Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.

Mizen Magic 8: The Altar

Here’s the Mizen Peninsula shown on a map drawn by Robert for the Bank House tourism centre in Ballydehob and embellished with Peter Clarke‘s exquisite watercolour sketches of just some of the places that should not be missed by visitors to West Cork . . .

. . . And here is another rendering from Peter of one of the ancient sites that everyone goes past when travelling to the far west: possibly one of the most accessible pieces of archaeology on this section of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the Altar Wedge Tomb at Toormore Bay.

It’s early February, and Imbolc has passed. That means that Springtime has officially started here in Ireland. Sure enough, we looked out over a sunlit Roaringwater Bay this morning: soon we were heading out towards Goleen, Barley Cove and all points west. We stopped at The Altar and had it all to ourselves. You can see here that it’s orientated towards the Mizen Peak – that sharp little pyramid which is right on the centre of the picture – and lies to the west. For me, there’s a perfectly natural symbolism about placing the dead in a tomb that is aligned on the rising and the setting of the sun: that’s something we still do, several thousand years on!

The upper picture, taken on the Winter Solstice, shows the Mizen stretching away from the heights of Mount Gabriel: the Mizen Peak is the little pointed blip just left of centre. The lower picture looks across the wetlands behind the sand dunes at Barley Cove, and was taken today in the Spring sunlight: the Peak is clearly visible as the highest point. I believe that our forebears attached great importance to high places, as many stone monuments and Rock Art often seem to be placed in the landscape with commanding views towards hilltops. Mike Wilson’s site Mega-What sets out his detailed studies of the orientation of ancient sites within the natural landscape. Here is his analysis of the setting of the Altar Wedge Tomb.

I am always alert for the ways in which our special sites are interpreted for us. I created a bit of a storm a while back when I commended the signage which has been put in place along the Wild Atlantic Way using visually strong corten steel elements (above left) supplemented more recently by (in my opinion) very well designed information boards. The image on the right above is from an earlier OPW board which explains the possible early use of the wedge tomb, while the images below show the new signage, which features the later use of the tomb as a Christian altar during the Penal times (hence the name: The Altar), with a drawing by Sam Hunter. I am struck by the way this monument has been a focal point for differing rituals spanning countless generations.

When writing about archaeological subjects I am always on the lookout for the way that antiquarians saw the sites which we are familiar with today. I had hoped that George Victor du Noyer – the subject of an excellent recent exhibition in Cork’s Crawford Gallery – might have drawn this wedge tomb when he travelled the country for the Ordnance Survey during the early nineteenth century: he may well have done, but the annotation and cataloguing of his vast legacy of work has yet to be completed and I have not found such a record. His drawings below are not of The Altar, but a portal tomb, Ballybrittas in County Wexford. Portal tombs (sometimes known as dolmens) share similarities with wedge tombs, but are earlier, dating from between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, while wedge tombs tend to be associated with the Bronze Age, which followed this period.

Cremated remains were found in Altar Wedge Tomb when it was excavated in 1989 by Dr William O’Brien, now Professor of Archaeology at UCC. We can never know exactly what the significance of these impressive structures was to those who built them. For me, I’m pretty sure that it was connected with their relationships to, and respect of, the landscapes which they inhabited, and which they invested with meaning. They must certainly have paid heed to the passing of the seasons and the continual cycles of nature, and their closeness to all of this must have given them an inherent knowledge of the paths of the sun, moon and stars. Above all, our ancestors had to understand and appreciate the environment around them, and make it work for them. In a practical sense, certainly, but also in terms of the stories they might pass on about the meaning of places.

Above – the magical landscape of the Mizen: we will never tire of it

The tailpiece picture, which is from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Lukeoc88, is a remarkable timeless view of a human construction in the setting of our Universe: Altar Wedge Tomb under the Milky Way.

Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

The Cork Heritage Book Series

How do you set about exploring your local heritage? If you’re lucky enough to live in Cork, you have some marvellous resources at your fingertips. Today I want to focus on a set of books that are a comprehensive, affordable, richly illustrated, engagingly written compendium of our fascinating history – the Heritage Series.

Dunlough Castle, also known as Three Castle Head, is an unusual example of a fortified curtain wall dating to the 15th century. It’s also, as you can see, incredibly beautiful – it’s written up in the Castles book.

County Cork has a Heritage Office and a County Heritage Officer, Conor Nelligan. He’s a Tour de Force of Heritage, indefatigable, knowledgeable, and committed to communication and consultation. He pens a regular newsletter to local history associations and interested individuals alerting us all to upcoming events, grants schemes, talks, festivals, and articles of interest. Typically, when a new volume in the heritage series is contemplated, he will send out a call for submissions and contributions.

Glanworth Bridge: “Typical of medieval bridges the arch spans are appealingly irregular, increasing in width towards the centre.” It is purported to be “the narrowest and oldest public bridge still in everyday use in Europe.”

The result is a rich collection of photographs, local information, stories and legends, expert analysis and historical detail. What’s amazing is that each volume only costs ten euro! They are available in all the local bookstores, but if you don’t live in Cork you can buy them online from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

This is the extraordinary Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. I first found out about it from the Heritage Churches book and wrote about it in two parts, Mosaics and Maharajas Part 1 and Part 2. The Christ the King window is by Clayton and Bell and dates to about 1900

Each book has either a lead author or an authorial team, benefitting greatly from the expertise of the overseers and the one-off contributors. Conor and his colleagues Mona Hallinan, Cork’s Conservation Officer, and Mary Sleeman, the County Archaeologist, steer each project through to completion. The result rather than piecemeal is seamless, with the volumes following a pattern for the most part of an introductory historical and architectural context followed by ‘exemplars’ of castles, or bridges, or whatever the focus of that book. 

Heritage houses come in all sizes, from  traditional thatched cottage glimpsed in North Cork, to Bantry House bathed in evening sunlight

This layout gives it the convenience of a guidebook – wherever you are in Cork you can decide what to see and read up on it – while not sacrificing the the social and political background in which the buildings were constructed. They are our constant companions while out and about or when planning an expedition.

The oldest church in Cork, I think, Labbamolaga. Robert wrote about this wonderful site in Molaga of the Bees

And talking of expeditions, we want to see more of those bridges! I’ve been browsing through the bridge book, learning about abutments and piers and cutwaters, not to mention different kinds of arches, and I am dying to see more of those exemplars. So look out, Dear Readers, for a future post on heritage bridges.

A picturesque clapper bridge near Ballyvourney . Is this the same bridge that Robert Gibbings engraved in “Sweet Cork of Thee” – see Robert’s post this week!

Well done, Cork County Heritage Unit – you can be justly proud of this excellent series!

Timoleague Friary, read more about it here

Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.