a simple answer to this: it’s likely that many generations were responsible and that there were numerous incarnations over time. That’s what is so fascinating about ancient history: if only we had a time machine!

There are traces of other, smaller, stone circles close by this one, but I was intrigued to read in one of the accounts of this site that there was previously a further – even larger – circle nearby, and this has vanished altogether. I have to ask: how could such a massive structure disappear completely? Legend gives us an answer: it was supposedly stolen by Merlin and brought over to England to create Stonehenge!

Mizen Magic 23: Croagh Cove

Many thanks to Sara Nylund for her wonderful reconstruction drawing of an early ecclesiastical site

A couple of years ago, confined to explorations within 5km, Robert wrote about Croagh Bay (pronounced locally as Crew Bay). Recently our friends Donagh and Tamsin enticed us back to take a closer look at the eastern part of the Bay – Croagh Cove (Crew Cove). 

What intrigued us about this place and why we were eager to visit (apart from Donagh’s world-class coffee) was a place marked on the map as an ‘ecclesiastical enclosure.’ There aren’t a lot of those on the Mizen, although there may be more early ecclesiastical sites than have been identified and recorded. Kilbrown (see my post Mizen Mud), Cove and Kilbronogue are the only others so far.

What establishes a site as a likely ‘early ecclesiastical enclosure?’

The Irish church was dominated by scattered rural monasteries from the sixth century onwards. These were surrounded by large enclosures (varying in diameter from 40 a.m. to 400 M), often circular or oval in plan, and usually far more extensive than the surviving graveyards. In some cases the original bank, fosse or stone wall survives but more often the line of the monastic enclosure (or vallum) is indicated by curving field boundaries, roadways or a laneways. As well as the church and graveyard, these enclosures contained the dwellings, outhouses and workshops of a community, sometimes approaching the size of a town. Because the buildings were constructed of wood nothing survives above ground today; the graveyard often contains the ruin of a mediaeval church. In some cases the surviving burial ground has no inscribed headstones but was used for the burial of unbaptised children during the last few centuries. Bullaun stones and cross-inscribed stones are often found on early church sites while holy wells may be situated close by and retain the name of the saint anciently associated with the site. Unfortunately little of the history of the early church in West Cork has survived and the earliest reference to many of these sites is as late as the 12th century.

The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol I, West Cork. P 271

So, as you can see, not much normally survives on the surface but a tell-tale sign is a circular or oval enclosure, or (often) two concentric enclosures, with the barely-discernible signs of buildings inside. (Readers may remember the above illustration from my post on Ardpatrick – no sign of a round tower at Croagh, though!).) The memory of these places as once-sacred seems to be retained locally, and led to their use as Cillíní, or Children’s burial grounds in the past. See my post Unknown Souls for more about Cillíní – ‘the loneliest places on earth.’ Thus – small uninscribed headstones peeking out through the grass is an indication that this may be a cillín, and in turn perhaps something more ancient yet.

The original site may have been carved out of the hillside – the flattening process leaving a sharp-edged bank on the sea-ward side (above and below). This reminded us of the similar bank we found at the possible ‘Scoil Mhuire’ site that Robert reported on in his post Schull – Delving into History

What would such a site have looked like? They varied enormously in size – for example Glenadalough in Wicklow and Kells in Meath would both have been monastic cities. Most, however, and especially in remote places, would have been small religious foundations in which there would be a central church surrounded by an inner wall, and houses and gardens for the monks surrounded by an outer wall. 

Nendrum in Co Down shows what a monastic settlement considerably larger than Croagh might have looked like. The Illustration is from The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin

The word reilig (pronounced rellig) is the Irish word for graveyard and it comes from the word for relic. Early sites like this were assumed to have had a founding saint, who gave his or her name to the site. Kilbrown, for example, would be the church of Brón, and he would have been buried on the site – hence the ‘relic’ association. Kilcoe was named for a saintly nun, St Coch. The echoes of the cult of those saints would have remained alive through the centuries in the names of townlands and holy wells.

Possible remains of church at Croagh

The name Croagh, however, is based not on a saint’s name but on the Irish word for a ‘stack’ and may refer to the gentle hill that rises up from the water. It was, and remains, an almost perfect spot to establish a peaceful settlement based around hard work and prayer. There’s a lovely little beach below, so transport and travel was easy by water. It’s in a sheltered haven protected from storms by Long Island off the cost, and from it there’s a good view out to sea (below) so the monks could see Vikings or other raiders coming.

And right across the Cove there’s a ring fort – a cashel, in fact, since it looks like the walls were made of stone (below). It’s a classic – on elevated ground with commanding views all around, out to sea and to the low hills behind. Puzzlingly, this cashel is not recorded by National Monuments. It’s overgrown by bracken so may not have been obvious at the time of the survey. 

This juxtaposition, across the cove from each other, of an early-medieval monastic settlement and a fortified residence, leads to speculation as to the relationship between the two. Was the monastery endowed by the local chief, committing the monks to say prayers for his eternal soul in exchange for land and protection? This is certainly a familiar pattern from the later medieval period. 

View of the ecclesiastical site from the cashel

This is just a tiny corner of the Mizen. There is much more of interest in this small townland but for today I wanted to focus on these early-medieval sites. In their ruins lie clues to a distant but vibrant past.