Rock Art: Returning to Derrynablaha

Three years ago Finola and I both wrote posts about a remote valley in the Kerry hills, north of Sneem, where some iconic examples of Irish Rock Art can be found: Derrynablaha Expedition by Finola, and my own Glen of Ghosts. I think it’s time to revisit this hauntingly beautiful place, and its ancient carved stones which could date back 5,000 years, to Neolithic times.

All the examples of Rock Art illustrated in this post can be found in the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny, Co Kerry

When Finola visited the valley in 1972 and 1973 she explored and recorded 23 marked stones, all within the townland of Derrynablaha: these were illustrated in her UCC thesis The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. Between 1986 and 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula Archaeological Survey undertook further detailed research, resulting in a comprehensive volume published by Cork University Press: this contains a 30 page section on Rock Art and includes many of Finola’s drawings. The book lists 26 known examples, now, in Derrynablaha with a further 7 stones in the adjacent townland of Derreeny.

Cork University Press volume (left) which includes many of Finola’s drawings (sample page,right)

My introduction to prehistoric Irish Rock Art came in the early 1990s when I first visited West Cork to look at a piece of land which my friends Danny and Gill had purchased, with a view to building themselves a house: I was to be the designer. We walked the 5 acre site at Ballybane West and discovered a large, flat outcrop of rock some 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, the surface of which was covered with strange carved motifs. These intrigued and occupied me for many years. Eventually I made contact with the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork and unearthed Finola’s thesis. Finola had visited ‘Danny’s Rock’ during her explorations: she and I have just completed a comprehensive article on Rock Art in the environs of Ballybane West for a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Bantry Historical Society, due to be launched on 10 May.

Because of the number of pieces of Rock Art at Derrynablaha, as recorded by Finola, I set out to visit the site and was fortunate, I think, to locate several of the pieces there: they are hard to find. My most significant impression of the place was its isolation and loneliness: when Finola was there decades before, the O’Sullivan house was occupied – a family home and working farm – now it was a ruin returning to nature. No one lives in that valley today: it is home to sheep and eagles.

The most iconic piece of Rock Art in Derrynablaha is high up on the slopes of a mountain: there is no path, and the trek is across bogs, boulders and streams. Also remember that all the land is private – farmed now by another O’Sullivan from a neighbouring valley – and permission has to be sought in advance of any attempt to visit. Strict rules apply, understandably, to the use of gates and fences and no dogs will be permitted. The iconic piece is probably Ireland’s most important. When you stand up there, on a good day, you can see to distant horizons and take in outstanding views: time for reflection, perhaps, on what inspired our forebears to create such panels in these places – was it where they lived? Or did they assemble there for celebrations? The mountainside seems to present a natural platform here, with the carved rocks a central focal point. The work involved in carving these motifs would have been significant and time-consuming – they had only stone tools.

When we give talks about Rock Art we ask a question: Is it art? Some of it is certainly pleasing to the eye – the iconic Derrynablaha carvings are. But they also appear random, as though new carvings have been squeezed in amongst older ones: maybe the proliferation of motifs – or the number of carvers involved – was more important than any particular visual effect or relationship. We don’t ever try to answer that question, nor guess meanings for things we can never know. It’s enough – for me, at least – to experience these ‘footprints’ of former souls in such wild places.

We go far out of our way to look for Rock Art. It would take more than a lifetime to see every piece in Ireland. Some would argue that such a pursuit would be pointless – seen one, seen them all. It is true that the motifs are similar, although variable, across Rock Art panels, not only in Ireland, but in Britain and on continental Europe. That in itself is remarkable: 5,000 years ago humankind was making identical marks on rock surfaces all over its world. For me, however, it’s not really the motifs – spectacular though many of them are. It’s the places that they mark which are meaningful. Rock Art took me to the mountainside in that lonely Kerry glen and showed me a most incredible view across townlands and counties: I see it as inspiration, relevant as much in the 21st century of this struggling world as it was, perhaps, thousands of years ago, when the same world was a little bit newer.

The Headstones of Ferns

Ferns, in Co Wexford, is an historic town that boasts many fine heritage attractions including an Anglo-Norman Castle, an Augustinian Abbey and other medieval ruins, high crosses and associations with the McMurroughs and the Marshalls. Not least among its delights is the Cathedral graveyard, which has one of the best collections of eighteenth century headstones I have ever seen.

Look at the headstone above and the one below. The elements used in the carving are identical except that the central image in the first is a crucifixion scene and in the second it’s an IHS in a sunburst. Note the J Byrne signature under the carving to the left above and the Pat Byrne signature below. How were J and Pat related? Does the difference demonstrate anything other than the preference of the person who commissioned the headstone? I’m tempted to see the gradual replacement of the crucifixion image with slightly less ‘popish’ symbols, but I’m probably overthinking this

In our post Memento Mori, I introduced you to Irish headstones and the practice, which really only dates back to the 18th century, of routinely placing headstones on graves. Even then, only those who had the means to pay for a carved headstone were memorialised in this way – most still lay in graves with simple field stones at their head (and sometimes feet).

In Headstones or Folk Carvings? we visited Kilcoole graveyard to Co Wicklow, home to many fine headstones including one by Dennis Cullen, an acknowledged master carver. In Ferns we found many of the headstones had been carved by J Byrne (or J: Byrne, as he styled it) and although his technique does not quite have the refinement of Dennis Cullen, his carvings have a charm and energy that make them recognisable even where the headstone is not signed.

See the ‘J: Byrne’ signature just below the carvings to the right. There is no date on this headstone for William Lea (or Leacey? See the tiny superscript above the ‘Lea’). The detail on the angels is very fine and I love the little arrow in the centre of the sunburst, just below the IHS

The most common image is, of course, the IHS. Known as a Christogram, IHS is shorthand for the name of Jesus. It is often surrounded by a sunburst, or surmounted by a cross. Interestingly, the earlier and later headstones are more likely to feature the IHS as their main element.

Two early headstone, from 1758 and 1773, starting with Here Lieth. Mogue is a local name, for Saint Mogue of Ferns, whose well lies across the road. Note that the final Y of Mercy doesn’t quite fit on the line so a superscript is used

Many of the most interesting headstones date from the 1790s and where they have a signature it is that of J Byrne. There must have been a vogue for crucifixion scenes at the time, because they appear here and there throughout the graveyard and date to this period.

The J: Byrne signature is almost obscured by lichen. This is a typical J Byrne carving, with a crucifixion scene: Jesus on the cross, Mary and possibly John on either side, all three with halos. Sun and moon round out the carving

Jesus is on the cross at the centre of the tableau, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Occasionally other figures appear – Roman soldiers, a man on horseback, angels.

The dress, as is common with carvings of this period, reflects eighteenth century styles – observe the soldier in the frock coat in the Moses Breen scene (above) and the angel in the seamed jacket on John Kehoe’s stone (below).

There are a couple of headstone with horses in the crucifixion scene, but it’s unusual

The most frequent other symbols are the sun and moon, often with faces. The sun/moon symbols can be the main elements or can be wedged into available spaces on either side of crucifixion scenes.

The lettering styles vary, although generally they become tidier over time. Occasionally, the lines incised to keep the carver straight can be discerned. Words that don’t fit are either carried over, or a tiny superscript finishes them so they can stay on the same line.

The lightly incised ‘stay between the lines’ can be seen in Mogue Doyle’s headstone from 1775

This 1792 headstone is for Catherine Murphy. But it is also for her husband. However, none of the husband’s details appear. I can understand that he would have been added to the headstone at the time of her death, for efficiency perhaps, with his dates to be added later – but the fact that his name is missing gives rise to all kinds of speculation!

One mysterious element of several of the gravestones in Ferns is that at some point in the past someone has drilled holes in some of the headstones (see the two examples, below). If anyone can tell us the significance of this, we would be grateful to know it.

We highly recommend a visit to Ferns. Give yourself a day to take in all that’s there, but don’t forget to have a good wander around the old graveyard. Morning is best, as the light goes behind the headstones in the afternoon.

I love the primitive quality of this 1780 stone for Mary O”Danioley – Jesus on the cross with the soldier piercing his side with a spear

Darerca – A Neglected Saint

Ireland is ‘The Land of Saints’. The Catholic Online website lists 331 of them, but some get much better treatment than others. Last week we celebrated St Patrick – the news was full of it, as it always is on 17 March. Yet, just five days after Patrick’s Day – on 22 March – I was at a schoriacht and asked the assembled crowd who was the Saint for that day: nobody knew. It was the day for St Darerca and she is, unfairly, much neglected, especially since she is St Patrick’s sister. In order to redress the balance I have put together everything I can find on the story of St Darerca, and – because she has never been pictured (as far as I can tell) – I have illustrated it with some general Irish Saintly connections.

Land of the Saints: header picture – Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly – Ireland’s holy centre, and one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe. Above – the beautifully located Kilmalkedar monastic site in Kerry has long associations with Saint Brendan the Navigator

St Darerca is first mentioned in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii (Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick), which some scholars believe was written in the sixth century – within a century of St Patrick’s death (possibly in 493 at the age of 120). In the Tripartite Life, we read that St Patrick had two sisters, and that when he came to Bredach in County Derry for an ordination, . . . he found there three deacons, who were sons of his sister Darerca . . . These deacons were eventually ordained bishops and became St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh, the . . . sons of Conis and Darerca, Patrick’s sister . . . 

Upper – St Patrick’s Bell; lower – inscription on another 10th century bell – both now in the National Museum, Dublin

In his own Confessio, St Patrick makes no mention of his sisters. The Confessio begins:

. . . My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many . . .

But it’s a very brief account of his life, and hardly qualifies as an autobioigraphy.

Medieval cross head, in the National Museum, Dublin

One version of the Tripartite Life suggests that both sisters were kidnapped from Britain along with St Patrick and returned to Ireland with him when he set out on his missions. A 17th century Irish hagiographer, John Colgan, collected fragments of information pertaining to Darerca . . . from Irish tradition . . . He asserted that St Darerca may have had as many as seventeen sons between two husbands, and that all of them became bishops. He also states that, according to tradition,  many of these became saints:

. . . By Darerca’s first husband, Restitutus the Lombard, she bore St Sechnall of Dunshaughlin; St Nectan of Killunche, and of Fennor (near Slane); of St Auxilius of Killossey (near Naas, County Kildare); of St Diarmaid of Druim-corcortri, in addition to five other children. By her second husband Conis the Briton, she bore St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh; ancient Irish authors also attributed her motherhood to St Crummin of Lecua, St Miduu, St Carantoc, and St Maceaith . . .

A 1950s photograph from Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh showing the annual pilgrimage to the summit of St Patrick’s holy mountain in Co Mayo, Croagh Patrick

St Darerca’s second husband, Conis, was said by some to be the King of the Bretons, although others only suggest that, by him, she gave birth to Gradlon the Great, who became King of Brittany. It’s really surprising (and a shame) that we don’t know more about Darerca: perhaps she has just always been overshadowed by her famous brother. As well as – perhaps – seventeen sons, she is supposed to have had four daughters, all of whom were also connected with the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Only two are named: St Eiche of Kilglass and St Lalloc of Senlis.

The Ardagh Chalice, National Museum, Dublin

There is a reference to Darerca as having another name: Moninna, said to have founded a convent at Killeevy, Co Armagh which was second in importance only to that at Kildare. A curious story is told to account for the change of her name to Moninna. The Irish commentary is translated into English by Whitley Stokes:

. . . Darerca was her name at first. But a certain dumb poet fasted with her, and the first thing he said after being miraculously cured of his dumbness was minnin. Hence the nun was called Mo-ninde, and the poet himself Nine Ecis . . .

Moninna studied theology, established convents in Ireland, Scotland and England and travelled to Rome. Perhaps most interestingly she is also known by the name Liamain, and there is a connection with an ancient stone on the island of Inchagoill in Lough Corrib. The ‘Pillar Stone’ on that island is known as Lugnaedon Pillar, a piece of Silurian grit stone, about two feet high with an incised cross on the north side, and two such crosses on each of the other sides. The inscription on the stone translates as . . . The stone of Lugnaedon, son of Limenueh . . . or Liamain. The pillar is said to originate in the 6th century, and would therefore be the oldest Christian inscribed stone in Ireland.

Two photographs of the 6th century Lugnaedon Pillar on Inchagoill Island. It is also known as the Rudder Stone because of its shape

The Benedictines say that Darerca’s name is derived from the Irish Diar-Sheare which means ‘constant and firm love’. And, finally, a piece of local folklore say that St Darerca blessed a poor man’s beer barrel so that it provided an endless supply of beer ever after!

Lives of the Saints – a detail from a stained glass window by George Walsh in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyries

So there you have it – scraps gleaned from many sources, some of which are not named – from which we can piece together an incomplete picture of an Irish saint who may well have done as much in her day for Christianity in Ireland as her famed brother. How about giving Patrick a rest next year and, instead, celebrating the day of St Darerca?

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.

Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer

Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville (1863 – 1936) is mostly know in Ireland now for how he died, murdered by the IRA in 1936. And that’s a tragedy in many ways, not least of which is that the notoriety of his death has obscured his important contributions to Irish archaeology and especially to the once-controversial field of archaeoastronomy, of which he was a distinguished pioneer. [The portrait above is by Walter Stoneman and used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License.]

Boyle was about 30 in this photograph. This illustration is from Somerville and Ross: A Biography by Maurice Collis. The family lived in Drishane House, below, in Castletownshend, West Cork. 

Boyle was one of the famous Castletownshend family of Somervilles that included Edith, the writer with Violet Martin of the Irish RM stories. He was her favourite brother and companion on youthful adventures, including the incursions into the souterrain at Knockdrum Fort, armed only with a poker and a candle. See Robert’s companion piece about this ancient site.

Boyle drew the first proper survey of Drombeg and his observations established the winter solstice orientation. Today, crowds gather to witness this spectacular event

He went off to sea in 1877 at the early age of 13 – seafaring was in the Somerville blood – and rose through the ranks of Commander, Captain and finally Vice-Admiral. Throughout his time in the navy he was engaged in surveying and in hydrographic, intelligence and research projects all over the world. He collected ethnographic materials (now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum) and wrote papers on his experiences.

Another one of Boyle’s stone circle solar events, this one occurs at the autumn equinox at Bohonagh

But it was astronomy that fired his imagination, and specifically the astronomy of ancient sites. Following on the work of astronomer Norman Lockyer, he surveyed monuments in Scotland and Ireland and demonstrated that many of them had significant solar, stellar and lunar orientations. His 1927 paper, simply titled Orientation, in the first issue of Antiquity is a readable and well-argued essay that argues for the acceptance of the importance of calendrical observations to early farming communities.

The Bohonagh complex of monuments as Boyle described them – a stone circle, a cup-marked stone and a boulder burial

It is hard to remember now that the scientific community of the time was dismissive, but even the writer of his obituary in the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland could not resist a patronising summation:

He was an accomplished surveyor and careful observer, and if the theories as to the orientation of megaliths which he held are not universally accepted, his investigations have resulted in presentations of an accuracy too often absent from the surveys of many writers on those subjects.

Makes him sound like a crank, doesn’t it? But let’s go back to that bit about being an ‘accomplished surveyor and careful observer.’ In paper after paper, he did just that – carefully observed and documented the archaeological monuments of West Cork and elsewhere. It was he who first described the West Cork Stone Circles and coined the term recumbent, providing properly surveyed plans and making careful notes of the way in which they offered sightings to solar events at significant times of the year through the axis provided by the line running from the ‘entrance’ through the ‘recumbent.’ (For an explantation of how this all works, see our post Ancient Calendars.)

Reenascreena Stone Circle with its surrounding shallow fosse

Take a look at a couple of his papers for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. The first, on Five Stone Circles, is a good example of how he conducted his surveys. The second, titled Prehistorics sets out the case for a proper classification system for megalithic structures. Most of the terms he recommends, such as Standing Stone, Stone Row, Stone Circle, Passage Grave and Cup-Marked Stone are familiar to us and in everyday use now and he probably didn’t coin the terms. However, one of his terms never gained acceptance, and I think that’s a pity. It’s the charmingly named ‘Clochtogle’ and it’s what we now call a Boulder Burial. But in fact Clochtogle is a better term in being simply descriptive rather than assigning a function, since, as he points out in his paper, and as I pointed out in this post, there is precious little evidence that points to these monuments being burial places and they seem singularly unsuited for that function.

The Rathruane Clochtogle

Clochtogle is based on the Irish term cloch tógáil (cluck toe-gawl) which simply means raised up or lifted stone. We have lots of them in West Cork. In looking at the photograph of the Rathruane clochtogle (do you think this term might still catch on?) I am struck by how it seems to mirror the shape of Mount Gabriel in the background. Boyle, in his writings, did point out that not every monument was oriented to quarter or cross-quarter calendrical events: some, he said, may have other traditions reflected in their orientations. In our own investigations of West Cork monuments we are constantly struck by how many encompass views of Mount Gabriel.

Brian Lacey has an excellent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland* in which he describes Boyle Somerville as an important and distinguished. . .Irish archaeologist. . .and one of the founders of international archaeoastronomy. He details his various contributions to the field, and does not shy away from mentioning his less-than-scientific interest in ley-lines and also in the use of a medium to communicate with the builders of Drombeg. Edith, along with most of their circle (and indeed many of the literati of the time) routinely used mediums and ouija boards. After his death, as her biographer Maurice Collis puts it, Edith ‘lost no time in getting into touch with Boyle.’ But this does not detract from Boyle’s ultimate contributions: Without any doubt, states Lacey, Boyle Somerville was an extremely important and internationally-influential Irish archaeologist for his time. He deserves to be remembered better and celebrated with pride in this country.

Boyle’s death, at the hands of an IRA hit squad, triggered a national outcry. There’s a good account of it here so I won’t repeat the information that is widely available. I will emphasise, though, that the murder horrified the local community and brought together Catholic and Protestant in mourning the death of one who was highly regarded and universally respected in Castletownshend. Edith determined to raise a monument to the memory of her beloved brother and the notion that took was to erect a bench outside the entrance to Drishane House for the use and enjoyment of the village. She asked Seamus Murphy to execute it, one of his first commissions. Next time you come by, linger at this spot and reflect on the life of Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville. Accomplished, erudite, decorated and distinguished, he is remembered by those who knew him by the simple and deeply moving words Cómharsa Maith – Good Neighbour.

*The Skibbereen and District Historical Journal, Vol 7, 2011, also has a paper by Brian Lacey about Boyle Somerville, substantially similar to the one in the RSAI Journal. It is not available online.

 

Recording the Sheelas

The sheela-na-gig is one of Ireland’s most mysterious historical artefacts, and one that has fascinated professionals and amateurs alike since the antiquarian days. What is a sheela-na-gig? It’s a carving of a female figure (mostly – there are also male figures, or seán-na-gigs), often crudely executed, with the focus on the hands reaching down to display the vulva. The female is often described as aged, or a ‘hag’ and the carvings have certain features that are common to many, such as staring eyes, ribs, stylised hair and breasts.

This is a romanesque arch at the Nuns’ Chapel in Clonmacnoise. Can you make out the tiny exhibitionist figure carved into one of the lozenges?

The carving of Sheelas probably started in the 12th century, as part of the corpus of fanciful or grotesque carvings that were used to decorate romanesque churches. Some are still found in romanesque contexts, especially outside of Ireland. In Ireland, two possible romanesque examples I have seen are at Liathmore and at the Nuns’ Chapel at Clonmacnoise. However, most Irish sheelas appear to have been either separated from their original locations or carved later, possibly up to the late 1500s. They are found on medieval churches, 17th century castles, the sides of old barns, at holy wells, and indeed in museums. Sheelas have been stolen, lost or destroyed and many of the existing sheelas are damaged.

Does this help? This is just a screen capture of one of DH_Age’s 3D renderings – view it properly online here. This may be a very early sheela or simply one of the grotesque figures associated with romanesque carvings. The tiny figure is grinning and has its legs over its head, exposing the vulva and anus

There are multiple theories as to what a sheela represents and how they were ‘used’ on structures. Were they intended to attract and ward off the evil eye? To serve as a warning against lust? To invoke the sacred feminine through the powerful image of the vulva? The hag, or cailleach, is a vibrant motif in Irish mythology as a form taken on occasion by a goddess. Several sheelas are associate with saints, and believed to be representations of them.

At St Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney it is customary to rub the sheela as part of the rounds

We have visited many sheelas (and one seán) and noted that it is always difficult to photograph them well. They are invariably out in the open and very worn. The details are difficult to discern and often obscured by lichen. Even where they are indoors, they show the signs of of exposure to the elements, so it is impossible to view them in what would have been their freshly-carved state. And of course they are deteriorating with every passing decade.

From Jack Roberts’ resource map (see below) – a collection of southwestern sheelas

Fortunately, there’s this great project out there run by DH_Age, or Digital Heritage Age, to record all the sheela-na-gigs using the latest 3D imaging technology. Hats off to Gary Dempsey and Orla Power for undertaking this incredibly important initiative with the support of The Heritage Council. They are working away on visiting all the Sheelas in Ireland and already have a substantial body of images to view online.

The Aghadoe sheela is damaged (the feet are broken off) and covered in patches of lichen

Take a look at their collection of Cork sheelas to see how a good 3D image can reveal the true nature of a carving. The Aghadoe (Co Cork) example is particularly striking to me, because we visited it recently and I found it quite hard to photograph. The 3D image shows the breasts, the ribs, how one arm goes behind the legs to display the vulva while the other holds something aloft, and the curious bumps on the wrists that defy interpretation.

The DH_Age’s 3D rendering of the Aghadoe Sheela: the clarity of detail is impressive, but view it online for the full effect

The Aghadoe Sheela-na-Gig has a complicated history of being placed in different locations but it is currently on the side of a dovecote of indeterminate date and looking like at any moment it will be covered by the thick growth of ivy all around it. There was a tower house here at one point, and the sheela was reported as ‘probably from the castle’ and as ‘lying beside it.’ It’s a little tricky to track down now, so it’s a big thrill to find it and to see that, for the moment at least, it’s in the relatively protected position of being cemented into the dovecote wall.

Jack Roberts’ sketch of the Aghadoe Sheela

Our old friend Jack Roberts has written extensively about sheela-na-gigs and has published a marvellous resource – a one page fold-out map of the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland. You can order this from Jack’s site. His illustrations, as usual, are superb, and his artist’s eye managed to make out much of the detail that my camera couldn’t catch.

The Aghadoe Sheela is currently cemented on to a dovecote

I will come back to sheela-na-gigs in a future post but for now, you can check out these resources, for Ireland and for Britain, to learn more.